When I first read Dr. Andrea Pető’s writing earlier this year, I was thrilled to have found a vocal feminist scholar from Hungary. Her progressive work on gender provided a counterpoint to my image of contemporary Hungary, which is ruled by a tight-fisted and “illiberal” regime, whose right-wing views leave little room for feminism. Under Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, the government has encroached on independent media and academic freedom. A Trump supporter, Orbán also recently inaugurated a class of “border hunters”: militants charged with hunting down illegal immigrants on the shared border with Serbia.
Having only read about these political developments, I was eager to hear firsthand from an academic living and working in Budapest. As events would have it, I found myself in the Hungarian capital this spring. Dr. Pető was happy to meet. Our interview couldn’t have been more timely. Weeks before my visit, the Hungarian Parliament passed a law intended to force the closure of Budapest’s Central European University (CEU), founded by George Soros. Dr. Pető is a professor in CEU’s Gender Studies department.
We met on a Thursday afternoon in a university building on Zrínyi utca, opposite the sun-drenched St. Stephen’s Basilica. Dr. Pető was waiting for me in her fifth-floor office, a quiet space filled with memorabilia from past conferences she’s organized. At one point, she dug out a tote bag from a conference of European Jewish Women organized at CEU in 2006. “That was a nice time,” she reminisced, acknowledging that holding a similar conference in Budapest today might be difficult. In our hour-long conversation, we talked about gender politics in Budapest, the country’s religious revival, and the stakes of living in an illiberal state.