Since sweeping to victory in Poland’s 2015 general election, the archconservative Law and Justice party has been systematically transforming the country. Democratic rule of law has come under fire, and so too have women’s rights – despite the fact that, until very recently, the country had a female prime minister, Beata Szydło. One of her first actions was an attempt to further tighten Poland’s already very restrictive abortion laws. In response, hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets across the country on 3 October 2016. What impact did these “Black Protests” have? An analysis by Agnieszka Wiśniewska, chief editor of the website KrytykaPolityczna.pl (“political critique”).
The Black Protest demonstrations have had a lasting impact on the debate about the situation for women in Poland. You can’t talk about women’s rights and feminism in Poland today without analysing what these protests were about.
They centred on Poland’s abortion laws, which are already among the most restrictive in Europe. In the period leading up to the protests, the Polish parliament backed draft legislation that would further tighten abortion laws, and rejected a counter-petition by the initiative Ratujmy kobiety (“Let’s save women”) calling for a liberalisation of abortion rights. In doing so, it made crystal-clear which sections of society it was prepared to listen to and which it intended to simply ignore.
Why were the Black Protests so important? Above all, of course, because many thousands of people participated. And because they didn’t just take place in big urban centres, but also in smaller towns and cities. Because the demonstrators included not just active feminists who were already regulars on women’s rights marches but also very young women, celebrities and women who had never taken to the streets before. Because the protests received international support. And because they were about something that had long been labelled a “cultural” issue.
I’d like to start with the last point. In Poland, and in Central and Eastern Europe on the whole, feminist discourse has often confined itself to cultural matters rather than addressing social problems: for instance, talking about abortions rather than unequal treatment in the labour market.
There are historical reasons for this. Following the political transformation in the wake of 1989, the feminist movement had the chance to become part of the “wave of freedom” that swept across the region, which brought with it not just discussions about human rights but also tangible opportunities to strengthen those rights. For instance, feminists could now build international networks or receive support from abroad. At the same time, this “wave of freedom” brought us neoliberalism and uncritical acceptance of capitalism and its inherent inequalities. So on the one hand, the feminist movement received concrete support for its activities – publications, conferences, campaigns – from foreign foundations and later also from the EU. But on the other, the changes sparked a host of internal disagreements between liberal and leftist feminists.
These internal tensions have been the topic of a number of conferences organised by the Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung (FES). At the 2016 conference Freedom, Equality, Sisterhood? Feminist Perspectives on Neoliberalism in East-Central Europe, we discussed how attitudes towards both the socioeconomic transformation and previous political systems were becoming increasingly contested, constituting an important dividing line within the feminist movement. A year later, the issue was taken up again at the conference “Overcoming False Dichotomies: Neoliberal Consensus vs. Right Wing Populism – Challenges for Feminist and Leftist Movements in East-Central Europe”. Conference attendees discussed whether, through being preoccupied with cultural issues rather than mounting critiques of economic reforms, mainstream feminism had helped to cement acceptance of neoliberalism and the inequalities it brings with it. This debate about the interrelations between neoliberalism and feminism revealed the significance of the tensions between, on the one hand, issues of economics and freedom and, on the other, women’s rights.
As we were discussing these topics, the world around us changed. The EU is grappling with internal problems and is now more preoccupied with Brexit and threats to rule of law in Poland and Hungary than with questions of human and women’s rights in our region. In the USA, the misogynist Donald Trump was elected president. For years, it seemed as though the wind blowing from the west would always bring with it not just capitalism but also civil liberties and advances in human and women’s rights. But the election of Trump provided definitive proof that this is by no means guaranteed.
Against the backdrop of a weakened EU and the Trump presidency, a “cultural” issue like the right to abortion mobilised thousands of women to take to the streets of Polish towns and cities. It is no coincidence that women have also been demonstrating in the USA, and that the Women’s March was one of the first mass responses to Trump’s election – women felt threatened by the result. In Poland too, it was women who mounted a determined response to the conservative government.
Despite perceptions, the right to abortion is not a cultural issue. For years, feminists in Poland have been pointing out that a woman’s ability to access abortion is strongly linked to her bank account balance: you have the right to choose, but only if you can afford it. According to official figures, every year there are around 1,000 legal abortions in Poland, a country with almost 40 million inhabitants. Everyone knows this figure doesn’t represent the true number of abortions: there are also a huge number of illegal abortions, and many Polish women go abroad to terminate their pregnancies.
For years, feminist organisations have been providing information about underground abortions, and there are ads for “gynaecology services” in every newspaper with titles such as “Retrieve your menstrual cycle”. Unfortunately, this state of affairs wasn’t enough to trigger mass protests.
When the Polish parliament rejected the petition to liberalise abortion rights, it sparked a wider debate about the issue. This debate revealed that many women in the mainstream of Polish society didn’t realise just how extreme the country’s restrictions on abortion are. Why were they unaware? Because it didn’t affect them and their friends. Although women were having abortions, it wasn’t something they used to speak about openly. When, at the height of the Black Protests, the popular singer Natalia Przybysz publicly admitted to having had an abortion – carried out in Slovakia, where many Polish women go for the procedure – she faced a barrage of criticism. But she also got a lot of support.
And this latter point is crucial. Polish women found the courage to make their voices heard – and to take to the streets. The fact that abortion was regarded as a cultural issue rather than a political one may actually have helped, which would mean that something that had long been used as an argument against talking about abortion rights suddenly proved to be an advantage. Interviews appeared with celebrities who’d had an abortion, books were published in which women told the stories of their abortions and a literary competition linked to the Black Protests was launched. Suddenly, the shocking stories of women who’d had abortions could be read not just on feminist websites but in the mainstream media.
For example, one of the women interviewed for the book Dziewięć rozmów o aborcji (Nine conversations about abortion) told the following story: “My partner found the advert. We wanted to contact the doctor. My partner went into a store, bought a SIM card with a new number, called up and explained the situation.” The rest of the story sounds like something from a crime thriller. “We went through an entranceway. We were there together, and I thought to myself, ‘My God, he could lead us anywhere, even to the police.’ A clandestine deal, like I was buying amphetamines. A dark passageway, a front door, the guy says, ‘It’ll all be alright.’ And gives us a few tablets, no packaging, no instructions, nothing. We took them back home with us. I was shocked: ‘For crying out loud, I don’t even know what they are.’ That’s how it works in Poland: you get a new SIM card and pick up a tablet from someone’s front door.”
All these voices were crucial, as they were telling personal stories. But it also made a crucial difference that they weren’t the first to speak out on this issue. The topic of abortion might have been uncharted territory for the mainstream, but the groundwork had been done by many years of work by feminist organisations. All the conferences, debates and books that had previously only reached a limited audience now provided the foundation on which a new narrative could be built.
Let me give one example from our own website. In December 2015, we published an article about the effects of the total abortion ban in El Salvador. It was read by quite a few people, and kept appearing in our “most read articles” list. But it was only when the Black Protests began a year later that the article about El Salvador went viral. At demonstrations, there were banners with the slogan “Don’t let Poland become a second El Salvador”. The information in our article was now being used in everyday debates about the current developments in Poland. The work we’d done at an earlier point in time now became incredibly important.
Above, I discussed the personal dimension of stories about abortion, since individual experience is enormously important as a motivator of action. The Polish philosopher Stanisław Brzozowski wrote that “if it is not biographical, it does not exist”. For many women, the Black Protests were an initiation experience. I’d been on countless feminist rallies before, and after a few years I noticed to my dismay that I knew half my fellow marchers. But when I took part in a demonstration in October 2016 as part of the women’s strike, I saw huge numbers of young women, some who’d turned up alone, and some looking like they’d come directly from work.
I didn’t meet anyone I knew at the demonstration; it was impossible to find anyone in the mass of soaking wet people carrying umbrellas. It was raining on 3 October 2016, and the umbrellas became a symbol of our protest. I saw huge crowds gathered at Castle Square in Warsaw, and via Twitter and Facebook I quickly learned that thousands of protesters had assembled on the streets and squares in other big cities too, and hundreds of people had turned out even in smaller towns and cities. The latter news was especially welcome, since it is, of course, more difficult to protest publicly in places where everyone knows each other. For some women, taking part in the protests had consequences. There were a few cases where the police confiscated banners with supposedly objectionable messages. In other cases, disciplinary proceedings were instituted: for instance, against ten teachers from Zabrze who were accused of bringing their profession into disrepute. The women were eventually cleared of the charges and became heroines.
Women share their personal experiences on social media. This has empowered many women and given them a feeling of sisterhood. Not everyone who took part in the protests would label themselves as feminists, but for many women the protests marked their initiation into feminism and sisterhood.
The Black Protests were widely covered in the foreign media, and also received a lot of international support. Pictures of Black Protest posters were shared on social media with the hashtags #czarnyprotest and #blackprotest, which made those of us protesting in Poland feel that we were not alone.
In March, Polish women who had taken part in the protests attended the Women’s Barcamp in Berlin organised by the FES. One of these women was Ilona Motyka, who I met at an event hosted by the FES’s Akademie für Soziale Demokratie (Academy for Social Democracy). Ilona works for the BABA Lubuskie Association for Women (BABA Lubuskie Stowarzyszenie na Rzecz Kobiet), which supports victims of domestic and sexual violence. She experienced the Black Protests outside the big cities at first hand. At the Women’s Barcamp, she explained that the success of the Law and Justice Party had a lot to do with low voter turnout and strategic blunders by progressives.
There are several reasons why the women’s protests in Poland attracted a great deal of international solidarity. Firstly, because abortion is a “cultural” issue, a matter of freedom. Secondly, because the marches took place in Poland, a country with a far-right government that, since coming to power, has hamstrung key public institutions like state broadcasters and the constitutional court, or instrumentalised them for its own purposes. But thirdly, it was also due in part to the contacts and relationships that feminist movements in Poland has built up over the past decades. And the protests helped to forge new relationships too.
In the end, the government withdrew the draft proposal for restricting abortion rights. It was a victory for women in Poland. And the democratic opposition also took note that women’s voices could no longer be ignored.
When Poland’s new government took office in late 2015, it sparked a wave of protests in defence of democracy and democratic institutions, with thousands of people taking to the streets. Opposition politicians were quick to endorse the protests – something that did not please everybody. There was also concern that references to democracy during the protests did not always make clear what kind of democracy was being defended. In some cases, protesters with rainbow flags were excluded from demonstrations. And some opposition politicians who spoke about social justice issues were greeted with whistles and boos.
But on the Black Protests, women demonstrated strength and unity that transcended party divides. They showed that they do not need politicians to organise demonstrations, but can manage just fine by themselves.
By the time the next big wave of protests drove people to the streets in July 2017 (this time to defend the independence of the courts), it had become clear that not only were rainbow flags welcome on the demonstrations (indeed, they were now a common sight), but also that homophobic and sexist remarks would no longer be silently tolerated. For instance, when Jerzy Owsiak – a popular social activist in Poland – responded to personal criticism from a Law and Justice MP by saying that she should “try having sex”, there was an angry reaction from left-wing activists, with the liberal media later following suit. In the end, Owsiak was forced to apologise.
The women’s protests have also left their mark on the opposition parties. Women aren’t backing down. After the Polish parliament rejected the petition to relax abortion laws in 2016, the initiative “Ratujmy kobiety” drew up a new proposal and once again collected signatures. Whereas the first time round, opposition politicians did not rush to support the campaign, they are now willing to be photographed with the activists supporting the initiative and to openly declare their support for the proposal. Whether this will also result in backing from their parties remains to be seen.
But one thing’s for sure: politicians have realised that it is in their interests to stick with the well-organised feminists. The slogan “Unfortunately, we women can’t trust the Szydło government”, which first appeared at demonstrations in defence of women’s rights, later spread to other protests too.
However, it would be a mistake to believe that the right to abortion will now appear in every opposition party’s manifesto. That isn’t going to happen – so we need to keep fighting.
But the feminist movement has won many new allies. It’s also ensured that conservatives won’t find it as easy as they would like to further tighten Poland’s restrictive abortion laws. If necessary, women will simply take to the streets again.
Several leading figures have emerged out of the protests who are determined to keep up the pressure. They include Barbara Nowacka and Agnieszka Dziemianowicz-Bąk, two women who are active in different left-wing parties but are not currently members of the Polish parliament. In 2016, the American magazine Foreign Policy listed them as two of the Top 100 Global Thinkers. We’ll definitely be hearing more from them in future.
In addition, necessity has given rise to new forms of civil society engagement. Right after taking office, the Law and Justice party began cutting funding to women’s rights organisations and services, many of which (like the Blue Line, a telephone hotline for victims of domestic violence) fell into financial difficulties as a result. In response, ordinary citizens, and sometimes even businesses, have stepped in. For example, the ten teachers from Zabrze mentioned earlier donated the proceeds from the sale of a prize statuette, which they had been awarded by the influential Polish news broadcaster Radio TOK FM for the “exceptional impact” of their role in the Black Protests.
Studies in Poland have shown that young women have more progressive attitudes than young men. These young women are no longer bogged down in debates about the systematic transformation in Central and Eastern Europe, but are coming of age at a time when Poland’s economic debate is not exclusively dominated by neoliberalism. After the financial crisis of 2008, only entrenched hardliners still believe in self-regulating markets, and nowadays young women are surrounded by numerous female role models who profess their feminism without fear.
The Black Protests have changed Poland. The bad news is that there’s a growing need for vigilance and resistance in the face of attempts to curtail civil liberties and women’s rights. However, there are also a growing number of Polish women, including many young women, who are ready to fight for gender justice, freedom of choice and democracy for all. ###
This article was first published in the “GENDER MATTERS!”, a newsletter informing yearly on gender activities by Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung. To subscribe or read more from the latest edition in German or English, click here.
This English translation is based on Bernhard Hartmann’s German translation of the original Polish article.
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