Women are at the heart of a protest movement that has grown and fought on the streets of Poland since October, sparked by a court ruling banning most abortions. However, this was never a single protest. Something deeper is going on and it has been building up for years.
Hundreds of thousands of women, teenagers and their male allies have been walking the streets of cities and towns across the country every few days for weeks, defying tear gas, court orders, harsh police tactics and rising Covid infections.
Ask them why, and many will say that a riot was inevitable.
“There is pressure to go to every single protest, even if you are completely exhausted and have no energy to work, to go to school,” said Zoe Ślusarczyk from Warsaw, who at 15 is a member of a newly active group, younger Generation that flocked to the protests and shocked the government.
What is underway in Poland is a violent renegotiation of the foundations of government power and backroom agreements, almost entirely among the men who built them. Women’s demands for reproductive freedom and their demands for more equality threaten to change a power structure that has existed since the fall of communism.
Such disruptions have been seen around the world in the wake of the #MeToo movement, which overthrew many powerful men, but none got so directly into politics as in Poland. Gender equality would disrupt a decade-long political regime in the country: a symbiotic relationship in which the Catholic Church gives politicians their authority in exchange for the government’s enforcement of church morals, including restricting abortion.
This agreement now seems to many to be a failed deal with an institution found deficient after it was revealed that when the Church was led by Pope John Paul II before his Pope, it protected pedophile priests. The Polish Catholic Church declined to comment on the article, but referred the Times to previous statements on the holiness of life and the protection of children.
And the Church’s claim to be the defender of Polish democracy, won through the support of the solidarity movement against communism in the 1980s, has been undermined by the ruling Party’s acceptance of Law and Justice, which dismantled liberal institutions and xenophobic and promoted authoritarian politics.
“A treaty between bishops and politicians”
Most scholars of political transition will tell you that successful transformations have one thing in common: their leaders do not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good.
Poland’s transition to democracy and the compromises made were no exception. After the fall of communism in 1989, the Catholic Church gave decisive support to the pro-democracy movement. While this allowed for a smoother transition to democracy than many other post-communist countries, it left the church deeply anchored in politics and was able to insist that the new government regulate the church’s position on social issues.
One of the main priorities for the Church was a law restricting abortion, which was widespread in the communist era.
The resulting abortion law of 1993 was “like a contract between politicians and bishops,” said Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus, a left-wing MP known for her investigations into the sexual abuse of children in the church. The law came with a few exceptions: it allowed abortions in the event of rape or incest, mother’s death, or fetal abnormalities.
It could not be hidden, however, that women had more reproductive freedom under communist rule than in the new democracy.
“It was not a compromise for modern society, for women,” said Danuta Huebner, a Polish member of the European Parliament. “Emotionally, this thing was never resolved.”
Subsequent governments have concluded similar negotiations on issues such as Poland’s membership of the European Union. And in 2015, the Law and Justice Party led by Jaroslaw Kaczynski came to power with a pitch to voters that combined economic generosity and angry nationalism with Catholic social conservatism. The party’s presidential candidate Andrzej Duda won re-election that year.
But women have gained economic and social power, even as the far-right government urges to preserve traditional gender roles that remain popular with voters, both men and women, in many rural areas. According to the OECD, the gender pay gap for median earners in Poland is only 10 percent, one of the smallest differences between the countries in the group. Forty-three percent of young women have a university degree, compared to just 29 percent of young men. When Poland joined the European Union, it opened up new opportunities to work and travel in more secular countries.
Many Polish women, especially in the cities, who are empowered in other areas of their lives, are less willing to accept a church that excludes them from positions of power and authority – or a political system that gives this church power over their lives.
“I think, I feel, I decide,” a characteristic slogan of the protests, was sung in streets and squares across the country during weeks of demonstrations.
‘Us and Them’
Mr. Kaczynski says the Catholic Church is fundamentally interwoven with the Polish nation and the Polish nation itself. And that means embracing your values.
Party leaders have claimed that homosexuality is a threat to the nation’s soul and that the secular values of the European Union are incompatible with Polish life.
Ms. Ślusarczyk, the high school girl from Warsaw, said she fears those who believe in this vision of Polish and believes that many hate her for not sticking to it.
“When I go out of the house and see someone wearing a shirt with a Polish flag or a national symbol or a symbol of Independence Day, I’m scared,” she said. “Because of the way the country is divided, it’s always ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
No problem has created an open conflict between these factions like abortion. In 2016, Law and Justice attempted to pass a law banning abortion for fetal abnormalities, which accounts for more than 80 percent of procedures performed annually, but failed after major protests erupt.
The government then turned to the Constitutional Court, which was full of party loyalists, and asked for the same restrictions on constitutional grounds.
When the court issued its ruling on October 22nd, the country exploded into even bigger protests.
Although the government later delayed the entry into force of the abortion law, protests continued, with high expectations that it will eventually be enforced.
Anna Jakubowska, 40, a businesswoman from Warsaw, kept coming back to one word when she tried to explain what made her and so many other women protest: anger.
“We are very angry,” said Ms. Jakubowska about politicians who legally stipulate that women have to give birth to severely disabled children but do not support them as parents, and about fathers and grandfathers who reject the trauma of an unwanted pregnancy. Most of all, she said, she was angry with the power granted to the church despite excluding women from its hierarchy.
Last year, the documentary “Tell No One” drew public attention to the history of the Polish Church in protecting priests who had raped and molested children for years.
A survey by IBRiS last year found that less than 40 percent of Poles trusted the Church, up from 58 percent in 2016.
For Ms. Jakubowska, the contrast between the standards the Church wanted to impose on women and the standard by which she adhered to her own clergy was too great to endure.
“The Bible says if you are the sinner you have to pay the consequences,” she said, “but there are no consequences.”
She added, “That’s why women take to the streets.”
A generation that rejects the power of the church
In most countries, angry teenagers yelling at someone in authority would be a dog-bite-man story. When a video appeared in late October of young women berating a priest in the northwestern city of Szczecinek with profanity, it went viral.
The confrontation with Szczecinek “miraculously shows the generation that rejected the power of the church,” said Carolin Heilig, a doctoral student at the University of London who studies civil society, gender and protest in Poland.
Ms. Huebner, Member of the European Parliament, said that for young Poles “this dissatisfaction has been around for a long time”.
“The church, which has this impact on the ruling party, this host-parasite relationship that exists in Poland, is no longer approved by the people,” she said.
Poland’s protests were disturbing, but their outcome remains uncertain. Change can be frightening even to those who disapprove of the church-state symbiosis. Uncovering this entanglement will also affect personal relationships, religious beliefs, and career choices. For many, this prospect is too daunting.
“The important thing is to talk about it,” said Ms. Ślusarczyk. “For example, for grandmas and dads, people who don’t get it because they were never taught to get it.”
But Ms. Jakubowska believes that change is inevitable.
“Even girls in small towns, even if they are still under the rule of men – because they are – they are changing,” she said. “In a few years there will be a big change because the church will be empty.”
Anatol Magdziarz reported from Warsaw.