In the attack on experts, gender studies is often the first target

Gender studies is becoming a dangerous field in Latin America and Europe. This has implications for the fight for gender equality everywhere, says Sally Gimson 

September 20, 2019
Free speech, censor, censorship
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Brazilian feminist academic Marcia Tiburi is currently living in exile in Paris out of fear for her life. Before leaving Brazil, Tiburia had received more than 200 death threats and had to travel in a bulletproof car. She had also lost her job at the Mackenzie Presbyterian University in São Paulo, which she believes is linked to her speaking at an event in favour of abortion.

Brazil has become a country where it is dangerous to teach from a feminist perspective, especially if you are female yourself.

But Brazil is not the only place where gender studies has become a dangerous profession, as revealed by a special report in the latest Index on Censorship magazine, published this September.

In the report, academics in both Latin America and Europe speak about increasing threats to their academic freedom – and to their lives. 

Tiburi said that it was not only her defence of reproductive rights but also her books, including How to Talk to Fascists and the anthology Women and Philosophy, which made her a target.

“Gender is a demonised word in Brazil,” she said.  “This word has been denied, forbidden in all government documents since 2016…but Brazil was not as crazy as it has become under the government of [president Jair] Bolsonaro. I am now leaving the country because of the persecution and the threats.” Indeed, in his inauguration speech, Bolsonaro promised to “liberate” Brazil from “gender ideology” and “political correctness”.

Meanwhile, in Hungary, deputy prime minister Zsolt Semjén said that gender studies had no business in universities because it was an “ideology not a science”. Andrea Pető, a professor in the department of gender studies at the Central European University in Budapest, told Index that she had received a threatening email via the website because of what she teaches.

It was also antisemitic, saying that it “foresaw the eradication of her breed”. The CEU offered to provide her with a bodyguard, but she turned it down.

When it’s not outright violence against female academics, it’s other, equally silencing, measures. 

The gender studies master’s programme at CEU has lost government funding, as has the same programme at Eötvös Loránd University (ELTE) in Budapest.

Malgorzata Budzowska, an assistant professor at Poland’s University of Łódź, researches modern theatre in Poland. She has recently found it impossible to get funding for her research and believes that it is because it touches on gender.

And another academic, Ewa Majewska working at the University of Warsaw, is a women’s activist and gender studies researcher. She did not have her contract renewed because of her academic work.

The case sparked a protest by students. Majewska wrote on Facebook: “I believe that someday you will be able to be critical, be feminists and work calmly at the university without facing double standards, censorship, unconnected charges and ordinary exploitation.” 

Protests have taken place in Hungary too. For example, last November there were strikes at the major universities of Corvinus, ELTE and the CEU. Pető said that some of her colleagues who were previously silent are now including gender in their courses.

“Previously scholars of gender studies were working either in their offices in the attic or in the cellar, but definitely marginalised,” said Pető.“Now, due to the campaign in Hungary, the country of 10 million became the country of 10 million gender experts and everybody has an opinion about the reading list, learning outcomes or the labour market position.”

While this manifests differently in different countries, the persecution of these women academics is fuelled by a political environment where populist leaders are dismissing feminist ideologies more broadly while targeting those that promote and teach them more specifically.

One word consistently comes up when gender is discussed: “devil”. 

“In Poland the devil’s name now is ‘gender’,” Budzowska said. ”Government, hand-in-hand with the Catholic church, abuses the idea of ‘gender’ to threaten society with a leftist ideology that is supposed to destroy a traditional family.”

Linda Marie Rustad, the director of Kilden, a Norway-based knowledge centre for gender perspectives and gender balance in research, is clear: “This is an attack on academic freedom. These right-wing parliaments and governments disagree on a lot but where there is consensus is on gender.” 

Rustad says that research about gender and women is important. If research is closed down, there will be less knowledge and data about women’s lives, past and present.

There are signs the trend could get worse. The increasingly popular far-right Alternative for Germany party has said that it would end research for gender studies if elected. Its manifesto reads: “Existing university chairs for gender research should not be filled again and ongoing gender research projects should not be prolonged.”

And in the UK, according to a recent report by OpenDemocracy, the Christian right in England is beginning to organise against LGBTI-inclusive education in schools. Will universities be targeted next?

We must all be vigilant. As the experience of academics in other countries in Europe and around the world shows, gender studies is often the first line of attacks on academia by populist leaders keen to demonise “experts” and the elite. 

Gender studies plays a key role in the fight for gender equality. It is critical in putting the stories and experiences of women on a par with men. When feminism and the questions that flow from a gendered lens are overlooked or sidelined, everyone is poorer for it, whether they are in the lecture hall or outside it. 

Sally Gimson is deputy editor of Index on Censorship magazine.

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