On Being a Woman in Hungary

First of all, I’ll get this out of the way: I don’t think women necessarily have a harder time than men, here or anywhere else. Nor do the difficulties I am bringing up apply to Hungary alone; they exist in some form everywhere. Being alive is an awkward matter. Everyone, in some way, has times of feeling out of place, feeling plunked in the wrong era, and so forth. No two people have the same kind of aloneness, the same kind of alienation; if they did, they wouldn’t be alienated any more. So, as with most things, the picture is more complicated than can be conveyed in a blog piece. Still, Hungarian society can be hard on girls and women who do not conform to standard expectations of appearance, behavior, and roles. Being pretty (during youth, at least) often means being skinny with long, straight, sleek hair and perfect skin; being acceptable often comes down to keeping yourself within size, doing things well but being delicate, not threatening, about it. As for the roles, women are still expected to raise children and do nearly all of the housework (often on top of full-time jobs and careers). Though this is slowly changing, it will stay as is, more or less, for a long time, partly because of the incentives, partly because of the intrinsic and social rewards, and the negative comments if you take a different approach. The government offers generous maternity and family benefits. You can have a child, take two years off from work, receive a partial salary, and still have your job waiting for you.

Some of this is laudable. I would have loved to have children, but for many combined reasons, this didn’t happen. One of many factors was growing up in a generation in which we were encouraged to wait: not just to get children, but to get married, make a commitment to another person, and so on. As a result, in the U.S., a kind of superficiality took over dating; relationships were emptied of responsibility, not across the board, but palpably. If you were a woman and mentioned wanting to have a child, you could scare a man away. People strove to appear casual, even if they weren’t. From what I hear from friends, social media has made the situation even worse. So it’s refreshing to find, in Hungary, a basic understanding that relationships involve commitment, and that one of the primary duties and joys in life is to raise children.

But life takes many paths, and not everyone has to follow this particular one. Nor is it given to everyone to do so, or to follow the standard timing. That’s where it gets difficult; I sense that women here who diverge from the norm have to contend with feelings of failure, at the very least, and probably negative judgments from others. I remember last year when a girl asked, in class, “What’s wrong with me? Why am I not in a relationship yet?” (It was the beginning of the year, and I was asking them about issues that were on their minds.) That’s a common teenage worry, but I think it was profound in this case.

Also, many young people, women and men, feel intense, informed anxiety about global warming. Not only do they hesitate to bring children into a world that might not be livable much longer, but they also see indifference, passivity, and paralysis around them. They distrust a system that encourages them to have babies but fails to make the world more habitable. They look around and see hardly anyone doing anything, even in their peer group. For women, this can lead to a kind of split consciousness: a wish to have children, but a distrust of the pressure to do so.

In addition, women face dilemmas over higher education. At the school where I teach, the girls outnumber the boys significantly; I have been told that this is generally the case at the gimnáziums, the high schools that prepare students for university. Boys tend to choose trade schools, as these lead more directly to jobs. So I assume that girls outnumber boys at the universities as well, at least by a little. But the picture changes when it comes to doctoral programs and professorships. There men are still in the majority and have, on the whole, the more demanding and prestigious positions. This suggests that women are highly encouraged, and encourage themselves, to pursue education and a career, but then turn to something that can accommodate their domestic responsibilities. (From what I have seen, women work extremely hard.)

I have met many young women who dislike the pressure to conform and who dream of studying or working abroad. It isn’t just economic opportunity that attracts them to other countries; it’s the belief that they could lead their lives there, and be themselves. (“Being yourself” is more of an American concept than a Hungarian one; it gets taken to silly extremes in the U.S., but there’s something to be said for it. Hungarians often think and speak more in terms of “we” than “I”; this, too, has its beauty and pitfalls.)

I do not feel judged for being different—but I definitely feel different, not just as a foreigner, but as someone who has taken an unconventional path in more ways than one. (This is true in the U.S. too.) On the other hand, I am warmly accepted and appreciated here, and am at a point in life where I don’t care so much what others think of me, except when it’s based on something important. So it would be completely wrong to say that I have faced discrimination or rejection here; the opposite is true. But I do sense people wondering, once in a while (to the extent that they think of it at all), why I go to concerts and films alone, for instance. I sense that women especially are expected to be with someone. Going to a restaurant alone is almost unheard-of. In the U.S., it is much more acceptable, especially in cities, to attend events alone as a woman.

Why does this matter? Because, for one thing, there’s a joy in attending an event alone. You can focus on it, but more than that, you’re there for the event itself, not for a social image. You don’t have to have someone with you to take in what is happening. I also enjoy being at events with others—it’s good to share things like this, and it can be lots of fun—but being alone can be great too.

Going to events alone also means that you are allowed to exist in yourself, that you don’t need someone else to make you acceptable—in general, not only at events. I am open to having a relationship in the future. I think it’s possible that someone might come along who really gets me, and whom I understand as well, and with whom I would like to build something. But it’s also possible that it won’t happen, and in that case, I am still (to quote from a friend’s unpublished humorous piece) “a perfectly legitimate human being” with a full life.

It’s a bit easier for men to go to events alone. True, this depends somewhat on the nature of the event; at a classical concert or a literary reading, it really doesn’t matter if you’re a woman or man, alone or with others. But on the whole, men are more likely than women to appear somewhere by themselves, and even to be silent and solitary, whereas women not only show up with others, but also act sociable. (On a tangent: I don’t remember ever seeing a fisherwoman in Hungary, though they must exist. It is typically men who sit silently on the banks of the rivers, waiting for the fish to bite.)

This idea, I believe, has yet to find its way into Hungarian public consciousness: that women exist in themselves: that while we all need others in our lives, we don’t need them for legitimacy’s sake, for basic human status. We can step into the world on our own, without embarrassment or shame, and the relationships, when they form, will be the better for that.

I made a few minor changes to the piece, in several stages, after posting it. It is still just a fraction of what I could say on the subject, which in turn is an even smaller fraction of what could be said.

  • “To know that you can do better next time, unrecognizably better, and that there is no next time, and that it is a blessing there is not, there is a thought to be going on with.”

    —Samuel Beckett, Malone Dies

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  • ABOUT THE AUTHOR

     

    Diana Senechal is the author of Republic of Noise: The Loss of Solitude in Schools and Culture and the 2011 winner of the Hiett Prize in the Humanities, awarded by the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture. Her second book, Mind over Memes: Passive Listening, Toxic Talk, and Other Modern Language Follies, was published by Rowman & Littlefield in October 2018. In February 2022, Deep Vellum will publish her translation of Gyula Jenei's 2018 poetry collection Mindig Más.

    Since November 2017, she has been teaching English, American civilization, and British civilization at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium in Szolnok, Hungary. From 2011 to 2016, she helped shape and teach the philosophy program at Columbia Secondary School for Math, Science & Engineering in New York City. In 2014, she and her students founded the philosophy journal CONTRARIWISE, which now has international participation and readership. In 2020, at the Varga Katalin Gimnázium, she and her students released the first issue of the online literary journal Folyosó.

  • INTERVIEWS AND TALKS

    On April 26, 2016, Diana Senechal delivered her talk "Take Away the Takeaway (Including This One)" at TEDx Upper West Side.
     

    Here is a video from the Dallas Institute's 2015 Education Forum.  Also see the video "Hiett Prize Winners Discuss the Future of the Humanities." 

    On April 19–21, 2014, Diana Senechal took part in a discussion of solitude on BBC World Service's programme The Forum.  

    On February 22, 2013, Diana Senechal was interviewed by Leah Wescott, editor-in-chief of The Cronk of Higher Education. Here is the podcast.

  • ABOUT THIS BLOG

    All blog contents are copyright © Diana Senechal. Anything on this blog may be quoted with proper attribution. Comments are welcome.

    On this blog, Take Away the Takeaway, I discuss literature, music, education, and other things. Some of the pieces are satirical and assigned (for clarity) to the satire category.

    When I revise a piece substantially after posting it, I note this at the end. Minor corrections (e.g., of punctuation and spelling) may go unannounced.

    Speaking of imperfection, my other blog, Megfogalmazások, abounds with imperfect Hungarian.

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