Picture of a sign designed by Dominika Komender used at a protest in Poland in 2016 which reads (in translation): 'You can't knock us all up'

The Ongoing Fight for Rights in Poland

Pictured: In 1989, a popular slogan at protests was "you can't lock all of us up." Shrewdly updated for the Black March in Poland four years ago, Dominika Komender’s sign reads: "you can't knock all of us up."

At the time of writing (30th November), the National Women’s Strike in Poland has now been going strong for thirty-eight days. Huge crowds have gathered and marched through major Polish cities, with an estimated 100,000 protesting in Warsaw alone back on 30th October. These are the largest protests Poland has seen in four decades, and the movement shows little sign of losing momentum any time soon.

The Sejm and Senate Complex in central Warsaw continues to be surrounded by barriers, while some nearby shops have closed and boarded up. Thousands of police have been summoned to “monitor” those gathered, with protesters suggesting that they are growing more aggressive. Perhaps the most widely covered example of this has been the arrest of Agata Grzybowska, a photographer seized and escorted away in the back of a police van as she was taking photos of the security forces for a publication. She claims this was an attempt to intimidate her into admitting guilt. She has since been released from her detention following increased pressure from the media.

For many in Poland, the recent developments do not come as a surprise. Since coming to power in 2015, the Law and Justice Party (PiS) has frequently targeted minorities. Notably, the introduction of “LGBT-free zones” was a major policy in their 2019 re-election campaign. Several municipalities in the country have since declared themselves as such, which has led to aggravated international tensions. The EU has withdrawn funding from some regions of Poland, while most recently the French retail company Carrefour withdrew sponsorship from Polish media companies, after their attention was drawn to their brand being pictured next to reports on the “rainbow plague.” As with LGBTQ+ rights, the Polish Government rhetoric suggests that abortion is an attack on traditional family values and on Polish identity (although with harsh restrictions on access to contraception, the withdrawal of sex and relationship education, and the lack of welfare provided for young women and children born with severe disabilities, it remains to be seen how much PiS truly values the family). This discourse has only kindled the alt-right sentiment which led to their instalment in the first place, evidenced in the march of 60,000 white nationalists on Polish Independence Day back in 2017. A political columnist for The New Yorker, Masha Gessen, has suggested that the National Women’s Strike is beginning to look more like a “revolution.” She writes that “the goal now, it seems, is to bring down the government.”

I caught up with three students from the University of St Andrews to talk about their time spent in Poland and their thoughts as they witness these events from Scotland.

Dominika Komender shared her experience of living in Poland under the PiS: “remembering who they were from their 2005 ruling coalition, one of the first things I did was get an IUD (Intrauterine Device) while I still could, despite it costing me a month’s salary. I was petrified. I realised my access to contraceptives may be severely limited and any "accident" may result in being forced to stay pregnant and give birth – one of my biggest fears and nightmares.” Ariadne Marek also expressed fears about time spent in Poland: “Poland has never been a country with good women's or minority rights. As a queer woman of Jewish ancestry, I have felt unrepresented and frankly unsafe.”

Tomek Eames suggested that while six years ago Poland looked like an all-respecting social democracy (by Eastern European standards), these issues are far more culturally embedded: “if we want to effectively and permanently change and challenge political attitudes towards women and minorities we need to look at the material and social base from which these prejudicial superstructures arise.” This crux of this is perhaps most evident in the fact that men under forty report that “the LGBT movement and gender ideology” is the biggest threat facing them in the 21st century.

While discussing issues of national identity with these students, it emerges that there is a dissonant understanding of what it means to be “Polish” at present. As Ariadne points out, Poland is a country with a rich cultural heritage.  “I identify as Polish and proudly so,” she states, “but while I am proud of my culture, I cannot help but feel embarrassed to be Polish at present.” Dominika’s comments meanwhile touched on a sense of dislocation: “I shared no values with the Poland I left, and we have drifted even further apart since then. I do, however, feel an immense connection to my friends who are on the front lines, and to the cause of separating church and state.”

All three students wanted to offer praise for the work done by the University Polish Society and FemSoc, raising awareness of the ongoing turmoil on campus, and sending out a strong message of solidarity. Asked about what role the University itself could take, Tomek was pessimistic: “I don’t think any extra-polish influences can do anything impactful, to be honest.” However, Dominika had a few ideas: “the context of the current situation in Poland spans over the last fifty-one hundred years. I'd love to see the University inviting guest lecturers like Agnieszka Graff and other Polish feminists to explain the situation in more detail, within a more academic framework.”

Despite a delay in enshrining the law at present, many hospitals have already stopped terminations in Poland, even with malformed foetuses. Desperately, many women who have been informed that there are foreseen complications have been travelling from hospital to hospital. This delay is not a victory, but a prolonging of uncertainty. For many, the future remains worryingly unclear.