50.50

How a harsh Polish abortion bill sparked women’s strikes around the world

This week, Poland's parliament votes on restricting abortion rights. In 2016, we resisted a bill like this, inspiring women from Italy to Argentina

Klementyna Suchanow
15 April 2020, 8.00am
Women protesting in Krakow, Poland on on 'Black Monday', 3 October 2016
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Artur Widak/NurPhoto/PA Images

“I’m speaking to the murderers of women because I know that they will hear and see us. Stop lying,” said Marta Lempart, stressing every word into the microphone. Then she began to raise her voice. “The right to health and life is not a matter of worldview.” Referring to the Icelandic women’s strike, she thundered: “Let’s give them a Black Monday. I am calling for a strike on 3 October 2016.”

Such an uncompromising voice had not been heard before during a demonstration in Poland. But it was a reflection of our mood. Women had been waiting for such a tone. Lempart added, resolutely: “We are not afraid. Murderers of women, you think it will last forever. That you will always be in power. That you can do whatever you want to us. We’ll see! We’ll see! We’ll make you have a Black Monday! And then the next one, and then another one! Until the very end, the end of us or you!”

There was no fear in her voice, just an open declaration of war. The strike was planned to take place in one week’s time, on a working day. This was also a novelty in Poland. The action was called the Polish Women’s Strike. It quickly and unexpectedly turned into a spontaneous, feminist civic movement of an anti-government nature. And each of us had her own personal motivation for joining.

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Women's strike in Krakow, Poland on 'Black Monday', 3 October 2016 | NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images

Within just one day, the number of people on Facebook who declared their participation in the strike reached 100,000. Meanwhile, heated discussions began on the National Women’s Strike website, about what form the protest should take. The most important thing was gathering a list of women interested in taking part – and the towns and cities they came from. It meant that women, many of whom (like myself) didn’t have a clue about feminist organisations, could get to know each other online and then meet in real life to discuss the logistics of the strike.

This was done with no money. Everything was being created from scratch. Three key organisers who helped create a map of strikers and collected ideas from across the country were chef and singer Natalia Pancewicz, wine sommelier Paulina Maciejewska and journalism student Natalia Kwaśnicka.

Marta Lempart, a lawyer at a construction company at the time, wrote a 12-point guide to organising protests, as well as articles, appeals and leaflets, and posted them on social media groups of local organisers across the country. A spontaneous online team of administrators formed, led by Krystian Wieczyński, an actor from Toruń, and Stanisława Kuzio-Podrucka, a bank employee from Zgorzelec.

Meanwhile, Ola Jasionowska, a graphic designer, created an illustration featuring a woman’s head, which would become the logo and the symbol of the movement. The team in Wrocław acted as the help desk, and created a network that allowed organisers to quickly exchange ideas, collect data and connect with one another.

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The first anniversary of the 'Black Monday' protest, in Rzeszów, Poland, 3 October 2017 | NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images

“Headquarters were set up in my flat,” said Marta. “I took time off. We created a group of administrators who day and night watched over the safety of the event. We were going to sleep at 4am and getting up at 7am. We were eating takeaways, some pizzas. And when we were struggling, we would sing folk songs at night, and Paulina would bring some wine. We added these chants to a fan page called Chór Wkurwionych Kobiet (translated literally: The Pissed off Women’s Choir).”

The structure was fluid, the pot was kept boiling. There was no steering committee, no leader who would decide how and what to do. Every town would decide for itself. The women on the ground knew best who they wanted or didn’t want to collaborate with, and why. They knew the territory and were aware of who they could trust.

The unifying factors were our shared objective – to stop the bill – as well as the logo, hashtag and Facebook group. After a few days of heated discussions, Marta summed up the Black Monday plans: “3 October: we’re taking leave on demand – we’re taking a day off for childcare – we’re not going to university – we’re taking unpaid leave – using any other legal option – we’re not going to work or university!”

One organiser suggested you could donate blood. That way you would be entitled to a day off, and you do a good deed too. We didn’t even discuss the option of working with trade unions, which, historically and legally, are responsible for organising strikes, because the largest union, Solidarność, is under the government’s control.

Besides, it wouldn’t have been possible to sort out all the required formalities in time. Meanwhile, we were contacted by many companies. Some bosses gave time off to women who worked in public institutions, coffee shops, schools, universities, theatres, accounting firms, foundations, newspapers, designer studios, shops, nurseries, publishing houses, museums. And if someone wasn’t able to take part in the strike, they could put up a poster, dress in black and refuse to perform household work.

Reverberating around the world

I found out about the first strike in Argentina – which was scheduled for 19 October 2016, two weeks after the Polish one – because I had personal contacts in Argentina, where I'd spent many years working on a biography of the Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz. I learned that there was a dynamically growing feminist movement called Ni Una Menos (“not one less”), which had been launched in outrage over cases of femicide in the country. In Poland, this information hadn’t really been picked up by the media.

I decided to write about it for the Polish press, so that Polish women could see that they were not alone, and that what they’d done was reverberating throughout the world. So that they realised they are making history. On Facebook, I contacted Nadia Pérez from Rosario and Luxx Marina from Buenos Aires. Nadia was serious, focused and precise. Luxx was combative and also very factual. She worked as an IT professional, but was also involved in radio journalism.

I built connections with activists in other countries too, including Tatiana Suharieva from Russia, and Hyelin Beng and Yewon Moon from South Korea. I began to understand that what’s happening with women’s rights has a global dimension. Italians, who also face a high number of femicides, set up a movement modelled on the Argentine example: Non Una Di Meno.

Up to this point, I had never contemplated whether or not I was a feminist. It was not necessary for me to live. Each of us had her own story, but the 2016 bill that punished women for having an abortion turned us all into feminists.

‘Each of us had her own story, but the 2016 bill that punished women for having an abortion turned us all into feminists’

I contacted Marta the same time that I contacted the Argentines because I wanted to organise the often dramatic and moving stories popping up on Polish Women’s Strike social media pages. Something caused women to open up: they started to talk openly about abortions, violence, rape. This wave of public confessions revealed problems that had been hidden away for years, suppressed by self-defence systems.

I wanted to give these women a voice, which would reverberate around the world and not get lost on Facebook. And this relationship would soon turn out to be the beginning of the International Women’s Strike.

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Women protest against another attempt to restrict abortion law, Krakow, Poland, 2 July 2018 | Omar Marques/Zuma Press/PA Images

My article ‘Black Protest, not just in Poland’ was published in Polityka just a few days after the strike in Argentina. Later, in 2018, an Argentine organiser wrote:

“Since the Ni Una Menos movement started in Argentina, we were dreaming and joking about how to have a women’s strike so that it would change the history (herstory) of feminist politics. Talks between members of the collective began exactly three years ago, and the idea was almost a sketch of a future work of art. It remained a dream until Polish women went on strike. This was the moment when our dream began to take a real shape, and we saw great potential in it. Two weeks later, this possibility became a historical necessity.”

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Women marching for abortion rights in Buenos Aires, Argentina, 29 September 2017 | NurPhoto/NurPhoto/PA Images

Just five days after the Polish Women’s Strike, the idea was picked up by the women of St Petersburg, who organised a picket in defence of their abortion rights, which were being tightened. Next were the women of South Korea. “We’ve been inspired by the Polish ‘black protest’,” said organiser Hyelin Bang, who added that this was the first-ever abortion-related public demonstration to happen in Korea’s history.

On Saturday 15 October, about 300-400 women protested in Seoul against the tightening of their abortion law. Three days later, the government announced it was considering rolling back the idea. In both Russia and South Korea, women wore black, just as in Poland. They used the same “black protest” hashtag and adopted similar symbols: metal hangers and drawings of a uterus sticking up a middle finger.

‘Our idea to strike in Argentina remained a dream until Polish women went on strike’

In Argentina, the slogan of the strike was: “If my life doesn’t matter, produce without me!”. Every city scheduled an hour-long break from work at noon. Town halls, medical centres, radio stations, newspaper offices, universities, pizza restaurants, shops and even highway security gates – all went black. I still remember a photo from San Martín. I thought: Fuck, let’s have a worldwide revolution.

Most people think that the International Women’s Strike was organised by Argentine or Polish women. They find it hard to understand that they could do this together.

This new feminism was being born somewhere on the margins. It was created in the grassroots, in the world of the disadvantaged, and thanks to that it was so impetuous. No one was teaching us what to do, we created it ourselves, according to our needs. We’re everywhere. We just need to connect, and nothing will stop us.

* This is an edited excerpt from Klementyna Suchanow’s new book, “This is war. Women, fundamentalists, and the new Middle Ages”, published in March 2020. Translated into English by Lidia Kurasinska.

Empower and protect, don’t prohibit: a better approach to child work

Bans on child labour don’t work because they ignore why children work in the first place. That is why the International Year for the Elimination of Child Labour will fail.

If we truly care about working children, we need to start trying to keep them safe in work rather than insisting that they end work entirely. Our panelists, all advocates for child workers, offer us a new way forward.

Join us for this free live event at 5pm UK time on Thursday 28 October.

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