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13 min read

The same old story, again

Writer Orsolya Karafiáth was fiercely attacked for her attempts to spotlight how Hungarian women are repressed and silenced in the wake of #MeToo. This is her story.

Credits TEXT: Orsolya Krafiáth Translation: Peter Sherwood March 13 2018

Orsolya Karafiáth is a writer and journalist whose outspoken texts are regularly published in Hungarian literary magazines, as well as in independent media. She is the author of eight books, both poetry and prose. Her latest published work is the autobiographical novel "Szirén" (Siren).

1. The bottom line

"She's only bellyaching about feminism because she's plug ugly!" Comment below an unflattering picture of me.

Autumn 1996, frenetic cacophony in the arts faculty café. It's after five, so you can now get booze to oil the wheels of the discussion; it promised to be a long night, these meetings of our university journal's editorial board always dragged on into the early hours. The guys – because apart from me there were only guys – gradually shooed away their girlfriends, who slunk off slowly, moodily, hips swinging, backs bared, sexily flashing a bit of thigh. They would linger in the doorway until the last moment, in case someone called them back. But no, not for the world, chicks just get in the way, they have to go. These chicks always gave me short shrift, their occasional contemptuous side-glances signalling, they hoped, that they wouldn't dream of being jealous, of course they're not envious, how the hell could they be, of someone like me? A bluestocking to whom, if she weren't a poet, these superstuds – their property, body and soul – wouldn't give the time of day. I don't wear make-up, dress in maxi skirts to cover up, just in case they think... Think what? I'm not sure myself. But I get the feeling it's somehow unseemly to look chic or attractive. I'm prepared to put up with the fact that the only way they'd put up with me was by declaring me an honorary male. (I had to down a sailor's spritzer with them, that's four parts beer, one part rum. I survived.) I put up with their mantra that I'm only attending some important event with them because the organisers said they needed a woman. I put up with it when they remark that even though I'm a woman, what I do is 'quite interesting'. And I put up with their endless anatomising over my head when I get a prize and they don't. Maybe she got it because that female topic is hot just now! Maybe it was time for a woman to get the prize! Maybe the chairman of the panel is crazy about her, did you see how he stared at her goggle-eyed the other day? It never occurs to them that maybe I got it because what I wrote was actually good. Never mind, I thought, you darling little boys, give it a few years and everything will change.

2. The bratpack

"We want our daughters to consider it the highest form of self-fulfilment to bear us grandchildren". László Kövér, Speaker of the Hungarian National Assembly, at the ruling FIDESZ party's conference, 2015.

"The time has come! We've set up the Men's Club to articulate the true masculine values. All of us, together." So launched the movement a few years back and from the outset tens of thousands lined up ready for battle. "Men – it is time we reclaimed our sovereign territory!" they roared. "Let's see the real women and the real men!" they cried in desperation. But they didn't waste much time moping, because unity is strength, the male chorus rang out and sang at the tops of their voices, with their billowing flags that showed an enormous lion's head – the symbol of strength and power. In their words: "In the old days, the Sun symbolised Man, the Moon Woman. In male-female relations it's vital to remind ourselves that the Moon glows thanks to the Sun shining upon it. That's what makes the world go round. There's no question which gleams brighter, which came first, which is more useful..." And women gratefully snuggle up to powerful chests that proffer security, and with rictus smiles on their lips go about making dinner, slapping the children's wrists, doing the washing up, cleaning the house, and warming the marital bed in advance like hot-water bottles. And the time has come! 2017 was a great year for Real Men. It's a milestone in the life of every organisation when the government stands shoulder to shoulder with it, so men are happy, at least real men are, since they can now enjoy the confidence, support and love of our party and government. So much so that they've linked up with local councils in a programme to plant trees! In the capital's XIth district November saw the planting of the first Tree of Responsible Masculinity. All the local councillors were there, the local press couldn't get enough of it! And from now on they will jointly nurture the still unprotected sapling, in other words, the thoughts that must blossom in the mind of every Hungarian woman worth her salt! "Masculinity as a value is going to rack and ruin; try as they might single mothers end up twisted and warped, and this is inherited by successive generations!" the president of the Men's Club says with a sigh. But with the kind of support it enjoys he need have no fear! See how the word is spread: on December 15th they were already able to award the Men's Club's first Model Granite Lion prizes, to real men, naturally. That's the way. To know our place. Right?

3. Macho-mix

"Money's best counted, wives best beaten!" – Hungarian saying.

"A lady is coming to Hungary, so nothing is off the table" – our Prime Minister Viktor Orbán replies, simpering roguishly, when asked what's on the agenda with Angela Merkel, due to visit Hungary the following day. And when getting ready for his daughter's wedding, he notes "I'm sorry I can't help out with the cooking, I don't have enough time, but there will be no shortage of women around... My primary task during the ceremony will be to avoid sniffling, to not dab my eyes. That's women's stuff." "This country belongs to those who fill it with children," asserts Lóránt Hegedűs, the former Calvinist bishop. "Women have no business earning as much as men, that's my feeling," declares pop idol Ákos. "Anyone with a wife who's getting on deserves a younger one," claimed former prime minister Ferenc Gyurcsány. And FIDESZ's István Varga offered the following during a discussion of domestic violence in Parliament in 2012: "Perhaps it would be best if mothers went back to looking after their children as their primary concern, and concentrated on ensuring that in our society a family has not just one or two children, but three, or four, or five. That would bring about better mutual respect and the notion of violence within the family wouldn't rear its ugly head." But taking the biscuit is the case of the blind shaggy sheepdog, which has gone viral. The story is simple enough: A drunken FIDESZ mayor beat up his wife, Terike, and then claimed (with his friends' conniving) that it wasn't a case of wife-beating at all, oh no siree! Terike just happened to trip and fall over their blind shaggy sheepdog! And the cretinous numbskulls closed ranks around the wife-beater, who even managed to hang on to his job for quite a while. In the end he was fined a pathetic sum, which the upstanding fellow bewailed bitterly, tearfully telling the court how the family would have to club together to pay the fine. No doubt Terike would also contribute, after all, she was herself the cause of the problem: why did she have to lodge a complaint and wash the family's dirty linen in public! So now the whole country knows how much a woman's battered face is worth. And no one bats an eyelid that the impermissible has become permitted, the unacceptable accepted.

4. A weak voice

"Worldwide, women are generally somewhat happier than men. In Hungary, however, the opposite is the case; in fact Hungarian women are the unhappiest of all, beating even those in South Africa and India." From the summary of an OECD report published in 2014.

Six men and one woman (me) in the studio. Shouting (not me), finger-pointing (not me), bafflement (not me), keeping quiet (me). #MeToo had erupted a few days earlier, the PC-gone-madders are harrumphing, their lungs wheezing, stabbing the air with their fingers, all but choking on their righteousness, the balding pate of one of them turning purple as he splutters: "They're all hysterical, how could anyone say nothing about such things for twenty years! And women of all people, who otherwise yak away nineteen to the dozen!" It can't be, such things don't happen, it's absurd, they repeat with vigorous nods and winks and shakes of the head. I barely get a chance to tell my own story. It's no big deal, just typical and disgusting: a seven-year-old girl (me) has her hair stroked by granny's lodger while he masturbates. And the little girl doesn't mention it to anyone for thirty years. Because whenever she thinks about it (when she has a nightmare, or shudders involuntarily if someone suddenly caresses her cheek), she pretends that it can't be, such things don't happen, it's absurd. I am that little girl, that much I know. I am not: I try to distance her from me, being this little girl (that little girl) is shameful, sinful, intolerable. Now that I am finally going public with her (my) story, it's a little better. At first my voice is shaky, then, as I have to make myself heard above the panting of the affronted males, my voice steadies and I won't be stopped. One of those on the panel has a sceptical look: they've let a fabulist into the studio again, she's making it all up, it's a lie from beginning to end. Another one starts banging the table, we've had enough of this whinging, soon everyone will be coming out with some piece of piffling nonsense and where will it all end for us men? They're already bent on castrating them, now they'd lock up the whole lot of them just for trying to be nice! The third hems and haws, then says quietly that being on the wrong side of fifty may make him a square but he's sure that in his day girls were only too pleased to be pawed, in fact, they'd be offended if they weren't properly molested! (Nods and grunts of approval all round). And if someone should get his dick out, well, what's so dreadful about that? They're taking exception if you skip a couple of stages in the courtship ritual? It all boils down to the same thing in the end, what's the point of making a song and dance about it? I'd like to have my say, but no such luck, they're gesticulating: we've run out of time. This broadcast, too, generates reams of comment, the kindest compliment I get is to be called human decor and a brain-dead feminist. And I'm ashamed that I feel glad even to have made it on air. And this double-edged pleasure seems not to be pleasurable in the end, so however desperately I might want it to, it doesn't improve the statistics.

5. After, word

"Basically I have no beef about the programme 'Freestyle'. Or about Orsolya Karafiáth. I would just point out that the entire concept relies on her feminine charms, something the programme's makers clearly have no problems with, since it helps boost its ratings. In my opinion it is for this reason, and not because of her views, that this programme prefers to feature, and pay, this particular lady, instead of the women with less striking looks who used to appear on it." Extract from a TV review.

December, 2017. After endless vilification and ad hominem threats come barrel-scraping remarks online from a state medium ( "And it's a good thing that the female crowning glories of channel ATV, Réka Kinga Papp, Orsolya Karafiáth and the rest, who regard the migrants as adorable doggie-woggies, are well on the way to spending their twilight years as the umpteenth concubines of some necrophiliac trader in olives (...) The way this works in darkest India and Pakistan is that a council of elders decides by a throw of the dice or drawing lots to bring a boy and a girl together, if possible while they are still young children, because that's the best way, and then if there's any hitch, it's talaq-talaq- talaq and the little lady is booted out of the coop to wherever she likes, preferably the cemetery. I've no problem with this per se, I have some interest in folklore, but I expect Réka Kinga and Orsolya to be just as open. Otherwise we'll organise a public talaq-talaq-talaq, and that spectacle will be very ugly indeed." My designation has changed to 'so-called writer', or 'writer' in quotation marks, the hunting licence has been issued and the bar set low, right on the ground. And those who have so far contented themselves with labelling my work 'lingerie lyric' (poetry) and 'hyperfeminist whinging' (prose) can now deprive me of my all. They daren't speak like that about male colleagues. Why is that? And why do I no longer believe that this will change?

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