Central Europe Review Call forpolicy proposals...
Vol 3, No 19
28 May 2001
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Safe Haven?
Interview with Professor
Krisztina Morvai on domestic
violence in Hungary [Part 4]

Gusztáv Kosztolányi

Click here to read Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3

Central Europe Review: In every modern society there is a "glass ceiling," in other words, women can climb up the career ladder but never get beyond a certain point into real positions of power and influence. Is the glass ceiling in Hungary lower than it is in the Western democracies?

Krisztina Morvai: I have to admit that I don't really know much about this. I can see that there are quite a few successful businesswomen out there and by way of correction to something I maintained earlier the media does focus on them. It is mildly entertaining because women's magazines do not devote column inches to violence against women, but they do by contrast to how you can become this successful, how you can make your mark thereby proffering illusions to women about how the situation is not so bad after all. Just look at Éva and Kata and what successful business women they are! I am afraid I cannot cite any figures about how many women are in management positions in the multinationals in Hungary. Instinctively I would reckon that there would only be very few.

You shouldn't labour under the misapprehension that the problems pertaining to discrimination at the workplace vanished into thin air with the advent of the multis, that they wormed their way into women's good graces and appointed dozens of them into management posts. That is not the lie of the land here. I cannot be more specific than that, however.

I can say a few words about my own profession. In Hungary there are more women judges than in perhaps any other country in the world. The proportion of female judges is far higher than in say the United States or the countries of Western Europe, but the Presidents of the County Courts, the heads of the Supreme Court and even more so the members of the Constitutional Court are men as a general rule. The Constitutional Court has become extremely important since the changeover to democracy, it is constantly all over the TV screens, its members entering the courtroom decked out in their gowns of office. Until very recently not one single member was a woman, but one has been appointed at long last.

The President and Vice-President of the Supreme Court have never been women. At the present moment the Minister of Justice [Ibolya Dávid] is a woman. The fact that she is one of the most popular politicians in all of Hungary just goes to prove that it is worthwhile to place women in prominent positions of authority. She currently tops the popularity polls. Less than ten per cent of Hungarian MPs are women and the front men of the political parties are just as the designation suggests.

Let me just take a lunge for a moment by pointing out that I attended a speech given by one of the leaders of the Liberal Party [SZDSZ], who declared that his party is full of charismatic, strong leadership personalities. He listed eight or so names, it would never have occurred to him in a million years to mention even one woman and remember this is the Liberal Party we are talking about. The whole issue of women does not impinge on the mental landscape of the leaders and philosophers of the Hungarian Liberal Party, not even as part of the furniture.

Do you believe that EU accession will bring about an immediate tangible improvement in the situation of women in Hungary?

Only if that is a demand put forward by the EU itself. The EU ought to demand it prior to accession, however. It ought to ask searching questions about the state of play for women as regards this, that and the other. For example concerning violence against women. I do not believe that accession in itself will produce any tangible improvements.

Protection of human dignity

I heard that you are the Chairwoman of the Committee drafting the new legislation on stamping out discrimination and violence against women. Could you give us a sneak preview of any of the details of the bill?

First of all let me set the record straight. I am not the Chairwoman of the Committee. Anna Betlen, advisor in the Ministry of Family and Social Affairs, occupies that position. She is a wonderful woman. You might imagine that she represents the state and the Ministry and is bound by the constraints of mainstream, conventional thought, but you would be wrong. She has a real sense of vocation, ponders everything very deeply and is a real veteran fighter in this field. If only there were more like her in the apparatus of state! She is the Chairwoman and apart from her there are four lawyers including myself. Initially there were no very tangible ideas about what the law would address. Even we as members of the Committee do not know about the precise background to the proposal.

The whole undertaking had a slight air of secrecy about it, we don't know where it had its beginnings, though we are delighted it is on the cards and so we don't make a big deal about poking our noses into its origin. The Committee was requested to draft a law with the primary aim of tackling violence against women, but placing it in the guise of protecting human dignity and combating discrimination. In this respect it is quite symbolic that its working title is the law on protection of human dignity. This is very good as it talks about human beings, not women, though when I say "very good" let's put that in inverted commas. It is very difficult and delicate of course.

No matter whose brainchild it is the individual in question is in an extremely difficult position as the law has to suit a variety of requirements, be all things to all men as it were. The person or persons in question obviously wanted to do something to help women without spitting it out, saying in so many words that women are the main beneficiaries. To do something about fighting domestic violence without mentioning the family directly. This is very difficult indeed.

The Committee has met on three occasions up to now. The first concentrated on how to narrow down its scope of application, how to define its subject matter. We ultimately agreed that domestic violence had to be included at all costs and that sexual harassment at work would also feature in keeping with the Ministry's traditions, since the Ministry was formerly known as the Ministry of Employment. All the more so because the EU had made specific recommendations on the subject and genuinely does expect these provisions to be transposed into Hungarian national legislation. We also had to try to get to grips with the forms in which these two problems manifested themselves. The emphasis will be placed on prevention and legal remedy for domestic violence. To be perfectly honest with you we had to resort to various wiles in order to achieve this as the EU does not expect us to take any specific action on the domestic violence front.

There is a complete absence of compulsory standards, even of soft law and the problem has not been raised in any annual report from the Commission. Somebody asked about the position here. At the same time we were fully aware of how important a driving force international expectations are in the context of these laws. In the introduction and structure of the law we make specific reference to the UN's CEDAW Convention [The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women]. The main body of the CEDAW Convention does not specifically deal with violence, but its general recommendations 12 and 19 define unequivocal tasks for the state to fulfil in the area of preventing and remedying violence against women including domestic violence. In Hungary the CEDAW Convention was promulgated as national legislation. It represents binding legislation in other words.

There is an additional protocol, which allows individuals to take their complaints to the CEDAW Committee in a similar way to taking your case to Strasbourg and the Committee will then examine whether the country in question respects the provisions of the Convention. We brought the situation up to date and pointed to the need for legislation by referring to the CEDAW Committee report according to which Hungary fails to comply with recommendations 12 and 19 and the interpretative provisions.

Given that this is the case, changes are required to bring Hungary in line with international standards and the demands and recommendation s of the CEDAW Convention. If the EU would chip in and give a helping hand here then everything would be hunky dory because the bill would definitely go through. The 1997 law on marital rape would not have stood a snowball's chance if we had not made reference to the obligation to respect these conventions. I am very often sceptical of the practical value of the documents and reports produced by the Council of Europe, although they are perfect for quoting as examples when clamouring for legislation, tightening the noose around the legislator's neck to the extent that he has no alternative but to relent.

The problem in the eyes of the legislator is not that husbands rape their wives, but that international organisations are not willing to put up with such conduct. The same can and indeed has to be achieved for domestic violence. The Hungarian state has to feel it has been painted into a corner. I cannot really talk about the Hungarian government in this context since changes in government have not altered the situation one iota. The Socialist-Liberal coalition does not have a better track record in this respect at all. The state needs to feel that this is a genuine expectation on the part of international organisations. We strive to live up to the EU's demands in other areas and women's right to equal dignity ought not to be an exception.

Removing the abuser from the home

What would be the minimum you would expect of such a law?

My minimum expectation—and it is a pretty maximalist one at the same time—is for the current situation according to which the abuser stays at home whilst the abused woman and her children have to take to their heels, become destitute and spend long years in a state of limbo in temporary shelters be reversed and that the fundamental stance be that it is the abuser, who is breaking the law and that lawful conditions are restored by removing the abuser from the home environment.

Further to this the two pillars of combating domestic violence have to be instituted in Hungary as well, namely calling the perpetrator to account and offering support to the injured party. The absolute minimum must be that these principles become clear and that a package of legislation be adopted to this end by amending certain passages of the criminal statute, certain of the rules governing criminal proceedings as well as family and child protection laws. Our main task in hand is to incorporate these basic concepts into this law because if they do not shine through clearly the law will achieve nothing at all.

The second point is more technical. Other legal provisions have to be gone through with a fine toothcomb and modified so that the aim can be attained more effectively. To illustrate what I mean with an example I listed earlier that a battered woman should not be kept in a state of chronic uncertainty over 19 months during which she is exposed to constant harassment under the watchword that the father has a right to see his children. Instead an interim order placing the child in the custody of the non-abusive parent has to be issued. Or the case has to be given accelerated treatment. I would also welcome it if the law could make specific reference to the need to provide training for the professionals and specialists along similar lines to the courses our small Foundation has supplied.

What impact would you expect the law to have if it were enforced?

I would expect a massive and radical statistical increase in the number of recorded cases of domestic violence because if the statistics show such a sharp hike it means that people are sitting up and taking notice of the problem, that women have the courage to press charges and cases are brought to court. At first glance it appears paradoxical that a better law can lead to a deterioration of the situation because ten or even a hundred times more cases will come to light, whereas the truth of the matter is that this is the most positive sign of improvement.

It means that what was swept under the carpet and kept invisible in the past is now coming into the open, being dealt with at the police station, in the offices of the investigating authorities, the interrogation rooms and before the court benches prior to making it into the statistics. Of course I could put an optimistic gloss on matters and say that I expect the abusers to be forced to recognise that society deems their behaviour unacceptable, that this knowledge would spread like wildfire and that we could thereby contribute to dissuading the abuser from resorting to violence.

Hold on!

Maybe it will cross their minds that hold on I can't go on like this any longer! Then a lot of them might be weaned off violence. That they cannot get away with subjecting their wives and children to perpetual terror in the same way that they cannot get away with assaulting their colleagues, their bosses and policemen they bump into on the streets. If all this were to succeed I would be satisfied with the law. It will be difficult for us to come to terms with the harsh reality that the introduction of the law will not create a heaven on earth.

Look at the example of Western countries where the laws were adopted and the professionals in the field were given training. Abuse has not ceased overnight there. I am sure it will be a long, hard struggle, a long process of change for the better. I do not think we should allow ourselves to be told we must be patient. We should not be patient. It would be all too easy for me from the comfort of this heated office to say that we have to be patient. This is the kind of spiel the ministries churn out. We have to be impatient and slam our fists down on the table. We are dealing with tragedies here with flesh and blood victims and you cannot merely brush them aside with appeals to be patient.

One of my favourite anecdotes was recounted by a American woman professor at a conference about how the Bobbit case where the battered woman cut off her tormentor's penis it hit the headlines all over the world, it attracted everyone's interest and how intriguing it was that a politician stood up and said "We have devoted a great deal of attention to the issue of violence" whereby he meant that politicians were expected to engage in a ritual genuflection of this type. He went on about this and that before adding that as long as the world exists there will always be a handful of men, who will murder their spouses or partners. Given the sensation it triggered why do they not say that there will always be a handful of women, who will cut off their husband's penises instead.

I am very fond of this story because it illustrates to a tee how violence against women is taken for granted, considered perfectly natural whereas violence against men is viewed as something abhorrent that sends shivers down the spine. People have to reconcile themselves to the fact that they will have no option but to bide their time a little longer, to accept with their rational minds that the phenomenon of violence against women will not disappear overnight or even from one year to the next. At the same time they must not lose the passion and righteous indignation, which is the driving force that inspires them to work unstintingly for change.

Why so emotional?

I often give lectures on the subject of domestic violence and my colleagues come up to me afterwards to say "Krisztina you are right on a lot of the points you make, but couldn't you make them a little less forcefully, a little less emotionally." I can't understand this attitude. How can you fail to feel wrath in the face of the cases you witness? My standard reply is to ask what kind of a person can enter a Mother's Shelter, listen to accounts of how these women were driven into the streets as expectant mothers with small children in tow because some man beat them up, compelling them into this drastic course of action? And because the police and the authorities sent them there to all practical intents and purposes.

You can keep your composure after seeing all that? I don't know. I am not cut out for keeping my calm in such circumstances. I will always retain my passion and my righteous indignation.

Then there is the business of objectivity. It is absolutely fascinating to observe how whenever you start delving into women's issues you are immediately accused of lapsing into subjectivity. In law, politics and history an objective approach and objective methods are always a reflection of the male point of view. If I leaf my way through history books I come to the conclusion that history is always the history of the public sphere, the history of men. If we take the example of historical writing about the First World War, what we see unfolding before us is the spectacle of men slaughtering each other under appalling conditions on the battlefields, of diplomats sitting down to negotiate, or peace treaties and so on. What is happening on the home front in the meantime? The women, who were believed to be congenitally incapable of changing a light bulb, took over the running of industry, buried the dead, looked after the children and tended the sick, yet all this does not form part of history.

The minute a feminist historian starts taking a look at what women were doing her efforts are pooh-poohed as subjective. Why is one approach deemed to more objective and the other more subjective? What makes the work of a lawyer investigating organised crime more objective than the work carried out by a lawyer examining domestic violence, who reveals undeniable correlations? What is it that makes the latter more subjective in nature particularly given that it is an undeniable fact that every week a woman dies at the hands of her spouse or partner? How can something be stated more objectively than that? It is set down in writing, in black and white in the court files we ploughed our way through.

These statements are made on the basis of legally binding court verdicts. It is likewise true that 80 per cent of these murders were preceded by regular episodes of violent abuse. It would have been possible to intervene and prevent the deaths from occurring in the same way, as it would have been possible to prevent the physical and mental collapse, the descent into poverty and deep unhappiness in the children's lives. Why does this get dismissed as subjective when it is all based on objective facts and reality? I could also be said to be satisfied with the law if it were to make someone realise at last that domestic violence is an objective phenomenon, that an objective need exists for this law and that is has to be enforced.

"Just like one of us"

In the Scandinavian countries Equal Opportunities Ombudsmen keep watch over women's rights. Do you think that this office could be successfully transplanted into the Hungarian political and social context? Do you think that the creation of such an institution would help guarantee respect for women's rights?

My only problem with the idea is that the Equal Opportunities Ombudsman in Hungary would probably be a man. It is amusing because whenever I talk to feminists from the West they try to get a handle on the situation in Hungary by applying the yardstick of how many women occupy leading positions, as this is an important litmus test for them. It is absolutely natural for them that people in important positions such as Members of Parliament will defend the interests of their own sex.

That is all fine and good, but our culture and traditions are somewhat different and many of the women in important positions of power politically or socially make it that far because they have internalised the expectations of male-dominated society, they have learned the male prejudices and in some cases even the hatred towards their own sex to the extent that men say Mrs X the politician is just like one of us.

For the sake of appearances a woman has to be given the job, but the kind of woman, who manages to make it through the various filters and obstacles might make certain gestures towards the genuine interests of women, but in reality views the situation of women from a male vantage point because she has learned the lesson that she has only been allowed to occupy her exalted position because she has adopted male attitudes towards her own sex and its rightful place.

The comical sight of a female Member of Parliament lecturing her fellow women on why the most
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appropriate thing for them to do is to stay at home and bring up the children is possible because of this. For some unknown reason she herself decided not to be a housewife raising the progeny, but to become an MP.

It is absolutely typical for a woman in a leading position to comment in the course of any interview that she is an excellent mother and that she tries to cook the family a square meal as often as she can. Then of course the reporter asks where the three children are when she is at work. Nobody ever asks the Prime Minister where his children are when he is at work. Prime Minister, you have four children and what do you do with them when you are at such and such a conference or such and such a meeting?

My answer to your question is that of course an Equal Rights Ombudsman would be a good thing. Particularly if the office were to be held by a woman. It would only work if the woman in question were to have a genuine interest in familiarising herself with the real lives of the various groups of women she would be called upon to represent, to ask them about how their daily routines and what they want, that she would not make pronouncements on what is good for women from her own point of view or from the perspective of male society. Secondly, I believe that such a woman would have to be a feminist and have an academic background, which reflects and attests to a female perspective. She should familiarise herself with the precepts of gender studies on a systematic basis.

Thank you very much indeed Professor Morvai.

Gusztáv Kosztolányi, 28 May 2001

Read Part 1 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Professor Krisztina Morvai

Read Part 2 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Professor Krisztina Morvai

Read Part 3 of Gusztáv Kosztolányi's interview with Professor Krisztina Morvai

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Shedding the Balkan Skin

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Czech Historical Amnesia

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