People are calling it a revolution. Since October 22nd, hundreds of thousands across Poland have been protesting—in five hundred and eighty cities and towns, by one organizer’s count. In some places, including the town of Kościerzyna, population twenty-four thousand, more than ten per cent of residents have taken to the streets. The umbrella term for the protests is “Women’s Strike,” though it’s not just women participating, and it’s not exactly a strike. The demonstrations were sparked by a decision in the nation’s Constitutional Court, in Warsaw, that would have further narrowed access to abortion in Poland. The government has since delayed implementing the decision, yet the protests go on. The goal now, it seems, is to bring down the government of the right-wing Law and Justice Party (PiS), which has been in power since 2015.
Abortion is allowed in Poland only if the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest, if the woman’s life is in danger, or if the fetus is affected by severe congenital defects. The recent court decision, on October 22nd, eliminated the last of these three conditions from the list. Klementyna Suchanow, a prominent feminist and author, told me over Zoom, from Warsaw, that, at first, some activists felt conflicted about calling for demonstrations, for fear of exposing people to the risk of coronavirus infection. Still, on the 22nd, Suchanow, who is forty-six, made her way to the courthouse and found others gathering outside. “I felt there was so much anger there it was about to erupt,” she said. Protesters undertook a spontaneous march from the courthouse to the headquarters of the ruling party, and then to the house of the Party’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński. As word spread on social media, thousands more people joined the march over its three-hour duration.
Marches, protests, and acts of civil disobedience have continued ever since. Suchanow and two other women, Marta Lempart and Agnieszka Czerederecka, have become the public faces of the protests, but, as Lempart told me over Zoom, they are acting not so much as leaders as they are the “help desk to people who want to organize protests.” They supply visuals, suggest hashtags and slogans, and help raise money. “Basically, my job now is this boring office work,” she said.
Lempart, who is forty-one, is a former government employee who became an opposition activist after the Law and Justice Party came to power. In 2016, when a ban on abortions in almost all circumstances was proposed as a bill in parliament, Lempart called for a protest in which Polish women marched through the streets of many cities and towns wearing black. (It was modelled on a women’s strike staged in Iceland in 1975, when women stopped both paid and unpaid work.) Lempart’s idea and subsequent organizing efforts drew thousands of people who had never been involved in political activism into the streets, in what became known as the “black protests.” The demonstrations were large enough to prompt the parliament to table the bill, although they were nowhere close in scale to this year’s actions.
Agnieszka Graff, a feminist scholar and activist, told me via Zoom, from Warsaw, that a Facebook group created to coördinate birthday celebrations for her child’s sixth-grade classmates became a neighborhood protest-organizing group overnight. When Women’s Strike called on protesters to block traffic in roundabouts (a type of direct action friendly to social distancing), Graff and another woman in her neighborhood created a Facebook event in which they invited women to come on “a pleasant stroll in a residential area.” Graff said that local organizers expected about fifty neighbors to come. About two thousand showed up in Graff’s neighborhood, on October 26th; thousands of other protesters came to traffic circles all over Warsaw, bringing the city to a standstill. Bus and taxi-drivers joined in, with some changing the illuminated displays on the front of their buses to read “We are with you, girls.” Organizers asked people to disperse after an hour, Graff said, but “there was no coördinating of this—there is no way to exert control.” The demonstration went on for five hours.
When I spoke to Lempart on November 10th, she told me that it was no longer possible to use Facebook as an organizing tool, because the platform can’t accommodate the scale of the protests: with half a million people following the Women’s Strike Facebook page, no one is able to track or respond to comments. YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok have proved essential in helping young protesters organize; on TikTok, the hashtag #StrajkKobiet (Women’s Strike) has generated more than two hundred and sixty-six million views. Too often, activist organizations “are like companies,” Lempart said, with boards and management structures. Now protest is effectively leaderless. “We’ve been working toward this for many years now,” she said. “We have got rid of the Homo sovieticus thinking.”
Lempart was referring to the idea, fairly widespread among Polish intellectuals, that decades of Soviet rule produced a type of authoritarian personality, a person incapable of independent action and thought. Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, told me by e-mail, from the Polish countryside, that she also saw the protests as “civilizational change.” Participants born after the fall of Communism “are the first generation from a Poland that’s a member of the European Union; they have fully enjoyed the results of that. They have studied and traveled the world freely, they know how to live elsewhere. They speak foreign languages and are very familiar with what human and civil rights mean in the 21st century.”
For more than a quarter century, since the Eastern Bloc collapsed in 1989, Poland was a singular success story of post-Soviet transition and European integration—economically, politically, and socially. While other former member countries of the Warsaw Pact stumbled, became mired in corruption, turned into mafia states, and descended into autocracy, Poland adopted a democratic constitution, built corresponding institutions, and saw moderately right- and left-wing governments succeed one another peacefully. At least part of this success is attributable to a long-standing understanding between pro-European forces and the Catholic Church, which has its roots in the coalition of intellectuals, trade-union activists, and the Church that formed the opposition to Communist rule in the nineteen-eighties and stepped into the vacuum left by the Communist Party in 1989. “The Church went along with Europe-ization and democratization in exchange for having its way on the things they feel strongly about,” Graff said. “And, of course, the things they feel most strongly about are women’s reproductive rights.” As a result, in the nineteen-nineties, Poland adopted some of the most restrictive abortion policies on the Continent.
The golden age of Polish democracy ended in April, 2010, when a Polish Air Force plane carrying President Lech Kaczyński and his wife, the army chief of staff and various other military leaders, several cabinet members and high-level security officials, Catholic army chaplains, and members of parliament, among others, crashed, near the Russian city of Smolensk, where the Polish delegation was slated to take part in commemorative ceremonies. The plane crash shocked the country and split it into two roughly equal political and social camps. One camp remained committed to the project of democratization and European integration; they were also the people who saw the crash as an accident—the conclusion reached so far by all teams who have investigated the disaster. The other camp, convinced that the crash was the result of a Russian plot, coalesced around the late President’s surviving twin brother, Jarosław, and a politics of resentment, confrontation, and extreme Euroskepticism. In 2015, the Law and Justice Party, co-founded by the Kaczyński brothers, in 2001, won both the parliamentary and Presidential elections and went to work dismantling some of the democratic institutions constructed since 1989, most notably Poland’s independent judiciary.
The compromise between the Catholic Church and the liberals fell away. Poland became a major player in the international movement for so-called traditional values and against what the movement and the Polish government call “gender ideology,” an umbrella term for perceived threats to the traditional family which include reproductive rights, gender studies, and L.G.B.T.Q. rights. Over the past few years, about a hundred Polish municipalities declared themselves “L.G.B.T.-free zones,” or, more bureaucratically, “zones free of L.G.B.T. ideology,” a reference to the belief that equal rights for L.G.B.T.Q. people amount to indoctrination, particularly of small children.
“The ruling party’s main way of existing on the political scene is to create conflict,” Magdalena Biejat, a member of parliament, told me over Zoom, from Warsaw. “They always have to find an enemy, someone they can exclude from the national community.” L.G.B.T.Q. people, along with immigrants, have played this role for the past five years. (Biejat added that, since the onset of the COVID‑19 pandemic, doctors have been cast in the role of scapegoat, as well.) Biejat, a thirty-eight-year-old sociologist who began her political career as an activist in 2015, belongs to Lewica Razem (Left Together), which is part of a forty-eight-person coalition in the four-hundred-and-sixty-member Sejm, the lower house of parliament. (Law and Justice is part of a conservative alliance that holds more than half the seats.) When we spoke, on the twelfth day of the protests, Biejat told me that she had been in the streets every day since October 23rd.
Agnieszka Holland, a prominent film director who was once active in the dissident movement, told me over Zoom that she was watching the protests from her home in Brittany, where she was under stay-at-home orders recently imposed by the French government. “I am following two fascinating TV series,” she said—“the Polish revolution and the American election.” She had been thinking about the similarities between the two countries: both are extremely politically polarized; both suffer from vast wealth inequality; both have been “divided into two totally incompatible realities”; in both, religious language and religious institutions play an outsized role in politics; both have systems that are “apparently democratic but very problematic. Poland has nothing as absurd as the Electoral College, but people don’t feel represented.” Her fear, she said, was that the demagogues in power in Poland are poised to change election law to make it impossible to dislodge them. Holland described Kaczyński as a “populist sadistic asshole with a narcissistic bent.”
Like most of the women who talked to me from Poland, Holland is calling the protests a revolution. “It’s a feminist revolution because it is a real awakening of women, who are, in Poland, like in many countries of Europe, better educated but their career opportunities are very limited. They were resigned to the absurd abortion law for twenty-seven years.”
Biejat agreed. “I think it’s a revolution because of how we are starting to talk about abortion,” she said. “There’s been a revolution in what we demand.” Although the protests began as an outcry against further restrictions on abortion, protesters are now demanding “access to abortion during the first trimester, no questions asked,” Biejat said. She added that this position “used to be confined to feminist circles, but now it’s hit the mainstream.”
The Women’s Strike organizers are thinking well beyond abortion restrictions. They have called together a Consultative Council of experts, following the example of neighboring Belarus, where protests—also leaderless and also led, in their way, by three women—have been going on for three months. Suchanow said that the organizers had conducted a survey of protesters, identified thirteen topics of greatest concern to them, and created working groups of experts for every one, including abortion rights, education, work and the pandemic, health care, climate change, and the separation of church and state; there is also a group called No Pasarán, which focusses on the “defascization of Poland.” The formation of the Consultative Council projects a message of confidence—back in 1988-89, the last time Poland saw protests on this scale, the Communist Party negotiated a power transfer with representatives of the movement.
“Yes, it is revolution,” Tokarczuk said, in response to an e-mail I had sent asking if she, too, would use the word. “In a very painful and dramatic (sometimes also funny) way the old world is melting now and a new one is crystallizing.” Some of that change is evident on the level of language. One of the most popular banners, “Jebać PiS,” means “Fuck Law and Justice”; another, “Liberté, Égalité, Wypierdalajté,” translates as “Liberty, Equality, Get the Fuck Out” (as though pronounced with a French accent). Although Polish speakers can pride themselves on expert and creative use of profanity, putting curse words on political banners is a novelty, jarring for some. (In a tongue-in-cheek nod to expectations of public decency, some protesters carry banners emblazoned with nothing but eight asterisks—five for “Jebać” and three for “PiS.”) “The first time I saw a banner on the screen that read ‘Get the fuck out,’ I was shocked by the word, so clearly painted in red letters in public space,” Tokarczuk wrote. “But I got used to it quickly and decided that this anger couldn’t be expressed any better. That when in society communication between two sides breaks down, when people do not hear and understand each other, when their words come from entirely different idiolects, then only the curse words remain. It is a radical, instantaneous language that will change as things move to the next stage: negotiation, new order making, and new rules.”
Source : https://www.newyorker.com/news/our-columnists/the-abortion-protests-in-poland-are-starting-to-feel-like-a-revolution