This interview with Marta Lempart, one the organizers of the Polish Women’s Strike (Strajk Kobiet), took place at the WAVE (Women Against Violence Europe) Conference in Talin on October 7-9, 2019. Though a year has passed over the interview, we believe it to be quite timely as a means for better understanding the backdrop of Poland’s continued attempts to withdraw from the Istanbul Convention, and in light of the recent major setback in abortion rights by which the country’s top court has declared abortion due to foetal defects unconstitutional, making already strict legislation even stricter and enforcing an almost total ban. An attempt to pass a similar ban through Parliament had been prevented by women taking to the streets as the Polish Women’s Strike. In the interview, Marta Lempart conveys in detail how they organized the strike in a single week, the backlash and repression they have faced since the protests, how the right-wing conservative groups that are today pitted against the Istanbul Convention emerged in the first place, and what made today’s Constitutional Court decision possible. In hope that we learn from the similarities and all that rings familiar to us from our contexts contributes to advancing our common struggle…
On October 3rd 2016, you organized a nation-wide women’s strike in Poland known as “Strajk Kobiet”. With this you were able to prevent legislation that would expand the scope of the abortion ban. How did you organize this huge black protest? Where did the strength of the “black protest” come from?
It happened via Facebook, and I think it is important to say that it wouldn’t happen if it weren’t for Facebook. In that sense, social media is not only “a horrible thing”, but also a tool. Many demonstrations both for democracy and also about women’s rights were already taking place when the abortion ban came up. There were two bills on the agenda. One bill was to legalize abortion, which of course had no chance, and was voted down in the first reading. The second was to ban abortion altogether. That was the really dangerous one. They were voted on the same day, which was a Friday, and the ban was voted to be proceeded forward. On Sunday following the vote nine demonstrations were organized by the left-wing party called Lewica Razem (“Left Together”). They also did a hashtag action on the internet called “Black Protest”. You were supposed to wear black and post it. Of course this was only on the internet, and that wasn’t enough to stop the government. I was a member of the Committee for the Defense of Democracy back then, which was founded to promote the rule of law and struggle for judiciary independence after the current government came to power. I was invited to speak in one of these demonstrations that Sunday, and in my speech I called for a national strike, a national mobilization based on the Icelandic Women’s Strike of 1975.
After I called for the strike, an event was put up on Facebook. There were some friends I worked with in the Committee for the Defense of Democracy and other people gathering around this issue. On this event page, people in other cities started asking where the demonstrations would take place. You see, during that year, since the Committee for the Defense of Democracy came into existence in 2015, there had been protests in different parts of Poland and not only in Warsaw. We could even say that it was the Committee that started this trend of spreading demonstrations from city to city, but they never did simultaneous actions in many different places on the same date (which is what the strike was). They would hold a demonstration in one place first and afterwards in another, and it would go on like that. I too am not from the capital Warsaw, but from Wroclaw, a city in the south west of Poland. So when people started asking, I put up a poll on the Facebook event page, and people started naming cities where they were at. They thought it would be just like Committee for the Defense of Democracy actions, that they would simply be given a date and location to go to in order to participate in the demonstration. But instead they ended up as organizers. Here is how we did it: First, even if there were only two people interested in attending the demonstration in the poll, we put them in contact so they could think of something together, and then we started a Facebook group for the organizers. I invited all those people who had filled in the poll saying which city they were in and started convincing them to do it by themselves because it is not so hard. For the past year I had been running all the events and demonstrations for the Wroclaw Committee for the Defense of Democracy, so I knew all the tools you need to organize an action. I wrote this twelve-point guide on how to organize a demonstration. What you need, how to do everything, etc. Of course some of this is now totally outdated, especially the parts about the police, because the way they are treating these issues has changed completely since then, so we have to update the guide.
The first thing you need to do is connect people. For this Facebook was our basic tool. The second thing is the visuals, the graphic design. We had great visuals, and this is very important. It often happens that you have someone who does graphic design that maybe is not so good, but you know it has to be the best. Ola Jasiomowska, my partner’s friend, is a very good Polish artist. She did this head figure, the women’s strike head. It was just for the background of the Facebook event. It wasn’t even the graphic that we put in the post or something, but it was so good that people started sharing it and it spread. The colors were also important: the black color we took from the hashtag action “black protest”. We stayed in this area of colors, and that was also a difference because we have always had this tendency to do colorful protests with a lot of gadgets and take care not to look too aggressive, not to wear dark colors and so on. Demonstrations were always on weekends, Saturdays and Sundays. So even though they weren’t like picnics, they were more like “events” than “protests”. So this black color was really different.
The organizers group we worked in is, I think, around 450 people now. Back then it was less, maybe 200 -230 or a bit more. Many people joined afterwards because they had taken part in organizing the strike without being in the Facebook group. They had found all the information they needed on the internet. Also big cities aren’t in this group. Not that they were excluded, but more that they didn’t need any help for organizing because in big cities there were already feminist organizations and democracy organizations. They were doing demonstrations all the time, and they were more interested in fighting over who would get the best place on the microphone. So, even though our organizers Facebook is a national group it is also a local group, because it is made up of people from small and medium-sized cities.
So this organizers group for the Polish Women’s Strike is comprised of various individuals rather than organizations or people representing these organizations? How did you manage that group?
Not the organizations, never, the organizations are a horror. I think this was what really made it a success. The greatest fear for many people from small cities was that nobody would come to the protest and they would be like ten people out there. But then they saw the list of the events. It was around 50 events at first, and then over 100. They saw that events in other cities were also very small. So they realized that there are a huge number of people in the same situation, instead of just one city with people worried that only ten people will show up. When you have 50 cities in the same situation you are able to connect over that worry, and this network of worried people can see each other. If we didn’t have Facebook, we would just have people intimidated with the fear that nobody would come. Seeing that it was the same everywhere helped a lot. The same goes for medium-sized cities.
We had highly professional help with Facebook administration. Once we had the event page and then the organizers group, we also felt the need to start a discussion group because we were overwhelmed with the content flowing in. You see, this was the biggest event on Polish Facebook, so we had to separate some of the content. We started a discussion group in order to keep the national event page limited to information about the event, etc. The rest of the content, such as links to interviews, articles and so on, we would put on the discussion group. It was hard because people were very insistent about their posts, but we said you have to join the discussion group and put it there.
We also had people trained in combating internet issues. We had two admins from them. Their name sounds weird in English, but in Polish it is “people from the shadows”. They were able to track hate speech and hate groups, and bring down neo-Nazi groups on Facebook for example. What is quite amusing is that while all these different democratic groups keep arguing and fighting with each other in groups on Facebook, all of their admins are still in touch all the time, and when something happens they all work together. When something big would happen, we also got help from specialists from other groups, not only those in the women’s strike, but also from sometimes very conservative democratic groups.
Internet safety is a huge issue for us because we were attacked by this neo-Nazi Russian party in Poland. All kinds of trolls and bots organize attacks together, and it is very easy to bring down the Facebook event or the site. We wouldn’t have managed if we didn’t know how to deal with this. It is even worse now because the Russian trolls and firms supported by the government are much stronger than three years ago. But even then it was a great danger.
So this is how it was with Facebook, the visuals, the connection, and we also managed to transform people from mere participants to actual organizers, involving them in organizer groups, and helping out all these small and medium-sized cities. Another issue was media coverage. We prepared information bulletins and sent these out to national media, but we would also give it to people everywhere else so they could add their own content and send it to their local media if they knew someone and were connected. Everything we did was open source. All visuals and graphics, and it has been like that ever since. Everybody loves modifying these, and sometimes the results look really horrible but I just don’t care. Nothing is like a closed, uniform project where you have to use the same flyer or poster or background. In the end, there were about 150 cities in Poland and I think 60 cities abroad involved in the strike. This is also important because there are a lot of Polish people living abroad, and I think it is also a result of Facebook that they were very active, reading about and following what is happening in Poland and influencing activist groups they knew in other countries.
What about after the strike? What repercussions did this have in the face of rising right-wing politics and a backlash against women’s rights and feminism everywhere in Europe, with similar discourses on banning abortion and “strengthening the family”?
Three days after the protest, the parliament voted the bill down. There is this lovely story involving the World Congress of Families or whatever, because they actually had a meeting in Poland right then. You know these fundamentalist groups fighting against women. So, they were so sure that the bill would be passed that they were preparing for celebrations. That’s why that meeting, their international meeting was held in Poland. It was a secret meeting, but still they were in Poland because they were sure that they were taking this first big step to ban abortion everywhere and Poland was basically a training field. This is very important because the backlash they got from us was so big that they changed their strategy. They didn’t try it again in any other country. Instead they try different paths like conscientious objection[*] or banning contraception, taking small steps at a time, but never this full confrontational mode they took in Poland. I believe that after implementing it on us, they were prepared to do just that actually. They had bills to ban abortion prepared for other countries as well, but after that meeting in Poland they didn’t try it. One reason is because we are basically no one, and they didn’t know who they were fighting against. We weren’t feminist organizations and we aren’t even “an organization” per se, so suddenly the resistance appeared out of nowhere. They didn’t know who to trace even, who to find. So I think this is the important part because I can see it going on in Croatia, in Italy and everywhere else, also in Poland, this change of strategy. Their approach is now totally different: they connect with branches of government, different agencies etc., instead of going out full on – into Parliament especially. They avoid Parliament, and prefer working with the government and so on.
That’s what happened, and I think what really worked well was that people were organizing by themselves rather than simply going and listening to somebody speaking. One woman even told us, before it was that she would hear feminist icons on TV, and if she wanted to demonstrate, she had to take a bus and go to some big city and just listen to people speaking from a stage. But in small cities you don’t have the stage. It is just people speaking. And they became organizers instead of people attending a protest.
What happened to these new organizers from small cities afterwards? Did they continue being active in protests?
Other than us involving them as organizers rather than simple participants, I think the second thing that “helped” was that the Church went on full crazy mode. This stupidity of theirs became a blessing. Let me tell you how. You see, in spite of all the academic feminists, the big city feminists with their wishful thinking saying that the fight was for legal abortion, it was not. It was just to stop the ban. Of course there were people for freedom of choice, if you listened to the chants and saw the posters you could notice this, but the general struggle was still to stop the ban, that is to stop the ban from getting worse than it already was. There were many people who just wanted the status quo to remain intact, for the ban to stay as it is. But the Church just couldn’t keep silent. If it had, then everything would probably go back to normal in many places. Instead, it decided to attack all of these women who organized protests. They had children at school, going to religion classes where the priest would shout at them saying their mothers are murderers and so on. These women were called out by their names from the altars of churches in small cities. All of this was happening a week or two after the protest. So all of these women who would otherwise go back home saying “The scary ban didn’t pass so we can relax and go back to our normal lives, going to church and our children to their religion classes, etc.” were suddenly under attack. So at one point they said “OK, that’s it, we are done with you.” The church did this. They declared these women enemies instead of just letting it all die down, quiet down in some way. It was especially horrible in small cities, so they lost their ground there with this stupidity. People just had enough.
Based on this irrational response by the Church, we organized a second round of protests on the 24th of October just three weeks after the first protest. It was on the anniversary of the Icelandic Women’s Strike, so we had a good narrative. Narratives matter. When I was writing the strike’s texts, Natalia (Pancewicz), my partner, called it “odes to the nation”. We have to write odes to the nation. So this Icelandic women’s narrative was critical. First because it was this big, massive women’s initiative. Second, because they won. And third, because the word “strike” is very important in Poland.
What do you mean with that? Were there any public debates regarding the difference between a general strike and women’s strike? Did using the term “strike” to define your protest create any controversy?
There were people from unions, especially in other European countries, telling us that we couldn’t use the word “strike” because we weren’t actually “not going to work” but technically “taking a day off” or something. That really is how it worked actually, people either took a day off or bosses let women in their workplaces not work that day. They changed schedules in restaurants and many other places so that only men worked on that day, or mayors of cities said “our offices are closed because no women are working,” and so on. So it wasn’t a strike in the sense that it is with trade unions, but in Poland a strike is a protest, and this is how the communist government was also brought down. Many people in Eastern Europe don’t understand that, for us, striking is not only for wages and not only about the workplace, but it is also a way to bring down the government or to protest something. In Poland this is very strong. So the narrative based on what Icelandic women did, how it was a victory, and also the word “strike” as a key word deep-rooted in our history, all came together to prove successful.
We had this chant or motto in the protests, saying “This parliament is not going any further”. This is actually a quote from Henryka Krzywonos, who was a solidarity icon during the strikes of 1980. She was driving the tram in Gdańsk when the shipyard in Gdańsk went on strike, and she stopped it in the middle of the city and said “This tram is not going any further”. This was what carried the strike on to a national level because before that it was just the shipyard in Gdańsk striking, but when she stopped transportation the whole transport sector in Gdańsk went on strike, and after that other cities joined. So this was the quote we were using and it helped bring back feelings of past solidarity. Anything sentimental helps, I think. I don’t know how it is in different countries, but especially in Poland we are so deep into our own history. This memory of heroes, the nation, its mythology really works, and in my opinion it’s good to use anything that works. Usually we never use these… With this strike, instead, we almost never used a rational, human rights language. Our approach was completely emotional, and it had an effect. The language too is very important – you know, not sounding like everyone has to have a degree in gender. “Intersectional”, for example, is too long of a word to use at home, nobody understands you, so I don’t get why people use that word instead of saying what it actually means. In the black protests our whole narrative was like the way people speak at home. In terms of abortion, for example, instead of saying that this is a human rights issue and talking about the fetus and so on, we said: everybody knows how much it costs, everybody knows how to arrange an abortion, and everybody knows somebody who did it. So let’s stop pretending that this is not happening. If you have the money, you can buy it, and if you don’t have the money you can’t. It is stupid to pretend this is not happening, and we have to change that. Nobody had used this kind of narrative in Poland before because it is like speaking in regular words in public is forbidden. You have to speak in “smart words”. Otherwise you are not allowed to do anything.
We didn’t have any rules or procedures for what people could or couldn’t do. I trust that everybody knows what they are doing, especially in small and medium-sized cities, because they put their face and their names on it, they work there and they live there, and everybody knows them. They wouldn’t do anything to hurt themselves in public in their local communities, so they make their own decisions. That was that. We didn’t have any help from feminist organizations or democratic organizations or political parties. And we didn’t have any help from the media for the first three days of the preparations. Because nobody knew who we were, and I was from Wroclaw, not from the capital city, so how could I know or decide anything anyway?
Did you ask for support from any of these organizations? Or political parties?
Yes, we asked the Committee for the Defense of Democracy actually. I asked my local coordinator, the regional coordinator, she is a very wealthy person and she used this very ugly word for abortion in Polish saying, “Women will do that thing anyway, and it is just a bill, let’s not get hysteric about it.” Because she is very rich, and she can pay for abortion. The 700 euros that you have to pay is like %25 of her income. This ended up being a historical decision because I was in the structures of the Committee so if they actually let me, the committee would have been the organizer for all the protests in Poland, but instead they brushed me off saying “We are not doing this”. They are conservative, basically.
We also asked some feminist organizations, and they said “No, you cannot do it in a week, you have to cancel.” They were pressuring us to make it on Sunday, at least, and not Monday because they kept saying that on Monday, you know, nobody will come. They were so scared that it wouldn’t work, but not because we would fail to stop the ban, instead they were scared about what it will look like. This is the difference in perception when it comes to professionals. They were afraid that we are not going to “look good” if it doesn’t work, while I was thinking if it doesn’t work women will die. This is the difference between being a professional NGO and a person fighting for life. For them it was a power struggle, and they didn’t think they were fighting for life, but rather for their own field. It is different when you fight for the field and for your grants than fighting so that nobody kills you, literally. Of course everybody jumped on board when it became obvious that there were so many events.
After it became successful there were politicians who appeared, saying they had come up with the idea, they had organized it, and they took awards and spoke on TV about it. You know there are these jobs in protests where you have to carry the batteries, the megaphones, the phones, and the power banks, and none of them are around. Then you turn on TV and see Barbara Nowacka or some other politician speaking about why we protest. Many are liars and thieves, these politicians, who say that they came up with the idea and that they did this thing. They are of course not doing it openly, but rather insinuating. And this is very hard to fight because this is the coalition of the media and politicians, an establishment coalition. They prefer nice, skinny women whom they already know and are from Warsaw, so it is easy to the call them to come on TV. This is the fight that we are losing, basically, because nobody wants to know about some strange woman from a small town who works in a hardware store organizing a protest. They ask politicians from Warsaw to speak about how women feel, and they don’t know anything about anything. It has become a bit easier now because I am somehow recognized in Polish media, so I can do something about it, but this fight to speak to real people is ongoing all the time.
Instead of reporting what is happening nationally, people in the national media report what is happening in the capital city. And when it comes to people from the regional media, instead of reporting what is happening in the region, they report from the capital city of the region and the rest doesn’t exist. For them, Poland is like Warsaw and 6 big cities connected by certain pipes that you travel in over this dark hole with insects crawling below. This is what Facebook helped overcome. We were collecting and sharing information that we were 150 cities participating in the strike, and that % 90 of the strike was made up of small cities with less than 50 thousand habitants. Once we were able to say that there were so many cities, there was a chance that they would be reported on. But it was still really hard to push journalists to report from anywhere else but major cities. You know, though, that they will come to us when, for instance, the government goes on election, or if they are in trouble and they need us. And we will have to protest to protect them although they mostly don’t care about us at all. This is really arrogant because they know we will protest like we protested for judiciary independence although the judges are horrible. So we will protest for the journalists although they don’t pay any attention to what’s happening outside big cities.
What about you, were you a member of a women’s group before taking part in the strike organization?
Before I was only in the Committee for the Defense of Democracy, but that was after the current government came to power. The government came in 2015, and the strike was in 2016, so for a year I was just a member in the Committee because the Committee became this major civic opposition during that year. Before that I was working as an activist for the rights of persons with disabilities, it was more like NGO work. I also worked for the Ministry of Labor. I also worked for 10-15 years for the deaf-blind association as vice-president and so on. But it wasn’t this kind of activism, it was more like a job in the third sector, in this NGO sector, not really an activist. I also co-wrote the sign language bill in Poland, and I did some legislative work, but it was 10 years ago, back in 2008.
In various speeches you mentioned that certain charges were brought against you and offices of NGOs were raided by the police. Could you elaborate on that a little bit? What happened and why?
You have to ask the government J An organization called BABA and the Women’s Rights Center (Centrum Praw Kobiet/CPK) – Urszula Nowakowska is from there – were raided exactly one year and a day after the protest (that is, on the 4th of October 2017) because we also held a big protest on the first anniversary of the strike in 100 cities. On the next day, the offices of BABA and CPK (the Women’s Rights Center) were raided, and it was really horrible because uniformed police officers entered their offices and took their computers saying that it was about some project of the Ministry of Justice, that it wasn’t the CPK that was under investigation, but some government officials, and they simply needed data from the CPK for the investigation. But it was the day after the protest.
What they did had a violent impact because along with the computers they took all the data, and this is data on survivors of violence and trauma, and on people who receive support from these centers. These people were also there, visiting and getting help on the day of the raid, and since these offices are usually quite small they witnessed the police men entering. Many of them didn’t come back after that. First of all because they were afraid of their data falling into other hands, and second because of the brutal shock of being invaded by the police while you are in psychological therapy or something like that. There were also lawyers who quit working as volunteers for the Women’s Rights Center because in order to get your license to be a full-time lawyer you need to go through the Ministry of Justice. So this raid was also like a warning for them not to work with women’s human rights centers because you might later have problems getting a license if you are a young lawyer volunteering there. And then they cut the funding. You see, we don’t have offices to be raided, and back then they were still too shy back to raid my home, for example, which is something they would not have problems with now. So, for one, these NGOs have offices that can be raided and the second thing is that they have funds that can be cut, and this was the worst part.
They cut the funding of the CPK, which is the major organization that runs most of the domestic violence centers. The supposed grounds for this funding cut was that they “don’t help men”. Certain local governments stepped in to help, and there were donation collections. We also held concerts to collect money for the local centers, but this system is crumbling because we –I mean the society as a whole– also have to finance so many things. We have to chip in for this and that, for health care and education, because nothing works anymore. This government it is not only crazy, but it is also very incompetent, so we basically don’t have any money. We don’t have enough money for the helpline for children, so people actually had to financially contribute to the helpline and to the suicide prevention line because the government stopped funding it. We collected over two million zloties, but it happens all the time that we have to collect money for basic social services to be continued. So the country, or not the country but rather the state, is actually falling apart.
The women’s rights and human rights centers are getting very little funding and the collection of donations will also keep shrinking. We won’t be able to collect the money they need every year. The local governments will also give them less money because they are afraid to finance them and it is getting worse. So this is what is really critical about the backlash: when we organize something, we always have to take into account that these organizations will be the ones to be hit. So not only us (because that part is by now obvious), but also the survivors of violence, I mean not even NGO workers though them as well, but mostly the people who use these services provided by women’s human rights centers will be made to pay the price.
What about the accusations against you?
They are many, many. I am on various criminal trials. I was on one criminal trial for calling this man a fascist. Recently a criminal charge was brought against me because I called this ex-priest-neo-fascist guru a fascist, and the judge decided that he is a fascist indeed, so I was acquitted. It is now legal to call Jacek Miedlar a fascist. I am very happy. Ordo Iuris is also suing me. It is this crazy anti-women organization part of the World Congress of Families Network. They were the ones who put forward the bill in 2016, so they are suing me for defamation because I called them sadists or something. I sometimes go to these trials just to make the case about how they are indeed sadists or how someone is a fascist.
We have this action called “Don’t vote for PiS”. PiS, that is Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, “Law and Justice Party” is the name of the ruling party. We assembled 100 reasons not to vote for them, and we published these all around Poland saying “it doesn’t matter who you vote, just don’t vote for them”. Apparently they answered this now.
The thing with this backlash is that it is really hard to say that it is against the women’s protest, even though this is the case, because they always have some excuse. They will never say “Oh we don’t like women anymore, so let’s hit the offices of their human rights centers.” They always find a reason. The same goes for shrinking space in civil society and for people losing their jobs. Because the way it works is that you never have a permanent contract, you just have a temporary, year-long contract and it simply isn’t renewed. Many people are hired this way so they don’t even technically have to be fired. Others were involved in local organizations. They took part in the strike, but in these local organizations some did social work or community work. They provided help, or had headquarters or offered places to stay, things they could do based in the community, and then they lost it. They lost their grant. They lost their place for meetings. They lost their place for workshops. They could not rent a place for their video screenings or something like that. It is always in this grey area, where it isn’t really a ban, where every refusal is somehow justified, but this collection of “no”s has now become a wall in front of many activities that aren’t even connected to the strike per se, but rather with people who were involved in it. So you have a person who is, for instance, helping children in some small local community, and just because of who she is she suddenly starts having problems with organizing meetings and workshops or collecting donations, and you know why. Local governments are pro-democratic, but they are very scared, and they will fail us soon I think.
Is the #StrajkKobiet strike movement connected with the international feminist movement?
We are connected with Argentina very much and with Latin America. Both because the situation is very similar there and also because in Europe nobody cared about what we were doing in the beginning. First because people, in general, don’t want to know; and second because people in Western Europe think that they are better than us. You know, because we are a post-communist country, so maybe we did something wrong to bring it on ourselves. I think part of this is a structural, procedural thing that I will never understand, that for many organizations there is a kind of struggle of power and you also have to check all the boxes in order to be a “good feminist”. And we have women, even in the movement, who don’t call themselves feminists. Not very many now, but in the beginning they were very many. There were also many women who were saying “I don’t know if I want to call myself feminist”. Of course it was weird, but it was OK. And then you had people from big cities who kept saying “How can you not call yourself a feminist?!” We actually had to suspend people from the group for a short while so they would regain their senses, because you would find them shouting at women, who were in fact challenging the church and the patriarchy in places where 80% of the space is taken over by this traditional establishment. So they were yelling at women whose experience they knew nothing off, saying “You have to call yourself feminist!” This was aggression stemming from pure privilege. The same goes for the pro-abortion vs. pro-choice argument. It really doesn’t mean anything, and we are still pressured to take this stance of whether we are pro-choice or pro-abortion. This is the problem with international feminism, which we consider highly professionalized, that according to it we are not good enough to be taken into account. It is different in Latin America, because there it is much more grassroots, and they are very well organized on the basis of different people actively doing things.
What about men’s participation in the strike movement? Do they take part in organizing meetings and demonstrations?
It depends very much. In the beginning we had to exclude men, because our society is such that when men would speak in meetings everybody would listen to them. This was a problem. It had to change in women themselves, because they were the ones stopping and waiting for a man to say something. Eventually it changed, and now we have men working with us on a daily basis although not very many. There is a men’s support group for the women’s strike. They even have t-shirts and all. The paradox, however, is that the smaller the city gets the more men there are in these actions. Because, you see, they are the same people fighting for democracy, for judicial independence, for forest protection, now doing the women’s protests. It is always the same five people in a small city. So that means there is more men. This was very surprising for the Latin Americans, for example, because it is our one very big difference with them. The church, the politicians and the situation, and the way they organize and the way we organize are similar. But when it comes to men’s participation they were shocked, saying “Why do you let them come?!”
I should also say that we are more connected with Europe now, because things are also happening there. I have been travelling to Italy and Croatia and different countries to scare people mostly, but still the wall of privilege is really hard to get over. I was giving a training in one of the Western countries on how to organize, how to provide people with tools they need so they can do what they want. And after I was done somebody asked me, “But how can we control who is joining the movement or not?” I felt that my time had been totally wasted. Somebody else said, “We have to decide if we allow people who think this or that to join”. My whole speech, the training went down in flames. It killed me that people just did not understand, that they could not overcome this need to control and monitor instead of support people in doing their thing. I thought that it was very post-Soviet, but it is not. This need for hierarchy, and this general thinking that we have ups and downs, and the up tells the down what it is supposed to do. It is stupid, but it is very strong.
After the strike there were many organizations that wanted to take us over for example. They kept saying you should do this, and you should do that… You know… We said, no, we will decide what we will do! This is a problem in the whole of Europe, but I also think it’s the same everywhere. There is an establishment privilege problem in activism. There are people who think they can tell other people what to do instead of support them in deciding to do that whatever they want to do. If we don’t change this, we are at a loss. Feminist movements won’t be massive as long as there is this decision-makers team on one side and then this doers team on the other. It just won’t work. It doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t work for us.
So how does it work for you? As in what is the functioning of the national organization of the Strajk Kobiet like?
We have this national organization that does national mobilizations. So when someone puts a proposal on Facebook about something happening, I collect all the commentaries, put them in groups and edit them into the post until it is done. This way we don’t fight in the comments, instead everybody reads the post that has been changed accordingly. When some people do local actions, we support them. It doesn’t matter what they do, we just put the full national support behind something happening elsewhere. It’s enough for them to just put information on the group. So let’s say they are starting a petition to change some street name after some famous protest. We put this on the national agenda without going through the procedure of whether the project is worth it or not. The fact that the local strike group is doing this is enough for us. We don’t feel the need to advise them or correct them, or tell them “OK you are doing this, but what if you did it this way”. You know how people keep saying “I support you but”, “I support you but you are doing this wrong”? I call it “the Facebook institute of better knowledge.” It happens after every protest. I don’t know if it is the same in Turkey also, but when you do anything related to activism there are always people who say “but you should have done this”. Imagine that, with all these great ideas about what should be done, everybody would actually do that? We would have to have six billion people working all the time. And people sit back and get angry about what you haven’t done. Here we call it “The Homework”. Because it’s literally like they are giving you homework!
Of course we also actually do things in support or solidarity with other organizations. For example, there was this organization in Poland against child abuse in the church. They don’t exist anymore because they had some problems. They were only active in Warsaw and I think two more cities, so they asked us to join their baby shoes remember action, where they were hanging shoes. So we actually did that in 90 cities in Poland. This is a typical example of things we unofficially do in connection with other groups. But this is when someone comes to ask you for support or works with you, rather than simply telling you “You have to do this because it is important”. That kind of commanding attitude blocks the way.
Is there anything you would like to add?
I’ve already said it, but what I think is most important is this change in strategy by those attacking us. What we are now facing are “smaller” issues like the lack of emergency contraception or sexual education. Little points being hid in different places. It is causing great harm because it is very hard to protest about small things. This is very dangerous, much more dangerous than the full confrontational mode. And this is what the government is doing. It is the same with the whole anti-LGBT campaign. But there is also reason to be hopeful. Even though there is a general decline in the human rights sector in Poland, after these three years, polls show that 69% of people are for legal abortion. This number was just 37 in 2016. Because each time we have to protest the ban, people end up thinking, this is stupid, let’s just make it legal. Even though they didn’t think this way before, they start questioning “Why is it banned?”
This has worked, and this works for marriage equality as well because support for it in Poland was around 12% a couple of years ago and now it is 52%. It is true that we are facing a backlash, and really dangerous things are happening, but at the same time, when you look at the research, people are getting much more progressive very fast. There is a jump. Maybe we have to thank them for that, I don’t know… But it is actually happening, and it’s in the statistics, and in the polls; and it so matters also because it puts pressure on the conservative party and the opposition party. They have to change their ways somehow and stop being so church-centered. So while one of the two major signs of the time is backlash, the second is a general understanding of human rights issues in Poland that we would never have expected. It happened so fast and this is indeed optimistic, but still I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone, because it is too high of a price to pay and, no matter what, not a good way for societies to develop, I believe.
[*] The concept of “conscientious objection”, which means people’s refusal to enlist, especially for anti-militarist reasons, is used by right-wing conservatives in reference to the doctors refusing to provide healthcare to women in the context of abortion.
Proof-reader: Müge Karahan