Last year – in October – I took to the streets every day to protest against the barbaric ban on abortion. I remember the protests as being very numerous but, despite the large number of people, peaceful. What were my reasons for protesting? As a liberal, living in the capital and with a very supportive family – I never worried about myself. However, I thought about all the people who are not as privileged as me.
Today, all I can see from a distance are the local news reports on the sad downfall of a social movement that could have achieved so much.
What is a Women’s Strike movement?
As a feminist social movement, the Women’s Strike has been known since 2016. It was the one that organised the so-called Black Monday – a series of protests in many Polish cities against the rejection of the “Let’s Save Women” bill by the Sejm and the referral of another “Stop Abortion” bill to work in the committee.
However, as a truly mass movement it blossomed on one day – 22 October 2020. It was then that the Constitutional Tribunal, chaired by Julia Przyłębska, a supporter of the government, declared that abortion in the case of a high probability of severe and irreversible impairment of the fetus or an incurable disease threatening its life is unconstitutional.
In this way, the so-called abortion compromise, which had existed since 1993, was broken. Since then, Polish women could undergo abortion only in three cases: 1. when the woman’s life and health were endangered; 2. when the pregnancy was the result of a prohibited act (for example, rape); 3. when there were irreversible defects of the fetus.
The compromise satisfied neither liberals, who sought greater abortion freedom, nor conservatives, who demanded a total ban on abortion. However, the compromise eased the existing dispute in society for many years, and in a 2019 poll for the Rzeczpospolita(Polish newspaper), half of the population supported it.
“I think, I feel, I decide”
The decision of the Constitutional Tribunal, which eliminated one of the three conditions for having an abortion, completely shattered the compromise. On the same day, people gathered by the Women’s Strike took to the streets. In the following days there were more and more of them, and the Women’s Strike grew as a serious social force.
Eight days after the start of the protests, the Women’s Strike managed to gather 100,000 people on the streets of Warsaw. The slogans “I think, I feel, I decide”, “You will never walk alone” or “Hell for women” became widely recognised and associated with the strike.
This was the peak moment of the movement but the enormous social energy persisted for weeks. The organisers of the protests declared that there was no return to compromise and their aim was to bring about unconditional abortion. When, surprised by the number of protests, the authorities froze in temporary paralysis and tens of thousands of people protested in the streets, legal changes liberalising abortion in Poland seemed a possible option.
But with the end of November and the beginning of December, the protests began to dwindle in number. Eventually, they died out altogether. On the anniversary of the Court’s verdict, led by Julia Przyłębska, the Women’s Strike decided to take people out onto the streets again. The key objective was to recount itself. In this respect, the movement was a complete failure. At the largest protest in Warsaw, barely a few hundred people turned up.
The defamatory campaign of the pro-government media, as well as the government’s strategy of waiting
The reasons are more than one. After the first moments of stupor, the government, vigorously supported by an obedient media, got down to business. From the very beginning, the Women’s Strike used harsh language against the authorities, which was eagerly picked up by the street. Vulgar slogans have become a daily feature of protests in Polish cities. The pro-government media have used these slogans to label the organisers as troublemaking wimps aiming to hold a putsch in the country. A large part of the inherently conservative Polish society picked up on this narrative. Many people turned away from the strike.
Perhaps the police brutality shown by the media also had a chilling effect on people. According to the Women’s Strike, 4,000 people have been punished in various ways or have court cases, which may also have discouraged a certain group from further protests.
The Women’s Strike protests have achieved a few goals: they have changed the consciousness of a large part of society, they have activated young people, they have shown women paths to fight for their own cause, as well as abortion help abroad. But a real breakthrough was lacking, and the Women’s Strike as a mass social movement is practically over. There is a feeling that a new formula, new means, and new leaders are needed.
The All-Poland Women’s Strike will continue to exist as a movement bringing together people with common goals and ideals. It will continue to support pro-women initiatives and organise street happenings. But after Friday’s protests it is difficult to expect it to function as an organisation capable of bringing tens and hundreds of thousands of people onto the streets.