It’s a woman’s job to stand for her liberties

18 November 2020 /

6 min

Targeting women’s rights in illiberal democracies is by no means surprising, it is part of a process. On the other hand, expecting women to be compliant in such situation is quiet astonishing. Time again, European history has proven that women’s protests have the power to induce change in politics. In Poland, the voices of women are not to be left unheard.   

On Thursday 22nd October, eleven out of thirteen judges from the polish Constitutional Court ruled that abortion in the case of foetus abnormalities was unconstitutional. With the ruling, the Court effectively put a ban on one of most performed type of abortion in Poland (about 98 percent of cases). The decision immediately sparked anger among women that had already little alternatives when it came to reproductive rights. A few hours later, polish citizens, mostly young women, descended onto the street to protest the Court’s decision, in the midst of a pandemic. Soon, millions gathered in cities across the country brandishing signs that would say “I wish I could abort my government” and “This is War”. Since that day, the Strajk Kobiet (literally Women’s Strike) symbolised by a red lightning bolt has become the longest standing protest since the country’s democratic transition, forcing the government to retreat on its decision.

Democracies against women’s rights

Since its inception to government in 2015, the Law and Justice party (PiS) has consolidated its power by reversing the liberal institutions of a country that was once a model of post-communism democracy. In turn, the country has been undergoing a process quiet predictable given Jaroslaw Kaczynski’s (PiS’ leader) plan of turning the country into an illiberal democracy – similar to Orban’s Hungary. Over a short period of time, PiS has been able to turn the clock backward on the democratic achievement of the Polish society. First, the party took control of the judiciary by appointing party members to the Court. Then, the government politicised the national media, whilst attempting to censor the free press and other news outlets. In addition, they replaced the CEO of state-owned companies with sympathisers of the party and have been relentlessly attacking civil societies, delegitimizing their role in the public sphere. All of those actions are part of pattern when left unrestrained becomes a recipe for disaster for women’s rights.  

PiS has been pursuing an ultra-conservative agenda which follows traditional family values where the woman’s role in society is to become a mother and raise (what is hopefully) a large family. Civil societies and other organisations who oppose that idea are depicted by the ruling party as villains seeking to destroy the nation. Poland, as for many other European countries, has seen its population shrink over the years. The solution for its nationalist government is to tie down women, following a logic whereby low status for women leads to greater fertility rate (this type of logic is disputed by experts). With the “Family 500 plus” program, the party aims at boosting the birth rate in the country by providing subsidies for every additional children per family. With this kind of policies, the party has remained popular with lower income families who share similar values with the Law and Justice party.

By large, the party’s legitimacy stems from the Catholic churches which has supported its conservative policies. With about 87 percent of the population belonging to roman catholic church, PiS has had no difficulty gaining public support from Catholics approving of the types of policies pertaining to their religious beliefs.  The Party has pursued policies that promote the role of traditional family, that is defined by the union between a women and a men. Poland’s familialism approach has become central to the country by accusing those opposing such ideas as a threat to the nation. In such, the PiS has been successful in redefining the country’s demos, where heteronormative families are at the centre of politics. Minorities and liberals are described by the party as outsiders seeking to destabilise the nation.

Those so-called outsiders are frequently used as scapegoat for the country’s problem. For instance, the recent surge in Covid-19 cases are blamed on the Women’s Strike, whereas critics have pointed to the governments lack of testing and mishandling of the second wave. In such a political climate, opponents to the ruling party will always be seen as “enemies” in the eyes of its supporter, regardless of the factual truth. In the case of Poland, women are left with only two options: comply or fight for their convictions.

The force of women’s strikes

Women’s protest can have an extraordinary impact on the outcome of the political process. In 1966, Belgian women from the Frabrique Nationale went on a thirteen-week strike to protest their small wages compared to their male counterpart. The event was one of the first instance of women militancy in Europe forcing trade unions to acknowledge the importance of working women. Another turning-point was the 1975 Icelandic women’s protest, when 90 percent of the women population went on a strike for a day, refusing to work, cook, clean and take care of children. That day became known as the “Long Friday” as (tired) men were left to cope with tasks usually performed by women. The economic impact was substantial enough to demonstrate the vital role women play in society. For many Icelanders, that day was the spark behind the election of the world’s first elected woman, Vigdis Finnbogadottir.

More recently, the Women’s March in the United States, brought together women from all across the country. Women wearing pink hats – called “pussyhat”, denounced the president misogynist remarks, but also the lingering gender inequalities of the country. Without a doubt, the movement led women to translate their words into political action. During the following 2018 midterms elections, American women made history by winning in records numbers positions in the US Senate, the US House and state governors.

In Poland, women activism is not new either. In 2016, Polish women went on a strike to protest a law proposal that would ban all forms of abortion. The day become to be known as “Black Monday” as it paralysed the country’s economy for an entire day. According to the OECD, 60 percent of Polish women are employed, while representing about half the population. When they come together, their demands carry more weights with politicians who have no choice but to listen. The protest also have the power to politicise young women and to translate their protest into ballots and further political action.

The Women’ Strike is purely a grassroot movement. It is decentralised and organised by different organisations from all over the country.  The movement represents voices that were silenced by the state media and government, but when given a chance is capable of rallying masses from all over the country. The protest might not be sufficient to overthrow the current government, yet its impact should not be underestimated. Due to its length, we can confidently expect the movement to have repercussions over years to come. More than ever, we see young women (from all over the world) becoming more empowered and marching to protect their right against conservative institutions. By doing so, they are shaking the confidence of politicians – and the status quo.

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