Strike to Win: Can Polish Feminists Turn Protest Into Power?

Strike to Win: Can Polish Feminists Turn Protest Into Power?

The women’s movement in Poland and its largest manifestation, Manifa, represent a challenge to the right-wing government—but can they win power?

At the “Black Monday” strike in Warsaw, October 3, 2016 (Grzegorz Żukowski / Flickr)

On, Sunday March 5, a dense line of protesters stretched across two of Warsaw’s massive blocks starting from the Palace of Culture and Science, a wedding cake of a building funded by Stalin. They marched under the slogan “Against the Violence of Power” along with protesters in eight other cities in Poland. Organized by Manifa, a group of radical feminists, these marches are an annual opportunity to talk about issues that are toxic for political parties to touch: abortion, unpaid women’s labor, and the rights of disabled people and sex workers.

This year, the crowd at Manifa’s march was larger than usual. The 4,000 people who marched in Warsaw are just one slice of the opposition movement that has blossomed in Poland since the election of the nationalist and anti-democratic Law and Justice party in October 2015. The most successful action so far has been organized by women: the Black Monday protests, mobilizing nearly 100,000 people in October 2016, opposed a total ban on abortion, which Law and Justice parliamentarians were poised to pass until they saw the strength of the opposition.

In many ways, the women’s movement in Poland is the face of the broader opposition that has emerged in the past year. Hundreds of thousands have turned up to demonstrations. People who have never been involved in politics before are marching in the streets. But this opposition is remarkably distant from the daily machinations of official politics. So far only the new left party, Razem, is advancing any kind of feminist agenda in the next election.

There is another mass opposition movement led by the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, a civil society organization known by its Polish acronym KOD, which opposes Law and Justice’s attacks on the independence of Poland’s judiciary. They turned out 240,000 people in a march in Warsaw in May 2016, but it is not clear that their call for protecting democracy will win against Law and Justice’s signature economic policies.

Six months after last October’s protests against the abortion ban, Law and Justice enjoys a steady level of support. While Poland has seen remarkable street protests, the opposition, whether formal or informal, has not yet been able to turn this into real political power.

In April 2016, the Polish parliament took up a bill that proposed banning all abortions in the country and effectively criminalized miscarriages. Poland’s current law restricts access to abortion to pregnancies before twelve weeks in three cases: illness or death of the fetus, threat to the life or health of the mother, or because the pregnancy is the result of rape or another criminal act. Given these restrictions, only around 1,000 abortions are legally performed per year for a population of over 38 million in Poland.

The proposed absolute ban sparked broad opposition. One of the most important responses was the founding of a huge online network in support of women’s rights. Dziewuchy Dziewuchom—a playful name meaning something like “Gals for Gals”—started as a Facebook group. In the hours after the abortion ban was proposed, tens of thousands of Polish people, mostly women, joined. The main purpose of the group was to keep track of where protests were being held, but there was also a lot of discussion.

Everyone was against the total ban on abortion, but that is where agreement ended. Some members argued for a liberalization of abortion, while others fiercely opposed changing the existing law. But slowly, more and more women reached a middle ground, which was essentially pro-choice: even if I wouldn’t have an abortion, I can’t prevent you from having one.

“One of our successes is that people talk to each other, and talk more about women’s rights in general,” said Barbara Baran, one of Dziewuchy Dziewuchom’s founders. Unlike Manifa’s organizers, this group’s members are not all partisans. “They don’t know what they think clearly,” said Joanna Filipczak-Zarod, another founder and administrator of the group.

For many, these conversations were a first experience with politics; most of Dziewuchy Dziewuchom’s members—nearly 100,000 in forty-five local affiliates across Poland and internationally—do not see themselves as being political. Many consider themselves observant Catholics, and Baran and Filipczak-Zarod describe themselves as something of a bridge between their members and political parties, when appropriate. “Somehow we are the most inviting for all those women,” Filipczak-Zarod said. “And I think it is because they created it for themselves.” The group is not officially affiliated with any political party, though they work closely with the Modern party, a small opposition party, to obtain access to meetings in the parliament.

Yet within the women’s movement more broadly, there remains sharp disagreement about how to achieve political goals like women’s equal access to healthcare, contraception, and sex education. Members of Dziewuchy Dziewuchom attend committee hearings and votes in parliament on these issues to lobby lawmakers and keep track of policy changes. But Manifa’s organizers argue politicians have traded away women’s rights over and over again, and so they take a hard “no logo” line at their marches. Political parties and other groups are not allowed to advertise themselves on their banners, since the point is to foreground the message, not the messenger.

And at first, the protest in October against the proposed abortion ban confirmed this position. A “no logo” coalition that included representatives from KOD, Razem, and a small group of left parties organized a women’s strike. The coalition called on women to take the day off from any work, if possible, and to wear black to protest the proposed ban. Jakub Szymik, a law student and political communications consultant in Warsaw who managed the strike’s social media presence, believed the strike had to have no links to political parties. “This was an important measure to get the support of people in smaller cities, who are tired of politics,” Szymik said.

As the strike approached, Szymik was surprised to watch young Polish women on Twitter using the hashtag #CzarnyPoniedzialek (#BlackMonday) to talk about whether they should go to school or not, and what they should wear that day. He entered their conversations, encouraging them to participate. “The strike was appealing to them, in part, because it was appearance based,” he said, “and the communication is all happening on the internet, where they already are.”

Dziewuchy Dziewuchom also amplified the strike’s call, and asked its members to count each other in the streets and send the numbers. The photos of Warsaw’s old city square filled with umbrellas are the most famous images of the action. But for Baran and Filipczak-Zarod, it was the pictures from Poland’s small villages that best illustrated the success of the strike. “We kept getting these photos: six women and one elderly man with a drum,” Baran said. Many of Law and Justice’s supporters, she explained, are in the countryside (though Law and Justice also won the largest share of support from Poles in cities and those with higher education in the 2015 elections). Publicly opposing the abortion ban in these small communities where everyone knows each other takes a lot of courage, Filipczak-Zarod said. “We have huge respect for those women.”

The protest was larger than anyone expected, and the parliament reversed course and voted overwhelming against the bill. Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Gowin said the strike was a lesson in humility. On social media, Szymik described seeing whole high-school classes, including a teacher, wearing black and posting pictures of themselves. Several teachers who participated in the strike have faced disciplinary proceedings as a result, some of which are still ongoing.

The scale of the October protests showed the political opposition that there was hope it could, on certain occasions, win over some of Law and Justice’s supporters. But it is not yet clear that the people who turned out in the streets will also vote for any of the opposition political parties, even those that supported the women’s strike. In many ways, Law and Justice’s victory in 2015 was a repudiation of the former ruling party, Civic Platform. While the party opposes the current government’s policies, its resounding defeat is one reason why the new opposition movement, including Dziewuchy Dziewuchom, KOD, and others, has taken the lead. But the members of this new movement seem to draw different lessons from the October protests and are charting diverging paths forward.

Besides the mass social movements, the most important member of the new opposition is Razem, a left political party whose name means “together.” It formed in the months before the 2015 parliamentary election and managed, miraculously, to win more than 3 percent of the vote. It was not enough to get into parliament, but it was sufficient to secure a state subsidy to build the party for the next round of parliamentary elections in 2019.

About thirty of Razem’s members joined the Manifa protest in Warsaw in March. Basia Wycisk, a member of Razem, thinks the party and Manifa share the same aims. “But I don’t believe that the political fight can be done anywhere outside of the parliament,” she said. “I really hope that Razem will be representing our rights in the parliament after the next election.”

For the party’s leadership, the march against the abortion ban confirmed that a constituency of voters on women’s rights did exist. “It’s not possible to unsee this,” said Kinga Stańczuk, Razem’s foreign affairs representative. “It just changed us as a movement because we saw that, OK, if it comes to it, we have you.” But she insists that it was a mistake to participate without identifying themselves clearly as a political party.

“If we have these massive social movements that then don’t know who to vote for, that is a problem,” Stańczuk said. “We are not trying to consume the success of the women’s strike, but we were part of it and we want to deliver politically.” Razem is focused on building the party’s profile by highlighting what Stańczuck called “junk contracts”—jobs that include few benefits and precarious conditions—and by supporting people who have lost their jobs because of financial restructuring. The party ran in the 2015 parliamentary elections on a platform that included a progressive tax, with a rate of 75 percent for the highest income bracket. But many voters did not understand how the policy works, or were skeptical of left politics in general.

But Razem remains, essentially, the only political party that centers a defense for women’s civil liberties in its platform, a remarkable fact given the success of the women’s strike. From the perspective of the feminist activists on the street, other parties, including Civic Platform, merely tack on rhetorical calls for women’s rights to a long list of demands.

One reason for this is the strong religious beliefs of many Poles. The population is predominantly Catholic and church-going, and many remain very conservative on issues like reproductive rights. But even as traditional attitudes are changing—as the leaders of Dziewuchy Dziewuchom described—it is difficult to gauge by how much. Until political parties see a real shift in public opinion, many prefer not to take on the church and its most devout supporters directly.

While the women strikers are the most famous members of the Polish opposition movement, KOD, which is technically a civil society organization, is the largest. After the 2015 elections, Mateusz Kijowski, a self-employed computer programmer, founded the group on Facebook, and in March 2016, a core group of participants decided to establish it as a formal legal association. It boasts more than 200,000 followers on Facebook and 9,000 paying members in sixteen branches across the country.

The movement is focused on defending Poland’s democratic institutions, specifically the judiciary. Upon entering parliament, Law and Justice passed a law removing five judges recently appointed to the Constitutional Tribunal by the outgoing administration and nominated its own. The president, who is officially nonpartisan but was a member of the ruling party before he was elected, swore four of those judges into office in the middle of the night. This initial move and other changes cast doubt on the independence of the court, which rules on the legality of legislation that the parliament votes through. The European Commission is currently investigating these changes for violating the rule of law.

Since November 2015, KOD has organized large, visible marches in Polish cities—some of which have attracted up to a quarter of a million people—with remarkable regularity. Members in its local chapters leaflet and hold outreach events. Theirs is the hard, low-profile work of changing minds, but for Jędrzej Ochremiak, a delegate representing Warsaw in the KOD hierarchy, this is their most important and difficult task. Ochremiak describes what he sees as a huge divide in the Polish population between the people who flourished after the transition from communism and those who didn’t. In his mind, Law and Justice’s supporters come mainly from the latter group, and they are difficult for KOD to reach given the group’s focus.

“We don’t know how to activate them, to talk to them in their own language,” he said. “We are from this other tribe, with a different language and a different logic.”

The next election is also likely to be fought over Law and Justice’s economic policies, not its attacks on Poland’s democratic system and women’s rights. Feminists and volunteers at KOD acknowledge that the 500+ policy, which grants families with at least two children about $125 a month per child, is difficult to oppose.

While KOD is fighting for values that may seem abstract to many, the group hopes that voters will not be swayed solely by Law and Justice’s economic handouts. Instead, KOD is working with a variety of opposition parties to develop a plan to reverse the damage Law and Justice has done to Poland’s justice system. While KOD does not plan to run candidates themselves, Ochremiak said the group wants to propose a “card of liberties” representing basic democratic values that politicians from opposition parties can sign. The idea is to unify the opposition to Law and Justice, though it is too early to say how effective this strategy will be.

Until the next parliamentary elections in 2019, the group contests what it sees as bad policies, like Law and Justice’s plan to restructure Poland’s education system, by collecting signatures from those who oppose it. The president signed it into law anyway. KOD continues to try to apply public pressure on the administration. It has counted the days, for example, that the prime minister has declined to publish a law that the Constitutional Tribunal approved governing its composition. Usually, publication is a formality, but in this case it has delayed the law’s implementation for over a year.

Both major strands of the Polish opposition—the women’s rights movement and KOD—now face new challenges. In the months since the women’s strike in October 2016, the government has, in various ways, limited access to abortion, contraception, and sex education. In May, the lower house of parliament passed legislation that would require women to get a prescription for morning-after pills. If approved by the upper house and signed into law, this would severely limit access to emergency contraception, which is already difficult to find in pharmacies.

Krystyna Kacpura, who runs Poland’s Federation for Women and Family Planning, a nonprofit organization, said the Ministry of Health is pressuring doctors to perform abortions in fewer and fewer cases. “It is not enough that it’s written by a doctor that the pregnancy threatens a woman’s health,” Kacpura said. “It has to be stated that it threatens a woman’s life.” This is a narrower interpretation of what counts as a legal abortion than previously has been implemented, she said, and doctors who perform abortions that don’t fall into this category can be charged with a crime. Now, Kacpura does not know of a single hospital that will reliably perform legal abortions in Poland because each abortion depends on the specifics of the case. Doctors can also invoke their religious beliefs to decline to perform abortions at all, and Kacpura thinks a growing number are doing so. (A spokesperson from the Ministry of Health said no government agency tracks the number of doctors willing to perform legal abortions in Poland.)

Meanwhile, KOD faces a crisis largely of its own making. In January 2017, news outlets published invoices for around 91,000 zloty (about $21,800 USD) to a company owned by Mateusz Kijowski, the group’s founder and current leader, allegedly for IT services supplied to KOD. The problem is that Kijowski and the other organizers are supposed to be working as volunteers. The payment to Kijowksi was news to members as well as the public, and had a negative effect on KOD’s reputation.

Finally in May, KOD held an internal election, putting Kijowski’s leadership up for approval by the delegates from its sixteen branches. In the face of ongoing controversy about the money he was paid by the group, Kijowski withdrew his candidacy just before the vote, and Krzysztof Łoziński, an activist under the communist government and one of the early founders of the group, won with 130 out of 170 votes.

The Polish opposition movement has proven itself to be resourceful, diverse, and persistent. But in a democracy, the only way for it to gain power and change policy is by winning votes in local and parliamentary elections. It faces difficult circumstances: the ruling party has a majority in parliament, it has paralyzed the country’s highest court, and controls the executive. It may seek to change voting districts and put term limits on local politicians that would further weaken opposition political parties. The opposition has shown it can turn people out in the street. The question is whether the opposition political parties will attract those same protesters to the polls.

Benjamin Stanley, a lecturer at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw, follows polling on Polish political parties closely. In his mind, the challenge for parties is more fundamental than just reaching out to people newly active in street protests. “It’s how to provide a credible-looking alternative—even to many of their own supporters—that convinces people,” he says. Both Civic Platform and the Modern party started as pro-business, economically neoliberal parties, and if the next election is a referendum on the 500+ policy, it will be difficult for them to believably promise to extend or replace it. Still, Civic Platform helped organize a march in May in favor of the European Union and against Law and Justice that drew 90,000 people into the streets of Warsaw, showing that they may finally be recuperating from their 2015 defeat.

Ochremiak agrees that the opposition needs to offer an alternative, but described an ongoing discussion within the group about what exactly that should be. KOD thinks the different strands of the opposition movement need to work together to oppose the ruling party. But in essence, that means postponing discussions on how Catholic or how economically redistributive such a united opposition’s policies would be.

For Razem, the answer is much clearer: higher taxes on the wealthy, better labor protections, and guaranteed access to healthcare for women. But the joke about the party is that while their name means “together,” they are reluctant to enter into coalitions. Stańczuk acknowledged that charge, but argued it does not make sense for them to compromise on the party’s baseline strategy, which is to build a critique of capitalism that speaks to voter’s economic interests.

In the two years until the next parliamentary election, Stanley expects that extra-parliamentary groups will continue to articulate the sharpest opposition to Law and Justice, and that seems to be the case for now. For its part, Dziewuchy Dziewuchom follows parliamentary proceedings closely, livestreaming proceedings and tweeting commentary. Even when national television does broadcast from the parliament, Baran and Filipczak-Zarod think it is important that they are also there. “Most of the media don’t go into the details,” Filipczak-Zarod said. “They don’t want to go too far, be too controversial.”

And Manifa continues to stake out a far pole in the opposition, which has gained unexpected relevance in the face of Law and Justice’s policies. At the March demonstration in Warsaw, one woman held a sign, “Nothing about us without us.” She has participated in Manifa demonstrations for most of the thirteen years that she has lived in the capital, but she still did not see herself as an activist. “I’m not into politics. I don’t publish. I’m not one of those people who organizes,” she said. But she also added that under the Law and Justice government, “If we do nothing, we will end up having no rights at all.” It is a partial acknowledgment that the feminist struggle has to extend into electoral politics if it wants to make concrete gains.

As the Manifa protesters turned north on New World street, an organizer yelled a summary of their demands into the loudspeaker: throw Polish politics into the garbage! It is a message that resonates and political parties should take note. So long as they choose not to embrace either an economic policy to compete with Law and Justice’s or the demands of feminist protests, a huge gap between Poland’s energized street opposition and political parties will remain. The result is that voters will face a cynical choice at the next parliamentary elections. To vote for the current ruling party that has delivered a direct cash transfer to families while bashing civil liberties, or for a mainstream political opposition that promises democracy but not much else?

Thalia Beaty is a print and radio journalist based in Berlin.

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