The Polish Constitutional Court’s judgment on legal abortion has brought both women and young people onto the streets. Unleashing dormant energy, the protests have also initiated a discussion about the position of women and youth in Polish society.

As with Mikhail Bulgakov, the inevitable has already happened, Anushka has already spilt the oil, according to one of the already famous protest slogans. Only not everyone has realised it yet.

The presumptuous powers do not even try to avoid the fatal fate that will inevitably befall the outdated model of the state, the Church and society.

Women’s October revolution

On 22 October, the politicised Constitutional Court issued a judgement according to which the law permitting legal abortion in the case of foetal defects or disease is ruled as inconsistent with the Polish constitution.

In practice, the decision of the court means a total ban on termination of pregnancy in Poland, as this premise of foetal defects or disease was the basis for 96 per cent of legal abortions performed last year.

In Poland, a restricted law has been in force since 1993, allowing abortion only in three situations: when a pregnancy poses a threat to a woman’s life or health, when tests indicate the probability of severe impairment or terminal disease of the foetus or when there is a suspicion that the pregnancy is the result of a crime.

Attempts both to tighten up the law and to liberalise it have aroused extreme emotions for years.

This time, however, any discussion on abortion was omitted, because the new rules on termination of pregnancy were introduced through the back door, not through the act of parliament, but through the judgment of the Constitutional Court, which is binding and final under the Polish Constitution.

It was little wonder that the judgment of the Court led to violent social protests. It could be expected that their scale would be comparable to the Black Protests (Czarny Protest) of 2016, when women spoke out with great force against the rejection of the bill “Let’s Save Women” and the adoption of the law prepared by the conservative lobby organisation Ordo Iuris Institute and supported by the Stop Abortion network.

At the peak of those protests 3 October 2016, between 17,000 and 30,000 people gathered at the Castle Square in Warsaw. About 100,000 demonstrators participated in this year’s “March to Warsaw”, which took place as part of the Polish Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet) on Friday 30 October.

Protests are taking place not only in large cities but also in small towns across the country. The scale of the demonstration surprised everyone.

Prêt-àporter scripts

Mainly two social groups took to the streets: women and young people. They expressed their indignation at the authorities’ actions, which are considered an attack on woman’s rights and freedoms. They do not want to forfeit their future. In a firm voice, they say “enough”.

Supporters of the liberalisation of the anti-abortion law are protesting, but also those who supported the so-called ‘abortion compromise’ from 1993.

The topic of abortion was actually just a fuse, the fire that is now burning will irreversibly change the social, not only political, landscape of Poland.

Both women and the young generation in public life occupy an ‘aspirational’ position, which means that they are not treated seriously unless they put on masks of professionalism or act out a script that has been handed to their social group (mothers, students, interns).

When a female doctor decides about the therapy to be used, it is okay. Occasions where a young marketer suggests an advertising strategy, it is fine. However, when women begin to claim rights such as the possibility of deciding about their own body, the choice of an aesthetic canon, the equal distribution of household burdens, primary facilities, the right to free time, social security and so on, they turn out to be too demanding and perceived as egoists who do too well.

Women, fish and children

Poland was one of the first European countries where women were granted the right to vote (and one of the first to legalise abortion in 1932, ed.). This argument has long served as a fig leaf to cover up all discrimination. Similarly to the memory of the sixteenth-century religious freedoms in the territory of the Republic of Poland, it is to cover the shameful occurrences of anti-Semitism.

In practice, female emancipation stopped with access to new social roles. Women can perform all professions and make decisions in their personal and professional life; the problem arises when they try to speak without disregarding the perspective of their femininity. Just like when young people try to speak from the perspective of their youth.

“Children and fish have no voice” is a well-known Polish saying. The adult has the last word, someone else has the right to decide. Who? A tyrant. A usurper.

This year’s protests, in addition to opposing a draconian anti-abortion law, are an attempt at real emancipation and breaking out of the hearty yet undesirable grip of paternalism. At women (but also young people), men cast stones and kiss their hands alternately.

On the one hand, they are told they are bad and have no love for their own children. On the other hand, they are said to make life “smooth and harmonious“, as if that was their main calling.

In addition, they are stealthily put on a corset of unwritten rules that are to regulate their lives, but which do not necessarily apply in the world of men.

One of the symbols of the protests were the vulgarisms shouted out by the protesting women to express their utmost indignation and dissent with the interference in the sphere of their freedom. As it turned out, the profanity was cathartic – they gave women strength and at the same time revealed the extent of hypocrisy and condescension that they have to deal with on a daily basis.

The women’s strike initiated a discussion, not so much about abortion, but about the position of women and youth in Polish society in general, as well as the role of the Church and the relationship between moral and legal norms.

Waves of commentary have exposed the shoals of deeply entrenched paternalism and fundamentalism, on which not only social norms but also legislative acts break down.

You were stupid, we are smart

Marta Lempart

Historical and civic education in Poland boils down to presenting the ideal of freedom in terms of national sovereignty on one side and the free market on the other. The actual lack of ethics education in schools, contrary to religious classes, is also not without significance.

As a result, Poles have no clue how to talk about rights and values. In the context of femininity, there is a smooth transition from the ideal of a Polish-mother devoting herself to the family and the nation to the aggressive wheeler-dealer.

Virgin or whore, home or work, mother or infanticide. Everything that regards women is put in the form of an absurd alternative.

Surrounded by this ocean of nonsense and cruelty, Polish women, after the ruling of the Constitutional Court, feel that they could no longer bear this unfair burden of contempt and injustice and have to fight for their rights on their own.

Therefore, in the midst of the voices of indignation and dissent, the list of postulates can be heard more and more clearly at demonstrations. A consultative council for the Women’s Strike was established to collect demands and develop a “path of getting out of the swamp”, as Marta Lempart, one of the leaders of the protest said at a press conference on Sunday 1 November.

The issues raised include the right to abortion, protection against domestic violence, respect for LGBTQ rights, the introduction of a secular state, addressing the climate change, banning fascist organisations, banning junk contracts, guaranteeing decent wages and pensions, etc.

The protests grow stronger, taking the shape of a social revolution. Apart from freedom, their ideals include those that as a result of accelerated economic changes after the 1989 revolution were pushed to the background: solidarity, equality and sisterhood (or brotherhood).

Perhaps a pessimistic outlook for the future – presented, among others, by Professor Marcin Król who on the 25th anniversary of the transformation, beating his chest, confessed that “we were stupid” – thanks to women and a young generation of Poles may not necessarily become real.

Revolution in the time of coronavirus

In the current political situation in Poland, it is difficult not to get the impression that the timing of the announcement of the Constitutional Court’s judgment was not accidental. The decision leading to predictable protests in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and the flu season is more than puzzling.

There are different guesses: was the return to the topic of abortion supposed to attract a small group of ultra-conservative electorates, consolidate Jarosław Kaczyński’s faction, or rather distract the public’s attention from the intensifying coronavirus pandemic?

It can already be seen that unlike in the spring, Poland will not pass through the second wave of the pandemic dry-shod. The government will not be able to get credit for sailing towards an iceberg during a storm.

Taking into account the statements of Deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński and Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, issued already during the strike, as well as the efforts of the public television, it can be argued that the full responsibility for the lack of control over the pandemic and the growing number of deaths as well as the break-down of the healthcare system will soon be blamed on the participants of the protest.

Was this the main premise for the publication of the Constitutional Court’s judgment? It seems that PiS may find it convenient to talk about the unborn instead of the dying. Above all, to find a scapegoat who can be blamed for the death of the ever-growing number of people infected with COVID-19, as well as the so-called “excess deaths”.

Increasing social tensions, policemen and soldiers on standby, Nazi militias in the streets, the upcoming Independence Day celebrations on 11 November, which in recent years have always been an occasion for the manifestation of nationalist circles, and all this in the context of a growing pandemic and a rising death toll: the situation in Poland may at any time get out of control.

Therefore, the unprecedented appeal of retired generals, people who in the past were responsible for state security, calling now for an end to the escalation of the conflict, to tone down moods and actions of the police, should not be surprising.

Apostasy in Google Trends

In the past, the Church used to be a mediator in social conflicts in Poland. This time, it seems to be a party to the conflict. The position of the Church on abortion is clear, however, its political commitment is not entirely obvious. The alliance of throne and altar always ends badly for the second one and this is what the Church in Poland experiences. Engaging in political struggle, to a large extent, the Polish Church weakened its moral authority.

Due to the lack of clear cut-off from politics and with the episcopal representatives trying to play off the abortion issue, the participants of the protests have at least in part blamed the Church for the situation.

In the first days of the protest, one of the trends in the Google search engine, in addition to the “women’s strike” and “lockdown” was the keyword “apostasy”. The turning away of a large group of people from the Church seems inevitable.

Poland may follow the footsteps of Ireland. One of the most Catholic countries on the continent once has become a symbol of a huge outflow of the faithful from the Catholic Church. It seems evident that the social revolution taking place in Poland will force the Polish Church to renew.

Right-wing politicians are always eager to line up in one-row words such as “Church”, “nation”, “values”, “patriotism” while pointing a finger at a potential enemy of Polishness. This time isn’t different.

PiS leader and strategist Jarosław Kaczyński called for the defence of churches in his statement and said, referring to the demonstration: “I call on all members of Law and Justice and all who support us to take part in the defence of the Church, in defence of what is under attack today and not by accident. Very often we see some elements of preparation, perhaps even training. This is an attack which is meant to destroy Poland and lead to the triumph forces which will end the history of the Polish nation as we know it.”

The evidently provocative statement by Jarosław Kaczyński made both the Church and the representatives of the Women’s Strike – even if neither of them changed their minds – realise quite quickly that their direct confrontation would bring nothing good.

Meanwhile, right-wing circles seem to be preparing themselves for the war in defence of the faith. And as we all know, religious wars are extremely turbulent and involve many innocent victims.

This is war

Illustration by Daniel Garcia

The protests unleashed the dormant energy. Groups that had not previously participated in the public discourse on an equal footing, have taken the floor. “This is war” appeared as one of the first slogans of the protests, as if to confirm that this time women will not give up and will not take prisoners.

Up until now, several wars have been declared by Jarosław Kaczyński. Today, his threats, taunts and provocations have been answered by women who normally do not make war, but do not play war either. While the protests were deliberately provoked by the rulers, their scale certainly surprised them.

It is obvious that revolutionary moods cannot be sustained for long weeks, even less for three years until the next election. However, a revolution happens primarily in people’s minds and, therefore, it cannot be undone.

Despite the atmosphere of carnival, it seems clear that what is happening on Polish streets is not a fun game. The highly creative slogans and catchphrases of the protests (like “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are overthrowing the government here”, “PiS believes that GENITALS is an Italian airline”, “Introverts take to the streets it’s a f*** drama”, “The government has divided the country more than pizza with pineapple”, “You are worse than Polish reggae”, etc.) show that there is a new participant on the battlefield – young, energetic and creative.

And it is precisely the right to creativity and self-determination, to design one’s own life in accordance with one’s knowledge, goals and imagination that the protests are demanding so loudly.

A squadron of old politicians and moralists, accustomed to playing with toy soldiers, has no chance in this war. On the background of youthful energy and creative invention, with bursts of hearty laughter, the myth of the great strategist ends.



A Polish version of this article is available on Res Publica Nowa.

Supporting editor of Res Publica Nowa and Visegrad Insight, translator. A graduate of cultural studies (Mediterranean studies) and philosophy at the University of Warsaw

Eastern European Futures

In 2009, the European Union and six of its Eastern neighbours launched the Eastern Partnership (EaP) with the stated aim of building a common area of shared democracy, prosperity, stability and increased cooperation. A decade on, however, progress has been mixed.

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