Two years after the first Black Protest, a new wave of Polish feminism gathers steam, raising awareness not only about abortion rights, but empowering women in all aspects of their lives.
Seen from the outside, the protests may seem in vain. After two years of organizing and demonstrating, of speeches, articles and internet campaigns, and thousands of Polish women young and old taking to the streets, the government is still trying to restrict access to abortion. However, the true revolution is not visible to the naked eye, underground streams of a newly energized Polish feminism has transformed anger into social progress.
Lena Piasecka stops at the corner of Warsaw’s Marszałkowska and Świętokrzyska streets. Like most of the capital’s main arteries, they are wide and at noon, almost completely deserted. She turns to me. “Imagine: This intersection was filled with a river of thousands of bodies.” Lena, a 22-year-old psychology student and also my cousin, is referring to the first so-called Czarny Protest (Black Protest) – the mass mobilization October 6, 2016 against the tightening of the abortion law. Its participants marched through the streets wearing black as a sign of mourning for their reproductive rights. While Lena was marching in Warsaw, I had followed the events from my voluntary exile in France. That day we retraced her steps while she related her story of engagement in the fight for gender equality against the backdrop of the transformation of Polish feminism.
Lena and I were born in the same village in northeastern Poland, but five years apart, and both came to the capital to study. We are also the first feminists in the family. Our mothers, born as the final years of strict communism gave way to transformation, “had no time for this,” she says.
Together with a group of regulars, my cousin has been at the heart of the active opposition to the government’s repeated attempts to enact a ban. She is not only present at every demonstration, but also devotes a large amount of her free time to volunteering in feminist organizations. “The kind of energy that the Black Protest gave people is unlike anything I have ever seen before,” she says. “I know it’s inappropriate to say this, but in a way, I’m happy the protests are happening.”
A MONDAY LASTING TWO YEARS
The onset of the grim mass mobilization dates back to 2016. After the ruling right- wing Law and Justice Party (PiS) first tried to pass the controversial anti-abortion legislation, a general strike (Black Monday) was called over Facebook. In the hours after the ban was proposed, the group, called Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (Gals for Gals), gathered more than 100,000 participants and quickly became the command center for a series of protests nationwide, the latest of which took place just a week prior to this writing. The scale of the Black Monday protests has exceeded all expectations. Despite Poles’ reputation for being politically passive, thousands of people have taken part in 143 protests in cities, towns and villages across the country. In response, the proposed legislation was withdrawn. But only temporarily. Versions have been returning like a boomerang.
“We must be vigilant,” says Lena. “They [the government] are not going to give up so. easily.” For years, Poland has had one of the most draconian abortion laws in Europe. Terminations are restricted to cases of fetal abnormality, risk to the life of the mother, rape or incest. This law was enacted in 1993, and even then, sparked widespread outrage – a million signatures were collected to keep abortion legal, as it was under communism. All in vain.
The 2016 project wants further restrictions, including prison sentences for women who have illegal abortions and criminal investigations into “suspicious” miscarriages.
De facto, it would also restrict access to prenatal testing, to reduce the risk of unintentionally inducing miscarriage. It’s not that Polish women don’t have abortions. According to the Federation for Women and Family Planning (Federa), the number of illegal terminations amounts to some 15,000 per year, in stark contrast to the official annual figure of 1,000. Women who can afford it travel to Germany or Slovakia and pay on average 2,000 zlotys (€465) for the treatment. Thus the gray zone is thriving and the social inequalities exacerbated.
Back on Marszałkowska Street, we cross Plac Zamkowy, the epicenter of the protests. “We prepared very solidly,” Lena recounts, pointing to the wall where they had hung their banners. “They were here. And here, and here,” she says proudly. “The slogans read: ‘Dead, I won’t be able to give birth to a baby,’ ‘Girls just want to have funDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS’ and ‘Free choice instead of terror.’” Polish feminism has been empowered since Black Monday, my cousin tells me. “Gals like me speak their mind more openly and they are not ashamed or scared.”
Joanna Piotrowska, founder of the feminist organization Feminoteka, agrees about the transformative power of the protests. “A phenomenon like this – of women mobilizing in such big numbers, and not only in the capital but also in smaller towns – is without precedent in Poland,” she says, also emphasizing how uplifting it is to see young faces in the crowd. “The protest has been supported by different generations, but first and foremost, by a lot of young women – a grassroots gals’ movement, gathering high school students who take the floor for their own rights.”
POLISH PHOENIX FEMINISM
Historically, Poland is a patriarchal society defined by the Catholic Church. Despite apparent gender equality at work in the communist era and an openness to Western liberal influences after the transformation, Catholicism prevented any real change in gender roles and relations. The motherly, domestic role that women have been given is still very present. Before the Black Protests, Polish feminist organizations were mainly urban and middle-class, confined to academia and the nonprofits. Despite high-quality gender studies programs and regular feminist marches in Warsaw and other cities, the “f” word was absent in the national debate, if not feared.
“[Since the Black Protest] Polish feminism has become more diversified and thus more interesting,” says Piotrowska. “I have noticed more women’s initiatives – various events and meetings. There has also been a rash of books for young women, presenting them in a non-clichéd way and encouraging them to live their own way. Such an empowerment of women didn’t exist before, except in NGOs.”
Agata Jankowska from the feminist initiative Kongres Kobiet feels the wind of change, too. “The situation has boosted our motivation,” she says, enumerating their upcoming events. “There are more of them than there are stars,” she says. Their biggest successes are the workshops for men and women, experiences that change perceptions. Recently, Kongres Kobiet has doubled efforts to support women running for office.
“Polish feminism has become more conscious, more belligerent and more active. Stronger.” It has also shed light on other related issues, such as violence against women. “We are witnessing a break through, unseen since the ’70s and the ’80s,” says Piotrowska of Feminoteka. “These years were a turning point – when violence against women was introduced to the international agenda.” Today, she says, another wave of feminism is underway, continuing where the earlier ones left off.
It does feel like that in Warsaw. Lena tells me about a feminist comic book they want to create to finance with crowdfunding. “It will be a story of a girl who says no when she feels like it, who sets her boundaries without being ashamed,” she explains.
I am happy to see my cousin so engaged. I am equally happy to see my city bursting with social progress. And I am proud, proud beyond words, of my “gals,” the Black Protesters, whose trust has been so severely undermined – whose fundamental rights are in danger – but who never give up.