Can Europe Make It?: Opinion

“They’re uncompromising”: How the young transformed Poland’s abortion protests

Four years ago, Polish women went on strike over an abortion ban. Now, a younger, fiery generation has joined them.

Magdalena Muszel Grzegorz Piotrowski
11 December 2020, 4.47pm
Young people have brought a "different kind of energy" to the protests.
PA Images

The protests in Poland over the government’s plans to further tighten abortion restrictions began in October – they haven’t stopped since. Now, some are calling it the “cardboard revolution” in reference to the handmade placards that have become a distinctive feature of the protests. But what’s novel about the movement isn’t the ubiquitous signage – it’s the young age of its participants.

When looking through the crowds at the protests, it quickly becomes clear that most participants appear to be in their early twenties. That might explain the radicalism of the movement’s chants and slogans, but also it’s creativity and spontaneity. In Poznań, Gdańsk, Kraków, and Warsaw, young Poles used techno to soundtrack their marches, prompting a rare sight at Polish demonstrations – dancing. Young protesters also organised mass bicycle and motorcycle rides and even Halloween-themed actions in which people dressed up and held signs reading “Trick or free choice”, in reference to the key demand of the protests – free access to abortion.

As one of the organisers told us, “Now there is a completely different kind of energy. It’s wonderful. They are young people and they have no fear of taking to the streets and fighting for their rights.” 

The protests began when Poland’s constitutional tribunal ruled in October that abortions due to foetal defects are unconstitutional. The country already had one of the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe, and this ruling means that abortion is now legal only in cases of rape, incest or if there is a threat to the mother’s life. 

The government, led by the conservative Law and Justice party (PiS), has delayed implementing the verdict amid the protests. Since winning a majority in the 2015 elections, PiS has repeatedly attempted to further restrict Poland’s abortion laws. In 2016, one such attempt was the catalyst for a country-wide women's strike, inspired by one that took place in Iceland in 1975. Demonstrations, led by women, were held throughout the country, creating new, cross-generational alliances and politicising women in small towns. 

The 2016 women’s strike marked a new era for the Polish feminist movement. With further waves of protests in following years, networks of feminist activists consolidated, crystalised, and developed – and many bear the distinctive red lightening bolt symbol first used in that strike. 

“Revolution is a woman”

The red lightening bolt symbol of the women's strike has become ubiquitous.
The red lightening bolt symbol of the women's strike has become ubiquitous.
PA Images

Young people have swelled the ranks of the pro-choice movement and the effects have been palpable. As one organiser explained, “Young people are uncompromising, they do not want to get along. They have grown up with a sense of freedom and now someone wants to take it away from them”. 

That uncompromising attitude is evident in the radical language on display. Popular chants include, “This is war” and “Revolution is a woman” and, blunter still, “Get the fuck out!” and “Fuck PiS”. The latter is often written censored as eight asterisks, which has been adopted as the name and emblem of another anti-government protest movement, Eight Stars. The chant is even used in the chorus of a popular protest song – to the tune of Eric Prydz club hit ‘Call On Me’ – which has received several million views on YouTube.

The explicit language has created a stir among the political class and both conservative and liberal commentators. It has been embraced only by the country’s few left-wing MPs, who sometimes appear on TV with placards reading “***** ***”. 

The language of the protests is colourful in more ways than one. As the sociologist and anthropologist, Dr Magdalena Muszel, said to a local newspaper, Dziennik Bałtycki: “It is a response of protesting young men and women to reality, written in the language of memes, songs, school readings, video games, films, TV series. Memes are for young people a source of information, a commentary on reality, many of these people are not only recipients but also creators of memes, who count on their popularity. That is why there is total freedom of slogans and full, creative freedom on the boxes”. 

Some slogans are political, but there’s a lot of humor, too, with signs reading “I wish you’d step on LEGO”, “Handmaid’s Tale is not a tutorial!”, and “It’s so bad, even the introverts are here”.

A widening generational divide

The Polish presidential elections in June, which the PiS incumbent Andrzej Duda won by a narrow margin, exposed the country’s deep generational divides. Duda won a majority only among Poles aged 50 or over. Almost two-thirds of 18-29 year-olds voted for his liberal rival, Rafał Trzaskowski.

This frustration has been articulated by a new, derogative catchphrase for the older generation – dziaders. There’s no direct English translation, but it echoes the mocking Generation Z jibe, “OK boomer”. The term encapsulates not only a rejection of the previous generation’s approach to politics, but also their moral authority and patriarchal values. This includes a rejection of the Polish Catholic church, which has been a target of the protests for its anti-abortion lobbying. While support for the Catholic church remains high in Poland, religiosity is declining faster than any other country, particularly among the young, according to a 2019 Pew survey.  

It also doubles as a literary reference to the title of Polish Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz’s masterpiece ‘Dziady’. The poetic drama became a symbol of resistance towards the Polish People's Republic after it’s staging was banned by the government in 1968. In October this year, protesters alluded to this history by performing the play outside the home of Jarosław Kaczyński, the co-founder of PiS and current deputy prime minister.

“Young people are afraid that they will be deprived of more freedoms, more rights, more spaces, that this is a dictatorship that will impose everything on them,” a protest organiser in Sochaczew, a town on the outskirts of Warsaw, told us.

History repeats itself

It’s not just the age of the participants that distinguishes the current protests from those of previous years – so, too, does the scale. In the first week of the protests, 410 events took place throughout the country, frequented by approximately 430,000 people, according to the police – likely a conservative estimate. 

Support for the protests has also come from different demographics. The political scientist, Anna Grzymała-Busse, points out that while the majority of protesters are young women, they have also mobilished “a far broader cross-section of Polish society, including rowdy soccer fans, union locals, tram and bus drivers, and hundreds of taxi drivers who blocked the streets of Warsaw so the protests could pass”. 

However there seems to be a split among football fans, as some have followed Kaczyński’s plea to his Facebook followers to “defend churches”. Women have also been attacked by football ultras at protests in Wrocław, Poznań, and Białystok. In one instance a mob released tear gas and beat people with clubs. Police detained 37 people, many of whom were identified as football hooligans, during clashes at one of the largest protests to date in Warsaw. The far right’s tactics have been more elaborate: tending to separate into small groups and merge with the crowd before causing pockets of panic by attacking people. 

Occasionally commentators have drawn comparisons to the anti-government protests of May 1968. There are numerous similarities. Both are generational protests that reject the moral authority of older generations, and have involved the protesters breaking a number of cultural taboos. People in Poland have been talking more openly about their abortion experiences during the protests, and phone numbers of underground organisations helping people access safe abortions are being written on walls, as young women demand full control over their bodies and reproductive rights. Contrary to some public statements, the new generation of protesters on the streets are gaining their political subjectivity and expressing it in their own voice.

This text is based on research funded by the Polish-German Science Foundation (Deutsch-Polnische Wissenschaftsstiftung).

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