Riding the visionary wave in Poland
“Why are you here?”
The reporter has trapped me in front of her, and is now asking me questions. We are standing in front of an old library in one of the narrow, winding streets near the Market Square in the center of Kraków, watching a slowly growing crowd of people. The weather is beautiful – the sky painted over with a bright, festive blue after never-ending weeks of gray and cold.
“I’m not from here,” I blurt out, aware of how inadequate my explanation is.
Wafting up alongside the fresh smell of young spring shoots is the reek of dog droppings, making themselves known after months buried under piles of snow. On a nearby patch of grass, a group of twenty-somethings dressed in green, dreadlocks dangling down their backs, bang enthusiastically on large drums.
“So why did you come to the Women’s March?”
I immediately feel shame over the reason I’ve just given for my presence here – I may not originally be from Kraków, but I have felt certain aspects of what I perceive to be discrimination against women, or simply certain stereotypes about women constantly leveled at them.
“I just want to know what compelled you to come,” the reporter insists in a sweet voice, tapping her notebook threateningly with a pencil.
More and more people trickle into the narrow street, holding large, homemade signs: “Equal pay! Equal rights! Abortion rights! Preschool availability!” Others dart around handing out fliers that explain their particular grievances. An Anarchist newsletter and a small slip of paper appealing for more and better childcare centers are both stuffed into my hand.
“I came because … I’m a feminist … and I believe that men and women are equal.”
The drums are increasingly cacophonous. A small group of police officers in bright yellow vests chat with each other while leaning leisurely against their cars.
“You believe that they are the same?” she asks.
“No! Just that they should have the same kinds of opportunities, and – “
“That they should do the same things? But not everybody can do the same things,” the reporter interrupts.
I trip over a declaration I am not prepared to make, suddenly forgetting all the reasons why I had come – the backstreet abortions in a country where abortion is illegal, the lack of women in politics, the stereotypes that women can’t think in abstract ways because their brains are simply different and less capable than that of men, the knowledge that men are allowed to hit women occasionally because it only happens rarely and it wouldn’t be right to destroy a family over it, the faith that there is no such thing as alcoholism only occasional “over-doing” it, the growing anger at the part of society which is better educated, more mobile and more successful then the other half, the fear that behind the low birthrate hides a feminist-inspired hatred of the “real” Polish man.
“I’m a feminist, but that doesn’t mean hating men,” I say, lamely. The reporter thanks me and walks away. I look around at the now large crowd of people holding signs, and a wave of panic washes over me.
A dark-haired woman I take for the organizer of the march stands close to me arguing with a large, broad-shouldered man as to whether he should be allowed to make a speech at this particular march: “We know who we’re collaborating with – those people have been coming to meetings for weeks now. I don’t care that you organized a women’s march in Kielce – it’s too late for us to make last minute changes …” The man seems taken aback and frustrated.
“I thought we were all here for the same reason,” he lashes back, thwarted.
The woman ignores him and takes up a megaphone. Standing in front of the suddenly hushed crowd, she begins to tell us what our afternoon will look like. The idea is that we are supposed to follow the same route that women a hundred years ago took in the first Kraków “Manifa”, or women’s march. At the time, women were marching for voting rights – a battle that Cracovian women won in 1912, though the law did not officially reach all Polish women, mainly because Poland did not exist. At the time, the country was divided between Russia, Prussia, and the Austrio-Hungarian Empire. (Polish women officially got the right to vote in November of 1918 shortly after the country’s first independence day on November 11, 1918.)
Along the way, we will travel down the narrow street we’re standing on, and continue into Market Square where speeches will be made, and our official demands will be announced. At the end of the march, we are to continue from the city center to the city government building, where the president of Kraków is not expected to welcome us.
“Unlike his predecessor 100 years ago, who opened the building to the marching women and listened to what they had to say!” cries the woman with the megaphone. Another woman standing near her waves her sign:
“1911, Juliusz Leo listened to us – 2011, Jacek Majchrowski won’t.”
The crowd begins its slow descent into the city center, furling out like a banner on the broad Karmelicka Street. The tall buildings lining both sides of the street hug the crowd in, keeping its frayed edges somewhat together. These are old, dignified blocks, speaking of a former Austrio-Hungarian splendor that this city is lucky was not destroyed in the war. We pass the bright neon lights of new businesses: a cell phone shop; a Polish coffee shop chain called Coffee Heaven; several optometrists; and a fancy Polish restaurant called “Nostalgia.”
The higher stories are reputedly apartments owned by people who call themselves “Krakusy” – native Cracovians whose families have lived in the city for at least five generations. These Cracovians have a reputation for being intolerant of any kind of outsiders – simultaneously proud and protective of what they consider the most beautiful city in the world. One old woman in a large dress, with long gray hair, observes us from her balcony.
Many people on the sidewalks stop to take pictures of us, as we pass by, drums playing, horns honking, people chatting and laughing, the signs they carry poised above them like the old apartments of the city. With all the glamour of the ground level, there is no need to look up.
I look around for my friend Ania, who had invited me to the march. She is nowhere to be seen. I migrate from sign to sign, from group to group, trying to latch myself onto a conversation. Every few minutes the blaring megaphone interrupts the socializing groups with a new slogan. These chanted slogans, which are passed down the parade line by way of speakers, never quite catch on. Feeble calls of “Ma-my dość! Chce-my zmian! We have had enough! We want change!” die almost as soon as they become coherent; they rise momentarily before crashing down and splintering against a distracted crowd, reticent to take themselves too seriously.
In this parade, I am a one-woman band, hands thrust into my pockets, with no real clue as to what exactly I am marching for and still smarting from my interview with the journalist. In a final effort to deflect her questions, I confessed that I had been raised in the United States. Though I am bi-cultural, using this as a seemingly casually dropped excuse felt like a distinct failure, an abandonment of my stubborn insistence that I am in fact just as Polish as I am American.
Then again, there was never a time in my life when being Polish wasn’t complicated. As a dual citizen raised primarily in the United States, my life has always looked very different then the life of most of my family in Poland. And yet one of the differences that used to separate us the most – my ability to go to Western countries at any point – has now disappeared with Poland’s entrance into the European Union. Poles have flooded the markets in Ireland and the UK, and in May, a new wave of Poles is expected to try their luck in Germany.
Do these Poles come back with a new sense of gender relations? Or does this new sense of belonging to the wealthy and “sophisticated” European Union perhaps give this march a slight feeling of futility?
Or is it just that feminism in Poland has taken so many unusual turns?
Unlike American feminism, which fought through the twentieth century to earn women increasingly more rights, Polish feminism was thrown a curveball by Communism, which essentially guaranteed women equal labor rights, as well as full abortion rights.
“Women on tractors!” was a popular call during what scholars have dubbed the sixth wave of Feminism in Poland. However, even though women had equal rights during Communism, they were also forbidden to interact with Western feminist ideas – Communist feminism mainly engaged with the perception of women in a Marxist context.
When Communism ended in Poland in 1989, not only did women in Poland first become exposed to Western feminist ideas, but also the role of the Catholic Church in the overturn of Communism and its subsequent resurgence in influencing the government and Polish society, caused many of the equal rights that women had enjoyed to be repealed. Abortion was quickly banned, sexual education was eliminated in schools, and the government no longer funded anti-conception, which had been free under Communism. The influence of the Roman Catholic Church caused further pressure on women to back out of certain professions and the public sphere.
As the Polish Feminist writer Agnieszka Graff wrote: “It’s as if everything in the communist period was considered an upside-down world – including women’s freedom. After that period was over, the world was seen to go back to ‘normal.’ Women again were subjected to scores of former humiliations …”
The crowd gathers together in places, and then unravels again, never quite making up its mind as to a final, concrete configuration. Men and women mingle throughout the march, representing Freethinkers, Christians, Feminists, Anarchists, the Green Movement and various political parties. Journalists with notebooks, large cameras and microphones weave nimbly through the labyrinth of constantly rearranging clumps of people. I walk next to a man carrying a sign from an organization of rational thinkers and humanists. He explains to a woman walking next to him why he is there: he believes that less discrimination and stereotyping of women will also mean loosening the iron grip of the Catholic Church on the social and political psyche of the country.
A chipper woman chats on a cell phone, leaning her sign against her shoulder to make it more comfortable. The large painted letters decry domestic violence, and particularly, a law which leaves women no other option but to run away from their homes with their children, if they want to escape domestic abuse. Another sign deplores the lack of equality in pay between men and women. Some people hold signs calling specifically for more preschools and daycares, a small reminder of a maddening fight: often, in order to sign your child up for a day care you have to stand in line for days on end, or sign your child up several years before enrollment. Other signs simply read:
“I will not be exploited anymore!”
We enter Market Square, one of the most beautiful squares in Europe. Ahead of us lies an old merchant building, now host to contemporary sellers of amber and other traditional Polish trinkets. The old clock tower rises above it; in its basement is a popular theater. We march around the tower, passing several people dressed up in medieval clothing, advertising restaurants on the square. They stare as we round the corner and head towards the statue of Adam Mickiewicz – a nineteenth century Romantic bard who is one of Poland’s most famous poets.
Suddenly, a group of young men next to me gleefully takes up a chant that miraculously survives longer than a couple of repetitions: “Yes to Sex! No to Sexism!”
The statue of Mickiewicz looms large next to a patch of flower sellers; his grave figure is a replica, re-erected on the square in 1955 after being destroyed by Nazis in World War II. The day has suddenly turned cold, and though the sky is still blue, it is now glossed over with icy clouds. Snow starts to fall, and many people begin to shiver, myself included.
A determined-looking woman with a dark braid and a megaphone stands in front of the grave statue. She reads a list of demands, which we, this colorful troop, are demanding be put into effect. Her voice resonates in the crisp air. Among other things, she calls for more preschools, equal salaries for men and women, an end to gender roles and stereotypes, institutions that would protect the interests of women, a healthier environment, more parks, less traffic in the city center, more bike paths, and no parking on the sidewalk which makes walking with a stroller nearly impossible.
When the woman’s voice calls piercingly for an end to “beauty terrorism,” I glance at the young men – they are chatting amiably with one other.
My mind wanders. All the words suddenly seem so vague. I know that when I chant, “We have had enough! We want change!” I am personally referring to a few isolated incidents and a couple of books by feminist writers.
I am referring to a Jagiellonian professor who, when speaking on a panel at an African films festival, kept on repeating, “Let’s not exaggerate women’s issues. Let’s not exaggerate female circumcision, after all, there is an increase in sterilized tools used for the procedure … when organizations help women too much, then the men get frustrated and there is an increase of domestic violence. So let’s not exaggerate …”
I am responding to another Jagiellonian University professor who declared unabashedly at a debate about women in politics, that the only thing that women should do to contribute to politics is “raise citizens.”
I am responding to a Dominican priest, who, in one of his sermons said, “When I think of innocence, I immediately think of two things – a child, newly entering the world, and a virgin woman, pure, innocent, and so incredibly desirable.”
“Can you stand to listen to one more speech?” the woman with dark hair and the megaphone calls out after she finishes reading the postulates. “Yes!” cry the remnants of the freezing crowd.
For a moment, I think about walking away – my toes are numb from the cold, and I feel very small. However, some kind of inner stubbornness roots me to the spot. A short, red-haired woman with a Russian accent takes the megaphone and declares, on behalf of the Anarchist Society, that in order for there to be true equality among people, then all hierarchies must be abolished – that includes the president, the parliament, and indeed, any kind of government.
As the waning crowd snails its way towards the city government, my friend Ania comes up to me. She was at a course for librarians, until now, she tells me, apologizing for being late. We are both freezing, but we follow the crowd to the president’s office, where, after many calls for him to come down, he inexplicably greets us.
“I actually like women,” he says with a sheepish grin. “I’m not against them. You can check, but I’ve actually hired many of them.”
He seems to treat the march as something of a circus, but he promises to at least glance over the postulates. The doors to the building close, and the crowd’s attention fractures. We are no longer a parade, demanding justice – now we are just individual people trying to decide how to spend a lazy Sunday afternoon.
The drum band continues enthusiastically in the shadow of the looming government buildings. “They’re my favorite!” Ania cries, delighted. But it’s too cold to stand outside – we find a quiet café to drink something hot and wait for our faces and toes to come back to life.
As we warm our noses in the steam curling up from cups of hot tea, Ania tells stories about the high school where she works in Nowa Huta, the ideal Communist city turned “at-risk” in the poor and violent district in Kraków. Her students have threatened her on several occasions. Gang violence at this school is a daily issue, and teachers often resign because of student abuse.
In Poland, not much is done about this. Girls are consistently groped and abused by packs of guys who take any opportunity to molest them. A few years ago, one girl committed suicide after a cell-phone video was posted online of her being undressed and groped by guys in her class, in the classroom. The teacher had gone out for a few minutes, and everyone in the class was too scared to say anything. Football gangs rule schools and stadiums, and the schools’ administrations seem helpless to stop them. I feel the tingling of outrage return to my toes and fingertips.
As expected, the Polish media covering the women’s marches treated them according to their own biases. For those who believed feminism to be a meaningless creation of bored, childless, lesbian monsters, the women’s march was taken literally – the gestures, signs, and chants blown out of proportion as the proper and only representation of feminism: a grotesque and useless parade.
For those for whom feminism was a bigger and broader movement than the naturally flawed and sometimes graceless manifestos, the chants were a weak attempt at grasping the edges of something much bigger and truer. Somewhat like what priests sometimes claimed to do in the church I occasionally attended while living in Kraków. After all, the most effective way of conveying an idea is not to hammer it into somebody, but to point at it, and let the person make their own way towards it – or simply observe it from a far.
Now, many months later, what would I tell the journalist I met at the beginning of this march?
Perhaps that to come to something – a women’s march, any march – is as much an act of curiosity as it is a manifesto. That the only way a conversation can begin is by people showing up to it. And that when the conversation does begin, it automatically gently washes away any kind of historical inevitability, and exchanges it instead for the wild creativity of spaces between our exchanged words.
Finally, I would try to tell her that in this particular conversation, I am still a woman, still caught in-between my various identities – but now, I am more convinced that the fusion of various strands of self requires a particular kind of unprecedented creativity: a creativity that allows me to sense history alive, churning, allowing me to ride it’s visionary wave.
[Note: This story was produced by the Glimpse Correspondents Program, in which writers and photographers develop long-form narratives for Matador.]