Last April, Hungary held a referendum to support the government’s ban on the representation of LGBTIQ+ issues in media and the educational system. Although failing to reach the required vote threshold, the previously adopted anti-LGBT law equating non-heterosexuality with pedophilia remained in force. This law is the most explicit expression of the aggressive persecution of LGBTIQ+ people in Hungary and the broader CEE region. Moreover, it demonstrates a complete descent into gendered autocratization and comes as a culmination of a decade of vigorous worldwide anti-gender campaigning. The recent special issue on gender and illiberalism edited by Matthijs Bogaards and Andrea Pető, experts in de-democratization and gender studies from Central European University, is thus timely and contains much-needed analytical rigor.
The issue presents not only the latest political developments of gendered autocratization in the region informed by rich empirical data, but also offers important theoretical and analytical frameworks to grasp them. By analytically separating illiberalism, anti-gender politics and de-democratization, the issue’s ambition is to pave the way for a more solid understanding of causal mechanisms operating behind these troubling phenomena.
The Illiberal Vision
The individual contributors to the issue cut sharply into the gendered core of illiberalism as a regime and an ideology. One of the main strengths of the special issue is its in-depth disassembling of the vision of society proposed by illiberals. Several authors recognize the need to go beyond an understanding of the current attacks on gender+ equality as a mere backsliding, reaction, or backlash to progressive changes.
Illiberalism is thus revealed as a particular ideological construct – its strength laying in its illiberal offer rooted in conservative authoritarianism and adapted to a contemporary neoliberal order.
Although some illiberal actors are political crusaders deeply motivated by an anti-secular drive to infuse politics with religious doctrines and heteronormative conceptions of virtuous life, we learn that others employ anti-gender politics for more pragmatic, power-seeking reasons. Another welcome advantage of the issue is that it gets down into the nitty-gritty, concrete, and often devastating ways in which illiberal policies harm large numbers and sections of populations. Whether it is the underreporting of violence against women, or the harmful attacks on LGBTIQ+ persons and children, illiberalism is rightfully revealed not just as an alternative to the liberal-democratic ideal but as an actively destructive and oppressive force used to silence, prosecute, and imprison those who don’t fit its heteropatriarchal order.
Nonetheless, the contributors do not fall into the trap of overemphasizing the strength of illiberal, anti-gender actors, recognizing the various contradictions and weaknesses of illiberalism, as well as the important points of resistance. Furthermore, they respond to calls to investigate previously overlooked aspects of anti-gender illiberalism, namely its constructive force.
When mobilizing against ‘gender ideology’, illiberals establish new political subjectivities by simultaneously giving voice to and discursively constructing a conservative demos of pious families – hard-working men and caring women.
What makes this special issue such a fascinating and informative read is precisely the acknowledgment of the complexity of the affirmative metanarratives of anti-gendered illiberalism and its forceful exclusion of those deviating from the heteronormative family model.
A Variety of Causal Mechanisms
In the introduction to the issue, Pető and Bogaards hypothesize a causal relationship between illiberal de-democratization and anti-gender politics. In this model, de-democratization explains anti-gender politics and changes in the gender regime, although the authors admit a need for further theoretical and empirical development of the model. They identify three necessary gradations of anti-gender politics that enrich existing research by giving us a more fine-tuned perspective on how ‘gender’ is attacked.
The first gradation is opposition to any type of feminist or gender+ equality policies or politics at any stage. The second is state backsliding on gender equality policies, and the final step is state antifeminism, with state actors actively taking steps against feminist advances. While focusing on feminist actors is undoubtedly crucial, changing our perspective to the viewpoint of illiberal actors helps further reveal the anti-gender dynamic and might help unpack the causal mechanisms previously discussed.
The authors’ model could be fruitfully expanded by making the differentiation between institutional and movement politics more explicit. From a social movement, actor-centered approach, the ‘capturing’ of state institutions by anti-gender actors theoretically presents the reversal of the authors’ causal arrow, making anti-gender actors the source of de-democratization. However, it seems that different country-cases mostly follow the logic described by Graff and Korolczuk as an ‘opportunistic synergy’.
Right-wing populist parties – qualitatively different and stemming from more complex socio-political milieus when compared to religious conservatives – draw on anti-gender rhetoric for power, legitimacy, ideological content, and vote-seeking purposes.
While Hungary is an important case of autocratization that shows how state actors generate anti-gender politics, it seems to be more of an outlier than a typical case. This means that building analytical and causal models around it might have important limits, especially given calls against viewing the whole CEE region through the prism of Hungarian and Polish experiences.
While the inclusion of the Romanian case into the special issue is most welcome, demonstrating how anti-gender politics in Romania slowly became institutionalized over time, future research dealing with post-communist illiberalism should try even harder to move beyond the Visegrád Four and include Eastern-most countries, as well as the Balkans.
At least four factors might make anti-gender dynamics in these regions notably different. First, a much stronger presence of Russian influence both through state-sponsored homophobia and Orthodox churches. Second, the weakness or total absence of mainstream left-wing parties acting as allies for the feminist and LGBTIQ+ movements. Third, the stalling or non-existent EU conditionality on human rights issues, and finally, unresolved territorial and ethnic disputes which complicate and radicalize gender issues. In fact, the state-focused model proposed by Pető and Bogaards might be even more relevant in these cases due to the general conservative consensus that cuts across left-right parties and the highly weakened or never fully developed democratic institutions.
Utilizing Social Movement Studies and Political Science
In any case, analyzing anti-gender politics through a social movement lens, treating the radical right as a collective actor with particular intramovement dynamics, and accounting for different movement stages could help us better understand the relationship between de-democratization and anti-gender politics, no matter the context. Differentiating between the movement realm of illiberal action against ‘the establishment’, with its ideologically clear-cut grandstanding, and the practical realism of institutional governance, might help clarify what Weronika Grzebalska grasps as ‘illiberal pragmatics’. Here, we can learn from studies of populist movements and parties that show how ideological and systemic issues come into play in complex ways once illiberal actors come to power. Populists can either drop their radicalism through an inclusion-moderation dynamic, radicalize the mainstream even more, or become flexible and pragmatic to follow the electorate’s preferences.
Although several contributors rightly demonstrate how anti-gender politics are used in pragmatic ways as a smokescreen for gaining power or for political expediency, it is unclear how this makes illiberals different from any other political actor, all of which can be motivated both by policy-seeking and office-seeking. Finally, political science concepts such as issue ownership and issue salience could help us understand what role gender plays in the dynamics between political parties, movements, and state actors. Similarly to Pirro’s argument about populist radical right parties delivering ethnic issues into the mainstream, presenting them as ‘omnibus’ issues that help frame other policy positions, ‘gender’ – with or without quotation marks – is an increasingly important element in the competition between mainstream and PRR parties. For example, a recent study in the Swedish context found that backlash against liberalising gender values fueled voting for the populist radical right in the 2018 elections. Future research should analyze the relative salience of gender+ equality in electoral competition and campaigning in Central and Eastern Europe, when compared to other far-right issues.
Ideologies and Doctrines – What Happened to Conservatism?
Far from only defining themselves ex negativo, illiberals ground their claims in a series of isms, including communitarianism, familism, natalism, nativism, essentialism, and authoritarianism.
Quoting an MP from PiS, Gaweda points out how the alleged ‘clash between the civilization of life and death’, and demography in particular, serve as tools of community building and collective identification for illiberals. Delving deeper to unmask illiberal philosophy, Holzleithner reveals how its rejection of gender equality and feminism rests on an authoritarian claim for religious morality as mandatory for the whole of society, thus breaching the fundamental liberal guarantees of a neutral state. However, Grzebalska’s contribution points to an under-researched aspect of ideological complexity and contradiction whereby anti-gender politics are intertwined with (conservative) feminist goals and discourses. Furthermore, although illiberals criticize and reject neoliberal individualism, in cases like Czechia, it was precisely neoliberal, pro-market actors bringing the fight against gender to the agenda. It seems that illiberals cannot escape neoliberal subjectivity when doing politics. For example, Catholic lay movements in Croatia active against abortion and ‘gender’ skillfully combine religious language on ‘God’s gifts’ and charismas with an entrepreneurial drive to develop marketable skills when recruiting volunteers and supporters in civil society.
In any case, the concept of illiberalism is successfully put to work by various contributors to the issue. However, its use casts a shadow on a concept curiously missing from the special issue (except for Zbytniewska’s piece), namely, conservatism. Zbytniewska rightly adds radical conservatism as a central ingredient of the Polish populist radical right, despite its absence in the Western European-based conceptual toolkit. In its philosophical and sociological variants, conservatism espouses hierarchical relationships, a naturalized conception of inequality, and the entrenchment of the status quo of certain groups holding on to their privileges. In this sense, conservatism as an ideology subsumes the different illiberal isms while also theoretically pointing us toward a well-researched historical tradition and ideology. In contrast to Linnamäki’s understanding of familism as an ideology, it would, perhaps, be more useful to define familism, natalism, and other elements of the ‘illiberal offer’ as political doctrines or principles instructing actors on how to structure society and policies under an overarching (ultra)conservative ideology.
The unaddressed question of the interrelation between conservatism and illiberalism is essential not only for reasons of conceptual clarity, but also because of the under-researched issue of the relationship between the moderate right – conservative and Christian democratic parties – and anti-gender illiberals, or the far-right.
Although moderate conservatives share an affinity to hierarchy, social inequality, and authority, as Pirro argues, they accept liberal constitutionalism that protects individual and minority rights, distancing them from the exclusionary politics of the far-right.
The liberal-illiberal dichotomy is thus not primarily about ideological differences – here conservatism does the job well – but one pertaining to the very core of how a (non)democratic polity should be organized. As Holzleithner succinctly puts it: “Whereas liberalism carves out a space for illiberals to live the way they please in their religious communities, with certain protections for the vulnerable, illiberals intend to break or erase their ‘enemies’”.
As showcased by recent articles analyzing Orban’s claims to Christian democracy and CDU’s acceptance of marriage equality under Merkel, future research should delve deeper into the relationship between the moderate right and the illiberals. Here, Zvada’s piece on anti-gender politics in the Slovak parliament is an important piece, demonstrating a range of anti-gender narratives depending on ideological differences between the different parties. Moreover, focusing only on the oppositional dynamics between the feminist and anti-gender movements may hide or underestimate the importance of internal struggles within the conservative bloc. Complicating the misleading division between a ‘pro-gender’ and ‘anti-gender’ camp can potentially also help reveal unexpected allies in the battle for gender+ equality.
The question remains: are there relevant moderate conservatives in post-communist Europe that are committed to gender+ equality?
The special issue on gender and illiberalism is a great example of the importance of both gender studies and, more broadly, critical social sciences. By revealing and scrutinizing the power dynamics of oppression that excludes those who do not fit into an ethnopluralist, heteronormative order, each of the individual contributions helps highlight that a democracy that genuinely fosters freedom and equality is impossible if gender+ equality is negated. By actively producing unscientific or downright conspiratorial ‘alternative’ knowledge on issues such as sexuality, reproductive technology, child development or abortion, illiberalism poses a threat not only to minorities, but also to the general population and children, despite its declarative pro-natalism. Gaweda’s piece notes the replacement of IVF with Church-backed ‘naprotechnology’ as one example, to which we could add the non-existent ‘post-abortion syndrome’, the dubious Billings ovulation method and other practices proven to be harmful, like the corporal punishment of children, not to mention ‘conversion therapy’. Future research should focus on how the very ideology, policies and practices proposed by illiberals as ‘pro-family’ or natural actually hurt or mislead vast swathes of populations, not just minorities. Fighting for evidence-based policy-making and resisting the elimination and de-specification of gender studies as an academic field are thus a democracy-preserving task of utmost importance.
In collaboration with Lucie Hunter and Kasia Krzyżanowska
 Here I am inspired by Ernest Gellner’s and John Breuilly’s understanding of nationalism as a political principle, or doctrine, respectively.