THE BLOG
11/22/2014 07:48 am ET Updated Jan 22, 2015

Lobbying for Women in Hungary

Paul Cooklin via Getty Images

It took a while before the new democracies of East-Central Europe acquired the trappings of a modern political system. One of the new features borrowed from the West was lobbying. To engage in lobbying, however, the new NGOs first had to overcome the perception of politics as "dirty," since engaging with official political structures still carried a taint of "collaboration" from the Communist era.

Hungary was ahead of the pack, since it already had proto-parties like the Hungarian Democratic Forum in 1987 and a genuine independent political party like the Alliance of Free Democrats in 1988. One of the first major debates to feature modern lobbying, meanwhile, involved reproductive rights. In 1992, the new Hungarian parliament had to adopt a new bill on abortion. It was considering two versions, one that would essentially criminalize abortion (except under certain circumstances) and the other that would preserve access (but again with certain conditions such as a waiting period and mandatory counseling).

Activist Judit Hatfaludi took a position with Hungary's Feminist Network to coordinate a campaign to lobby for the pro-choice bill. She had the advantage of having spent considerable time in the United States where she was familiar with U.S.-style NGO activities. The Network was able to deploy tactics that caught the Hungarian parliamentarians by surprise.

"We went to the European network on reproductive rights," Hatfaludi told me in an interview in Visegrad in May 2013. "And I just jumped to the podium and made this whole forum on women sign a letter telling the parliamentary members that they can't take away women's rights. One of the women in the Feminist Network worked for the parliamentary office building. So we made copies of this letter, and we put them into every one of the parliamentary members' mailboxes. This was 1992. I'm sure they weren't getting many letters at the time."

Hatfaludi also organized a public outreach campaign to put pressure on the parliamentarians. "We also did mass mailing campaigns," she recalled. "We'd drop it into people's mailboxes so they could take part of it and send it back to the members of parliament. One day a woman calls on the office phone and says she works at one of the offices of these members. She had one of these mass mailings in her hand, which had the Feminist Network phone number on it, and she said, 'I want to sign one of these. Where can I get one?' I asked, 'So, are you getting a lot?' 'Tons!' she said. 'Every member is getting them. So, I was so curious who is doing this, and I want to get one too.'"

The campaign was successful. "They passed the liberal law on reproductive rights," Hatfaludi said. "Since it was 1992, we really didn't know where the cards were stacked. I think that our campaign must have made an impact because we were really pretty fierce. The letter-writing campaign was a totally new technique, and the parliamentary members got the idea that people were not going to support a restrictive law."

Hatfaludi went on to work for the American Friends Service Committee on Roma issues and the war in Yugoslavia. She also continued to work as an activist on LGBT issues. We talked about the current state of women's issues in Hungary, why the annual Pride marches are no longer like jubilees, and what she does now in her current work as a shaman.

The Interview

Tell me about your involvement in the Feminist Network.

The Feminist Network was one of the first-forming women's organizations after the transition. Later, when I worked for MONA, the Hungarian women's foundation, I was responsible for gathering representatives of different women's organizations and there were quite a number. But the Feminist Network was the one specifically of feminists. There were about 25 or 30 women in it. When I joined there were American activists who came and helped the group with "group dynamics" and structure. There were a lot of formalized meetings, and I really enjoyed that. And I met really great women. I don't know how long it took before I was actually employed by the Feminist Network, and they already started a pro-choice campaign when the government threatened to take away abortion rights. Zsusza Beres was leaving for London, and she was one of the people I felt one of the closest connections with. She wanted to leave things in the hands of someone she trusted. I felt so honored being just 23 and this older experienced woman was handing me the responsibilities.

So I became employed as the coordinator of this campaign, which was very successful. I think it was also partially because the parliamentary members weren't used to non-profit lobbying techniques, and we were rather fierce.

Can you give me an example?

We went to the European network on reproductive rights. And I just jumped to the podium and made this whole forum on women sign a letter telling the parliamentary members that they can't take away women's rights. One of the women in the Feminist Network worked for the parliamentary office building. So we made copies of this letter, and we put them into every one of the parliamentary members' mailboxes. This was 1992. I'm sure they weren't getting many letters at the time. By now they wouldn't give a fuck about it!

We also did mass mailing campaigns. We'd drop it into people's mailboxes so they could take part of it and send it back to the members of parliament. One day a woman calls on the office phone and says she works at one of the offices of these members. She had one of these mass mailings in her hand, which had the Feminist Network phone number on it, and she said, "I want to sign one of these. Where can I get one?"

I asked, "So, are you getting a lot?"

"Tons!" she said. "Every member is getting them. So, I was so curious who is doing this, and I want to get one too."

We were also in the parliament when the voting took place.

Tell me about that.

It was shocking for me to see our great members of parliament reading cartoons. We would sit up in the gallery or parliament and look down. The members were reading cartoons and doing crossword puzzles. I was just so disappointed. Later, when I was working for the SzDSz [Alliance of Free Democrats] Women's Foundation -- though at that time they called it the Hungarian Women's Foundation to make it seem independent when it wasn't -- we were working with the SzDSz women members of Parliament, and one of them didn't do anything in parliament except play on the computer. She was this great opposition member from the old opposition times, but every time I went to her office she was playing solitaire on the computer.

Anyway, they passed the liberal law on reproductive rights. Since it was 1992, we really didn't know where the cards were stacked. I think that our campaign must have made an impact because we were really pretty fierce. The letter-writing campaign was a totally new technique, and the parliamentary members got the idea that people were not going to support a restrictive law. It was a very early and good sign in 1991 for the parliamentary members to see that you don't fuck with women's rights because women get enraged. Something similar is happening now on violence against women, which is great to see. The only people that the government seems to be afraid of now are women.

Did the media cover the network at that time as one of the responsible actors?

I was on TV several times and in the newspapers. So, there was coverage but not a great amount of coverage.

How would you characterize the way average Hungarians felt about feminism in those days?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.