On a sub-zero evening last week, Anna Julia Donath was handed a purple flare outside Hungary’s parliament building. An image of her holding it aloft has since become a symbol of the recent protest movement sparked by a new labour law, dubbed the “slave law”, that enables employers to seek up to 400 hours of overtime work a year.
Ms Donath was pinned to the ground and arrested, footage of which spread on social media and became a rallying cry for subsequent protests.
The solidarity shown to her by female protest leaders and politicians has become emblematic of the new role women are playing in the small but dedicated uprising against the increasingly autocratic rule of prime minister Viktor Orban, in Hungary’s male-dominated political world.
“After my arrest and the photos of it went viral, the women had a discussion, like ‘Let’s activate this female coalition’,” said Ms Donath, vice-president of Momentum, a political party that did not pass the threshold needed to enter the parliament in April elections.
The demonstrations against the labour law, which was passed on Wednesday, continued on Friday as up to 15,000 people marched to the presidential palace. These protests have seen outside parties such as Momentum collaborating with labour unions and parliamentary parties from across the spectrum, including the leftist greens to the formerly far-right Jobbik — and women seem to be to the fore.
Bernadett Szel, one of only 14 female opposition MPs in parliament, ensured that Ms Donath could access her purse and mobile phone during her hours in detention, using her rights as an MP to enter police stations and other government buildings. A discussion among MPs encouraged women to wear white hats and march together in protest the following weekend — drawing the highest number of protesters yet.
“There are not many women in the Hungarian parliament but it seems we are on the front line currently,” said Ms Szel. “You could see it in the demonstration on Sunday: we were carrying the posters, representing all parties, and all political actors, together with the trade unions.”
Eight women from opposition parties took the microphone at Sunday’s protest.
“It was not guys but brave women delivering the message,” said David Vig, the director of Amnesty International’s Hungary chapter. “Previously, politics were very male-dominated, and I think it is great that female politicians are leading the protests.”
Hungarian political life is overwhelmingly male, with women comprising only 12 per cent of the country’s parliament — the lowest level of female representation in Europe, according to the OECD.
Over the course of Mr Orban’s three terms as prime minister since 2010, he has appointed one female cabinet minister, Andrea Bártfai-Mager, who serves as the minister without portfolio in charge of “managing national wealth”. Of the 198 seats in parliament, 133 are held by Fidesz, Mr Orban’s party, and its junior coalition partner the Christian Democrats. Only 11 of those representatives are women, and are often criticised by the opposition for not playing a strong role.
“The Fidesz women don’t say anything,” said Andrea Varga-Damm, a Jobbik MP who was among the women that spoke at Sunday’s protest. “I don’t even know what their voices sound like.”
Monika Dunai, a Fidesz MP, said that while there may be few women in top spots, there are more and more women working in the administration as experts and mid-level leaders in the ministries.
Mr Orban has said that women were not up to the “stress” of politics.
Hungary ranks 102 out of 149 countries on the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap report, sinking to 142 when it comes to “political empowerment”. Imposing a quota for female representation in parliament was discussed in 2007 and 2011, but not adopted.
Reka Safrany, who works for the Hungarian Women’s Lobby advocacy group said a general climate of sexism is prevalent inside the halls of parliament.
“Sexism in parliament has not only increased, it has been normalised,” said Ms Safrany, who monitors occurrences of sexism in parliament as part of her job. “Male MPs have made remarks about the intellectual abilities of women, obscene references, and rude remarks on women in general,” she said.
‘Let’s activate this female coalition’: the faces in the front line against the ‘slave law’
Anna Julia Donath
Anna Julia Donath, 31, is the vice-president of Momentum, a party not represented in parliament that carries out street actions. Ms Donath studied sociology in Hungary and in the Netherlands before working at the European Commission and the European Cultural Foundation.
Dr Bernadett Szel
Dr Bernadett Szel, 41, has been a member of parliament since 2012. She was a co-president of the Politics Can Be Different party but left in October and is now an independent. After she questioned the environment secretary, Zoltan Illes, about a mining project in Romania during a 2013 debate, he said, “just because you’re pretty doesn’t also mean you’re smart”.
Andrea Varga-Damm is a first-time MP with Jobbik, a former far-right party that has sought to re-brand itself as centre-right. A lawyer by training, she said she did not participate in the whistling and jeering in parliament as the “slave law” was passed, because, she said, “my talents lie elsewhere”. Instead, she gave every MP a chocolate Santa that said “Do not vote!”
Policy debates about women are often centred on the “family” rather than on equality, Ms Safrany said. Encouraging women to give birth to more children has been a major policy priority of the government because of Hungary’s demographic shrink.
In 2012, during a debate about violence against women, Istvan Varga, a Fidesz MP, said, “Women’s ultimate task in life is child-rearing. If they had three, four, five, children, we would appreciate each other more, and the issue of domestic violence would not even emerge.”
Ms Varga-Damm, a first-time MP, said women can play a stronger role in challenging Mr Orban’s regime.
“When I started my mandate [in April],” she said, “I told the other women that we have to do something together because Mr Orban is scared of women!”
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