By Sahar Fetrat
I am a feminist. I came from Afghanistan to Hungary to do my master’s in gender studies at the Central European University (CEU).
What we call “feminism” in Afghanistan now, is probably the Afghan women’s first steps fighting for the most basic rights: for our rights to claim existence, to reclaim the spaces that are dominated by men and make our voices louder and louder, hoping to be heard.
I came to do my master’s in gender studies because of a personal anger. Because of the many gender-based discriminations that I grew up with in Afghanistan and all the intersecting oppressions I had to face as a refugee in childhood and as a woman of colour when I was travelling in the different parts of the world when I grew up.
Studying gender studies is extremely important because there is a big gap that needs to be filled in Afghanistan’s academia, especially in the gender studies field. From the surface, the whole world seems to care about Afghan women and marginalised voices but they equally contribute to the problems that Afghan women continue to face. Outsiders push the marginalised more into the margins through the way they identify and present these women.
I was angry because of how Afghan women are seen and represented in the world through a western “Savior” gaze. The knowledge, news and any reports that are produced about women in Afghanistan, is either of them being “victims” or being “saved”. There is no real or neutral image, and this is what fuels my fire. I wish to cultivate this anger with the necessary tools and knowledge, so it can flourish in my ability and responsibility to produce and to push for authentic and responsible knowledge-making in this field.
Coming to Hungary was not easy. I had to travel to Pakistan twice to get my visa and two days after I received it in August, a friend sent me a message saying that gender studies programs were to be “banned” in Hungary. It was terribly shocking and saddening, but CEU later confirmed that it would not affect our program.
When I came to Budapest, I found it to be a calm and beautiful city, but one that constantly reminds you of your skin. The pigments and melanin, that perhaps you didn’t have to see before, become more visible. Since I have come here, I can feel my skin more, every day. Which means, if you are a person of colour, you should have more patience for disgruntled behavior, being singled out in lines and ready to be shouted at. It is very similar to Kabul where you are indebted to society, paying the consequences of being a woman and living.
On 12 October, the Hungarian government published a list of approved master’s degree courses, from which the subject of gender studies was removed. We found out about it three days later through CEU’s Gender Studies chat group which left us all angry and helpless to some extent.
The removal of gender studies from the Hungarian Accredited Programs, to me, speaks about how the patriarchy is visibly alive and guarded in the first world as it is in the third world, and there is no justification for it. This is a political act, to gatekeep and safeguard the oppressive institutions of power that limit rights and spaces of others to live to their full potential.
The first master’s degree in gender studies in Afghanistan started in 2015 and there are many fears around this subject growing. To me, this fear, no matter in Kabul or Budapest, is the fear of visibility, recognition, and the voices of so many who would otherwise be denied existence.
Coming as a feminist from Afghanistan to pursue my master’s in Budapest, I have seen this fear everywhere and in many different forms, but I feel extremely sorry for Hungary because it has dismissed an important area of knowledge, oppressing the emergence of voices that are rarely heard, in the name of conservatism or lack of labour market opportunities.
As much as I see the gender studies’ ban as an attack on democracy in Hungary, I equally see it as a warning for a global wakeup call. Today it is a gender studies ban, tomorrow it will be about other forms of silencing and oppression.
This strong pushback from Orban’s government, however, also speaks a lot about the importance of this field. The very fact that a “government” stands against gender studies shows how significant of a field it is and how important it is for it to grow bigger as an academic field. It also gives it more importance because every action has a reaction and there is no way for conservatism to ban gender and women’s studies all over the world.
Gender studies is only pseudoscience for those who are too privileged and fearful to acknowledge the existence and rights of others.
Sahar Fetrat is a feminist and filmmaker from Afghanistan.
Opinions expressed in View articles are solely those of the author.