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„FEMINISTS FOR TRANSFORMATION”: MEETINGS REPORT

In order to celebrate 25 years of its activities the Network of East-West –Women organized two meetings, in Gdańsk (June 7th, 2016) and in Kraków (June 11th, 2016). The meetings were also a response to the October 25th, 2015 election in Poland, and the participants decided to take Poland as a representative case of what’s happening all over Europe. Though there were a number of participants from other East Central European countries and several from the United States, most of the sessions were held in Polish in order to facilitate an in-depth look at the specifics of how the Right has been operating to restrict Polish access to democratic institutions and to attack advances women have made in participating in civil society since the fall of communism in 1989.
On June 7th, 2016 around 70 feminist activists from Poland (Poznań, Opole, Wrocław, Łódź, Kraków, Warsaw, Olsztyn, Szczytno, and the Tri-cities), Albania, Bulgaria, Czech Republic, Hungary, Romania, Serbia, Lithuania, Germany, the United States, and the UK met at the European Solidarity Center in Gdańsk.
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All photos courtesy of Phoebe West
Małgorzata Tarasiewicz (Director of NEWW) led the morning plenary, where she reported on the activities of the Network of East-West Women over the past 25 years. She described NEWW’s Legal Fellows program, which trained feminist lawyers from many East Central European countries beginning in the 1990s when constitutions all over East Central Europe were all being rewritten. Several of these fellows were present and shared with us the feminist work they are now doing in a variety of governmental and international locations. One of the present fellows, Poland’s Deputy Human Rights Commissioner for Equal Treatment, reported their very comprehensive and important intentions and initiatives concerning gender. Within these initiatives, the Office of the Commissioner for Human Rights has competency to propose concrete changes in the legislation to the ministers in charge, submit motions to the Constitutional Tribunal regarding given legal provisions, and participate in civil proceedings regarding individual cases in the following areas:
  • Violence against women:
    • Monitor the implementation of the Istanbul Convention.
    • Call for the immediate separation of domestic violence perpetrators from the victims.
    • Lobby for the launch of free 24/7 domestic violence helpline.
  • Reproductive rights:
    • Work toward proper implementation of sex education in schools.
    • Ensure the right to use free epidural anesthesia during labor for every woman who expresses such need.
    • Inititated a legal proceeding at The Constitutional Tribunal regarding the medicially assisted childbirth law due to the lack of appropriate transitional provisions.
  • Women in the workforce:
    • Deal with issues related to work
    • life balance.
    • Strive toward eradicating the gender pay gap and the gender gap in pensions.
    • Ensure proper implementation of regulations concerning equal pay for work of equal value.
    • Call on the relevant ministers regarding the implementation of concrete changes concerning flexible forms of employment and access to institutional forms of childcare.
  • Issues around gender stereotypes (particularly in the realm of education)
  • Women’s participation in political and public life
  • Alimony issues
Due to time constraints, The Deputy Human Rights Commissioner for Equal Treatment did not have enough time to discuss specific gender initiatives in the remaining areas of: issues around gender stereotypes, women’s participation in political and public life, and alimony issues. However, she assured us that despite the war on gender that resulted in the recent government decision to cut the budget of the Commissioner for Human Rights Office, she and her colleagues will continue their work in the aforementioned areas as well as undertake a number of new equal treatment initiatives in Poland.
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After the morning plenary, we broke into five feminist café tables. In these breakout sessions, we discussed what people are doing and where, what strategies are working or have worked in the past, and what actions and strategies might work now to counter the newly aggressive and European-wide “anti-gender” movements.
The café tables we clustered around were:
1) Left feminism, trade unionism, and critiques of neo-liberalism, capitalism, globalism, and the new poverty. How can we make it clear that feminism cares about poverty, vulnerability, and precarity? Social vulnerability is fueling the Right through the emotions of fear and uncertainty. How does a Left feminism counter their arguments and rhetoric? For example, support for immigrants and for refugees of international conflicts is a critique of nationalism, which need not be the only source of Polish pride. Poles need to be proud of an ethic of care, refusing to abandon the socially vulnerable or displaced and refusing to stigmatize ethnic and sexual minorities.
2) Education and media, including social media. Is there a way that university Gender Studies programs can give each other mutual support? Is there a way to both educate and protect those who teach children about equality and gender justice? How can activists combine academic and theoretical work with outreach into a larger community? How can we counter the Right’s growing monopoly on public media and their current efforts to control the terms of public discourse? Presence in the media and in other venues is key to building opposition movements. Visibility counters any idea that Poles are passive or uninterested in politics.
3) Abortion, pro-familism, and pro-natalism. The Polish church is claiming a monopoly on morality. How can feminists make a counter-claim that current and proposed abortion restrictions are themselves immoral, damaging human dignity and freedom? At times, anti-abortion politics accepts cruel and unusual punishment for women, a transparently immoral position. The proposed abortion law suggests a return to the communist attack on private space and individual freedom. Women seeking medical treatment will be surveilled at a level formerly and formally unknown in Poland. The 500+ movement is a pro-natal policy in Poland. We don’t want to take money away from women, but what alternative structures would we recommend for supporting women and families? The feminist movement is often accused of being “against the family.” What would be the best feminist response to this distorted idea of feminist values? Feminists support care at every level of society, while the so-called protectors of the family are often those who strip social protections away.
4) Government and public institutions. Feminists differ among themselves about modes and locations of organizing. Those who are struggling to acquire various forms of public power and working to strengthen feminist demands on the state currently face new challenges. What language can be used to resist the new government structures now taking form in Poland without alienating a general public or precipitating a damaging backlash? What are the most effective aesthetics for fashioning a public reaction to the undermining of democratic institutions? The current government claims legitimacy because they were elected. What kind of work – in parties, in local circles, in independent organizations, in the new city movement, in the E.U. – will counter this narrow definition of what a healthy democracy and civil society includes? How can we mainstream feminism into the growing pro-democracy movement?
5) Outsider, radical, independent political activism. What are some of the forms, aesthetics, and emotions that such organizing represents and hopes to mobilize? What rhetoric is effective in doing such work and for building new connections at the grassroots? How can radical work suggest new terms and values and dramatize criticism of the status quo? A wide range of actions arises from radical imaginings and prefigurative ways of living. How can we mobilize and experiment with new ideas of self and community and with the rich variety of cultural forms emerging from queer culture and thought? Creative uses of space and image, new language, new art practices, new associative chains of feeling—all contribute to the project of feminist change.
Out of these discussions we collected ideas for action and discussed them collectively in an afternoon plenary. Some of these ideas included actions taken in the past that could be utilized again now and in our feminist futures, for example the Positive Change movement, which hung laundry all over Polish cities to counter stereotypes that women are raped because of what they wear. We produced the following list of ideas for action:
  • Issue a feminist analysis of the 500+ program.
  • Work on intergenerational dialogue and build bridges with various feminist groups.
  • Build solidarity and cooperation with other marginalized and economically disadvantaged communities, including working classes, the unemployed, and refugee/immigrant groups.
  • Organize a letter campaign urging Gazeta and other media to advertise opportunities for signing the pro-abortion draft law with an aim of gathering 100 000 signatures by August 2016 (petition available on the website ratujmykobiety.pl)
  • Raise awareness regarding the implications of the proposed total abortion ban, especially among youth.
  • Defend academics and teachers that support progressive causes in Poland and in the region.
  • Cooperate with the Workers Initiative that defends labor rights (website www.ozzip.pl).
  • Reclaim the language of ethics and care from the church and right wing movements in the realm of women’s rights and abortion debates.
  • Exchange information and knowledge about gender equality developments in various countries (e.g. Spain and Italy regarding reproductive rights).
  • Work to introduce feminist ideas (including anti-violence strategies) in schools and fund them through local government budgets or civil initiatives in Poland.
  • Cooperate with other human rights groups.
  • Take measures to protect human rights defenders, including women’s rights defenders.
  • Raise public awareness using media regarding gender equality.
  • Train and educate young politicians about gender issues.
  • Support new progressive political initiatives.
  • Advocate for improving the process of EU structural fund.
  • Sing in the streets.
  • Eat flowers that people give us on Mother’s Day and other occasions.
  • Organize 5-minute work stoppages.
  • Organize poster campaigns.
  • Formulate strategies for cooperation with The Committee for the Defense of Democracy (KOD).
  • Name women who killed because of domestic violence in public spaces.
  • Get ideas from other movements, e.g., Occupy, Guerrilla Girls, etc.
  • Use social media to build feminist connections.
  • Create theater-traveling performing groups that deal with gender issues.
  • Send tampons to the Polish prime minister’s office to protest the current anti-abortion campaign.
  • Secure TV time to support feminist goals.
  • Ask famous people to publically support our cause via media.
  • Organize rock camps for women and girls.
At the end of the afternoon plenary, we discussed the ongoing nurses’ mobilization in Poland and decided to make a gesture of support for their strike and efforts.
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At the 25th birthday party of NEWW, we all drank wine and champagne and ate a lot of chocolate cake! People connected with one another and made plans to work together in the future.
During the morning of June 8th many participants joined in a tour of the European Solidarity Centre. As a group we discussed the strengths and weaknesses of the heroic images and narratives present in this exhibition and how women’s activism in Solidarity (for example, illustrated in the detailed account by Shana Penn in Solidarity’s Secrets) are absent from this story.
Over the course of these two days, participants from all over East Central Europe described challenges they are currently facing in their different locations in rightward-turning Europe. Our participants from Hungary particularly described how their work is being affected in a time of great threat, the bureaucratic and political difficulties they are facing, and how their projects and institutions (for example domestic violence centers) are being undermined from below as well as actively repressed from above.
We pledged ourselves to help each other internationally in this time when nationalist movements are trying to cut ties between nations.
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On June 11th, 2016 50 feminist activists gathered in Kraków at the Institute of Sociology of the Jagiellonian University. People came from Poland (Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, Łomza, the Tri-cities), and from Albania, Bulgaria, Chechnya, Estonia, Serbia, Georgia, Czech Republic, Germany, the United States, and the UK. Since everyone introduced themselves individually, we learned about a long list of engagements, for example: people working on backlash, subjectivity, disability, sex work, immigrant and refugee rights, oral history and memory, violence, militarism, psychology, and feminist philosophy.
The morning had an unusual and very effective structure. After general introductions, we broke up into small groups and discussed our experiences with feminism at three levels: the personal, the local/regional/national, and the transnational. We each wrote down events in our feminist biographies, moving from our personal entry-points to the histories of the women’s movements we’ve worked in, and finally to global markers in women’s movement developments over the last 25 years.
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When we all reconvened, we saw a beautiful, undulating color chart, three rivers fluctuating up and down: the “feminist river of changes.”
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The bottom stream was pink representing personal memory and engagement. The middle line was mauve and represented feminist milestones in our cities and countries. The top line was blue representing world historical events that had influenced the local and personal. The river’s timeline begins in 1918 with Polish women getting the vote (an anniversary that will be celebrated in 2018 all over Poland) and it proceeds to the present moment. Once people had added their personal record -- written on strips of paper in the three colors -- the wall was absolutely gorgeous. The river thickens and narrows at points that may or may not map onto conventional historical timelines, suggesting new periodizations of feminist and individual histories. For example, things get particularly exciting around 1991, when the papers people had added began to be thick and numerous.
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This innovative structure made it possible for people to talk in a rich and complex way about the layers of political life, moving from personal memory and participation to the larger narratives of development and change. As Sławka Walczewska described it, the concept of the feminist river was not about a “rhetoric of success and failure, but rather of using history as a reference point for thinking about strategy.” We asked how history shapes understandings of what is urgent now.
People noted that our stories tended to be about large towns and big cities, and that small towns and rural areas are still often completely ignorant even of the term “feminism,” though feminism is equally relevant in all locations of Poland -- urban and rural -- and indeed this work is happening, often using other names.
One key point of discussion in the morning plenary was that feminists can’t leave the discourse of positive lived examples of “the family” to the Right wing.
We said that feminism cannot be done on one’s own. It is in its very nature a process of dialogue, group development, and community connections.
We discussed the need to understand the resistance to feminism in order to counter it.
Many shared a sense that, in times of backlash, we become bored and frustrated when the other side, often the Right, has monopolized outrage. We need ways and spaces to express frustration and outrage.
We asked what the new government and/or neoliberalism do for women that feminism is not perceived as doing. Feminism seeks to include all aspects of economic and social justice. We want it to be understood to be a movement that nurtures, supports, and develops both equality and a good quality of life for all.
In concluding remarks at the morning plenary, as we looked at the colorful rivers, Slawka remarked that, “feminists are not only here and now, in any given moment, but have memories of the past and visions for the future. The river is a way to think about ourselves in history as well as to rethink history through our own dates and events.”
In the afternoon, we moved to the Collegium Maius for an afternoon discussion.
We heard a summary of the morning workshops and discussion, including the need for: feminist analyses of class and economy, to take back the language of family from the Right, to promote internationalism as a force, for the visibility of feminist activities, to address issues of margin and periphery, and for feminist auto-critique and reflection.
We were celebrating the longevity and the birthdays of a number of enduring feminist organizations in Poland and internationally. As an example of the richness and proliferation of such feminist organizg, here is only a short and incomplete list of the groups who were represented in Gdańsk and Kraków:
Autonomia (an organization that works on self-defense, health, and anti-violence); the Bulgarian, Hungarian, and European Women’s Lobbies; The Center for the Promotion of Equality; Centrum Praw Kobiet (a feminist law organization); Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (Bad Girls for Bad Girls, a large online community responding to laws against abortion); eFKa (a feminist foundation with many projects, nationally and internationally, working since 1991); Federacja Na Rzecz Kobiet i Planowania Rodziny (the Polish Federation for Women and Family Planning); the Gender Studies Programs from universities in Gdansk, Kraków, Poznań, Wrocław, and Brno, Czech Republic; Kongres Kobiet; Lesbian Lambda; Manifa (organizers of the yearly theatrical March 8th demonstration in cities all over Poland); Nane (a Hungarian women’s center); The Network of East-West Women; OŚKa (a Ford Foundation funded women’s resource center, Warsaw); the Polish Gender Society; the Prague Gender Center; Queer May; Ratujmy Kobiety; Sex Workers’ Alliance; Sisterhood Street (an informal women’s group); Space for Women Foundation (research and education about women’s historical presence); TAK (Tri-cities Women’s Action group); TIK (frequent demonstrations in support of immigrants, poor women, and against violence); Transfestival; Venus de Milo (mobilization of disabled women); Welcome to Kraków (women’s group welcoming immigrants); Zadra (one of the few feminist journals in Europe).
Representatives from these groups gave histories of their organizations and reports on their current activities and plans. Some reported how early support from the Network of East-West Women provided the technological means and training to connect with each other and to become part of the growing Internet universe. They described how this early access to information, communication, and networking was foundational to the many groups who were present at this meeting.
We heard from Beata Kozak, the editor of Zadra, who stated the urgent need for new subscribers in order to sustain the publication of the journal, especially in the current atmosphere of backlash. She emphasized that subscription is a matter of minutes and does not require a big amount of money. Annual subscription in Poland costs only 24 zł (approx. $5) and subscription abroad around 60 zł (approx. $15). Orders can be placed either through depositing money to eFKa’s bank account or via Zadra Kiosk. All the information is available at: http://pismozadra.pl/prenumerata-i-sprzedaz.
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We heard short remarks from David Ost, Political Scientist from Hobart and William Smith Colleges, and from Katha Pollitt, author of Pro, which has just been translated into Polish and was given out to every participant at both meetings, provided with the support of The Book and Journal Project of the Network of East-West Women.
Several discussants gave close readings of Ann Snitow’s recently published book, The Feminism of Uncertainty: A Gender Diary (Duke: 2015). They raised interesting questions and speculated about the interface between Polish and American feminist experiences.
Snitow discussed one aspect of her thinking about uncertainty that may be relevant to our current, and increasingly shared, political conditions: the tone and style of self-righteous certainty enacted by the new rightwing government cannot be used by feminists, who inevitably insist on a more complex account of what’s going on and what should be done.
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The meetings closed with a look towards planning events for 2017 and 2018. We proposed that a next big gathering should focus on feminist intergenerational exchange that would deal with breaks and misunderstandings within the feminist community and would work towards making diverse uses of both the rich feminist past and the lively feminist present. One of the young organizers in Krakow, Agnieszka Krol, called for the next meeting to be a, “polyphony of feminist voices with an emphasis on bringing young people in”—a Generational Jamboree in 2017!
Initiatives for the 100th anniversary of Polish women getting the vote are also being planned for 2018. The government is planning demonstrations in support of women’s dignity (in other words, as mothers) and young feminist organizers plan to define dignity otherwise—as equality, bodily autonomy, the struggle for freedom, and self-determination. They insist on working on and through the perspectives of queer culture and intersectional social justice movements as well as incorporating disability rights into all human rights struggles.
Many very important feminist events have already happened since we said goodbye in Gdańsk and Kraków in June. Just a few weeks ago, on June 18, there was a large Dignity March in Warsaw entitled “Human Rights are Women’s Rights” organized by a diverse range of feminist grassroots organizers that drew several thousand participants. Also since our meetings, a very joyous piece of news is that the members of the initiative “Ratujmy Kobiety” successfully gathered more than 100,000 signatures for the women’s rights and conscious parenting draft law!! Now, this signature list for the draft of this new bill, which aims at liberalizing the polish anti-abortion law, will be submitted to the Sejm on August 4, 2016. We are looking forward to what our feminist future brings!