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People wear protective face masks and hold banners as they protest for the fourth day against the Constitutional Court ruling on tightening the abortion law in front of the archbishop's palace on October 25, 2020, in Krakow, Poland. (Omar Marques / Getty Images)
Poland’s Women Are in the Streets
Escalating protests over new restrictions on abortion in Poland are a sign that the ruling PiS party’s illiberal democracy may be losing its grip.
By Andrew Pasquier, The Nation, November 20, 2020
Krakow—“We go right to TVP Krakow! Truth instead of lies!” The updates in the secret Telegram chat kept pinging in. Our next protest target: the headquarters of TVP—the Polish state media corporation that since 2015 has been a mouthpiece of the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party. It was the second big action on a dreary night some two weeks after Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal placed a near-total ban on abortion. The first protest—an automobile and bicycle blockade—was already a success. A seemingly endless phalanx of honking cars and whooping cyclists snaked from the north to the south end of the Vistula River, snarling rush-hour traffic along a major thoroughfare.
The initial Strajk Kobiet (Women’s Strike) movement emerged in 2016 in response to proposed anti-abortion legislation that PiS later withdrew in the face of demonstrations. What the party’s hard-liners couldn’t achieve legislatively they’ve now won through the courts. Before the tribunal’s ruling, Poland already had one of Europe’s most restrictive laws regarding abortion, banning it except in cases of fetal defects, rape, incest, or threats to a mother’s health. Last year, terminations due to congenital defects accounted for 97 percent of the 1,110 legal abortions in Poland. Now, with the high court finding the first exception unconstitutional, legal abortions would drop to near zero.
Opinion polls before and after the new ruling have consistently found that a clear majority of Poles oppose further restrictions, with the court’s decision enshrining a minority opinion in a manner somewhat paralleling the fears of many American progressives about how Amy Coney Barrett’s appointment could threaten abortion access in the United States. Building on momentum from past fights, within a matter of days of the October 22 ruling, the decentralized Women’s Strike channeled simmering anger at the right-wing direction of Poland into mass demonstrations drawing hundreds of thousands of Poles into the streets in defiance of coronavirus restrictions.
The daily protests deploy cohesive, Internet-friendly organizing tactics and symbols: umbrellas and wire hangers jutting out of car windows in the blockades; banners with pink lightning bolts hanging from apartment windows; and minute-by-minute updates via encrypted messaging apps letting protesters know where not to be when the police show up. The Telegram group in Krakow is called Solidarność nasza bronią: “Solidarity is our weapon.” And much like the Solidarity movement strikes in the 1980s, the current Women’s Strike movement is clamoring to remake a divided Poland.
So far—during the current battle in an ongoing culture war—the protesters seem to be winning. On November 4, the government backtracked in the face of the unrest, delaying implementation of the controversial ruling. Yet the abortion issue is just the tip of the iceberg of discontent—a symbol for the wider rollback of rights and the rule of law under the Law and Justice government. Now, a month since the court ruling, my Telegram keeps pinging, and the daily protest actions churn on with a growing list of demands. Kasha, an undergraduate I meet at one of the protests, puts it bluntly: “It’s not only about the abortion ban at this point. It’s about overthrowing the government.”
Facing demographic and cultural change, PiS and its conservative coalition partners have only eked out small majorities in the past few elections. As rhetoric heats up, each side trades blame and digs in, further polarizing the country in what feels like the sort of existential cultural battle currently wracking American politics. While many protest chants keep the focus on women’s rights—“I think, I feel, I decide”—the most prevalent mantra, screamed out of windows and spray-painted on walls, is simply “Jebać PiS”: Fuck PiS. Rather than calm tensions, party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski inflamed them in a fiery speech to parliament calling on supporters to “defend Poland, defend patriotism” and “defend Polish churches” against the atheistic mob: “This is the only way we can win this war.”
While Kaczynski’s bellicose language is hyperbolic, he does accurately pinpoint a defining feature of the current movement: its willingness to challenge the Catholic Church, long the third rail of Polish politics. Activists are actively targeting the powerful institution—from disrupting Sunday services to screaming in the face of a local priest (as seen in one viral video). While the church was instrumental in the fight against Communism in the 1980s, many now blame it for facilitating the country’s contemporary rightward drift.
A new encrypted message came though on my phone following the protest against the state media company: “We have had enough! The same people who celebrate the pseudo-tribunal’s verdict defended pedophiles for years, reaping financial benefits. Are you surprised? We aren’t!” This was accompanied by a Facebook event link for a vigil in remembrance of the “victims of church abuse.” An hour later, a somber crowd of several hundred people occupied the street outside the archbishop’s palace here. Organized by the activist group DOŚĆ Milczenia (Enough Silence), the gathering turned religious symbolism against the church. Protesters ripped up chrysanthemums, funerary flowers, throwing the petals on three child-size wooden coffins surrounded by a sea of votive candles in allusion to traditional Polish Day of the Dead rituals.
One by one, activists stepped up to the microphone to speak for perceived victims of the church: for women whose lives have been lost in botched illegal abortions, for children sexually abused by priests, for LGBT teenagers driven to suicide. Police in riot gear separated the crowd from a group of male counterprotesters loudly intoning Catholic prayers. At one point, in response to the counterprotesters, the main crowd chanted, “Jesus Christ stands with us.” Through her megaphone, Kartarzyna Wojtowicz, a lead organizer, urged the crowd, “Throw flowers, not stones. Because they’re the evil ones, not us.”
While church leaders may be caught off guard by the intense anger, their alliance with PiS’s right-wing agenda has been far from subtle. Marek Jedraszewski, the current archbishop of Krakow, recently expressed disbelief at the “aggression unknown so far in Poland, when the sanctity of churches, of sacred places is being violated.” Yet just last year, he labeled the gay rights movement a “rainbow plague” that would inflect Poland much like the “red plague” of communism. In an announcement unfortunately timed for the embattled priests, last week the Vatican released the long-awaited McCarick Report implicating Pope John Paul II—Poland’s heretofore unimpeachable modern saint—in the cloud of sexual-abuse scandals hanging over the Catholic Church.
Using tools like Facebook and Instagram Live, Małgorzata Halber, a leftist writer and activist, has been reporting on protests taking place outside of the media spotlight in dozens of smaller cities deep in PiS-voting regions. When I spoke with her via Zoom, she expressed hope that the marked shift in tone towards the church signaled a greater realignment away from the conservative consensus that has dominated Polish politics since the fall of Communism. “No one in those conservative places ever had any power before to criticize the church,” she explained. “Even in 2016, when women were marching against the proposed abortion restrictions, they were saying: ‘Okay, we just want things as they were,’ meaning the compromise”—a 1993 deal between the church and Poland’s post-Communist leaders that enshrined the strict abortion laws in place before the recent ruling. This time around, the movement demands far more.
Yet with all the posturing, symbolism, and the invocations of “war,” many find it hard to imagine what new social “compromise” will take root. Poland’s domestic fight is amplified by a European-level battle between Brussels and the self-proclaimed “illiberal democracies” of Central Europe. Poland, together with Hungary, is threatening to veto the current European Union budget because of new enforcement mechanisms included to explicitly target the type of erosion of the rule of law that allowed PiS to pack Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal in the first place. The EU Council, meanwhile, launched a fact-finding mission last month against LGBT discrimination in Poland.
According to Halber, this bureaucratic tit-for-tat is a sideshow to the real work of building power in the streets—and then victory at the ballot box. “Revolution is a woman” goes one of the popular chants. And, so far, many women in Poland show no signs of letting up in their drive to prove it.
Organisers and the city of Warsaw said some 100,000 people took part, one of the largest protest gatherings in years
Tens of thousands of Poles joined a march in Warsaw last night, the biggest in nine days of protests against a ruling by the country's top court last week that amounted to a near-total ban on abortion in the predominantly Catholic nation.
Defying strict rules that restrict gatherings to five people during the coronavirus pandemic, demonstrators walked through central Warsaw streets carrying black umbrellas, a symbol of abortion rights protests in Poland, and banners that read "I think, I feel, I decide" or "God is a woman".
Military police lined the streets, some of in riot gear, as the demonstration began.
Organisers and the city of Warsaw said some 100,000 people took part, one of the largest protest gatherings in years, following a Constitutional Court ruling on 22 October outlawing abortions due to foetal defects.
It ended the most common of the few legal grounds left for abortion in Poland and set the country further apart from Europe's mainstream.
Daily protests have taken place across the country in the past week, and have turned into an outpouring of anger against five years of nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) rule and the Roman Catholic church, which is an ally of the government.
Far-right groups which support the court ruling also turned out in small gatherings in Warsaw yesterday, and TV footage showed police clashing with them to keep one group away from the protesters.
The leader of the abortion rights movement in Poland, Marta Lempart, told activists to report any attacks and to resist any threats of prosecution or fines for taking part. "We are doing nothing wrong by protesting and going out on the streets," she told a news conference.
After the ruling goes into effect, women will only be able to terminate a pregnancy legally in the case of rape, incest or a threat to their health.
In an effort to ease tensions, President Andrzej Duda proposed legislation reintroducing the possibility of terminating a pregnancy due to foetal abnormalities, although only limited to defects that are immediately life-threatening.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki pledged politicians would proceed with the legislation quickly, but demonstrators were unimpressed.
"This is an attempt to soften the situation for PiS, but no sane person should fall for it," activist and leftist politician Joanna Scheuring-Wielgus told Reuters.
The government has accused demonstrators of risking the lives of the elderly by defying strict pandemic rules against large gatherings.
Poland has reported a daily record of 21,897 new cases of Covid-19 today, the fifth day in a row that record numbers of cases have been protested.
Health Minister Adam Niedzielski drew comparisons between the Polish protest and the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality, saying demonstrations across the United States caused an "escalation" of the pandemic.
Public health experts say there has yet to be conclusive evidence of large-scale spread from the US events.
Five women were charged with organising an illegal protest which attracted 850 people in the town of Police on Thursday, officials said.
The Catholic Church has said that while it opposes abortion, it did not push the government or the court to increase restrictions.
PiS, however, has sought to instill more traditional and Catholic values in public life, ending state funding for in vitro fertilisation, introducing more patriotic themes into school curricula and funding Church programmes.
It has also launched a crackdown on LGBT rights and a reform of the judiciary the European Union says subverts the rule law.
PiS says it seeks to protect traditional Polish values against damaging western liberalism.
Opinion polls have shown its support falling sharply in recent weeks.
Fascists have joined forces with the Polish government to attack women protesting against the abortion ban, but women are fighting back, reports Reece Goscinski
The escalation of Poland’s women’s strike in response to the Constitutional Court’s abortion ban has emphasised the importance and effectiveness of direct action against the populist right. Both the ruling Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Justice Party) and Polish Catholic Church have been taken by surprise as the women’s movement galvanised public support.
Women vs. the State
As protests against the abortion ban gained momentum this week, the movement took aim at Poland’s institutions creating solidarity networks with other elements of the working class. On 25th October, the protesters targeted Poland’s powerful Catholic Church as they disrupted masses dressed in The Handmaid’s Tale attire and vandalised buildings with abortion helpline numbers. Statues of the former Polish Pope John Paul II were smeared with red paint, posters depicted a crucified pregnant woman, and protesters held signs demanding the abortion of the government.
Whilst many would have predicted the vandalism to be counterproductive in a predominantly Catholic nation, the demonstrations received support from groups such as taxi drivers, miners, farmers, and Poland’s socially conservative trade union movement. At the town of Nowy Dwór Gdański in the north of Poland, farmers joined Strajk Kobiet (women’s strike) by driving their tractors at the front of the march in an act of solidarity. Poland’s mining union Sierpień ’80 also issued a statement supporting the protesters. This comes as a challenge to the hegemony of the country’s largest trade union and former ruling party Solidarność who have been supportive of PiS.
The protests also influenced liberal and left MPs to hold pro-choice slogans in parliament resulting in scuffles with the ruling party. Strajk Kobiet has also been successful in moving public opinion on the matter. A poll conducted by rmf24 suggests 54% of the public support the protests whilst 73% do not support the Constitutional Court’s decision.
The success of the women’s movement delivered a significant challenge to both the government and the church. PiS leader and deputy Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński claimed the protesters were seeking to destroy Poland “at any cost” and encouraged nationalist groups to “defend the churches.” The party also claimed that Netflix and Tik-Tok had radicalised the youth to supporting “left-liberal” views and the parliamentary speaker accused the strike of utilising Nazi imagery. Government attempts to control the narrative peaked when state TV claimed “leftist fascism is destroying Poland” (“Lewacki faszyzm niszczy Polskię”) and Pope Francis called for the “protection of every human life from contraception.”
Following the demonstrations in churches, priests utilised the violent assistance of fascists and nationalist groups who have adopted an interpretation of Polish-Catholic identity to shape their ideologies. Far-right groups forcibly removed women from churches and actively blocked entrance into cathedrals in what they referred to as a “Catholic defence force against neo-Bolshevik revolutionaries.” Violent clashes between the far-right and protesters peaked when two women were run over by the security services and armed black shirts took to the streets of Wrocław and Białystok on Wednesday night.
Taking on the system
Resistance movements taking place in central and eastern Europe have shown how to construct solidarity networks between differing sections of the working class. In both Poland and Belarus, women have been at the forefront of campaigns resisting oppressive policies, the repressive state apparatus, and fascist street thugs with the aim of fundamentally changing the societies they live in. These movements should act as an inspiration to socialists internationally as women continue the fight back against right-wing populism.
As the movements progress, it is necessary for socialists to organise around systemic questions and develop a class-based orientation. Recent articles by David Harvey and Mick Wattam have argued the importance of aligning democratic values and critiques of capitalism to produce a more just society. Through the development of these ideas socialists can work to resist right-wing populism, advance socialist ideas through theory and practice, and produce a future better for all.
Polish president takes step back on abortion amid protests
by Monika Scislowska, The Associated Press, October 29, 2020
Women's Strike action protests in Warsaw, Poland
WARSAW, POLAND -- Poland's prime minister appealed Thursday for a stop, amid a huge spike in the country's coronavirus infections, to a week of angry protests against a high court ruling that tightens already strict abortion laws.
Mateusz Morawiecki said the dispute should be resolved through dialogue, instead of through repeated mass street gatherings that are banned under pandemic restrictions. On Thursday, Poland hit a new record of daily infections that exceeded 20,100 in the nation of 38 million.
"I am asking for these protests to be cancelled because of the epidemic," Morawiecki said, stressing that the health care system is close to its limits.
But women's rights activists confirmed plans for a huge march in Warsaw Friday evening, and more actions and city blockades next week.
Large crowds have protested daily over the past week across the predominantly Catholic country, after a top court ruled that abortion of fetuses with congenital defects is unconstitutional. Police estimate that some 430,000 took part in demonstrations on Wednesday alone.
Earlier Thursday Poland's President Andrzej Duda partially broke ranks with his country's conservative leadership that has pushed for the new abortion restrictions, and said he thinks women should have the right to abortion of fetuses with deadly defects.
"It cannot be that the law requires this kind of heroism from a woman," Duda said in an interview with radio RMF FM. The president said he still favours outlawing abortion in cases of fetuses with non-lethal congenital defects, such as Down syndrome.
Deep divisions that had been brewing for a long time in Poland are now erupting on the streets, with young people heeding a call by women's rights activists to defend their freedoms. The young, even teenage protesters intentionally choose vulgar chants against the right-wing Law and Justice party to emphasize their anger with the ruling team and that there can be no negotiating with them, language analysts say.
Poland's most powerful politician, Law and Justice leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski, had called for his supporters to come out to defend churches after protesters disrupted Masses and spray-painted churches on Sunday.
Many interpreted Kaczynski's call as permission for violence against the protesters.
Opposition Civic Coalition lawmakers will seek a no-confidence vote against Kaczynski, who is deputy prime minister, in parliament, saying he triggered huge social tensions at the difficult time of the pandemic.
"He started a fire and is pouring gasoline on it," said opposition lawmaker Monika Wielichowska.
It was not clear when the vote would be. The ruling party and its two small coalition partners have 10 votes more than the opposition in the lower house.
On Wednesday night, men with a far-right group, All-Polish Youth, attacked women taking part in protests in Wroclaw, Poznan and Bialystok.
However, a group guarding a church in the northeastern city of Bialystok held a banner in support of the women but saying their anger should be directed against the government, not churches.
Once the court ruling is published and takes effect, abortion only will be legal when a woman's health or life is in danger or when a pregnancy results from crime like rape or incest.
Duda's comments Thursday were in contrast to his initial reaction last week, when he welcomed the court ruling. He now spoke against abortions of fetuses with Down syndrome, which form the majority of over 1,000 legal terminations performed in Poland each year. Duda called for a new law to distinguish between fatal and non-fatal defects.
"I believe that there should be a regulation which, in case of lethal defects, will unequivocally guarantee the rights on the side of the woman," the president said.
His words have no legal bearing on the court ruling and are not expected to appease protesters.
Kaczynski's comment was that Duda "is the president and has the right" to say so.
also signalled a difference of opinion with Kaczynski on the issue of security, saying police should have the sole responsibility for protecting the streets.
The world is home to more than 1.1 billion girls under age 18, who are poised to become the largest generation of female leaders, entrepreneurs and change-makers the world has ever seen. Photo:UN Women/Ryan Brown
International Day of the Girl Child
My Voice, Our Equal Future
Progress for adolescent girls has not kept pace with the realities they face today, and COVID-19 has reinforced many of these gaps. This year, under the theme, “My Voice, Our Equal Future”, let’s seize the opportunity to be inspired by what adolescent girls see as the change they want, the solutions- big and small- they are leading and demanding across the globe.
In 2020, we commemorate 25 years since the adoption of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action – the global agenda for advancing the rights and empowerment of women and girls, everywhere. Generation Equality was also launched in early 2020 as a multi-year, multi-partner campaign and movement for bold action on gender equality. A clear narrative and actions related to the needs and opportunities of adolescent girls and their solutions is central to the Generation Equality mission.
As adolescent girls worldwide assert their power as change-makers, International Day of the Girl 2020 will focus on their demands to:
Ways to get involved
Call for intervention in the humanitarian crisis taking place as thousands of Yazidi leave refugee camps to return to Sinjar
While the world is preoccupied with the Covid-19 pandemic, a desperate struggle to survive is taking place in Northern Iraq/Kurdistan. Today the Women Refugees Advocacy Project, with the support of other organizations, issued an Open Letter to the Canadian Parliament calling for action on behalf of the Yazidi.
Hundreds of thousands of Yazidi people, displaced into refugee camps in Iraq as they ran for their lives to escape the genocidal attack against them by ISIS in 2014, are now returning to a shattered homeland in Sinjar. “The Yazidi communities are being pushed to return to Sinjar without any help or support from the local governments and without any kind of international protection,” says Rev. Majed El Shafie of One Free World International, recently returned from a visit to the region. “They don't even have the basic support of life.”
Nadia Murad, Nobel laureate and Yazidi survivor, told us, “About half the Yazidi community remains displaced in camps, while some 120,000 people have returned home to Sinjar, many living without water, healthcare or electricity.”
Sinjar is a land shattered by ISIS: bombed out buildings, the infrastructure destroyed. They are experiencing oppressive Covid-19 policies and procedures which interfere with the already deeply inadequate medical care. The Yazidi women and girl survivors of ISIS enslavement are suffering ongoing severe trauma from torture. On top of this, ISIS planted hundreds of thousands of landmines as they retreated from Sinjar during the war.
Lloyd Axworthy, Chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council, has stated, “I urge the Canadian government to explore every potential diplomatic and political strategy to protect and aid the Yazidi refugees as they return to Sinjar. Action must be taken quickly.”
On August 27, a medical doctor in Sinjar spoke to the Women Refugees Advocacy Project: “It is not good here in Sinjar. The water here is bad; you have to buy drinking water. People who cannot afford to buy water are drinking from the wells and are suffering gastro-intestinal diseases. Electricity is a big problem; you have to have a generator. The one hospital here has only 20-beds, with no operating theatre and staff. Mental health problems are a disaster among the Yazidi, who now have the highest suicide rate in the world. There are some Yazidi who are trying to clean up and rebuild their destroyed homes but it is dangerous because of all the landmines. And Turkey has bombed Mount Sinjar 100 times in the last few months. We appeal to any government or organization for help.”
Senator Mobina Jaffer reflected, “There are so many issues to attend to in the world, and among the most forgotten people are the Yazidi. We are holding the press conference to raise awareness to the plight of the Yazidi, especially the women and girls. We can no longer ignore them, it’s time to act.”
Online Press Conference: September 15 at 10:30am PST
MC Senator Mobina Jaffer, Speaker Lloyd Axworthy et al
LIVE STREAM: https://womenrefugeesadvocacyproject.ca/live-stream/
Women Refugees Advocacy Project (WRAP)
OPEN LETTER: https://womenrefugeesadvocacyproject.ca/open-letter/
Interviews available after the Press Conference with:
Senator Mobina Jaffer, Lloyd Axworthy - Chair of the World Refugee & Migration Council, Dr. Jan Ilhan Kizilhan - Yazidi genocide trauma expert, and Women Refugees Advocacy Project
The totem pole is to honour murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls
by Ashley Wadhwani, Sep. 4, 2020
A totem pole honouring Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls will be raised along the Highway of Tears in northern B.C. Friday (Sept. 4).
The totem pole, which will be raised just off Highway 16 on Kitsumkalum territory, was carved by artist Mike Dangeli, who is of Nisga’a, Tsimshian, Tlingit and Tsetsaut heritage.
The idea to create a memorial came from Gladys Radek, a long-time advocate for missing and murdered Indigenous women. For years, Radek has completed awareness walks from Vancouver to Prince Rupert, after her niece Tamara Chipman disappeared near Prince Rupert in 2005.
She told the Terrace Standard earlier this year that she always envisioned creating a memorial for families in the Northwest.
“This is kind of closing the circle for me from the walks,” she said. “I wanted a space where our families could go, to find a little bit of healing, a little bit of peace, and a little bit of honouring their loved ones.”
On Friday, a ceremony at a highway pullout will include blessing the 24-foot totem pole and other traditional speeches.
Watch the ceremony here, livestreamed by CFNR Network:
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