It is not unusual for women to make revolutions. In these past upheavals, however, women often became marginalized and erased from the collective memory while the revolutions were turned against them. The Polish Revolution of October 2020 is different.
On 22 October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland announced a near-total ban on abortion. This Tribunal had been formed unconstitutionally by the ruling party Law and Justice (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or PiS) shortly after assuming power. The attack on women and the attack on democratic institutions are not unrelated. In response to the Tribunal’s ruling, women all over Poland filled the streets to protest the ban. They sparked a revolution that is not only about reproductive rights, but also about human dignity and the shape of Polish democracy.
Even without the recent ruling, Poland has one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. Since 1993, legal abortions can only be performed in three cases: if the health and life of the mother is in danger, if the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest, or in the case of fetal abnormalities.1 The October 22 ruling eliminated the third condition, that of genetic abnormalities of the fetus, on the account of its supposed unconstitutionality. A few years earlier, in the autumn of 2016, Law and Justice had unsuccessfully attempted to pass the anti-abortion legislation through the lower house of the Polish parliament (Sejm). At that time, the Sejm decided to take up the proposal from the anti-choice group Ordo Iuris, calling for a total ban on abortion and prison sentences for women and doctors. The Sejm rejected a competing proposal from the citizens’ committee “Save the Women” (Ratujmy Kobiety) which fought for the liberalization of the existing anti-abortion law.
On 3 October 2016, mass demonstrations erupted all over Poland to protest the Sejm’s attempt to restrict the abortion law. More than 100,000 women and men hit the streets in 146 cities and towns.2 Known as the Black Protests, these demonstrations generated additional solidarity protests around the world. As a result, the Sejm abstained from considering the Ordo Iuris proposal. Afterwards, any moves towards reintroducing the proposal (in a supposedly amended version) to the Sejm floor sparked public protests. Consequently, for the last four years, the ruling regime has placed its anti-abortion legislative agenda on hold.
That is until October 2020. This time, the restriction was enacted in a different way, not through the legislative body of the Sejm, but through a legally questionable judicial body subordinate to the ruling party. It is no secret that the ruling came at the request of the leader of Law and Justice, Jarosław Kaczyński. Less than a week after the Black Protests of 2016 and the Sejm’s failure to proceed with the anti-abortion restrictions, Kaczyński declared his own determination to push through with the matter. He announced: “We will ensure that even in the case of extremely difficult pregnancy, such as when the child is sure to die or be born with deformities, [the pregnancy] will result in birth, so that the child can be baptized, buried and named.“3 The statement exposed one of the fundamental elements of authoritarian populism in Poland and elsewhere: the reassertion of patriarchy and the relentless drive to control the female body.
Why did Kaczyński decide that October 2020 was a good time to have another go at the anti-abortion agenda? His decision was motivated, to a large degree, by the government’s poor response to the coronavirus pandemic.4 The Tribunal’s ruling was intended to channel the societal frustration away from the health crisis and towards the culture wars. Kaczyński underestimated, however, the power of women. Demonstrations began right after the Tribunal’s announcement. Over the following days, the protests grew to include increasing numbers of participants, especially women and young people. On October 28, an estimated number of 410 protests with more than 430,000 participants took place in different parts of Poland.5
From the beginning, the slogans and demands went beyond the right to abortion. Banners included anti-government slogans and demands for a secular state. Women held signs which read as follows: “I wish I could abort my government,” “PiS off,” and “This government will be overthrown by women.” They identified the church as the main oppressor of women. Some banners asked: “Why do the bishops hate women?” Other signs were more explicit: “Kaczyński! The clergy and company, hands-off women!” and “Enough of the church and state violence against women!”6 But the most precise message delivered to the government consisted of one word: “Wypierdalać” (Get the Fuck Out of Here).
From the beginning, the slogans and demands went beyond the right to abortion. Banners included anti-government slogans and demands for a secular state.
It is not unusual for women to make revolutions. The French Revolution began when some 60,000 women marched on Versailles in October 1789 to protest against high prices and shortages of bread. More than one hundred years later, on 8 March 1917, International Women’s Day, female workers in Petrograd came to the streets with banners calling for “Bread” and “Down with the Tsar.” The demonstrations grew to more than 150,000 participants the next day triggering the February Revolution and the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. During the Solidarity Revolution in Poland in 1980-81, many women-led strikes and protests.
And after the Martial Law of December 1981, they ran underground Solidarity structures and the press. In these past upheavals, however, women often became marginalized and erased from the collective memory while the revolutions were turned against them. The French Revolution eventually resulted in the Napoleonic Code, which placed new legal restrictions on women which excluded them from public life, political participation, property ownership and custody of their children. In a similar way, the Solidarity Revolution brought “male democracy” to Poland whose leaders made the attack on women’s reproductive rights their priority.7
The Polish Revolution of October 2020 is different. It is a revolt focused on women and led by women. Images of uteruses and female genitalia are proudly displayed on banners. In this case, ‘woman’ stands not only for women as a social group, but for the rights and dignity of humans, the value of inclusion and the embracement of difference. Regardless of the immediate political outcome, these protests have already produced a cultural and moral change.
The End of the Great Compromises
The Communist regime collapsed in Poland in June 1989. But it was not until four years later, in 1993, that the foundations of the new Polish democracy or the Third Republic became cemented. These foundations consisted of the Concordat with the Vatican, and the anti-abortion legislation. Both acts aimed at consolidating the political, ideological, and economic power of the Catholic Church. As Agnieszka Graff recently wrote, the anti-abortion law constituted the Great Compromise, in which political elites secured the church’s support for political and economic reforms, including Poland joining the EU.
The anti-abortion law constituted the Great Compromise, in which political elites secured the church’s support for political and economic reforms, including Poland joining the EU.
The Great Compromise gave power to the church. It also invigorated, however, feminist activism in Poland. In the lead-up to the 1993 law, women organized to defend their right to abortion. They formed numerous organizations such as the Association “Women’s Dignity,” Pro-Femina, the Polish Feminist Association, and the Federation for Women and Family Planning, among others. They gathered one million signatures to demand a national referendum on the issue of abortion. Political and religious leaders rejected the petition. According to Graff, the suppression of the voices from a large segment of society comprised the “foundation gesture” (gest zalozycielski) of the state-church alliance that was now to reign in Poland.8
After 1993, feminist organizations kept the fight for reproductive rights alive. In 2000, the first manifa or feminist march took place in Warsaw on March 8 to protest a police raid on a gynaecological office in the town of Lubliniec, where a female patient was allegedly undergoing an illegal abortion. Since then, the manifa has been an annual event in Warsaw and other Polish cities to protest against the discrimination of women. The demonstrations, which are conducted under a different theme each year, always include demands for reproductive rights and calls for the separation of church and state. After 1993, women have been building structures and strategies to fight for their rights even as the feminist issues were marginalized or ridiculed in public discourse and the media. They assembled the building blocks of the movement that came into full force more than twenty years later. The turning point came in 2016.
Already in the spring of 2016, new women’s groups and initiatives emerged to counter the government’s efforts to restrict abortion regulations. In April, the leftist party Razem organized street demonstrations under the slogan “We say no to the torturing of women.” On April 3, some women began walking out of church services when priests read the bishops’ declaration in support of a total ban on abortion. Facebook events proliferated such as the one in which women sent the image of a coat hanger to the then female Prime Minister of Poland, Beata Szydło. In July, the citizens’ committee “Save the Women” gathered more than 200,000 signatures in support of liberalizing the existing abortion legislation that would allow for legal abortion in the first trimester.
In September, feminist activist Marta Lempart called for a women’s strike to take place on Monday, October 3. These were the Black Protests and the beginning of the All-National Women’s Strike (Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet or OSK), a grassroots organization that has since helped organize and coordinate protests and strikes in different parts of Poland, mainly by providing the know-how on conducting such actions in local settings. In December, the Abortion Dream Team (Aborcyjny Dream Team) was established to assist women in obtaining an abortion abroad, including arranging the procedure and travel. The organization relies on transitional networks of volunteers at the destination places, who offer help in translation and getting around in the new place.9
The turning point would not have been complete, however, without women from small towns and villages, who thus far remained on the margins of the feminist movement confined to urban centers. In 2016, and to the surprise of many, including feminist organizers, women from small towns and villages joined the Black Protests. These women broke their informal ‘compromise’ with the church.
What enabled the church to thrive was not only the Great Compromise between the church and state, but also the unofficial ‘compromise’ between the church and the faithful, and especially the female faithful. While religious practice had consistently been dropping in Poland since the early 1990s, the priests were still able to hold a powerful grip on local communities in small towns and villages. In these local settings dominated by traditional communities, women rarely acted in non-conformist ways. On the contrary, they attended church services and paid the necessary tributes to the clergy. At the same time, however, women practiced their own reproductive morality in private. Anthropologist Joanna Mishtal identified these practices as “unofficial biopolitics” that were different from church teachings. Unofficial biopolitics developed as a resistance strategy against the church-state ‘gender regime’.10
Under unofficial biopolitics, the decision regarding abortion belongs to the woman, not to the politicians or priests. When in need, Polish women revert to abortion regardless of the law. In 2019, the number of legal abortions in Poland stood at 1,116 (according to the Ministry of Health), but the total number of abortions has been estimated at 150,000-200,000 per year.11 These include illegal abortions, usually performed by doctors in private clinics for a substantial amount of money, and legal abortions that Polish women undergo outside Poland, in other countries of the European Union.
The unofficial biopolitics includes not only private practices, but also organized networks, Internet groups and resources. Women seek guidance and share knowledge about birth control and abortion on social media. They search for doctors willing to perform the procedure. One of the most visible results of unofficial biopolitics has been the persistent low birth rate in Poland.
The informal compromise – the public compliance and private autonomy – seemed to work, especially in small local settings where women had less opportunity for acting in independent ways than in large cities. As long as the anti-abortion law was on the books, the church tolerated unofficial biopolitics. What mattered was the symbolic control over women. At the same time, women were able to shape their lives according to their desires and possibilities despite official restrictions on their reproductive rights.
The courage of these women should not be underestimated as small towns and villages are the strongholds of Law and Justice. Unable to remain anonymous, female protesters risked and continue to risk their reputation and safety.
This informal compromise ended in 2016. Women emerged out of the shadows of unofficial biopolitics onto the streets and markets, often located in front of the churches, in their towns. The courage of these women should not be underestimated as small towns and villages are the strongholds of Law and Justice. Unable to remain anonymous, female protesters risked and continue to risk their reputation and safety. In these local settings, in particular, defending women’s rights and dignity in public is nothing short of a revolutionary act.
A Global Revolution?
As women in Poland took to the streets in late October, women in Nigeria were already demonstrating against police brutality and state violence in their country. The mass protests against police brutality had been underway in Nigeria since 2017, but in October 2020 they were newly galvanized upon the Special Anti-Robbery Squad (SARS) which reportedly fired live rounds into protesters at Lekki toll plaza in Lagos on October 20. Young women, such as the 22-year-old Rinu Oduala, now lead the movement for the disbandment of SARS.12
Around that same time, women in Thailand demonstrated against the military dictatorship that came to power as a result of a coup in 2014. Female students were at the forefront of these mass protests demanding political participation, lifting restrictions on abortion law, and the end to school rules that compelled girls to conform to outdated female gender roles.13 Closer to Poland, in neighboring Belarus, women had led protests against the dictatorship of Alexander Lukashenka since at least May 2020. Just a few weeks prior to the protests in Poland, more than 300 Belorussian women were arrested for participating in the “Women’s March” in Mińsk.14
These are only a handful of examples of recent anti-authoritarian revolts around the globe led by women. Women are not only protesting against authoritarian policies, but also are redefining the political and social landscape. Jenny Gunarsson Payne, who has studied women’s protests in Poland and Latin America, points to the power of these movements in the following way:
The success of the Black Protests primarily lies in that the female and male participants clearly expressed their opposition towards the exclusionary definition of ‘people’ promoted by neoliberal regimes and conservative Christian movements, and then demonstrated an alternative collective identity – a different, feminist and supranational version of ‘people’ – which started to effectively organize on the national and transnational level with regard to broadly defined democratic issues, far beyond the limits of gender identity and reproductive rights.15
When assessing the political impact of women’s protests, we need to go beyond thinking in terms of the immediate political outcomes such as a regime change or a new election. The most powerful impact has to do with re-conceptualizing the political subjectivity of women. The increase in women’s political activism constitutes one of the most powerful outcomes of these protests. We should look at these movements as potentially producing new understandings of politics and new political leaders – women, men, and non-binary people – who would begin to change systems of inequality and oppression inherent in the existing political, cultural, and socio-economic structures.
- In 1956, the abortion law in Poland had been liberalized to include “exceptionally difficult life conditions” as grounds for undergoing the procedure. In practice, this meant that abortion in the first trimester was legal and solely dependent on the woman’s decision. The 1993 legislation removed that clause.
- Galia Chimiak, “Women for Civil Society or Civil Society for Women? The Polish Story,” Annales Universitatis Paedagogicae Cracoviensis. Studia Sociologica 11 (2019), vol. 1, p. 22-34, 28.
- Piotr Pacewicz, “Kaczyński rozstrzyga sprawę aborcji: “’eby kobiety rodziły nawet zdeformowane dzieci, skazane na śmierć,’ OKO.press, 13 October 2016. https://oko.press/kaczynski-zeby-kobiety-rodzily-nawet-mocno-zdeformowane-dzieci-skazane-na-smierc/ Accessed 29 November 2020. Unless stated otherwise, all translations are mine.
- Polish commentators have also pointed out the internal struggles within the ruling coalition, in which Law and Justice is the main party, as factors contributing to Kaczyński’s decision.
- “Protesty przeciwko zaostrzeniu przepisów dotyczących aborcji w Polsce” Wikipedia, https://pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protesty_przeciwko_zaostrzeniu_przepis%C3%B3w_dotycz%C4%85cych_aborcji_w_Polsce Accessed 22 November 2020.
- These signs and banners had first appeared in the Black Protests conducted between 2016 and 2018. See Katarzyna Dojwa-Turczyńska, “’Przeciwnicy’ kobiet na sztandarach… Analiza jakościowa treści transparentów ‘Czarnego Piątku’ (23.03.2018),” Annales Universitatis Paedagogicae Cracoviensis. Studia Sociologica 11 (2019), vol. 1, p. 49-74, 63-66.
- In 1990, scholars and activists often used the phrase “male democracies” to describe the type of governments that emerged in post-communist Eastern Europe. See, for example, Zillah R. Eisenstein, The Color of Gender: Reimagining Democracy (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994).
- Agnieszka Graff, “Coś w Polsce pękło, coś się wylało. Jak młodzi zerwali wielki kompromis z kościołem.” OKO.press, 5 November 2020, https://oko.press/jak-mlodzi-zerwali-wielki-kompromis-z-kosciolem-graff/?fbclid=IwAR1UbZzF3SG-puRQeVD5Hmk4hXd1-y0qBaMf0UKylO8jgYiQIk3nMMeUGLQ Accessed 22 November 2020.
- These networks call themselves ‘aunties’ or ‘ciocie’. Examples include Ciocia Basia in Berlin and Ciocia Czesia in the Czech Republic.
- Joanna Mishtal, The Politics of Morality: The Church, the State, and Reproductive Rights in Postsocialist Poland (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2015), 11.
- The vast majority of legal abortions in Poland take place due to fetal abnormalities, In 2019, this number was 1,074. Only in 33 cases, the procedure was performed due to a threat to health or the life of the woman. See Barbara Erling, Stanisław Dudzik, Katarzyna Korzeniowska, Bartosz Chyż, “W Europie aborcja powszechnie dostępna, a w Polsce ograniczana,” 26 October 2020, Wyborcza.pl https://biqdata.wyborcza.pl/biqdata/7,159116,25342285,aborcja-w-europie-lagodniejsze-przepisy-zabiegow-coraz-mniej.html?_ga=2.188862888.229561629.1607210252-119865019.1597427769 Accessed 5 December 2020.
- Azeezat Olaoluwa, “End Sars Protests: The Nigerian Women Leading the Fight for Change,” BBC News, 1 December 2020 https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-55104025 Accessed 6 December 2020.
- Hannah Beech and Mukkita Suhartono, “Young Women Take a Frontline Role in Thailand’s Protests,” The New York Times, 24 September 2020, updated 2 November 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/24/world/asia/thailand-protests-women.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
- Ivan Nechepurenko, “Hundreds of Women Arrested at Protest in Belarus,” The New York Times, 19 September 2020 https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/19/world/europe/belarus-protests-women.html Accessed 6 December 2020.
- J. Gunnarsson Payne, “Kobiety jako „lud”: Czarne protesty jako sprzeciw wobec autorytarnego populizmu w perspektywie międzynarodowej,” in Elżbieta Korolczuk, Beata Kowalska, Jennifer Ramme, Claudia Snochowska-Gonzalez, eds. Bunt kobiet: Czarne protesty i strajki kobiet (Gdańsk: Europejskie Centrum Solidarności, 2019), 157-183, quotation on 159.
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