‘Some kind of awakening’: Why 200,000 Polish feminists are only getting stronger

These Polish activists are fighting for abortion right, and they’re here to stay

In the summer of 2016, the situation in Poland became frightening. On 5 July, the so-called “Stop Abortion” bill was submitted to the Speaker of the Sejm (the lower chamber of the Polish parliament). It proposed a complete ban on pregnancy termination and also stipulated that in the event of an abortion, both the woman involved and the person who conducted the procedure would be punished.

A mass movement against the law called the Black Protest quickly galvanised. The symbols of the protests were a black umbrella and a wire hanger — the latter a reference to the hazardous methods used in illegal abortions. On 3 October 2016, in Warsaw and other locations all over Poland, gatherings under the banner “Black Monday/Nationwide Women’s Strike” drew 100,000 to 200,000 people out onto the streets.

On 6 October, the Sejm rejected the bill. Since then, various groups have been working on a “Let’s Save Women” law, which would allow abortion on demand and also safeguard issues such as sex education, access to contraception, and in vitro fertilisation.

A previous law in Poland, in place for 25 years since 1993, allowed abortion in three cases: when there were irreversible defects in the foetus, when the pregnancy threatened the health or life of the woman, and when the pregnancy was the result of a “prohibited act”. In practice — as thousands of Polish women know — doctors could deliberately delay procedures, claiming the presence of “foetal defects”. As a result, many pregnancies could not be terminated in time. Women faced travelling abroad to foreign clinics. Others simply had to give birth. Some called this law a “compromise”. Others argued that a situation in which so many women relinquished their rights could not be described as such.

Here, we talk to three members of groups fighting for the reproductive rights of women across Poland. They often use the word “we” rather than “I”. Nothing that has happened since 2016 has been the work of a single person. They go to meetings of Sejm Committees, present their work to the media, take the fight beyond big cities and leftist circles — together.

Here, in Warsaw and other large cities, we cannot say that we go to the barricades on behalf of all Polish women. That objectifies them. They must speak with their own voices

Monika Auch-Szkoda

Warsaw Women’s Strike

After 200,000 women took to the streets in 2016, something changed. Our problems entered the mainstream. Abortion or miscarriage ceased to be taboo subjects. Previously they were perceived as something difficult, associated with trauma. People, including the young, said they were for an abortion “compromise”. They did not have a solid opinion until it directly affected them. Since the mass protests, women have begun telling their stories with more courage: about abortions, pharmacies in which they could not buy contraception, doctors who refused their prescriptions, delayed legal abortion, or even concealed foetal defects. We are naming these pathologies.

These thousands of women in the streets did not come out of nowhere. For years, feminist organisations and programmes have been operating in Poland, including those funded by the EU, and they prepared the groundwork. But never before have protests reached such a large scale. Women from smaller towns and villages also came out into the streets. Here, in Warsaw and other large cities, we cannot say that we go to the barricades on behalf of all Polish women. That objectifies them. They must speak with their own voices.

The last protest in which I took part before the birth of my first daughter was at week 40 of my pregnancy. I walked a few kilometres with a big belly. I knew I would not give birth but I had documents and basic things for the hospital in my purse, just in case. As a mother of two small children, I cannot imagine having an unwanted pregnancy without a choice.

I am proof that there is no such thing as post-abortion syndrome or trauma, and that healthy babies are born after abortions

Ewa Dąbrowska-Szulc

Chairwoman of the Pro-Femina Association

I have two kids. Before they were born, I had three abortions, and I always say this: I did what was right and responsible. I am proof that there is no such thing as post-abortion syndrome or trauma, and that healthy babies are born after abortions. I gave birth when I wanted to. I did not protest until 1989; I did not have to. At that time, the 1956 Act was in force in Poland. It began with the words: “In order to protect the life of a woman”. And suddenly, after the [1989] transformation, something pushed women away. The embryo became an “unborn child”. The Roman Catholic church played its role here. It fought for freedom during communism. Then after the transformation, religion was introduced in schools, and the church gained more and more power. The language changed, and suddenly we began to hear about “killing sick children” and “protecting human life from the moment of conception”.

In the spring of 1989, there were rumours that the existing law would be tightened. A group of protesters gathered in Warsaw. I went too. And I stayed.

There is a saying: “What’s the easiest way to keep a woman at home? Take her shoes away for the winter, and she’ll be pregnant in the spring.” I have the impression that politicians seeking to tighten the anti-abortion law in Poland are inspired by that vision. They call pregnancy a “blessed condition”. Honestly? There is nothing more blessed than the menopause. That’s the only time that women are safe in Poland now.

My generation entered adult life with the feeling that much had already been won. That turned out to be an illusion

Magda Staroszczyk

Warsaw Gals, Black Rags

This network, which has been created over the last few years, is extraordinary. It reaches far beyond Warsaw and the borders of Poland — the Women’s Strike is already international in scope. We have created a rapid-response system. Whenever something outrageous happens in the Sejm, we are able to organise ourselves and protest very quickly, thanks to social media. So-called “hashtag activism” is not new, but in Poland it was the years 2016 and 2017 that fully exploited its potential. I am also involved in the Warsaw Gals network. It’s part of a nationwide Facebook group, Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, which has spawned several local initiatives. Now there are hundreds of gals. We support and inform each other, we make materials available, we organise protests.

When the Black Protest began, we gathered in a small group and created the Black Rags collective. On 3 October 2016, we blocked traffic in Warsaw with a huge banner: “The Limit of Contempt”. It was a strong message: “Stop, don’t treat us like this anymore!” Since then, we have been organising actions in public spaces, drawing attention to women’s rights issues. We do this by creating strong, imaginative pictures: we photograph our actions and upload photos strengthening the message. This was the case, for example, with our “You are not alone” action. We painted this slogan on large sashes. And then we wrapped up Warsaw’s mermaid monuments with the sashes. The mermaid is a symbol of Warsaw. For us they symbolise women, whom the patriarchy have separated from one another. With each subsequent action, we create strong images that women can share on social media.

My generation entered adult life with the feeling that much had already been won. That turned out to be an illusion. We easily forgot that the abortion law that has existed since 1993 is not a compromise, but a reduction of basic rights. And it particularly affects women from poorer or more conservative backgrounds. At the turn of 2015 and 2016, I experienced some kind of awakening. I realised that you can be an educated feminist from Warsaw, but that will not save you, for example, from a violent relationship or from economic injustice. Shortly after that, the spectre of a complete ban on abortion appeared, and that pissed me off. We all got pissed off. That anger carried us and led us into the streets.

Text: Dorota Borodaj
Image: Karolina Gembara