Poland’s Women Are in the Streets

Poland’s Women Are in the Streets

Escalating protests over new restrictions on abortion in Poland are a sign that the ruling PiS party’s illiberal democracy may be losing its grip.


Krakow—“We go right to TVP Krakow! Truth instead of lies!” The updates in the secret Telegram chat kept pinging in. Our next protest target: the headquarters of TVP—the Polish state media corporation that since 2015 has been a mouthpiece of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. It was the second big action on a dreary night some two weeks after Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal placed a near-total ban on abortion. The first protest—an automobile and bicycle blockade—was already a success. A seemingly endless phalanx of honking cars and whooping cyclists snaked from the north to the south end of the Vistula River, snarling rush-hour traffic along a major thoroughfare.

The initial Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement emerged in 2016 in response to proposed anti-abortion legislation that PiS later withdrew in the face of demonstrations. What the party’s hard-liners couldn’t achieve legislatively they’ve now won through the courts. Before the tribunal’s ruling, Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive laws regarding abortion, banning it except in cases of fetal defects, rape, incest, or threats to a mother’s health. Last year, terminations due to congenital defects accounted for 97 percent of the 1,110 legal abortions in Poland. Now, with the high court finding the first exception unconstitutional, legal abortions would drop to near zero.

Opinion polls before and after the new ruling have consistently found that a clear majority of Poles oppose further restrictions, with the court’s decision enshrining a minority opinion in a manner somewhat paralleling the fears of many American progressives about how Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment could threaten abortion access in the United States. Building on momentum from past fights, within a matter of days of the October 22 ruling, the decentralized Women’s Strike channeled simmering anger at the right-wing direction of Poland into mass demonstrations drawing hundreds of thousands of Poles into the streets in defiance of coronavirus restrictions.

The daily protests deploy cohesive, Internet-friendly organizing tactics and symbols: umbrellas and wire hangers jutting out of car windows in the blockades; banners with pink lightning bolts hanging from apartment windows; and minute-by-minute updates via encrypted messaging apps letting protesters know where not to be when the police show up. The Telegram group in Krakow is called Solidarność nasza bronią: “Solidarity is our weapon.” And much like the Solidarity movement strikes in the 1980s, the current Women’s Strike movement is clamoring to remake a divided Poland.

So far—during the current battle in an ongoing culture war—the protesters seem to be winning. On November 4, the government backtracked in the face of the unrest, delaying implementation of the controversial ruling. Yet the abortion issue is just the tip of the iceberg of discontent—a symbol for the wider rollback of rights and the rule of law under the Law and Justice government. Now, a month since the court ruling, my Telegram keeps pinging, and the daily protest actions churn on with a growing list of demands. Kasha, an undergraduate I meet at one of the protests, puts it bluntly: “It’s not only about the abortion ban at this point. It’s about overthrowing the government.”

Facing demographic and cultural change, PiS and its conservative coalition partners have only eked out small majorities in the past few elections. As rhetoric heats up, each side trades blame and digs in, further polarizing the country in what feels like the sort of existential cultural battle currently wracking American politics. While many protest chants keep the focus on women’s rights—“I think, I feel, I decide”—the most prevalent mantra, screamed out of windows and spray-painted on walls, is simply “Jebać PiS”: Fuck PiS. Rather than calm tensions, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski inflamed them in a fiery speech to parliament calling on supporters to “defend Poland, defend patriotism” and “defend Polish churches” against the atheistic mob: “This is the only way we can win this war.”

While Kaczynski’s bellicose language is hyperbolic, he does accurately pinpoint a defining feature of the current movement: its willingness to challenge the Catholic Church, long the third rail of Polish politics. Activists are actively targeting the powerful institution—from disrupting Sunday services to screaming in the face of a local priest (as seen in one viral video). While the church was instrumental in the fight against Communism in the 1980s, many now blame it for facilitating the country’s contemporary rightward drift.

A new encrypted message came though on my phone following the protest against the state media company: “We have had enough! The same people who celebrate the pseudo-tribunal’s verdict defended pedophiles for years, reaping financial benefits. Are you surprised? We aren’t!” This was accompanied by a Facebook event link for a vigil in remembrance of the “victims of church abuse.” An hour later, a somber crowd of several hundred people occupied the street outside the archbishop’s palace here. Organized by the activist group DOŚĆ Milczenia (Enough Silence), the gathering turned religious symbolism against the church. Protesters ripped up chrysanthemums, funerary flowers, throwing the petals on three child-size wooden coffins surrounded by a sea of votive candles in allusion to traditional Polish Day of the Dead rituals.

One by one, activists stepped up to the microphone to speak for perceived victims of the church: for women whose lives have been lost in botched illegal abortions, for children sexually abused by priests, for LGBT teenagers driven to suicide. Police in riot gear separated the crowd from a group of male counterprotesters loudly intoning Catholic prayers. At one point, in response to the counterprotesters, the main crowd chanted, “Jesus Christ stands with us.” Through her megaphone, Kartarzyna Wojtowicz, a lead organizer, urged the crowd, “Throw flowers, not stones. Because they’re the evil ones, not us.”

While church leaders may be caught off guard by the intense anger, their alliance with PiS’s right-wing agenda has been far from subtle. Marek Jedraszewski, the current archbishop of Krakow, recently expressed disbelief at the “aggression unknown so far in Poland, when the sanctity of churches, of sacred places is being violated.” Yet just last year, he labeled the gay rights movement a “rainbow plague” that would inflect Poland much like the “red plague” of communism. In an announcement unfortunately timed for the embattled priests, last week the Vatican released the long-awaited McCarick Report implicating Pope John Paul II—Poland’s heretofore unimpeachable modern saint—in the cloud of sexual-abuse scandals hanging over the Catholic Church.

Using tools like Facebook and Instagram Live, Małgorzata Halber, a leftist writer and activist, has been reporting on protests taking place outside of the media spotlight in dozens of smaller cities deep in PiS-voting regions. When I spoke with her via Zoom, she expressed hope that the marked shift in tone towards the church signaled a greater realignment away from the conservative consensus that has dominated Polish politics since the fall of Communism. “No one in those conservative places ever had any power before to criticize the church,” she explained. “Even in 2016, when women were marching against the proposed abortion restrictions, they were saying: ‘Okay, we just want things as they were,’ meaning the compromise”—a 1993 deal between the church and Poland’s post-Communist leaders that enshrined the strict abortion laws in place before the recent ruling. This time around, the movement demands far more.

Yet with all the posturing, symbolism, and the invocations of “war,” many find it hard to imagine what new social “compromise” will take root. Poland’s domestic fight is amplified by a European-level battle between Brussels and the self-proclaimed “illiberal democracies” of Central Europe. Poland, together with Hungary, is threatening to veto the current European Union budget because of new enforcement mechanisms included to explicitly target the type of erosion of the rule of law that allowed PiS to pack Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal in the first place. The EU Council, meanwhile, launched a fact-finding mission last month against LGBT discrimination in Poland.

According to Halber, this bureaucratic tit-for-tat is a sideshow to the real work of building power in the streets—and then victory at the ballot box. “Revolution is a woman” goes one of the popular chants. And, so far, many women in Poland show no signs of letting up in their drive to prove it.

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