Democratic Empowerment and Transnational Threats

‘Gender Ideology War’ and Angry Polish Women Fighting for Democracy

Poland is in a critical juncture with regard to its record on women’s rights’[1] says the UN Working Group on Discrimination against Women. Gender equality and women’s rights have come under a serious threat in recent years. The leading political party Law and Justice (PiS) has been raising tensions and consolidates the conservative attitudes to women. The coalition of the PiS and the Catholic Church has given rise to a new political entity in Poland – angry women. 

In general, the prevailing perception of feminism in Poland brings about a negative connotation, and the roots can be found in the Soviet-era propaganda. The communist countries successfully imposed women emancipation, managed to create an illusion of gender equality, and depicted Western feminists as spoiled women who hate men. The little experience with Western-style feminism and the negligence of the topic in the public space after 1989 simply explain why Poles have not found an understanding of the concept yet. If the topic was reported by the media, it was because of the EU and the necessity to adopt legal regulations such as those against discrimination in workplace. However, the Church has a clear view on these issues and, not surprisingly, it is different from those of the EU. Even before the EU accession referendum in 2003, the message of the Church was clear – do not enrage us!

Polish Women on Strike

Poland is strongly influenced by Catholicism and the bond between the Church and the Government became even tighter in 2015, when the PiS came to power. This coalition of conservative values has been pushing for a systematic oppression of women’s rights on several levels. The situation escalated in October 2016,when the largest protests took place. In this occasion, angry women of Poland gathered for the protests that became known as ‘Black Monday’. They wore black as a symbol of mourning for the loss of their reproductive rights.

The protests were provoked by a parliamentary bill which would impose a comprehensive ban on abortion. The proposal also included various penalties, including imprisonment, for both providers and women. The bill would replace the already strict law from 1993, which is amongst the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe. The law was interpreted as a compromise between Catholicism and European liberalism, as abortion was allowed in three narrow cases – in case of rape, when women’s life is endangered by pregnancy or when the foetus is malformed. Nevertheless, this kind of compromise was terminated several years back as the Church did not hesitate to proclaim resistance to liberal trends and demanded regulation of abortion law. It is important to mention that the so-called ‘Stop Abortion’ bill was not submitted by the PiS itself, but by a citizens’ initiative that collected a half of million signatures across Poland. 

However, the mass movements against the proposal, characterized by black umbrellas and wire hanger, managed to mobilize up to two hundred thousand Poles and the strikes took place all over the country and even in some European cities. The Black Monday’s demonstrators achieved victory since they managed to persuade the Parliament to reject the proposal. Moreover, the topic has finally entered the public sphere and ceased to be a taboo subject. Women started to share their stories and other related issues of the reproductive rights. Similar protests took place again in 2018 when another anti-abortion law was proposed.

Anyway, the fact that a vast majority of abortions in Poland is illegal hasn’t changed yet: women are still forced to seek abortion abroad and doctors often refuse to perform under a legal ‘conscience cause’. There are even regions where no legal abortion is possible, as all the hospitals invoke the cause.

The Church-Driven Hysteria Against Gender Ideology

There is evidence of public backlash in women’s rights and gender equality since 2015 and we cannot be surprised. Even before the PiS came to power, they strongly opposed the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women and Domestic Violence (so-called Istanbul Convention[2] which was ratified by the former Government in 2012) – and the PiS joined the campaign initiated by the Church against ‘gender ideology’. The liberal values were perceived as a threat to the national identity, family, traditional values and gender roles. PiS politicians denied the extent of domestic violence in Poland and claimed that the Polish law protects women. In February 2017, President Duda publicly declared the Convention to be unnecessary and called upon Poles to ignore it. The Government considers periodically withdrawing from the Convention. 

The sudden hysteria against ‘gender ideology’ in Polish political debate can be also seen from a different perspective – the hierarches of the Catholic Church attempted to divert attention from paedophilia scandals by priests[3]. Meanwhile, the funds for non-profit organizations helping victims of domestic violence were cut down and moreover, anti-violence programs were transferred to Church-led organizations. Basically, it has become difficult to escape abusive marriage. The family is highly respected institution in Poland and women are discouraged to seek divorce. Priests refer to the Bible while women are advised to forgive their spouse, be submissive along with the examples of saints who lived in abusive marriages[4].

My Body, My Choice. Or Not?

Followingly, the Parliament took the next step and restricted women’s rights by passing a law limiting access to morning-after pill. The Government made the ‘death-pill’ as they called it, available only by prescription; however, it is mostly unavailable in pharmacies and doctors can refuse to prescribe it. This provision has catastrophic impact on women living in remote areas and particularly on the victims of rape. The same applies on contraception. Pharmacists either refuse to dispense it or it is not available at all.  

Another controversial step that has attracted attention recently deals with the bill on sex education at schools. The legislation would criminalize promotion of underage sexual activities and persons providing this information would face three-years prison sentence. The bill also demands anti-abortion and anti-contraception ideology to be taught at schools. Instead, school are required to provide ‘Preparation for Family Life’, where only traditional gender roles and family values are promoted. Additionally, all these efforts are supported by social campaigns by conservative NGOs such as a video showing middle-age women in tears, expressing her regrets about choosing traveling over children.   

To conclude, it appears evident that the concept of ‘gender ideology war’ definitely undermines and stigmatizes women’s rights, and gender equality defenders are labelled as ‘anti-family’ activists. The Church-driven campaign promotes social fear and the creation of a toxic atmosphere, as it consolidates stereotypes, sexism and chauvinism. The protests have confirmed that the feminist movement is more present in big Polish cities, traditionally characterized by the secular liberals, and that the imbalance with respect to the ‘good Catholic Poles’ prevailing in small towns and rural areas is still deep. It can be claimed that women took a role of democracy defenders – a movement that stands for liberal values, a movement that is able to mobilize its supporters and to deliver its message. Their agenda does not tackle solely gender issues but also LGBT rights, economic rights or they represent a voice against racism, xenophobia and anti-refugee stand of the ruling party. 

[1] OHCHR (n.d.): Poland: UN experts say Government must not roll back women’s rights., 27. 11. 2019.

[2] The Council of Europe (2011): Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence., 30. 11. 2019.

[3] Magdalena Grzyb (2018): Making Domestic Violence Visible in Poland., 29. 11. 2019

[4] Kazlas L. (): Domestic Violence and Abuse in Catholic marriages., 4. 12. 2019.

By Soňa Hoigerová

Soňa holds a Master's degree in International Relations and European Studies from the University of Florence. Besides European policies, she is interested in the issues concerning Gender and Global South. She has been currently working as a European Solidarity Corps officer for the National Agency.

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