The first Black Protest (Czarny Protest) on Monday 3 October was the largest strike by women in Polish history. In opposition to a proposed new law banning all abortions, 100,000 women took part in demonstrations across 147 cities and towns in Poland, with 30,000 attending a demonstration in Warsaw. It was estimated by The Independent that nearly 6 million women took part in the strike but there is no convincing source for this figure. However, a poll prior to the strike which claimed 55% of Polish women (about 7m people) supported the strike. What is undeniable, however, is the huge level of support the strike idea gained amongst Polish women, the vast majority of these demos happened in towns and villages smaller than 50,000 people, in most of those places it was the first protest organised in their history. After the strike days, and to many people’s surprise, the ruling Law and Justice (PIS) party decided to vote against the proposal, which would have made abortion illegal even in pregnancies resulting from rape and incest. Jarosław Gowin, the minister of science and higher education, said on Wednesday that the protests had “caused us to think and taught us humility”.
Plan C has spoken to Agata (not her real name) who has been following the struggle closely. She wants to make it clear that this interview reflects only her views and experiences on the issue and in no way should be considered the official stance of Polish women.
What organising networks/ groups/ institutions contributed to the organising and big turnout of the women’s strike and how was the strike organised?
I would say the strike was as grassroots as it gets. It was basically organised on social media. I don’t think significant numbers of participants would associate themselves with any organisation. The idea of the strike came from Polish actress Krystyna Janda. She posted the article about Women Strike in Iceland in 1975 on social media, and suggested that the same should be done in Poland. It kind of unfolded from there. Another woman, Marta Lempart, decided to set up a Facebook event for the strike. That very quickly gained support, with tens of thousands of women (and some men) joining the event within few days. Another woman came up with the name “Black Protest” which was supposed to symbolise mourning for the death of women’s rights in Poland.
I think The big turnout cannot be associated with any group, but simply with the fact that the proposed new law was just scary for many women. Also, the new law is considered as the attempt of the state and the Catholic Church to control this intimate sphere of life, and it did not go down well with Polish women.
As far as you know, what were the social/ political/ economic effects on the day (for example, things you could see, like whole workplaces closing)?
There is no data on that. There were a lot of news stories of businesses closing down for a day either to show their support or because they could not operate without their female staff. That is however only small businesses; as far as I know no factories or similar closed down because of the strike. Many businesses and local councils declared they would not punish their workers for not showing up for work on the day, with some even declaring that everybody [who participated] would still get paid for a day. But the reality of the labour market in Poland is that many women simply could not afford to take a day off, with many choosing instead to show their support for the strike by wearing black for the day.
How does the strike and actions around abortion law intersect with other struggles or political issues in Poland at the moment?
The strike was, without any doubt, yet another show of struggle against the government and its attempt to dismantle the democratic foundations of Polish state. To date it was the biggest show of opposition to the current situation in Poland. However, many political groups in Poland attempted to hijack the strike. Every single one of them was told off by the women.
Is there any real potential for this movement to result in the left gaining some ground in Poland? And also how is this seen in the context of a country where the mainstream is extremely anti-communist?
Yes, it is difficult to be a lefty in Poland. Let’s not forget it is a country where such a curiosity as right- wing trade unions can exist! PiS [the ruling party] also plays the anti- communist card very well, introducing to the Polish political dictionary terms such as “genetic communist” (somebody whose parents are suspected of supporting the communist regime from before 1989). They also have an obsession with accusing people of being communist spies and they did not spare that treatment even to Lech Wałęsa [the former leader of the Solidarity movement against the Soviet Union and President 1990-1995].
On the other hand, PiS has managed to trigger a massive politicisation of Polish society. All of a sudden, politics have started to matter to the average Pole. That has given some support to Razem (new left party founded in 2015, similar to Podemos and currently outside parliament), but mostly to liberals.
As for impact of Black Protest; First of all, it showed that it is indeed possible to change things by grassroots action. Secondly, the publicity from both it and the anti-abortion bill lead to a decrease of [support for] PiS in polls. For the first time since the elections, PiS has less than 30% support, and the liberals from [the parties] Niezalezna and Razem also gained significantly more support. Razem, for the first time since it was founded, has enough support to enter parliament, should the elections will be held today. This shift in polls, I believe, is not due to a sudden change of mind of PiS supporters. It is linked to a massive surge in voter participation; the abortion issue has triggered many people to state they will take part in new elections. Also, it is worth noting that further restrictions on abortion laws in Poland are massively unpopular and bringing the issue up was a real mistake on the Government’s part.
How much has the state encouraged an increase in Catholicism and nationalism and how does this all fits together with women’s bodies and modern politics in Poland today?Assuming most churches have somewhat progressive attitudes towards to the refugee crisis, what other single issues could the church/state jump upon after this?
Oh god, this question is asking for an essay! In short, PiS makes a massive deal of ensuring Poland is a Catholic and patriotic country; The anti-abortion law was just a small part of that process. The difference between this law and numerous others introduced by PiS was that abortion issue was considered as the state destroying a “compromise” on hugely controversial issue, blatantly enforcing the [Catholic] Church’s point of view, and entering the private, family sphere. That triggered the very first opposition from women of Poland, I believe largely because it was interfering with family issues, which in traditional societies such as Poland is considered as women’s business. Another, and less discussed, legal change proposed by PiS is the education reform, which will enforce both religion and nationalism in schools. As something concerning children, that has also met with opposition from women.
What do they think will happen after this?
Nobody knows. The strike was a success, which surprised everybody, including its organisers. So far, there seems to be a massive discussion on where to take it from now. Some splits in the women’s front are visible, namely between a group which wants to stick the existing abortion law (which allow for termination only if the pregnancy is a result of a crime, presents significant health risk to woman, or if the fetus is deformed), and a group which wants to campaign to relax abortion law in Poland and proposes the freedom to choose [to terminate] up to 12th week of pregnancy. On Facebook, the latter seems to have upper hand, but it is not reflected in polls.
There are also talks regarding taking political action outside of abortion issue, but, with all honesty, it is too early to say what will happen.
What opportunity does this provide not just for continued direct action in solidarity with struggle for reproductive rights in Poland but for building power, ability to (social/migrant?) strike in the UK, especially in the context of Polish workers in the UK, Brexit?
I’m not gonna answer that, as I don’t believe any action involving only Polish, or EU workers should be in place. If anything, ALL migrant workers in the UK should start organising, as I don’t think it will be EU citizens who will be hit hardest with recent surge of xenophobia in the UK. Come on, we have 27 countries backing us up! Personally I consider dividing migrant groups based on the value of their passports as racist.
I’m interested in whether the women had any historical reference points for organising this, where the inspiration/idea came from etc?
This is the main inspiration of the strike [The one-day women’s strike in Iceland in October 1975].
Maybe how this could be linked to a European movement [on abortion/reproductive rights]? I know there’s been women’s groups organising in Ireland and Spain about similar struggles.
Polish women were stunned by support they received worldwide. I think it showed many that women can and will organise in the future, regardless of borders or nationalities. I think there will be a lot of solidarity actions with women from all over the world coming from Polish Women. The general feeling seems to be that Polish women need to start partaking in solidarity actions for women’s issues abroad, as first of all, it is proven it works, and second because of the solidarity received. In Polish, we call it the “solidarity of ovaries” 😉
Was this just about abortions, or was this just the tip of the iceberg, and signified a much broader discontent within Polish society?)
It was definitely the tip of the iceberg. The discontent on the streets is something you can literally feel in the air in Poland. The victory of PiS over the liberals, by the way, is one of signs of this discontent. This year, apart from the women’s strike, we also saw events like the biggest political gathering since 1989 (the demo against the government from earlier in the year) and funding of numerous political groups from both right and left calling for change in Poland.
To use striking in this sort of way, without the backing of trade unions, is very rare. Why was striking seen as a better option than just a demonstration?
Hmm, because demonstrating rarely works?
Update: Polish women set to strike again on Monday October 24th against a re-proposed abortion bill. It seems the war against women in Poland continues with the ruling Law and Justice (PIS) party tabling a new bill to criminalise all abortion.