Gendered authoritarianisms: Exploring potential solidarities in the battle for gender studies

By: Elizabeth Maber

Contestations over the understandings, and even the use, of the term ‘gender’ have become a familiar trigger for mobilising anti-liberal popular discourse. Gender has always been political and gender norms strongly aligned to the expectations of the state from its gendered citizenry, with authoritarian states strongly reinforcing the hierarchisation associated with heteronormative gender binaries, expected gender roles and commitments to the family and child-rearing (Segato 2018; Peto & Grzebalska 2016). Authoritarianism and populism thrive in simplistic binaries and reductive classifications as emotive and easily mobilised discourses reinforcing group identity (citizen/other, insider/outsider, security/threat etc). Education offers a key platform through which the transmission of gendered learning can be directed by state authorities, and another key emotional battleground for the deployment of nationalistic narratives.

However, as Eszter Kováts has recently highlighted, the process of dichotomisation can also be seen reproduced in left-leaning academic discourses which risk similar homogenisation and simplification (Kováts 2022). Consequently, discourses around gender create an appealing theatre for the enactment of constructed tropes, bringing together familiar narratives of ‘tradition’ and institutionalised religion with reductive performances of ‘progressive elites’, with players variously positioned as hero, anti-hero or menacing villain.

The construction of gender in society, then, is reinforced through political and public discourse as well as through implicit and explicit teaching and learning in education institutions. With the rise in authoritarian and anti-liberal politics in many parts of the world, issues in education such as challenges to sex and relationships education, choice of curriculum texts, the use of communal spaces such as toilets and changing rooms, and inclusive teaching around gender diversity have become flash-points for ideological conflicts. However, as we know well, education is also a space of transformation and never a singular site of uniform transmission. Teachers, students, school or institutional leadership, changing resources, everyday dialogues, all interact to form unpredictable learning spaces which can undermine and subvert received narratives, both knowingly and unintentionally. For our project in exploring the role of higher education in conflict and crisis, our interest lies in the interaction between these different elements and the possibilities for new understandings to emerge through these interactions.

Discourses of threat are effective precisely because they are powerfully emotive in weaponizing fear. However, a distinction should be made between this affective impact which ultimately works to consolidate a feeling of belonging to the approved norm, and the emotional and physical toll taken by contesting narratives and policies that seek your eradication. Non-binary, non-conforming and queer bodies have borne the assaults of policy-making, political and public discourse which frequently denies their legitimacy and rights to exist. We have seen queer bodies highly visible in protests and counter-movements: on the frontline of resistance in the face of assaults by security forces, such as the Occupy Gezi movement in Turkey in 2013 (Uǧur 2019; Gambetti 2016) and the first wave of anti-coup protests in Myanmar in 2021 (Maber & Nwe 2021). What one LGBTQ protestor in Gezi park described as “‘all that colour and flurry’” (quoted by Gambetti 2016) has drawn the attention of media, campaigners and other protestors sharing images online to global audiences portraying the vitality, diversity and inclusivity of resistance movements.

Demonstrators protest against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban and the latest anti-LGBTQ law in Budapest, Hungary, June 14, 2021. REUTERS/Marton Monus
LGBT community members participate in a protest in Myanmar’s former capital Yangon, Feb. 19, 2021. Radio Free Asia.

Gender diversity then is positioned as emblematic of the opposition to authoritarian regimes. Yet questions emerge as to how we are to understand the representation of queer bodies as frontline in the assault (direct and indirect) on democracy: as a reflection of the range of popular support for liberal democratic movements? Of the strength of LGBTQ community organising? Or as reproducing the consumption and disposability of queer bodies as targets of attack from the state, facing the ‘pedagogy of cruelty’ (Segato 2018) of the security forces? Or, again, as a reflection of the emergence of new, if momentary, solidarities as Gambetti (2016) has illustrated in the case of the Gezi park protests, whereby disparate social groups share a stage of resistance, which might offer glimpses of the possibilities of social change? Perhaps in reality, elements of all of these and more.

Likewise, questions emerge as to the inclusivity and representation of anti-authoritarian or progressive movements and scholarship. Such movements have been participated in, commented on, theorised and lectured about by feminist academics (myself included), which leads to further questions about the relationship between academia and activism, and the role of academics in resisting authoritarianism or populism even while the university is positioned as an instrument of its reach. What role then can we understand for higher education within authoritarian or populist movements?

The liminality of gender diverse activism in the face of oppressive state responses is echoed in the precarious position experienced by academics in resisting instrumentalization. Speaking at the Faculty of Education recently about the experiences of Turkish academics, Seçkin Sertdemir Özdemir reminded us that the targeting of academics as threatening to the state is not new, but rather there has been a long history of surveillance, reporting, sacking, imprisonment, exile and disappearance of academics who resist the reproduction of state ideology, with this reach extending to both public and private institutions. Paradoxically, as universities have become increasingly distanced from their public service under neoliberal marketisation the expectation for academics, positioned as “worker-citizens” rather than civil servants, to reproduce state ideology has deepened (Özdemir 2022).

Our work in Hungary provides a relevant compliment to the experiences of academics in Turkey, especially in the targeting of gender studies as oppositional to state narratives. Although not alone in current conservative political responses to notions of gender, the context of Hungarian higher education provides a distinctive example of the speed through which public discourses can be redirected and the transformation of public and private education spaces. Likewise, it also exposes fault-lines in academic discourse, responses to public debate, and ideological positionings.

Since the election of the Fidesz-KDNP alliance in 2010, Viktor Orbán has overseen the consolidation of an anti-liberal gender regime which has actively promoted gender inequality through entrenched heteronormativity, denying gender diversity, sentimentalising unpaid caring expectations and unequal labour market opportunities (Fodor 2022). The new Hungarian Constitution of 2012, for example, eroded gender rights including banning same-sex marriage, further restricting abortion and removing sexual orientation and gender identity as prohibited grounds for discrimination (Vida 2019). Accompanying the dismantling of once-progressive legislation protecting LGBTQ+ identities (Kuhar et al 2017), education spaces and media discourses have been particularly targeted as mechanisms of knowledge sharing. The National Core Curriculum was changed to reduce inclusion of gender identity and sexuality and to instead promote binary gender roles and heteronormative family life (Vida 2019); while more recently further restrictions within education and media have included prohibiting material in schools, on television and in films that were deemed to ‘display or promote’ gender and sexual diversity beyond heterosexuality.

Particularly attracting attention within higher education debates, in 2018 the Fidesz government rapidly forced the closure of gender studies programmes at both the public Hungarian Eotvos Lorand University and the private, international Central European University (the only two available Masters degree programmes in the field) (Pető 2018). These courses were directed to be replaced by an “Economics of Family Policy and Public Poclicies for Human Development” programme (Vida 2019), further underlining the substitution of gender and sexual diversity with an unwavering focus on the heterosexual nuclear family. This practice of substitution and replacement with state-aligned agendas has been well tested. Since 2015 a pattern has been observed in the gradual replacement of gender-focused civil society organisations with pro-government NGOs to which state funding is then directed creating a ‘parallel civil society’ which effectively cuts off funding to the original more progressive rights-based organisations (Pető & Grzebalska 2016). Avenues for contestation and resistance are therefore increasingly eroded and marginalised from public debate.

In relation to the work of this project, these observations give rise to a number of further questions: To what extent does the academic field of gender studies continue to be, or is desired to be, a transgressive site for (re)conceptualising gender?

This also raises the question of course as to what extent the university has ever really been a generative space for new learning and collaborations around gender and sexuality, identities and expressions. Certainly individual academics have made enormous contributions to public understandings of gender, and become the targets of protest and attack as a result (Ergas 2022). But gender studies have frequently been in a precarious position within universities, often accommodated within other departments or faculties without strong financial or institutional recognition from the wider university (Grzebalska et al. 2017). Conversely, however, the targeting of gender studies departments has drawn attention to their work, providing an opportunity to galvanise anti-authoritarian work, but potentially at the risk of the diversity of theorising and stand-points that accompanies a divergent field of experience and positions.

If the university is not/no longer a site of comprehensive gender study, analysis and advocacy, what alternative spaces persist and/or emerge to counter ‘gender ideology’?

Given the increasing restrictions faced by civil society organisations and popular support for countering ‘gender ideology’, opportunities for resistance are constrained. Nonetheless, activist spaces and solidarities, including those operating across borders, do continue to persist, to shift focus and to build alliances, as we have witnessed across varied contexts (Maber & Han 2018; Aksoy 2018; Zaremberg et al. 2021). Likewise, universities remain formational sites for the expression of identities and the forging of solidarities, despite increasing constraint, and can continue to be sites of resistance to authoritarianism and spaces where collaboration and alliances emerge, not least amongst the student population. This leads us to our final guiding question: What solidarities emerge through resistance to anti-gender discourses and what role might there be for academia in building alliances?

Anti-liberal authoritarian platforms have garnered popular success by uniting several conservative, although not always naturally compatible, positions, including religious conservativism, far-right nationalism, and a rejection of perceived political and academic ‘elites’. The attacks on ‘gender ideology’ serve as a narrative that has wide appeal across these disparate groups, providing a unifying agenda which Grzebalska, Kováts & Pető have termed a ‘symbolic glue’ for anti-liberal, populist movements (2017). The question for us becomes what potential new solidarities might emerge in contesting this anti-gender standpoint and what new role we might see emerge for the university within this. In particular, what risks in homogenising narratives might be emerging, and how can scholarship retain diverse representation in its engagement and mobilisation in countering anti-liberalism?


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Zaremberg, G., Tabbush, C., & Friedman, E. J. (2021). Feminism(s) and anti-gender backlash: Lessons from Latin America. International Feminist Journal of Politics, 23(4), 527–534.

‘Academic Fantasies’, ‘Lines of Interiority’ and the Rituals of Student Politics

By: Lakshmi Bose, Jo-Anne Dillabough, Elizabeth Maber

The landscape of Hungarian Higher Education (HE) over the last decade represents a battlescape over populist ideals (see the Democracy Institute, 2022) and a strategically designed conservative push towards more patriotic forms of HE, signposting Victor Orban’s political vision for Hungary into the future (Collins, 2021). On April 3rd, 2022, this reality was reaffirmed by Orban’s 2022 electoral success, gaining two-thirds of the National Assembly and an 18-percentage point lead over opposition parties. Many are suggesting that Orban’s extended time in parliament and ‘rigging rules’ equate with the death of democracy as we have known it in Hungary and a ‘funeral’ for critical intellectualism in higher education. In its place is a form of HE that endorses patriotism and pure sovereignty as a bio-political project par excellence. Alternately characterised as an illiberal democracy (Pogany, 2018), authoritarian and fascist-leaning post-liberal space, or an “authoritarian simulacrum” energised through a “bricolage of incompatible components” (Trencsényi, 2021), Orban’s inner circle has also consistently sought to reform Hungarian HE through bureaucratic and technocratic modes of centralised control. More than a decade of intimidation and austerity tactics, partisan infiltration, the hollowing out of HE as a public good (e.g., see Brown, 2015, Honig, 2017) and wider xenophobic trends have therefore positioned HE as a testing ground for energising state experiments that endorse a conservative Christian ‘global right’ cultural mandate. Taken together, these pressures point to modern Hungarian HE as a ‘problem space’ (Scott, 1997) for re-imagining national sovereignty grounded in moral economies of illiberalism that lay claims to ‘Hungarianisation’ as a moral good and a sacred way of life. Simultaneously it is also enabling, as Yaquoob (2014: 386) suggests, ‘a totalitarian assault’ on human diversity and undermining the realisation of a shared notion of a diverse Hungary.

In particular, the forced exile of the CEU to Vienna, the culling of Gender Studies departments (Peto, 2018), the privitisation of large quarters of the HE sector under a thinktank foundation (Geva, 2022), and the partisan ‘moral’ take-over of the cultural organs of the state through the appointment of regime supporter, Attila Vidnyanszky, as Head of Hungarian Theater Society (Szirtes, 2020), are just some stark examples of a strategically cultivated nationalist imaginary designed to both evoke ‘Hungarianisation’ (Heller, 2017; Turda, 2016) and create a new frontier space in ‘Eastern Europe’. This also includes a desire for educated Hungarians to think in culturally homogenous terms about Hungary’s past, about who they imagine they will become and what kind of citizen they will inspire into Hungary’s future. Therefore, the question of ‘who are the people and reasoned subjects of Hungarian state in the 21st century’ is a particularly apt one.  

Orban himself has given over 1.7 billion dollars in government grants and assets to the conservative institution, Mathias Corvinus Collegium, enabling patrimonial power in Higher Education (Collins, 2021). There is also evidence of the harassment and censorship of academics through bureaucratic processes (Myklebust, 2011), the dismantling of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences and the defunding of “ideologically motivated and unproductive” disciplines (i.e. social sciences) (Trencsényi, 2021). Taken together, these state interventions undermine integral research, ethical knowledge production practices and new forms of critical intellectualism (see Al-Azmeh & Dillabough, forthcoming) in favour of the will of the Right, particularly under local political conditions (Douglass, 2021). Often enacted under the guise of ethnocratic and neonationalist discourses, these combined shifts, or attacks on the autonomy of HE, threaten forms of social sciences knowledge production that are capable of challenging nationalist practices. Likewise, such shifts have reinforced a strategic “factual relativism” that “equate[s] academic research–and facts–as hopelessly politically biased and, hence, part of the fake news machine” (ibid). Within a climate of bureaucratically engineered uncertainty and mass student and academic protests against HE marketisation and diminishing academic freedoms, any critique produced through HE institutions or by intellectuals is vulnerable to being portrayed as ideology or propaganda, indicating a degradation of the structural conditions that foster the breadth, depth and efficacy of the social sciences.

Trencsényi (2021) argues that these conflicted political moments are symptomatic of culture wars between the ‘identity’ and the moralising ‘value systems of society’, particularly in relation to what is seen as a sacred Hungarian ethnonationalist past (see Felman, 2001). However, beyond populist encroachments, political conflict and HE student protests over the ‘real’ Hungary and associated claims to truth, substantive tensions remain over the question of “‘who is the sovereign subject of the university and whose public goods and public things are we fighting over’” (Dillabough, 2021: 7).  For example, SZFE students’ demands for assistance from the Culture and Education Committee in the EU Parliament were met with “sympathy” claiming that “the EU couldn’t do much because education is a national matter” and protected through cultural sovereignty (Enyedi, 2021: 262). These demands point to wider student conflict over European legitimacy, the potential for EU fragmentation and associated sovereign claims over the very meaning of political freedom. According to Trencsényi (2021), such attacks on HE are also designed to fragment reality, cultivating a static and tired notion of national identity and associated moral imaginaries that discredit alternative political solutions, in part through instating regime supporters and elite and ‘reasoned’ knowledge makers in key roles of epistemic authority and truth making. To put this differently, such attacks foster both a loss and mourning for meaningful political life itself and the possibility of natal thought and action (see Arendt on the Promise of Politics, 2009). 

To address this dilemma as a ‘problem space’ of politics (see Scott, 1997), in this project we turn to the realm of student politics as a site for comprehending the task of politics and governance and the cultivation of conflicted cultural meanings of citizenship – both its formal and informal dimensions. Importantly, both Jobbik and Fidesz, leading parties in Hungary today originated as student movements at Eotvos Lorand University (ELTE), pointing to the significance of student activism in the broader realm of political contestation. Such a focus reveals competing strands of conservatism, liberalism, and the anarchist-inspired Left, as students both enact and contest various modalities of political life, ‘academic fantasies’, and overlapping sovereign claims that reveal ‘lines of interiority’ within the institution’s own conception of itself (Dillabough, 2021: 9). Examining these ‘lines of interiority’ illuminates distinctions between the strategies of the Left and the Right – and the tendency of the former to rely on aesthetic and performative rituals that may no longer resonate with an earlier and arguably more potent natal power to transform authoritarian state practices. In other words, the movements of the student Left may “fill out an already expected and recognisable position in society that reproduces rather than disrupts existing power differentials and forms of representative democracy in society” (Nielsen, 2019: 94). These patterns also point to the wider lines of interiority within the national Left and Right that are reflected in the divergent forms and networks of funding, resources and support allocated to student projects in line with differing comprehensions of the role of student movements in state building and professionalised politics along partisan lines. 

Illiberal and authoritarian threats to HE have also been met by further resistance from HE actors, often through street protest, street academies, and the occupation of university buildings (e.g. University of Theatre and Film Arts).

Yet, these demonstrations of mass disapproval, often in the thousands and spanning weeks, have, in the most mundane sense, been largely unsuccessful in achieving any radical political transformation in HE policy and governance. Importantly too, such acts of resistance, often generative, creative and transnational in reach, have been unable to drive systematic change promulgated by earlier generations of student activists from the mid 20th century and for Hungary in particular, the late ‘80s in the lead up to the revolution – often imagined by many in Hungary as a source of political inspiration and mobilisation. As Dillabough (2021: 6) states, however, “the familiar consequence is that only a bureaucratic remnant of the original agonistic aspiration is left, leaving many HE actors feeling powerless to challenge its normative precepts.” 

In short, why do these demonstrations of popular power remain ineffectual in challenging illiberal patterns of governance? Such a question is not unique to Hungary, but rather is replicated in the context of the UK, South Africa and Turkey, where mass academic and student protest, boycotts, and occupations – the historic tools of the Left – have largely been unable to overturn the conditions that produce disaffection within HE and the broader political system. In taking the Hungarian case forward, we draw upon wider theoretical and conceptual tools to better comprehend how diverse political subjects of the state beyond the conservative right are ‘devalued’ as knowledge makers and political actors, thereby reshaping the agonistic dimension of political critique and undermining diverse forms of epistemic authority (Bacevic, 2021). In thinking through these problems of authority, legitimacy, epistemic value, natal political aspiration, and state building – we bring together Bacevic’s notions of ‘epistemic attachments’ and ‘bounding’, alongside Honig’s ‘emergency politics’ and Balibar’s more recent work on the ‘death of critique’. Such an approach opens up a discussion on how HE institutions are co-opted into the knowledge production of culture and history and can function to consolidate and colonise the very idea of Hungarianisation into the future (see Robertson, Rosenvaig and Maber, 2022).

In keeping with these concerns, the following questions drive our enquiry into Hungarian HE student movements and student unions and their associated micropolitical conflicts over the meaning of the ‘real Hungary’ and its agonistic history:

  1. How are students engaging with the “bureaucratic machinery of modernity, and paradoxes of liberal democracy” (Dillabough, 2021 p2) through contestation with HE values, publicness, and mission, and how are such conflicts reflected in notions and claims to justice, ethnonationalism, sovereignty and state-making in the ‘here and now’ and the ‘there and then’ of Hungary’s past?
  2. How do students both enact and challenge the ‘epistemic attachments’ of ethnonationalist state building and the role of HE, particularly through recent student movements’ relationship to knowledge-making and truth claims, and how do these attachments shape what ‘can be known, produced’ (Bacevic, 2022) and acted upon in relation to the concept of Hungary as a nation? 
  3. How are student groups both shaped and co-opted by partisan politics and how do they resist partisanship, political patronage, clientelism and regime infiltration?
  4. How do populist imaginaries of the Hungarian state energise students’ inclinations and aspirations towards particular forms of moral and cultural authority and associated political claims within circles of HE resistance?
  5. What are the characteristic features of these claims in the midst of conflict on the ‘Eastern’ Europe Frontier space, particularly as a consequence of the Russian invasion of the Ukraine?
  6. How might we understand the changing features of modernity and its HE institutions and their inability to critique ‘what we are becoming’ in an ethnocratic moment designed to capitalise on conservative histories of nationhood through ‘epistemic attachments and epistemic ‘devaluation’ of ‘non-knowers’, those strangers to the nation or delegitimised subjects?


Al-Azmeh, Z., & Dillabough, J. A. (Forthcoming). Authorial power, authoritarianism and critical intellectuals in Syria and Turkey. Work in Progress.

Bacevic, J. (2021). Epistemic Autonomy and the Free Nose Guy Problem | Jana Bacevic | The Philosopher. The Philosopher 1923, 109(2).

Brown, W. (2015). Undoing the demos: Neoliberalism’s stealth revolution. Mit Press.

Collins, W. (2021, August 9). How Hungary became the American Dream. UnHerd.

Dillabough, J.-A. (2021). Higher education, violent modernities and the ‘global present’: The paradox of politics and new populist imaginaries in HE. Globalisation, Societies and Education, 0(0), 1–15.

Douglass, J. A. (2021, September 13). The Autocrats Playbook For Subduing Universities—What Can Be Done About It? The Berkeley Blog.

Enyedi, Z. (2021). The Central European University in the Trenches (pp. 243–266).

Felman, S. (2001). Theaters of justice: Arendt in Jerusalem, the Eichmann Trial, and the redefinition of legal meaning in the wake of the Holocaust. Critical Inquiry, 27(2), 201–238.

Geva, D. (2022). Hungary’s illiberal education. Red Pepper.

Honig, B. (2017). Public Things: Democracy in Disrepair. Fordham University Press.

Myklebust, J. P. (2011, February 20). HUNGARY: Outcry over probe into philosophers. University World News.

Nielsen, G. B. (2019). Radically democratising education? New student movements, equality and engagement in common, yet plural, worlds. Research in Education, 103(1), 85–100.

Pető, A. (2018). Attack on Freedom of Education in Hungary. The case of gender studies. LSE Engenderings.

Pogany, S. I. (2018). Europe’s illiberal states: Why Hungary and Poland are turning away from constitutional democracy. The Conversation.

Robertson, S. L., Rosenvaig, M., & Maber, E. (2023). Globalisation, Culture and Higher Education. In Research Handbook on Culture and Education. ESRC.

Scott, D. (1997). Colonialism. International Social Science Journal, 49(154), 517–526.

Szirtes, G. (2020, September 15). Hungary’s students are making a last stand against Viktor Orbán’s power grab. The Guardian.

Turda, M. (2016). Romanian Eugenic Sub-Culture and the Allure of Biopolitics, 1918–39. Acta Poloniae Historica, 114, 29–58.

Trencsényi, B. (2021, December). Notes from the Underground: Academic Freedom, (Un)Civil Society, and “Kulturkampf” in Hungary [Billet]. TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research.

Yaqoob, W. (2014). Reconciliation and Violence: Hannah Arendt on Historical Understanding. Modern Intellectual History, 11(2), 385–416.

Colonial Structures of Knowledge Making: The Micropolitics of Epistemic Conflict in the University of Cape Town

By Lakshmi Bose

UCT Campus 2019 – Photo: Lakshmi Bose

In 2015, a student movement called #RhodesMustFall (#RMF) erupted at the University of Cape Town (UCT) which both exposed and demanded the end of the material and epistemic legacies of colonialism in contemporary South Africa. This movement spread across the nation, eventually leading to a series of other movements including #FeesMustFall (#FMF) and #PatriarchyMustFall. Taken together, these movements challenged the ‘liberal’ foundations of post-apartheid South Africa by interrogating the relationship of the state to Higher Education (HE), the value and desirability of representative democracy, the ethnocratic legacies of the apartheid state particularly within elite HE spaces, the need for a decolonised university, the renewed securitisation of HE and student protest, the gendered dimensions of student activism, and the submission of ‘universal’ HE values to neoliberal logic (Bose, 2021; Cini, 2019; Kamga, 2019; Naidoo, 2016).

While unable to overturn the critiqued structural conditions, these movements nonetheless produced ‘epistemological ruptures’ that shifted the possibilities of what could be politically claimed, aspired to, and achieved within the context of HE (Platzky Miller, 2020). Key features of #RMF and #FMF were critical analyses of the primacy of historic knowledge production structures of apartheid South Africa (eugenics and biometrics) that led to the production and maintenance of political and material inequalities. These analyses led to a political emphasis on the role of epistemic injustice in ongoing nation-building efforts through “epi-colonial inheritances”, that is, “the features of coloniality that pervade and supersede systems and relations of power” (Kessi et al, 2020 p.271). However, these emerging perspectives on historic and epistemic injustice, and their causational relationship to contemporary racial inequalities, became a key point of conflict amongst students and faculty members at UCT. Typical of an ethnocratic state, these conflicts frequently revolved around a set of questions about whether such inequalities existed at all (i.e. ‘were Black students really policed more brutally’?), whether existing inequalities were a result of epi-colonial structures or an apparently functioning meritocracy (i.e. ‘why is there a smaller percentage of Black students at elite HE institutions’?), and whether such inequalities should be rectified by affirmative action or individual dedication (i.e. ‘should historically underprivileged racial groups be given adjusted entrance standards to compensate for lack of intergenerational cultural and socioeconomic capital, or should they study more hours’?).

These conflicts, how to solve them, and how sociological knowledge could both provide answers and the basis for shoring up political power, provides a groundswell for comprehending HE as resting on a post-colonial frontier and as a battlescape in which the fraught and paradoxical relationship between truth and politics is played out (Arendt, 1967).  In what follows, through two examples I seek to illustrate the ways in which #FMF and the subsequent the post-revolutionary spaces were able to disrupt dominant ‘scientific knowledge cultures’ (Bacevic, 2017) at UCT, and how they were rearticulated through micropolitical contestations over notions of a just HE sector amongst student pressure groups. Importantly, these examples reveal larger conflicts and tensions between groups  over the very practices and meanings attributed to nation-building, populist appropriations of historic and geopolitical grievances (Çapan and Zarakol, 2017), and the “performativity of knowledge claims” (Bacevic, 2019; 2021 p.395) as they live within HE activist communities.  

As questions of epistemic injustice emerged through #RMF and #FMF, particularly in relation to UCT as an elite HE institution, additional discussions arose over what counts as knowledge, who determines it, and why. In a meeting debating these issues, a student proposed a new ‘Fallism’ as a solution to the Eurocentric domination of the curriculum, the denial of the validity of witchcraft and traditional belief systems in the academy, and the universalisation of Western knowledge systems: #ScienceMustFall (Ally and August, 2018; Heever, 2016). In a political call for Africanisation, the student explained, “Science as a whole is a product of western modernity and the whole thing should be scratched off. Especially in Africa”, citing Western science’s inability to explain, for example, black magic (Henderson, 2016). Importantly, these arguments for decolonising the curriculum were based upon a legacy of decolonial thinkers and theories that were repopularised amongst students during the protests including, for example, Fanon, Cesaire, and Biko. According to student activists, these claims catalysed a mixture of outrage, ridicule, political support for HE decolonisation, and for both the rejection and adoption of the claimed dichotomy between Western and African modes of thought.

#ScienceMustFall Speech

The second example is a reaction to an institutionalised response to the student demands to decolonise HE. In 2016, a UCT Curriculum Change Working Group (CCWG) was set up to address the epistemological complaints of #RMF and #FMF, resulting in a public 64-page Curriculum Change Framework delineating a set of recommendations to launch ‘meaningful curriculum change’ at UCT. Underpinned by a utilisation of decolonial and critical race theories, the Framework sought to instate a required core curriculum, and a knowledge culture of epistemic plurality which “should be deployed to re-centre what it means to be African and to remember what it means to be human” (CCWG, 2018 p.59). The Framework was heavily criticised by some faculty and students in a series of public letters and Twitter threads – naming it ‘exclusive’, ‘against academic freedom’, and guilty of promoting a “hierarchy of epistemic authority” based on positionality (Hull, 2018). Additionally, Progress, a student pressure group (a group of self-professed ‘true’ liberals), in a critique of the shifting knowledge cultures, complained in a blog post: “One of the lies told by radicals at UCT is that ‘racism is all about ‘power structures’”, citing the overriding dominance of radical ideologies in lectures, at the expense of conservative, liberal or capitalist politics. In particular, Progress claimed to respond to an encroaching culture of identity politics on campus, often attributed to the populist tactics of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) student activists, that aimed to remake the image of the legitimate citizen in the image of the Black radical comrade (Bose, 2021). Their core complaint was against the transition of a ‘Leftist ideology’ into a form of institutionalised truth with the performative power to shift campus culture and material reality.   

Together, both examples speak to wider contestations over “who has authority and sovereignty to name the current situation” (Heever, 2016 p.259), to claim knowledge as political truth, and “what injury political power is capable of inflicting upon truth” (Arendt, 1967 p.2) in a post-colonial frontier space. Such responses elucidate a public sphere still tainted with the “stubborness of race” (Walker, 2020), that is torn between rejecting the fictious premise of race or utilising it as a device to shore up national power in a polity still fractured by the traumatic marks of imperial and apartheid legacies of epistemic violence. Thus, the proposed solutions are alternately found in the realm of knowledge rectification, or in the dreams of a post-racial society beyond an obsession with ‘race science’ – in remembrance or forgetting. Ultimately, such conflicts are underpinned by varying assumptions on the ‘performative power of knowledge’ (Bacevic, 2021) and scholarly positioning, yet nonetheless remains focused on sociological knowledge as a key battleground for reorienting the future of HE and its associated knowledge politics. How, then, in an era often characterised as ‘post-truth’, is the realm of knowledge production intertwined with competing notions of politics, truth, justice and lies as it is articulated as a nation-building tool?

Further, how are shifting knowledge cultures and ‘epistemic policing’ (Bacevic, 2017) reflecting wider political conflicts over sovereignty, identity, the history of citizenship and their associated meanings? How do such knowledge claims shape the public sphere and the weight of epistemic authority in legitimising political aspirations to power? What claims to freedom and the right to ‘ugly freedoms’ (Anker, 2021) underpin the performativity of knowledge claims within contentious student politics? In other words, how does the refusal of pressure groups to share the same plane of reality shift the ‘conditions of felicity’ – that is, the conditions by which words have the power to act – (Austen in Bacevic, 2021) and shift the epistemological ground of political promise and 21st century notions of popular power and the ‘people’? 


Ally, Y., & August, J. (2018). #Sciencemustfall and Africanising the curriculum: Findings from an online interaction. South African Journal of Psychology, 48(3), 351–359.

Anker, E. R. (2021). Ugly Freedoms. Duke University Press.

Arendt, H. (1967). Truth and politics. Truth: Engagements across Philosophical Traditions, 295.

Bacevic, J. (2017). Solving the Democratic Problem. 6(5), 4.

Bacevic, J. (2019). Knowing Neoliberalism. Social Epistemology, 1–13.

Bacevic, J. (2021). No such thing as sociological excuses? Performativity, rationality and social scientific expertise in late liberalism. European Journal of Social Theory, 24(3), 394–410.

Bose, S. (2022). Call it a Revolution: Paradox, Politics and Security in the Urban Frontier An intergenerational narrative on the young female comrade’s resistance, political action and civil death in South Africa and Turkey [Thesis, University of Cambridge].

Çapan, Z. G., & Zarakol, A. (2017). Postcolonial colonialism? The case of Turkey. Against International Relations Norms. London; New York: Routledge, 193–210.

Curriculum Change Working Group. (2018). Curriculum Change Framework. University of Cape Town.

Cini, L. (2019). Disrupting the neoliberal university in South Africa: The #FeesMustFall movement in 2015. Current Sociology, 67(7), 942–959.

Heever, G. van den. (2016). Naming the Moment: #ScienceMustFall, Power-Discourse-Knowledge, and Thinking Religion as Social Definition. Religion and Theology, 23(3–4), 237–273.

Henderson, R. (2016). UCT student upsets Newton’s apple cart with her demand that #ScienceMustFall. TimesLIVE.

Hull, G. (2018). Comments on Curriculum Change Working Group Framework document.

Kamga, E. K. (2019). The #FeesMustFall protest: When the camp(u)s becomes the matrix of a state of emergency. Acta Academica, 51(1), 89–109.

Kessi, S., Marks, Z., & Ramugondo, E. (2020). Decolonizing African Studies. Critical African Studies, 12(3), 271–282.

Naidoo, L.-A. (2016). Contemporary student politics in South Africa: The rise of the black-led student movements of# RhodesMustFall and# FeesMustFall in 2015. Students Must Rise, Youth Struggle in South Africa before and beyond Soweto, 76, 180–190.

Walker, S. (2020, June 15). COVID-19 and the stubbornness of ‘race’. Centre for Education and International Development (CEID), IOE.

Surviving ‘Emergency Politics’ in the Turkish Higher Education Battlescape

By Lakshmi Bose

Photo: Lakshmi Bose
Academic Peace Signatories outside an Istanbul courthouse awaiting the result of their trial in 2019

In late 2019, I sat with four young female student activists in the Feminist Club’s main room in Bogazici University discussing the precarious state of the young Leftist in contemporary Turkey. According to them, Bogazici was still a safe place – what Turam (2021) would refer to as an “island of freedom” in a wider sea of authoritarian and emergency politics (Honig, 2014). Yet despite this layer of protection afforded to students by Bogazici’s liberal orientation and history, they maintained that to be a politically active student was a risky and exhausting practice. Ceyda, a twenty-one-year-old literature student explained: 

In Turkey […] it’s always changing so quick that you can’t keep track of anything. One day somebody gets arrested and the other day, some environmental crisis goes on […] Another day something else happens and you should be sad about it, and you forget the other thing. […] there are lots of murders, there are lots of rapes, and sometimes it just like makes you … feel like an outsider to things like, there are SO many things happening at the same time and you just don’t know how to react after some point because you don’t want to get used to them, but YOU ARE getting used to them because the system makes you do that. So it’s hard to live in Turkey and try to stay political (in Bose, 2021: 121).

What Ceyda describes is a type of emergency politics, by which a series of “small emergencies” (Scheppele, 2005) cumulatively add up to a political culture of “permanent emergency” and constant crisis (Levinson, 2005) that become nearly impossible to combat. Particular to the realm of student activism, the constant encroachment of authoritarian controls, surveillance and security measures, and legislative attacks on civil freedoms within  HE spaces forced students into a defensive position. Most began to notice this shift in governance after the 2013 Gezi Park resistance, and more intensely after the 2016 State of Emergency which led to the codification of the ‘state of exception’ into law and the retention of presidential emergency powers (Gökarıksel and Türem, 2019; Shaheen, 2018). For example, following the State of Emergency, over 100,000 public officials were dismissed, 1,700 civic organisations shut down, 166 media outlets forcibly closed, and thousands of academics were placed under investigation (HRW, 2019; Morris, 2018, OHCHR, 2018). More recently, hundreds of academics have been put on trial or dismissed for signing the Peace Petition, a document that called for the regime to end the massacres of Kurdish peoples in the South-eastern region. Together, these shifts and illiberal precedents laid the groundwork for successive emergency measures and authoritarian attacks by diminishing civil and public spaces and eroding social structures as well as restricting the scope for permissible political expression.

Additionally, many students and academics highlighted smaller and less noticeable securitisation measures on campus that further enhanced the control and reach of the state. For example, a few years earlier, security turn stalls were installed at Bogazici’s campus. In Istanbul University, a room was allocated solely for police usage – essentially cementing state presence on campus. A young militant activist lamented that students used to protest police infiltration in HE spaces, but now “such reactions are […] like whispers” (in Bose, 2021: p.193). Students also joked about the ‘undercover’ police that frequented their classes and campuses – often giving them nicknames and mocking them on their Whatsapp group chats. Whilst this was discussed with levity, largely due to the perceived incompetence of the undercover police, these moments served as constant reminders of the reach and potentially violent nature of the state. Together, these ‘small emergencies’, understood as banal attacks on civil freedoms, become overwhelming and place the student activist in impossible and highly tenuous positions that they are forced to simultaneously fight too many battles and on too many fronts. Susan, A PhD student and activist in her late 20s, explained that the urgency of these persistent authoritarian attacks pushed much of their activism into singular defence campaigns, often at the expense of larger and more radical movements. In short, there were too many emergency decrees enacted by the regime, and not enough time or resources to address each of them in a way that targeted the broader and interconnected authoritarian structures.

Accordingly, student activists regularly admitted to feeling both emotionally and physically burnt out from the constellation of stresses associated with confronting an authoritarian culture of ‘permanent emergency’, encroaching surveillance, and the sheer amount of political work required to defend their diminishing freedoms. For example, two PhD students went to the courthouse between two and five times a week to document the trials of the Peace Signatories whilst managing their own full-time workloads. Others referred to the long-lasting traumatic effects of seeing their classmates and friends brutalised by the police during protests. An academic at Bogazici University reported that after a police attack on campus, “the face of those students, like messed up all in blood” haunted her, leaving her in tears for weeks following the attack, as if she was in shock. Ceyda explained that the worst part of the state crackdowns was the ‘ambiguity factor’ – the reality that they could never predict how harshly the state would respond, if it all, to their activism. Would a small protest be ignored, or would it result in detention, expulsion, or perhaps even structural shifts to the security infrastructure on campus?

Here, the HE campus becomes a ‘battlescape’ (Gregory, 2011) layered over the space of diminished politics, fought on the terrain of emergency and shock (Klein, 2007). The students are forced to operate under conditions of ‘biomilitarisation’ (Mohanty, 2011) and ‘bioderegulation’ (Brennan, 2003), which respectively highlight the consequences of undergoing sustained states of stress, fear, shock, and the disruption of the body’s normal rhythm due to precarity or excessive work, for example. The Turkish HE landscape, as a historic target of state infiltration and control, then becomes a site of systematically produced security biopolitics, enacted upon the bodies of those willing to risk political expression. 

Less than two years after my conversation with the four young student activists, Bogazici was transformed into a target of regime infiltration. In 2021, a regime-appointed rector was instated leading to widespread faculty and student resistance and violent police crackdown, placing the institution in another condition of emergency politics. Within the confines of the institution is the long tradition of democratic and agonistic cultures, that since the 1980s, had largely withstood the onslaught of wider authoritarian attacks in Turkey. Indeed, as Ceyda predicted, “[Bogazici], it’s a safe place, and we want to keep it safe, so we are working hard for it. […] Especially for women, for minorities, for political students. So I think its important to keep on doing it because we should always imagine that it can always get worse.” Whilst an accurate assessment of the future, this reflection of living within a culture of ‘permanent emergency’ is both real and highly disconcerting. In such conditions, political action is oriented towards the notion of self-protection whilst striving for radical hope in the face of never ending emergencies. 

How does this frame of emergency, shock, defense and protection – in short, a battlescape of and over HE and its public worth and value – shape the possibilities for student political action and expression? How are securitised biopolitics and notions of political risk and reward reflected in political expressions? How do emergency politics shift the meaning and value of HE as a ‘good’ across and within different institutions? How do historic HE political cultures and varying intensities of exposure to emergency politics shape the possibility of solidarity across HE institutions? Finally, how do emergency and shock politics shape HE inhabitants’ understanding of the value of popular power and political aspiration as it is lived out on the battle over HE and freedom?


Bose, S. (2022). Call it a Revolution: Paradox, Politics and Security in the Urban Frontier An intergenerational narrative on the young female comrade’s resistance, political action and civil death in South Africa and Turkey [Thesis, University of Cambridge].

Brennan, T. (2003). Globalization and its terrors: Daily life in the West. Psychology Press.

Gökarıksel, S., & Türem, Z. U. (2019). The Banality of Exception?: Law and Politics in “Post-Coup” Turkey. South Atlantic Quarterly, 118(1), 175–187.

Gregory, D. (2011). The everywhere war. The Geographical Journal, 177(3), 238–250.

HRW. (2019). Turkey Events of 2018 (World Report 2019). Human Rights Watch.

Klein, N. (2007). The shock doctrine: The rise of disaster capitalism. Macmillan.

Levinson, S. (2005). Constitutional Norms in a State of Permanent Emergency. Sibley Lecture Series, 11.

Mohanty, C. (2011). Imperial Democracies, Militarised Zones, Feminist Engagements. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(13), 76–84.

Morris, C. (2018, June 18). Reality Check: The numbers behind the crackdown in Turkey. BBC News.

OHCHR. (2018). Report on the impact of the state of emergency on human rights in Turkey, including an update on the South-East January-December 2017. Office of the High Commission of Human Rights.

Scheppele, K. L. (2005). Small Emergencies Symposium: Emergency Powers and the Constitution: Comment. Georgia Law Review, 40(3), 835–862.

Shaheen, K. (2018, July 19). ‘Suffocating climate of fear’ in Turkey despite end of state of emergency. The Guardian.

Turam, B. (2021). Turkey’s Final Exam on Freedom: Boğaziçi University Fights the Authoritarian Regime. Social Research: An International Quarterly, 88(2), 587–618.