The Herstory of the Black Protest. Solidary fight for democracy

Text: Weronika Szczawińska

The Czarny Protest (‘Black Protest’, a protest of women dressed in black) is one of the most important phenomena of the twenty-first century Poland. It is a series of events, a protracted revolution, an outcome of activities carried out by various groups and initiatives. It is linked with the past as well as the future. Finally, it is the most popular and influential hashtag of 2016 in Poland: #czarnyprotest.

Alfabet buntu (The Alphabet of Rebellion) is an Internet archive that documents the fight of a social resistance movement against the abuse of power committed by the current administration (i.e., the conservative, populist and anti-European Law and Justice party, in power since 2015). Alfabet buntu describes the Black Protest as: “A bottom-up protest against the restrictive anti-abortion law and limiting women’s reproductive rights…”[1]

Undoubtedly, this short definition is correct; however, it is clearly insufficient. The Black Protest, initiated in 2016, relates to a broader issue: women’s role in Polish democracy, or, in other words, the shape of Polish democracy in general.

To understand this revolution, we need to go back in time. The herstory of the Black Protest can be traced back to the last decade of the twentieth century, precisely to January 7, 1993; three years after Poland had become a democratic country, again. Lech Wałęsa, the Nobel Peace Prize winner and legendary dissident of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL), was president. The members of parliament were elected in free election. The country was going through intense social, economic and cultural transformations: Poland was negotiating its identity.

In this significant moment in history, the First Term Sejm (the lower chamber of Polish Parliament) voted on the The Family Planning, Human Embryo Protection and Conditions of Permissibility of Abortion Act, and the conditions under which pregnancy termination is permissible. Informally known as the anti-abortion law, it is an amendment and a more restrictive version of the previous law. It has been in force ever since, and it is one of the strictest abortion laws by European standards. Further, it is known as the “abortion compromise”, an attempt to reconcile the opposing views of those supporting a total ban on abortion and opinions expressed by more liberal circles. The compromise allows terminating pregnancy under three clearly defined conditions. Article 4a of the Law stipulates that:

“A termination of pregnancy may be performed only by a doctor when:

  1. The pregnancy poses a threat to the life or health of the pregnant woman,

  2. Prenatal examinations or other medically justifiable reasons indicate that there is a high risk that the foetus will be severely and irreversibly damaged or suffer from an incurable life-threatening disease,

  3. There are strong reasons to suspect that the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act.”[2]

One might say that the “abortion compromise” is closely linked to the beginnings of Polish democracy, reborn closer to the end of the twentieth century. Efforts to introduce a more restrictive abortion law were made as early as in 1989, the year when the transformation began: a turning point for the country and a symbolic year for Poles. Therefore, it would not be an exaggeration to state that there is a clear connection between the new Polish democracy and the draconian anti-abortion law, and by extension, the biopolitics of the female body.

Dorota Sajewska, a scholar of culture, also points out that the “abortion compromise” and religion are inextricably intertwined. She perceives the existing anti-abortion law as “a consequence of the fact that many intellectuals, non-Catholics and Marxists turned to the Catholic Church”[3], to forge an alliance at the time when democratic opposition was being formed in the PRL. She observes that the Polish “discussion surrounding abortion, which from the very beginning was a debate that focused on the unborn life rather than social and economic conditions”[4], was also the Polish version of the shock doctrine – a reform package redirecting Polish economy towards capitalism. In Sajewska’s view, the Polish Catholic Church “took advantage of that moment to pass a more restrictive abortion law, proving once again that the Church and capitalism form two powerful pillars of cultural patriarchy.”[5] It shows that creating a new order required these opposing forces to reach a compromise, to which women became hostages suffering its direct consequences.

All attempts at loosening the law have been thwarted. Even though it has sparked protests from the very beginning, no political party dared to change it. Further, it needs to be stressed that in Poland, which has been a democratic country for almost thirty years and yet where it has not been possible to introduce any kind of sexual education or policies that would help women gain access to the most effective forms of contraception, the consequences of the compromise turned out to be catastrophic. First, it led to conducting underground abortions, which oftentimes poses a threat to the health and life of women. Second, enforcing the law’s regulations can be problematic – numerous instances have been reported whereby doctors refused to terminate a pregnancy, even in circumstances when it is deemed legal, justifying their decision with their personal beliefs (the so-called “conscience clause”).

Polish feminists have been speaking about “women’s hell” for a long time: the horror of backstreet abortions, forcing women to give birth to children conceived from rape, the loss of health (or even life) as a result of the “conscience clause”. However, the fact that women have to go through hell – physically and medically speaking – is just one aspect of this dire situation. Another, equally painful, aspect concerns its political dimension. Polish democracy, built on the combination of capitalist and conservative (largely, Catholic) ideals, made the non-negotiable “abortion compromise” part of its foundation, which inherently excluded women’s political agency.

The subject of abortion has sparked off one of the fiercest debates in Poland. The discussion has fully exposed the ambiguous nature of Polish community, its paradoxes and ideological discontinuity. The few decades of Polish democracy have brought a sense of weariness with the issue that no major political power wanted to tackle. In the meantime, the tendency towards limiting the already restrictive law has been growing since 2006. Law and Justice created favourable conditions for it to become stronger.

In the spring of 2016, it was reported that anti-choice groups started lobbying a total ban on abortion with increased intensity, collecting signatures to begin a legislative campaign in the Parliament, that would completely prohibit abortion, regardless of the circumstances of conception or the threat to the health and life of the pregnant woman. Poland erupted in protests: women held rallies and demonstrations which they attended waving wire coat hangers – a symbol of dangerous tools that were used to terminate a pregnancy when abortion was illegal in the past. Importantly, the strong response from the public led to founding new activist groups. The existing women and feminist organisations in Poland gained new allies: informal, bottom-up initiatives developed through contacts made on social media platforms (specifically, Facebook). For instance, the initiative Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (Gals for Gals) was formed in this manner. Therefore, the issue of abortion, which had not been discussed for years and had only been a matter of far right groups’ interest (whose activity involved hanging banners and leaving parked lorries bearing graphic images of allegedly aborted foetuses), not only became a topic of discussion all of a sudden but also transformed into a social movement with clear communication channels, new slogans and symbols.

At the end of September 2016, the political situation escalated. The Sejm rejected a draft of a bill that would make the abortion law less restrictive while a draft legislation proposing a total ban on abortion advanced to a parliamentary debate. It drew an angry response from the public and resulted in the Black Protest, whose origin can be traced back to a few sources. According to Alfabet buntu,

“On September 25, the Razem (Together) party organised a series of demonstrations in major Polish cities under the slogan #czarnyprotest. While addressing those who rallied in Wrocław, Marta Lempart made reference to the protest of Icelandic women in 1975 and called for Polish women to take action. Thus, she initiated the nationwide Women’s Strike, whose staging was delegated to local organisational committees created on social media platforms. The committees’ coordinators agreed on the form of the protest: taking time off work, participating in demonstrations, wearing black”.[6]

Krystyna Janda, a distinguished actress, film and theatre star, made some contribution to the cause by calling for women to strike in solidarity. The author of the slogan “black protest” is Gocha Adamczyk, an activist of the left-wing Razem party. Her line of reasoning was as follows: “Each of us has black clothes in their closets, everybody looks good in black, hence, everyone can get involved by protesting in this conspicuous way. The colour black carries certain connotations: sadness and grief. Clearly, we are doomed to grieve as Ordo Iuris’ barbaric proposal was submitted for consideration.”[7] Her idea caught on. At the end of September, a lot of Polish women were wearing black every day, not only during protests. #czarnyprotest found its reflection on social media platforms, where women posted pictures of themselves wearing black or replaced their profile pictures with blacked-out photos.

It is important to add that the idea of a Polish woman wearing black in an act of politically-motivated mourning has patriotic connotations. The first “black protest” took place in the 1860s as a form of passive resistance against the brutality of the tsarist authorities (at the time Poland was partitioned and some of its territories were controlled by Russia). In 2016, Polish women dressed in black clothes equated patriotism with their cause.

The Women’s Strike was arranged to take place on Monday, October 3, 2016. Women took time off work en masse, numerous institutions offered support by closing down for the day or asking men to take over women’s duties. The preparation period alone showed that a great number of people decided to take action. In the sociologist Elżbieta Korolczuk’s words: “practically everybody was taken aback by the large-scale involvement of women protesting against the tightening of the abortion law in Poland: the authorities, the media and the society.”[8] The day-long protests culminated in massive demonstrations in large cities. Nearly 150,000 people took part in protests that were staged in 142 cities.[9] The umbrella became another symbol of resistance as in many parts of Poland it was pouring with rain. Over 30,000 protesters gathered in the Old Town in Warsaw, the location of the main event. Pictures of a crowd dressed in black holding colourful umbrellas became the symbol of the protests’ success. The following day, the Sejm rejected the bill that would introduce a total ban on abortion.

Nevertheless, the Black Protest was not just a single event – or a succession of events, for that matter – that led to the events of Black Poniedziałek (Black Monday, in other words, the Women’s Strike). It turned into a kind of suspended, protracted revolution – the forces behind the Black Protest are mobilised whenever the parliament takes into consideration another draft law that could push forward a total ban on abortion or when demonstrations are held against any other type of violation of women’s rights in Poland. In fact, the most popular slogan written on banners held during protests was “Girls just wanna have fundamental human rights”.

The Black Protest became the embodiment of radical social solidarity. Ewa Majewska, a philosopher, compared some of its aspects to the historic movement of Solidarity, a trade union that gave rise to the anti-communist opposition in Poland. She pointed to the non-heroic nature of this type of resistance based on cooperation:

“Posting a blacked-out photograph on a social media platform, participating in a demonstration or expressing support for women on the Internet or in the street are all ways of taking action available to ordinary people as well as stars of stage, intellectuals or accomplished actors. The actions and words that made those men and women heroes, and which today are easily attributed to them, are in fact actions and words that any of us could do or say at the right moment and time. The paradox is that the male and female heroes associated with Solidarity as well as the participants of #czarnyprotest could be anybody.”[10]

However, despite its inherent solidarity, it was not a homogeneous phenomenon.

There is a dispute whether the Black Protest was strictly feminist. Some of the women who participated in the demonstrations supported liberalising the law, others were in favour of maintaining the compromise. During the Black Protest-related events, women were also protesting under slogans not connected to the anti-abortion law: most of them pertained to women’s right to self-determination, some addressed the issues of preventing violence against women and of broadly defined discrimination. This ideological ambiguity and diversity of presented demands were conducive to the protest’s considerable impact. A large number of women who joined the Black Protest had never taken part in a demonstration before. Elżbieta Korolczuk indicated “the change in the logic of the emerging movement”[11]: hybrid, non-hierarchical, “based on common emotions and political objectives”[12] rather than “shared identity” (which enables people to take concerted action despite holding fundamentally different opinions). The unique effectiveness of the Black Protest was demonstrated when the activists associated with, for example, the Warsaw Women’s Strike played a key role in protests staged in defence of independent judiciary in the summer of 2017. It transpired that the Black Protest was based on true solidarity and focused on defending democracy as a whole.

One of the most noticeable banners displayed during the Black Protest was a huge sheet of fabric bearing a slogan “The limit of disdain”. I would like to focus on this twenty-metre long strip of black cloth brought by a collective of female artists/activists Czarne Szmaty (Black Rags). The banner was carried by a number of protesters, it was expansive and up until the demonstration started, it blocked traffic. One of the creators of the banner explained its purpose: “People are often angry when something blocks the traffic. They say: it does not concern us. By blocking off the street, we wanted to show that it actually does. The lack of respect for women’s rights manifested in this country and depriving women of the right to decide about their own lives is your concern, it is everybody’s concern so stop for a moment.”[13] The piece of fabric, which bore a slogan that made reference to politicians crossing the limits in the way they treat female citizens, itself became a physical barrier used by the protesting women to divide the city space as they saw fit.

Nevertheless, it was something more, it was a black “szmata”. In Polish, the word “szmata” (literally: ‘a rag’) – a useless and worn out piece of cloth – is also meant as the ultimate insult to women. It has a clear sexual subtext: “szmata” is a “used” woman. This derogatory term is also part of a sexist discourse about feminists, who, according to the far-right narrative, are “promiscuous” because they want to be in charge of their own bodies and their sexuality. The word is used to humiliate and demean women. Meanwhile, during Black Protest, a massive black “szmata” was pushing its way through the streets of Warsaw, fighting courageously to make space for female citizens, disregarding any words of disdain. The banner – and the story behind it – showed something incredibly important. Yes, the fight for women’s reproductive rights was the reason for organising the Black Protest. However, something much bigger was at stake for women here, namely: being uncompromisingly visible in public space, having agency, being a citizen.

 

Translated by Monika Ajewska and first published in: Botanova, Kateryna/ Przybylski, Wojciech: On the Edge. CULTURESCAPES Poland 2019, Basel 2019. English, 2014 pages. ISBN: 978-3-033-07245-9

Weronika Szczawińska is a theatre director, dramaturge, cultural studies scholar and performer. She obtained a PhD from the Institute of Art of the Polish Academy of Sciences and studied directing at the National Academy of Dramatic Art in Warsaw. She has been nominated twice to Politika magazine Passport Awards (2014;2018) for her distinctive theatrical language.

 

Pictures: BP 1 and 2: © Grzegorz Żukowski, licensed by CC BY-NC 2.0, and BP 3: © Vitto Christaldi, licensed by CC BY-NC  2.0.

[1] https://archiwumosiatynskiego.pl/alfabet-buntu/czarny-protest/, accessed 24 February 2019.
[2] http://prawo.sejm.gov.pl/isap.nsf/download.xsp/WDU19930170078/U/D19930078Lj.pdf, accessed 10 February 2019.
[3] Dorota Sajewska, Archeologia traumy aborcyjnej (Archeology of Abortion trauma), „Didaskalia. Gazeta Teatralna” no 139/140, 16.
[4] Ibidem.
[5] Ibidem.

[6] https://archiwumosiatynskiego.pl/alfabet-buntu/czarny-protest/, accessed 24 February 2019.
[7] https://archiwumosiatynskiego.pl/alfabet-buntu/gocha-adamczyk/, accessed 24 February 2019.
[8] Elżbieta Korolczuk, Bunt kobiet AD 2016: skąd się wziął i czego nas uczy?, w: Przebudzona rewolucja. Prawa reprodukcyjne kobiet w Polsce. Raport 2016, red. Agata Czarnacka, Fundacja im. Izabeli Jarugi-Nowackiej, Warszawa 2017, s. 31.
[9] Data quoted in Elżbieta Korolczuk, Bunt kobiet AD 2016. Different sets of data can be found in other sources.
[10] Ewa Majewska, Słaby opór i siła bezsilnych. #Czarnyprotest kobiet w Polsce 2016, http://www.praktykateoretyczna.pl/ewa-majewska-slaby-opor-i-sila-bezsilnych-czarnyprotest-kobiet-w-polsce-2016/, accessed 19 February 2019.
[11]Elżbieta Korolczuk, Bunt kobiet AD 2016: skąd się wziął i czego nas uczy?, op.cit., s. 39.
[12] Ibidem, s. 40.
[13] Zuzanna Bukłaha, Jeśli sama nazywam się szmatą, nie widzę problemu. Ale nigdy nie nazwałabym tak kogoś, kogo nie znam, http://warszawa.wyborcza.pl/warszawa/7,54420,22689898,kobieta-zwasem-wkurza-ludzi.html, access 19 February 2019.

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