Andrea PETŐ is a Professor at the Department of Gender Studies at Central European University (CEU), Budapest, Hungary, and Doctor of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Her research areas include European Comparative social and gender history, gender and politics, women’s movements, qualitative methods, oral history, and the Holocaust. Some of her courses at the CEU cover the following topics: Gendered Memories of Holocaust, Memory Bandits, Qualitative Methods in Social Science Research, Oral History, Interrogating Archives and others. She has published extensively monographs in Hungarian, English, German and Bulgarian, and edited fifteen volumes in English, six in Hungarian and two in Russian. Her works are published in 15 languages. She is a president of the gender and women’s history section of the Hungarian Historical Association and the Feminist Section of the Hungarian Sociological Association. She was awarded the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit of the Republic of Hungary by the Hungarian President in 2005 and the Bolyai Prize by the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in 2006. She served as Co-President of AtGender (2011-2014) and a member of the Advisory Group for Horizon 2020 (2014-2016).
Jó napot kívánok kedves Andrea. This is an unexpected opportunity to interview you and to talk about your research, your historiography, CEU (Central European University), Hungary, gender studies, Ukraine and so many other topics. Let’s talk a bit about your research projects and interests. First question, why are you interested in history? Why are you interested in gender history, oral history and the Holocaust? Which is your main research interest? On which topic are you working presently?
I always wanted to be a historian and I always wanted to write history which is interesting. That is probably one of the reasons why I am also writing crime fiction under a penname and why my most successful course was about textual outlaws: feminist crime fiction as a form of scholarly inquiry and innovative creative writing. My most recent book is on female members of the Arrow Cross Party, the Hungarian Nazi Party, how they are presented in the post- Second World War legal trials and what their memory is nowadays. My aim was to elevate them from oblivion while showing the reasons why they were forgotten. I hope that my work will contribute to the reevaluation of Hungarian participation in the Second World War and war crimes.
How can you describe the latest tendencies within the Gender Studies Department of CEU? In which topics are MA and PhD students interested? Can we talk about “fashionable topics” in gender history? Which European trends in historiography do you find promising and interesting?
The CEU Gender Studies Department is one of the biggest departments of gender studies in Europe. As gender studies is interdisciplinary the faculty is also interdisciplinary. Students are coming from all over the world with very interesting and innovative topics. The history of women’s movements is an evergreen topic of gender history. My PhD students are working on the history of emotions and on genetic counseling or gendering militarism.
Academic and University institutions in Eastern Europe suffer from “backwardness” due to many factors, mainly from their lack of finances and institutional integration into the broader European network. Which are the problems of Hungarian historical and gender studies?
After 1989 the higher education system in former communist countries has changed profoundly. The state opened up to other academic approaches and the logic of selectivity changed from political meritocracy to financial elitism. In this respect gender studies benefited from openness but sometimes lost in institutional competition for more financial support. A special characteristic of the Sovietized East European academic infrastructure was the existence of research institutes affiliated with the Academy of Sciences, which collected those academics whom the Communist regime forbade to teach at a higher educational institution. In spite of the fact that this relatively flexible structure was there in 1989, “gender studies” developed outside of this framework, mostly in the non-governmental organization (NGO) sphere. At the same time, sometimes independently from each other, lectures and courses in gender studies appeared in various disciplinary departments. Recently it has become easier for gender studies to re-enter the research institutes of the different academies of science. Academics from various fields and from different universities are working to make gender studies an accepted discipline. This type of feminist genealogy is vital because it is the only way the scholars involved can proceed towards a wider acceptance of this new sensibility and towards the democratization of higher education.
Specialists graduating from gender studies programs in the “New Europe” find two types of employment in the profession outside academia. Either they join the governmental apparatus of the newly built equal opportunity machinery, which after EU accession needs new cadres, or they stay in the local and international NGOs working in the field of equal opportunity. Here is another reason why Hungary is so backward as far as gender equality is concerned: those graduates who graduated with gender studies degrees or specializations did not find their way in the government apparatus nor did they have the chance to start NGOs, as the Hungarian government is controlling the civil society by controlling resources as we explained in our article with Zoltán Vasali in OpenDemocracy. In the future, “New Europe” will remain a special geopolitical area because of the new iron curtain which is falling down at the border of the “Old” and “New” Europe as far as economic potential, possibilities and value systems are concerned. Gender studies can be one of the critical fields exploring, reflecting and fighting this “new-old difference” through its student and faculty exchange and common research projects. That is one of the reasons why gender as a discipline, as a concept and as an ideology is under attack now. The strengthening anti-gender movements in Hungary and Ukraine was discussed when I was last in Kiyv during the “Who is afraid of Gayropa?” discussion with Masha Gessen, Maria Mayerchyk and Mieke Verloo at The House of Clothes on 9 October 2015. Let me repeat again, this fight about the conceptualization of Europe will fundamentally transform the position of gender studies as a discipline, as an ideology and as a concept in the future.
One of your courses is called “Memory Bandits.” What is this class about? Whom do you call “memory bandits”?
Verne Harris, who works as the archivist of the papers of Nelson Mandela, describes himself as a “memory bandit” for using archives to promote justice. For him, archives are “a two-edged sword, and [they are] used by those who want to oppress us. We can use it in order to liberate ourselves.” The proposed project aims to define archives in this sense, as a site of activism and social intervention. The course which was taught as a collaborative seminar between the CEU and Duke University was talking about archives and archiving as social intervention in human rights.
In Eastern Europe there is a resurgence of far-right parties today. Some scholars claim that the far-right is part of a “normal democratic” process, while others are horrified. Is this reborn nationalism a typical Eastern European phenomenon? Will it one day disappear? How you can judge the situation in Ukraine and in Central Europe in general toward nationalism?
When dominant historical discourses fail, like it happened after 1989 in Eastern Europe, the struggle begins between different memory cultures. The dark legacy of European fascism emerged in countries where previously the anti-fascist frame was dominant. This is still a mystery for those who do not acknowledge the power of family stories and different subcultures. (By the way that was one of the reasons we organized the oral history project: to map overlapping memory cultures via personal stories.) In Central Europe after the collapse of communism we experienced a surge of the third wave of the far right with traditional anti-Semitic and anti-Roma sentiments. The refugee crises also offered an opportunity for far-right parties to create a new enemy figure: the Muslim immigrant which brought these parties together to their Western European counterparts. The issue of collaboration with Nazi Germany during the Second World War is still a controversial issue as newly founded democracies, and Ukraine is not an exception, are looking out for historical predecessors. The debate around the collaboration of Ukrainians with Nazi Germany will hopefully develop towards a critical understanding of the past.
There have recently been a few big manifestations in Budapest. Can a Hungarian Maidan happen too? If not, why?
In my article with Zoltan Vasali in OpenDemocracy, we evaluated the process and the prospects of these movements in Hungary. Our conclusion was that most of the issues which might spark a wide protest movement are taken by the government. There are several issues which might spark public protest like poverty and corruption. While the first issue, poverty, would as a mobilizational trigger require a wide solidarity in society, the latter, corruption, should be formulated in an understandable language in order to mobilize a wider protest. As I see it now none of these will happen in the very near future.
The latest events with the refugee crisis put Hungary in the focus of European and world news. Slovakia, Hungary and Poland, if we mention only them, do not want to accept refugees. The world discovered the chauvinistic, nationalistic and egoistic Visegrad countries. How can you explain this?
Eurostat data already indicated in past years that there is a serious difference in major values in New Europe in comparison to Old Europe. The question that should be asked is what has happened, or rather what has not happened, in the past decade when these countries became member states. Definitely the othering and labeling of these countries as those who need to catch up contributed to increasingly anti-European sentiments. Identification with European technocracy and bureaucratic language is not easy in times when emotions and affect are becoming crucial. The global economic crisis brought an existential scare to middle and lower-middle classes everywhere. If this is combined with weak democratic institutional structures that might lead to shortsighted bordering when our problems can be solved only on a global scale. However, I would like to draw attention to the work of the civil sector which took over the task when the state withdrew. In the summer and autumn of 2015 NGOs, activists did what they could do: helping refugees. Speaking only about the xenophobic tendencies in Hungary makes their work invisible.
In many countries, feminism still remains in some ways a taboo. How is the situation with feminism in Hungary today?
Feminism arrived with the wrong passport to Eastern Europe, as Jiřina Šmejkalová so nicely pointed out, as an alternative to state socialism. The traditional anti-feminism as a reaction to women’s emancipation from the 19th century was combined with the anti-liberalism of the left connecting women’s emancipation and the tradition of equality only to liberalism. This approach ignores Catholic feminism and the emancipatory potential of progressive politics. In recent years however there is a new type of anti-feminist discourse emerging in Hungary and Europe. This questions liberalism and human rights discourse and aims to create an alternative in illiberalism. This discourse aims to question the basic values of the Enlightenment—equality, liberty and fraternity—by openly advocating the complementarity of the sexes and implying hierarchies. The most fundamental debate about the future of gender equality is ahead of us, so it is really a question of a socializational fight in the Gramscian sense in which the conceptualization of gender equality will prevail.
There are no women in Orbán’s 13-member government cabinet, and recently there was a scandal with sexist comments made by the well-known singer Ákos Kovács, as well as by László Kövér, the speaker of parliament. What’s going on with gender equality in Hungarian political institutions, as well as in society?
In the past decades nothing has changed as far as women’s participation in politics is concerned in Hungary in comparison to 1990, while neighboring countries have come a long way. In Poland there is a 35% quota and three women were competing at the last election as candidates for becoming prime minister. Hungary is far away from this especially because the ideology of “familiarism” has prevailed from 1990 onwards, focusing on families and not on women. The pay gap, the glass ceiling, glass walls, domestic violence, poverty—women are suffering from all of these but political parties have failed to address these issues. The political party or movement which will be able to articulate these issues in an accessible and popular language will definitely have a chance against the current conservative-Christian government. The civil sector also needs to change, as they have to ask how come the same NGOs which have started their work in the 1990s have seen their public outreach decrease continuously while protest movements, as you also asked in one of the previous questions, are blind to gender issues.
Tell us a few words about new ongoing research projects in search of transcultural memory in Europe and in gender, science, technology and environment.
Transcultural memory is aiming to move beyond methodological nationalism and to look at memory cultures outside the framework of the national state. It will not solve all our problems at once but it will at least help us look at the same phenomenon from a different perspective. The COST network ISTME connects memory studies scholars from the EU and beyond to think through the numerous memory conflicts between numerous memory communities in Europe. It is a vibrant intellectual community where I have met a lot of interesting scholars and memory activists.
An average Western European citizen knows so little about Hungary. What would you suggest to promote your country?
I strongly believe in the power of education and it is very unfortunate that the money spent on higher education in Hungary is decreasing year by year. Happy, healthy and smart people are the best advertisement for a country.
 See the complete list of Pető’s courses at https://people.ceu.edu/andrea_peto
 For a full list of publications see Pető’s profile at http://publications.ceu.edu/biblio/author/1573