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Why Europe’s Far Right Is Targeting Gender Studies

A growing pattern of attacks across Europe is as much about electoral opportunity as a conflict of ideas.

Women attend a protest against the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy, in March.
Women attend a protest against the World Congress of Families in Verona, Italy, in March. (Yara Nardi / Reuters)

When Federico Batini, an Italian academic, wanted to research classroom bullying, he distributed a questionnaire to 54 schools in central Italy. The survey was carried out in partnership with local education authorities and sought to explore the extent to which young people faced racial, homophobic, or gender-based discrimination from their peers.

But instead of learning more about students’ experiences, Batini found his name smeared in the national media and his research abruptly discontinued. A senator from the far-right League party condemned Batini’s questionnaire as “gender indoctrination.” A national conservative daily, La Verità, berated the survey as “crazy gender ideology.” Then the Italian education minister, Marco Bussetti, a member of the League, blocked the questionnaire altogether.

Batini’s lurch from an innocuous regional research project to the political spotlight follows a growing pattern across Europe. Last August, a UNESCO project proposal on gender equality in schooling in Bulgaria was barred by that country’s education ministry. In October, university programs in gender studies were banned outright in Hungary, where Prime Minister Viktor Orbán continues to fortify his oxymoronic vision of “illiberal democracy.” Alternative for Germany (AfD), the first far-right party to enter the German Parliament since the Second World War, has similarly pledged to discontinue all gender-studies funding, university appointments, and research. Elsewhere in Italy, a gender-related conference at the University of Verona was canceled after a far-right group threatened to shut the event down by force. And in Sweden, where the far-right Swedish Democrats made significant gains in last year’s elections, several buildings were evacuated in December when a suspicious package was discovered outside the Swedish Secretariat for Gender Research, part of the University of Gothenburg.

As far-right politicians become entrenched in Europe, both at the European Parliament and within national parliaments across the Continent, they are taking aim at experts and intellectuals they present as members of an out-of-touch, corrosive elite. Several academic disciplines are subject to scrutiny and attack, but gender studies has become a particularly vilified target.

For the far right, propping up male authority and promoting a nuclear family that sticks to the gender binary are central tenets of the broader nationalist project. By contrast, gender studies promotes a more fluid understanding of self and society, in particular by recognizing gender as something shaped and interpreted by a given social order, as opposed to an immutable biological fact. In questioning traditional concepts of identity, sexuality, and kinship, gender studies therefore destabilizes the far right’s simple narrative of a native “us” versus an alien “them.” At the same time, the field disrupts the male authoritarianism integral to much of the far right’s self-image, from Orbán’s strongman swagger in Hungary to the paternal rhetoric of Matteo Salvini, Italy’s interior minister and the leader of the League. And yet, the far-right assault on gender studies is as much about electoral expediency as it is about a conflict of ideas. While gender theorists are hardly a significant cohort at the ballot box, they can be used as a convenient proxy to criticize the European Union, decry the West, and galvanize religious-conservative sentiment.

Salvini and Orbán meet in Budapest in May. (Bernadett Szabo / Reuters)

“Gender studies has become a battleground,” says Massimo Prearo, a political-studies researcher at the University of Verona. “In the last five years, it has developed from a peripheral concern to a central topic for those who purport to defend European Christian civilization.”

Integral to almost all the attacks is the implication that gender studies itself is not an academic discipline, but something larger and more mendacious. In a brisk rhetorical flip, far-right leaders and their supporters frame gender studies as an “ideology,” its researchers as “agents,” and they discredit the field’s research as raw political agenda rather than legitimate scholarship. Gender studies “has no business in universities,” Hungary’s deputy prime minister, Zsolt Semjen, said when the discipline’s ban was announced. “It is an ideology, not a science.”

Although opposition to gender studies has seen a spike throughout Europe, it has distinct local variants. In countries with Stalinist scars, the accusation of ideology is readily associated with pedagogic brainwashing. In Germany, the new word genderismus—conjuring up the idea that gender is an ideology—wilfully echoes the sozialismus, or socialism, of East German memory. In Estonia, where the far-right Conservative People’s Party joined the coalition government in March, the far-right website Objektiiv regularly publishes articles comparing “gender ideology” to Marxism and Leninism.

While the anti–gender studies discourse summons ghosts from the Soviet East, criticism of gender studies has also been wrapped into a general narrative of baroque EU bureaucracy in Brussels. This conflation draws upon the EU’s explicit commitment to so-called gender mainstreaming—the inclusion of a gender perspective in all policy, regulation, and spending programs. The association with such policy and procedural language means that far-right players can readily deploy “gender” as a general placeholder for Brussels technocrats. (The same association has also caused gender studies to be targeted by the far left, who believe that support for the subject from the EU, which they believe has a capitalist agenda, has compromised the field.)

In countries where few people speak English, the strategic use of the word gender underscores the notion of a meddlesome Western construct. In Polish, the word dzender exists, but the English term is often left intact to reinforce the idea of an alien import. “I think it is really crucial that the word sounds foreign,” Agnieszka Graff, a gender-studies lecturer at Warsaw University, told me. “You have this idea that gender poisons local culture, that it is something from the decadent West.”

For Graff, this linguistic stigma says much about the trajectory of Europe’s postwar order. When she and her colleagues set about creating one of the first gender-studies programs in Poland, in the early 1990s, one of the reasons they used the word gender—instead of women or feminism—was because it seemed forward-looking and uncontroversial. “It signaled our commitment to Westernization and Europeanization and modernity,” she said. “Now here we are, 20 years later, and the word is the devil and the demon.”

Such moralistic framing has particular resonance in countries where conservative Catholicism holds sway. In raising the anti-gender battle cry, far-right politicians forge strategic alliances between nationalism and religious fundamentalism, mobilizing important swaths of the electorate. The Vatican itself has openly opposed gender theory since the early-2000s, discounting the idea that male and female experiences might be shaped by societal forces, and advocating instead for intrinsic male and female attributes. As recently as 2016, Pope Francis referred to gender theory as “ideological colonization.”

This religiously inflected discourse revolves around the protection of family and children, with gender-related research regularly presented as a malignant force for youngsters. In Poland, Jarosław Kaczyński, the leader of the country’s governing Law and Justice party, recently cited gender, along with the LGBTQ movement, as part of a “direct attack on the family and children.” In Italy, three League ministers in the coalition government, including the same education minister who blocked Batini’s questionnaire, attended the 13th World Congress of Families, an ultraconservative Christian organization devoted to the preservation of the “natural family.”

The League’s participation in the congress shows how the battle against gender studies is as much about strategic opportunity as it is about perceived threat. “They speak about gender and gender theory, but really it’s all about fear,” Batini told me. The convergence of antigender and pro-family language helps bolster anti-immigrant sentiment, so when League ministers position themselves as defenders of the family, it’s rhetoric that speaks to the indigenous, white, nuclear household and implicitly rejects non-native families as well as non-heteronormative models of homemaking. In Hungary, Zsófia Bán, who teaches gender-related courses at the state university ELTE, also sees the government’s ban on gender studies as closely linked to its xenophobic politics: “It is a distancing both from liberal ideologies of Western academia, and from other ways of thinking that they view as infiltrating the country along with refugees.”

As those working in gender studies grapple with how best to respond to life in the far right’s headlights, many worry that the antigender assault may indicate a broader agenda of educational control. They note with alarm how Brazil’s far-right president, Jair Bolsonaro, has endorsed policing of perceived leftist indoctrination in the classroom, including encouraging school students to film suspect teachers. In March, the Dutch far-right party Forum for Democracy similarly set up an educational hotline for reporting “left wing indoctrination” at universities and schools.

Some researchers in the field admit that gender studies can also be its own worst enemy by failing to communicate ideas and developments in ways that are relevant and comprehensible to people outside of academia.

“We are dealing with a situation where a lot of people are invested in this subject and would like to read something, and the readable stuff is coming from Jordan Peterson,” Graff told me, in reference to the right-wing Canadian psychologist and arch-critic of gender theory. “I am not saying we are to blame, but we are not blameless.”