Civil society as a third force in Poland: a feminist leader speaks out

 Civil society as a third force in Poland: a feminist leader speaks out

A photo from a ‘Black Protest’ in the western Polish city of Szczecin on 3 October 2016. In 2016, tens of thousands of women went on strike and marched in cities across the country to protest against proposed legislation to restrict women’s reproductive rights. In Szczecin, 5,000 people dressed in black gathered on Solidarity Plaza to protest against the tightening of abortion laws.

(Maciej Soja)

Waves of protests unheard of since the fall of Communism and the formation of new resistance movements are challenging Poland’s increasingly authoritarian government. There’s a lot to protest about with regards to the policies and positions of Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the right-wing populist Law and Justice party: public television that often serves as thinly-veiled propaganda; attempts at restricting women’s reproductive rights; judicial system reforms that undermine the impartiality of the courts; and disastrous logging in the primeval Białowieża Forest.

Bogna Czałczyńska is a leader of Poland’s women’s rights movement, as well as a sailor, in the western port of Szczecin. She is the regional leader of the national social movement, the Congress of Women, and chairs the Czas Dialogu (Time of Dialogue) foundation. Czałczyńska coordinated One Billion Rising in Poland, part of a world-wide campaign to end violence against women, and organised the local Facebook group Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (The Girls for The Girls) that counts 5000 members in Szczecin, and 100,000 members nationwide.

Czałczyńska spoke to Equal Times about the future prospects for civil society groups in Poland, and what should be done to support them.

In spite of the protests, most people in Poland seem to like their government. The polls show rising support for the current administration. Why do you think it is the case?

One reason is that polls look into different areas. They measure peoples’ satisfaction with life under the current government or ratings of this or that party. They never measure popularity or public support for civil rights or social movements. In other words, they don’t investigate what we might call the ‘third force’ – different movements that have formed as people respond to restrictions on their freedom. There are examples such as the ‘Black Protests’ against drastic restrictions in women’s reproductive rights.

Still, those who voted for this government would never be interested in this ‘third force’, in citizens’ movements, which seem to be growing in number.

Well, it is no secret that the popularity of the [ruling] Law and Justice party is the result of their cunning strategy which responds to the needs of many people who had been ignored – those people who the previous governments failed to notice and kept neglecting. Clearly, people don’t want to live from day to day. They want a secure and sustainable financial situation, but more importantly, they desire respect. They want to live in an orderly, predictable world. They want to have a sense of dignity. They don’t want to be ridiculed and belittled. These are the issues that need to be addressed, and which the previous government ignored.

Now, Law and Justice is exploiting peoples’ need for recognition. As a state, we seem to be fighting with the whole world, you know, drawing on the archetype of Poland being the Messiah of the nations, a lone warrior standing against evil. In addition, the Polish government is in a very comfortable situation, because the economy is doing very well, economic growth is on the rise, unemployment has visibly decreased. In some areas we even begin to see labour shortages and so many people have a feeling, and quite understandably so, that things are going well for them.

If the economic situation is good and so many people seem content, do you sometimes feel that your work and protests are in vain?

Of course, it would be great if our protest had a stronger impact, if the pressure of society would force the government to change things, but it has to be done within the boundaries of the law. What we can do is to bring about a change in people’s thinking, a shift in people’s attitudes, and here we’ve had a tremendous success. In just one year, during just one action of collecting signatures, there has been an increase from 18 to 42 per cent support for liberalising the laws on women’s reproductive rights. So now, we have a very open debate about that, even though [the oxygen of] public media has been taken away from us.

We can see that the parliamentary opposition is fragmented and weak. They seem not to notice that the world of only public media, the world in which politics is done only in political parties is over. It’s a different world now, and many people seem not to realise that.

So, what is, in your opinion, the most important thing to do in the present moment?

It seems that further networking, strengthening the connections between existing movements, working with people and raising public awareness is very important. We are close to movements, such as ecological and feminist activism, so that together we can offer a viable alternative vision for the future.

Every time I think of it, I am so, so grateful to Law and Justice and to Chairman Kaczyński, really. If it had not been for all they had done, there would have never been such an acceleration, such a rapid joining of forces among women’s movements, civic movements, which we are witnessing now. I’ve been noticing a new wave of different women.

It all sounds promising, but what’s the worst-case scenario in the future?

To see the damage, we don’t need to think about the future. People have stopped trusting each other. One poll indicates 59 per cent of Poles think that a candid conversation with others about political matters might not be safe, that what they say might be used by someone, sometime in future. Small things, like people hesitate to like some material on Facebook. And that makes it very difficult for people to work together. The factor of trust, which is an essential element in human interaction, has been so badly weakened in this society. Law and Justice knows very well how to manage pettiness in a very, very effective and malicious way. They succeeded in bringing out the worst in people, their most heinous, vile traits. All this is very, very, sad.

What should the European Union do?

To differentiate people from the government, not to punish the people with budget cuts. There is this political narrative, fuelled by the government that the foreign nations want to push us, the Poles, to do things we don’t want, and that we have the power to resist and won’t have it! It is a narrative of hostility against the others, of protecting Christian values against looming foreign evil. So, it is essential to distinguish clearly the Polish people from the Law and Justice government, which is a government of people telling falsehoods. That difference we ought to always understand.