Sunday

22nd Jan 2017

Women shake Poland's pillars of power

  • Women protesting outside Poland's parliament. (Photo: Grzegorz Żukowski)

Polish women will once again dress in black and protest for their rights on Sunday and Monday (23 and 24 October).

A national walkout on 3 October scared Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party into scuppering a bill which would put women in jail for interrupting pregnancies.

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  • Elzbieta Korolczuk (left) at the strike in Warsaw on 3 October. (Photo: Piotr Stasiak)

”PiS panicked and backed away. But they don’t get why we are protesting,” Marta Lempart, the rallies' coordinator, told this website. ”They keep speaking of women in mocking terms and threaten us with new, barbaric bills."

For instance: PiS party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski said last week he would like women to carry through pregnancies of 'unviable fetuses', unable to survive birth, so they "could be baptised, get a name".

Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski called the protesters a joke, while right-wing opposition leader Pawel Kukiz said the women were loose.

The public broadcaster TVP said women were provocators and their protests could incite political murder.

The Archbishop of Warsaw, Henryk Hoser, declared raped women rarely get pregnant, because stress reduces their fertility.

Solidarity, the trade union that spearheaded Poland's fight for democracy in the 80s, filed a copyright complaint against demonstrators who made female versions of its symbols. 


Protestors have also been harassed by employers, with at least one demonstrator losing her job.

All this only added fuel to fires of outrage.

”On Monday (24 October) we will protest once more, against scorn and misogyny, the church’s involvement in politics and political interference in the education system,” Lempart said.

She explained the objectives were based on proposals put forward by the grassroots.

"We haven't yet decided whether we should advocate for a liberalisation of the current abortion law," she said. "That's something we must discuss further."

A feminist revolution?

During the first strike, one of the most popular chants was: "women will overthrow this government". The message also came in a shorter version: "PiS off".

Social-conservative Law and Justice (PiS) has during its one year in power paralysed the judicial system and debased public broadcasters into a government megaphone.

The opposition has watched from the sidelines, while the European Commission has threatened with sanctions.

KOD, the Committee for the Defence of Democracy, has organised the largest protests in support of democracy since the 80s.

The government paid no heed to criticism - until women walked out.

”90 percent of the protests took place in small cities,” Lempart explained. ”Nothing could scare the ruling party more than the rise of a civic spirit in what has traditionally been the bastions of traditional, Catholic thinking.”

”This is the dawn of Poland’s feminist revolution,” said Elzbieta Korolczuk, a sociologist and researcher in gender studies at Soedertoern University in Sweden.

The protests have escalated far beyond the binned ban on legal abortion. They could even redraw Poland’s political map, Korolczuk told this website.

”On 3 October, Polish women began to see themselves as citizens with opinions and rights that the state is obliged to respect. But the problem is that none of the parties in Poland’s parliament can seriously say it’s representing women's rights and interests.”

A political revolution?

Research from Warsaw University shows that Polish women are far more left-minded, tolerant and egalitarian than their countrymen.

But all the five parties represented in Poland’s parliament are conservative.

”For years, the parties built their political power on misogynous ground,” Korolczuk said.

Poland’s transition to democracy was in some ways a step back for women's rights. Politicians used them as bargaining chips in negotiations with the Catholic Church.

In 1993, the parliament ”thanked” priests for supporting the resistance movement by restricting legal abortion to a few cases: rape, danger to the woman's life and severely damaged fetuses.

A decade later, the church blessed Poland's EU membership in exchange for assurances that neither the Polish government nor the EU would meddle with the restrictive abortion laws.

A special line was added to Poland's accession treaty, saying "Poland's government understands that nothing in the EU treaties prevent the Polish state from regulating issues of moral importance, as well as issues relevant to protection of human life".

Women's rights organisations complained, but nobody listened. Successive Polish governments and the EU tried to bury the topic.

”We had almost stopped hoping that the situation could change after so many years. Then came a generation of furious young women who simply won’t accept that their rights are bartered with,” Korolczuk said.

Women realised they were many, and that their private problems were often political.

”I find it hard to believe that women who walk out today will put their vote on someone who does not take them seriously in the next election,” Korolczuk said.

”Either the existing parties take these issues on-board, or new parties will take their female voters.”

Trusting politicians

But for the moment, women seek to distance themselves from politicians.

They booed MPs from the previous ruling party Civic Platform (PO) who turned up at the protests.

”How can we trust PO when some PO politicians voted for the abortion ban,” Korolczuk said.

The liberal Nowoczesna party wasn’t much better, she said.

Some of the party's female MPs wanted to table a proposal that would enhance the access to legal abortion and sexual education, but their party leader Ryszard Petru forbade them.

Korolczuk said that the new, left-leaning Razem (Together) party could "maybe" attract women’s votes.

The party organised the first protest against the abortion ban, in April. It was a Razem activist that had the idea that protesters would dress in black.

Razem board member Katarzyna Paprota told EUobserver the party didn't want to compete with women's groups.

"But we encourage women to go into politics and have seen a surge in membership applications from women," Paprota said.

Lempart, however, said protests were above all organised by grassroots.

”This is the strike of Polish women. We won’t let let any political party take credit for our work,” Lempart said.

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