Back in 2005, few groups of people gathered for the first time in the centre of the city bathed by the Baltic Sea. This year, Manifa Trojmiasti (Tri-City) passed through the streets of Gdansk on the 110th anniversary of International Women’s Day, with nearly 200 people expressing their opposition to the destruction of the Earth by capitalism and patriarchy and preach women’s rights.
In a country with deep conservative roots, it has been 15 years since the first demonstration, which was an initiative of the University of Gdansk’s Gender Scientific Circle. This year it was organized by the Centre for Women’s Rights – Gdańsk Branch, WAGA Association, Young Plague and Tolerado Association for LGBT People.
Driven by this year’s motto “Women and the Earth have too much to bear” (Kobiety i Ziemia mają za dużo do zniesienia), around dozens of people marched through the Długi Targ (Long Market)– the main and most recognizable street in Gdansk – to the Złotej Bramy or Golden Gate. Songs and drummers were played by the Choir of the Tri-City Women’s Action and Rhythms of Resistance Tri-City to express their solidarity with the climate movement but also to demonstrate their opposition to unequal treatment, sexual and domestic violence and the so-called glass ceilings, said Manifa2020, the march’s organizer.
Green and pink were the official colours of this year march, but many other flags, symbols and costumes showed up by the attendees, such as rainbows flags, pink wigs and billboards with messages in Polish and English.
“We go out on the street and preach women’s rights. Every year we do not forget about the anniversary of International Women’s Day and we pay tribute to the workers in New York who died fighting for decent working conditions”, said city activist and feminist Lidia Makowska, opening the 16th Manifa Tri-City, reported by the newspaper Wyborcza.pl.
“Let’s be as fearless, unbroken and solidarity as our spiritual great grandmothers. We still have a lot to do. We need the solidarity of feminist men.”, said Makowska, who emphasized that a climate catastrophe needs women, what the patriarchy pushes to the margins – empathy, reason, solidarity, care, cooperation, not competition.
“I am glad that women’s rights are a matter for the whole society. Right-wing conservatives are striving to create such a legal system that will lock women in their homes. It can’t go on like this”, said Marek Rutka, MP of Spring party (Wiosna in Polish).
“I am glad that you are protesting for the end of the Middle Ages in Poland. Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński wrote about women’s hell over a hundred years ago. This hell continues!”, said Rutka.
Some of the organizations that participated in the march were also Amnesty International Tri-City, Socialist Action, Young Plague, My name is Miliard – One Billion Rising Poland Tri-City, Springtime in Pomerania, Total Party Pomerania, The Green Party – Region of Pomerania, The Party Social Justice Movement Pomerania, Better Gdansk Association, Sex Work Polska and Political Criticism.
Although more than a decade has passed since then, even today Women’s Day is remembered in Gdansk and all over Poland as a period of time to give gifts to the female figure, to recognize with chocolates, roses and other superficial objects how valued she is in the family bosom and to point out that woman is a pillar but also someone beautiful and weak who must be protected.
Tug of war
Women in Poland, however, have taken the lead in stopping the retrograde measures that the ruling party, Law and Justice (PiS, the acronym in Polish), wanted to introduce, and more specifically, they have fought for their rights to be upheld, for example in the area of abortion.
Poland has some of Europe’s most restrictive abortion laws. It is permitted only if there is a threat to the mother’s life, if there is a fetal abnormality, or when pregnancy has resulted from rape or incest.
“Under Poland’s draconian abortion law—one of the strictest in the European Union—even when it is permitted, few doctors are willing to perform the procedure, forcing women to seek abortion on the black market, where they risk their health and sometimes their lives”, says Madeline Roache, a journalist focusing on European and Russian politics in an article for the Foreign Policy magazine.
Officially, about 1,000 women a year obtain legal abortions in Poland, says Shaun Walker, central and eastern European correspondent to the Guardian, but campaigners estimate the true number of abortions annually is about 150,000, which includes those who use pills in the early stages of pregnancy and women who travel elsewhere for surgical abortions.
Where do Woman in Poland stand now
The British journalist Madeline Roache explains in an article in Foreign Policy magazine that in 1989, after the collapse of communism, the new Polish government sought to impose an outright ban on abortion, which had been legal in Poland since 1956. Widespread protests against the ban led to the creation of the restrictive 1993 “compromise bill” that is in place today. However, as surveys from that time showed, about 60 percent of Poles opposed the bill.
“Women had no say in the decision. The church and politicians decided for us, and they are still deciding for us today,” said Krystyna Kacpura, the executive director of FEDERA to Foreign Policy magazine.
In 2015, the conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party, strongly aligned with the church, won an outright majority in Parliament, giving rise to an increasingly nationalistic atmosphere that embraced anti-abortion rhetoric, says Roache.
In March 2016, a citizens’ organization, Ordo Iuris, presented a bill in parliament that was immediately endorsed by key figures in Polish politics: then Prime Minister Beata Szydło; Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the right-wing Law and Justice party, along with a majority of PiS members of parliament; and the National Council of Bishops, which issued a letter supporting the complete criminalization of abortion, explains the Polish feminist philosopher Ewa Majewska to the Jacobinmag magazine.
Lawmakers tried to impose a full ban on abortion, which threatened to imprison women seeking abortions and doctors who performed the procedure for up to five years. Even “suspicious” miscarriages could be investigated, explains Roache.
Such a bill led to almost 100,000 women taking to the streets in what is remembered as the most massive mobilization of women since 1993, when the current law was installed. At that time, one million signatures were collected to keep abortion legal, as it was under communism, says Majewska.
People were furious, explains Majewska . “Thousands of men and women took to the streets across Poland in the “Black Protests”—one of the largest demonstrations in the history of the country—forcing the government to abandon its plans. Now, it is trying again. The current Polish Parliament is working on the “stop abortion” bill, authored by staunch conservative groups, that would outlaw abortion for the most common reason: fetal malformation.”
The church, anti-abortion groups, and government have transformed abortion into a deeply moral issue that has polarized the population, says Roache.
These messages are shocking for women who grew up under communism. Kacpura remembers when abortion was just a procedure and noncontroversial.
Abortion is already banned in some regions thanks to the “clause of conscience,” which gives doctors the right to refuse an abortion on faith grounds. Although they are obligated to refer a woman to another doctor, it rarely happens, according to Kacpura.
The scale of the Black Protests signified a turning point in uniting women on the issue, and there’s no doubt that opposition to further restricting abortion is strong. So far, protesters have managed to stop a bad situation from getting worse. But much greater work is needed to challenge the abortion laws that were never democratically implemented and to counter the government’s latest efforts, says Roche.
As it is written in the Jacobin magazine, Arkadiusz Czartoryski, a PiS MP, said that during World War II women were raped and “gave birth to many good Poles. Why should that be changed now?”
With the Catholic Church as the social basic for this law, the Law and Justice (PiS) party on government and the supposedly liberal political parties, such as PO or the Social Democratic Party defending the law, woman had to put their trust in other organizations such as Razem (Together), which is the only political party organizing protests against the new law, joining the protests organized by feminist groups and overtly criticizing the “compromise” law.
Polish woman, on track
Views on abortion among people in Poland, which is strongly Catholic, are slowly becoming more liberal, and the 2016 protests, a.k.a “Black Protest”, showed that almost all Poles back abortion rights in cases of rape or where the woman’s life is in danger. But a survey that year also found that only 14% thought a woman not wanting to have a child was an acceptable reason to have an abortion, according to Roche.
The Federation for Women and Family Planning (FEDERA) said in their 2019 annual report that they have hope for progress in terms of sexual and reproductive health and rights in 2020. “We are counting for attempts of progressive reforms and actions improving the access to various services – gynecological and perinatal care, accessibility of contraception and prenatal testing, and finally decriminalization and liberalization of abortion”.
Hopefully younger generations who grew up in the democratic era will progressively stand up as well as their mothers and fight for their undermined rights. Still a long way to go, but woman in Poland are on track.
The photographies showed are just a personal glimpse of the 2020 Gdansk March.