Anti-abortion law protesters successfully blockade the main junction of Rondo Charles de Gaulle, 18th November (WNV/ Craig Brown)

How Poland’s women’s rights movement is maintaining momentum

Coronavirus restrictions have forced anti-abortion law protests to become more low key, but no less creative.
Anti-abortion law protesters successfully blockade the main junction of Rondo Charles de Gaulle, 18th November (WNV/ Craig Brown)

On Oct. 30, Warsaw was host to one of the largest demonstrations since the collapse of Communism, with at least 100,000 – 150,000 people marching together to oppose the new abortion law.  In a previous article I covered the week’s events leading up to that demonstration. What developments in the resistance to the abortion law have been seen in the subsequent three weeks?

Previous Coverage
  • Opposition to new anti-abortion law sparks Poland’s largest protests in decades
  • Two important aspects of the context of resistance developments should be noted. Firstly, the situation with coronavirus has continued to worsen in Poland, with the first week of November seeing increased restrictions, including on public gatherings.

    Secondly, in the days after the Oct. 30 demonstration, prominent members of the PiS, Poland’s ruling party, including President Duda have suggested an openness to compromise over the abortion ruling. This possibly indicates their surprise at the scale of the outrage — from the success of the resistance actions after Oct. 22 to the majority support they have received — and the government’s concerns over a general decline in their own popular support.

    Graffiti outside the Sejm, including the phone number of the Abortion Without Borders organization (WNV/ Craig Brown)

    Even so, delays to the publishing of the law cannot be considered a victory, as many opponents see it as a cynical move to dampen the protests. Indeed, it should be noted that many protesters are calling for legal abortion, rather than simply opposing the new law.

    Therefore, while open resistance actions have generally been of a smaller scale and more dispersed due to coronavirus restrictions, they have continued on a “slow burner” and have been more diverse in character. Some of the prominent dynamics are outlined below.

    Confrontational language, unconfrontational actions

    While the government and its closely-allied media have painted the rhetoric of the anti-abortion law protesters as “vulgar” — attempting to couple this with a sense of them being a “threat” to Polish society and culture — the protesters have embraced this, effectively deflating the accusations.

    A variation on the famous Solidarity posters from 1989, this time featuring female protagonists (WNV/ Craig Brown)

    Significantly, they haven’t shied away from causing possible “offense,” with their principal slogans clear and profane: “Wypierdalać,” or “Get the fuck out” and “Jebać PiS,” or “Fuck PiS.” There’s also a tongue in cheek version of the latter with only censoring asterisks: ***** ***.  All still appear across the city center (and farther afield) sprayed or chalked on buildings, street furniture and some roads over three weeks since the protests began.

    While this might superficially lend itself to the government’s rhetoric of violent protesters, an honest analysis would see that as pathetic given the peaceful nature of the resistance actions. There are numerous impassioned and rational speeches made at demonstrations. It is also common to see the phone number of Abortions Without Borders, a Polish organization promoting safe access to abortions, written across the city, in a strong act of defiance.

    Moreover, despite the rhetorical anger at the Catholic Church and some instances of disrupting mass early in the protests, clear instructions have been provided by coordinators on the Telegram channel Gdziecowwa to “bypass churches that will be valiantly defended by certain groups.”

    Similar to how protesters started to completely ignore the churches defended by ultra-nationalists, riot police and military police, one of the main groups involved in organizing the anti-abortion protests called for complete disengagement from confrontation with the far-right march through Warsaw on Nov. 11, Poland’s Independence Day. Instead, online events were held under the banner “Quarantine from Nationalism.”

    The Polish Grandmothers and other women’s rights protesters at Charles de Gaulle roundabout, Warsaw city center (WNV/Craig Brown)

    There is a strong historical tradition of left-wing, civil society groups and spontaneous citizen direct confrontation with far-right demonstrators, to resist their open presence on the streets. But this year, staying at home meant that when responsibility for far-right violence was inevitably pinned on “left-wing” agitators and the “angry women” regardless, the police themselves rejected this.

    Once again, the far-right were left tilting at rainbows and silhouettes of women. Triggered sufficiently to throw some flares at an offending apartment displaying symbols of solidarity with the Women’s Strike and LGBTQ+ communities, a group of ultra-nationalists set fire to an entirely different flat storing works of respected Polish artist Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz. The completely counterproductive move was the perfect example of the far right doing what they do best: destroying repositories of culture, while being hoisted by their own absurdity. If only the fascistic trend they reflect wasn’t so dangerous.

    Symbolic actions and visibility

    Some symbolic actions have also been engaged in, for example hanging a large banner from the cross at the top of Poland’s Great Giewont mountain on Nov. 8.

    Rally of artists and creatives in one of Warsaw’s most famous squares, Plac Zamkowy (WNV/ Craig Brown)

    Again, in circumstances where physical distancing is important and large-scale action can be framed as reckless and irresponsible, being at the top of a mountain quite simply achieves isolation while perpetuating visibility of the issue.

    This has once more been presented as a profane action and a desecration, although causing offense is starting to look like the only accusation left against the protesters. If the Great Giewont action is considered inappropriate, then as the Women’s Strike movement in Pohdale posted quite simply — while alluding to some of the broader women’s rights issues they are campaigning on — “It is inappropriate to abuse a woman, child or man and to support such behavior as well as social consent to domestic abuse.”

    For November, the Women’s Strike movement has also initiated a global initiative for people to engage in outdoor sports and activities that incorporate the symbols of the anti-abortion law protests, sending in photos to the group for presentation on social media.

    The Polish Grandmothers

    A further distinctive feature of the ongoing resistance to the abortion law has been the role of the Polskie Babcie, or “Polish Grandmothers,” although the group predates the current protests. One could be forgiven for thinking that the issue of abortion, as well as issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, might be highly divisive along generational lines, yet the bold actions of the grannies shows the situation is more complex.

    The ever-intimidating presence of the Polish Grannies (WNV/ Craig Brown)

    The number of police that turn up to confront the Polish grandmothers and their younger companions, and the swiftness with which the police moved among the protesters on Nov. 12 to issue fines, seemed intimidating. The predominance of women or older people in actions of course does not automatically preclude security force violence against them.

    Blockades and mobile protests

    Particularly on Mondays, road blockades have continued with other groups such as Extinction Rebellion Poland and Critical Mass cyclists joining in the actions. These have coincided with demonstrations that, for example, have drawn attention to the plight of artists and creatives during the coronavirus, to whom little or no government assistance is being provided. In threatening to cut funding to educational facilities permitting their students to join the protests, the Education Minister Przemysław Czarnek has also succeeded in alienating many teachers and university tutors.

    While tactics such as road blockades have previously been perceived as antagonistic to the broader population whose sympathy and support is being courted, there have been cases of taxi and public transport drivers participating. Perhaps when your livelihood is on a road to nowhere, there is less to lose from being stuck in a traffic jam.

    Extinction Rebellion activists join the anti-abortion law blockades of Warsaw’s major thoroughfares, here on al. Solidarności near the Old Town (WNV/ Craig Brown)

    In efforts to maintain momentum and encourage broader sections of the population to come out and demonstrate, protesters have also traveled out to satellite towns around Warsaw to join local demonstrations, as in Otwock on Nov. 5.

    The mobility and fluidity of such actions has been maintained, particularly as the gravity of the pandemic situation has been seen and the police have started swiftly fining protesters for illegal gatherings. As recommended on the Gdziecowwa Telegram channel, protesters have been moving across the capital in groups of no more than five, which whether out of expediency or not, is also rather effective at dividing police efforts.

    Warsaw stirs again

    If the two weeks since the Oct. 30 protests were rather subdued, on Nov. 18 there was something of a lively rejuvenation. With a reported substantial influx of police into Warsaw in anticipation of demonstrations outside the Sejm — Poland’s Parliament — and the visible presence once more of military police outside churches and government buildings, some apprehension over a show of force was expressed on protest groups’ social media accounts.

    While the Sejm was heavily defended, multiple groups of demonstrators managed to converge in various other locations once more. With free run of two of the city center’s main streets leading to Charles de Gaulle roundabout for around half an hour, this seemed rather embarrassing for the security forces.

    Invoking the Oct. 30 protests — when the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science was emblazoned with the red lightning bolt of the Women’s Strike Movement — the former headquarters of the Polish United Workers’ Party, which ruled Poland during the Communist period, received the same adornment as traffic was briefly halted by the mobile blockade.

    On Al. Ujazdowskie, running parallel to the Sejm, protesters face the police blockade of Plac Trzech Krzyży (WNV/ Craig Brown)

    When the police eventually cordoned most of the protesters in front of the PiS mouthpiece TVP media building, undercover police officers occasionally beat back the demonstrators while using tear gas and stun grenades. The vast majority of demonstrators remained unprovoked, and overall a strong statement of continued presence in the streets of the capital was made. 

    Rather than being cowed, security force violence is likely to exacerbate matters in the coming days. On the Gdziecowwa Telegram channel, a post read: “Do you think we will ever forget about it? Take off your uniform and apologize to your mother — we have the right to protest without your oppression.”

    However, there is a sense that recent events in Belarus may be on the minds of protesters, security forces and the government — particularly when Poland has been very accommodating to dissidents and ordinary Belarusians escaping repression — with the “bad optics” of Lukashenko’s security forces attacking women who have been at the forefront of many demonstrations.

    Strike Council and strikes

    In terms of continuing the momentum for the cancellation of the new abortion law, the establishment of the Women’s Strike Council holds particular promise. Despite questions having been raised about the representational nature of the councils, there seems a genuine effort to make them inclusive toward younger and diverse members, while various groups continue their own initiatives on the ground and across Poland. A post on the Gdziecowwa Telegram channel on Nov. 12 stressed the “leaderless” nature of the demonstrations.

    As the planets orbit the sun, so the police orbit Nicolaus Copernicus. Presumably to imply the ‘angry women’ are a threat to Poland’s culture, religious or rational (WNV/ Craig Brown)

    The Councils’ organization was also preceded by a very open call online for contributions to what the broader aims of the Women’s Strike movement should be, leading to the clarification of various progressive goals for minority rights, as well as economic assistance in the context of the epidemic.

    In the context of a government that continues alienating various social and economic groups, either through their handling of the abortion law or the broader economic problems, the Women’s Strike movement’s efforts to organize a general strike continue. A strike by women was held on Wednesday Oct. 28, and there is the legacy of the women’s strike in 2016 when women also withdrew their domestic and unpaid labor. Beneath the headlines and eye-catching activities, such actions in future could prove no less of a challenge to patriarchal norms.

    This story was produced by Resistance Studies

    Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

    Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.