Lessons from Poland: "While we've been busy discussing gender theory, antigender activists have taken over the country"

Elżbieta Korolczuk i Agnieszka Graff Elżbieta Korolczuk i Agnieszka Graff

Last month in Warsaw, several thousand anti-choice people participated in a march that supposedly celebrates the sanctity of human life (Marsz Świętości Życia). Since a similar march (Hod za život) is about to take place in Zagreb, Split and Rijeka on May 19, we decided to talk to Agnieszka Graff and Elżbieta Korolczuk, Polish activists and academics whose analysis of antigender movements provide some intriguing and useful insights.

Their article Towards An Illiberal Future: Anti-Genderism and Anti-Globalization was published last year in Global Dialogue, and their chapter "Worse than communism and Nazism put together": War on gender in Poland is included in Anti-Gender Campaigns in Europe: Mobilising Against Equality (2017).

Like its Croatian counterpart, the Polish antigender movement is part of a broader transnational trend. However, there are some local specificities – could you tell us what these are?

Elżbieta: Firstly, those who cooperate with or represent the antigender movement are today in power in Poland, which is not the case in many other countries where they are in the position of challengers to the current power elites. In Poland they have access to various institutions such as schools, and they also have funding from the state, the Catholic Church and international organizations. Secondly, the political power of the Catholic Church is significant here, which is why Poland is so often compared to Croatia. The third element is nationalism; of course, it's always been present, but in recent years we have had a strong wave of nationalism. The result is illiberal populism, which rejects liberal values such as individual and minority rights, and claims to represent the “silent majority” of decent, hard-working people who have been wronged and manipulated by liberal elites.

Agnieszka: More broadly, right wing populisms are mass movements against the so-called liberal elites. For some people – for example to David Patternote in Belgium or Mary Anne Case in the US – antigenderism is basically Christian fundamentalist propaganda, a religious movement.  But to us, it is primarily a political movement. What we're dealing with are radical right-wing Christian fundamentalist movements which have different strategies depending on the location and the extent of their political influence.

For example, in Sweden there are right-wing organizations doing strategic litigation against abortion. There was a case last year when two midwives sued a hospital because they wanted to be conscientious objectors. It may seem unconnected, but it's actually very similar to what was going on in Poland two years ago. These groups are very well coordinated and they meet at global events such asthe World Congress of Families. They have a platform called Agenda Europe, and there is now a report about this group by Neil Datta from EPF. They also do a lot of visiting lectures; for example, Judith Reisman and Gabriele Kuby (who both visited Croatia in 2013) or Mark Regnerus and E. Michael Jones, who believes gender is a Jewish conspiracy and is quite popular in Poland.

In our article which just appeared in Signs, Elzbieta and I write that they are very smart at presenting themselves as local and authentic, always defending local culture against liberal “colonialism.” In fact, they are a (very well-funded) transnational network.

You use the concept of the anti-colonial frame to describe one of the key strategies that unite all these national movements. Can you tell us how it works?

Agnieszka: Many people who analyse these movements put emphasis on gender itself, but if you do that, then you're basically saying that antigenderism is an essentialist response to social constructivism. That's partly true, at least on the theoretical level of the debate, but I think it's more important, politically speaking, to see how this series of campaigns relates to international politics. In order to understand that, it's useful to consider it through the prism of colonialism. The Pope has used the term "colonisation" several times, claiming that international aid for developing countries is being offered under the condition of introducing gender equality and LGBT policies. For him, this is a kind of colonial imposition whereby Western liberal values are being imposed on religious and traditional nations. This, in turn, means that traditional religious values are presented as local and authentic, while imported liberal values are seen as inauthentic.

This is an extremely effective strategy  because it allows ultra-conservative people from around the world to share this view and to connect without losing their sense of local belonging. And since many of these people are actually nationalists, it's not that easy for them to unite. But now they've got something to hate together, a common enemy - gender.

The history of this "colonisation" goes back to Freud, Kinsey and Margaret Mead; it's basically the idea of a nebulous dangerous foreign Western force that's associated with death and perversion, which has been permeating world cultures and taking ordinary, naïve, innocent people unawares. I think at its core antigenderism is a conspiracy theory.

March for the Sanctity of Life, Poland 2017 (photo: Flickr, M. Drwal/BPKEP)

In the framework of "the war on gender", how is the issue of masculinity manifested? Because I think this is something that's been left out of our considerations of this movement…

Agnieszka: I think masculinity may be the core issue here in the sense that this is a male-led movement for the restoration of patriarchy. But strategically speaking, antigenderists have been very good at promoting women as their key speakers. This has been a conscious strategy of the transnational right.  Karissa Haugeberg’s 2017 book Women against Abortion about the anti-abortion movement in the US traces the process of the growing prominence of women since the mid-90s.

They are framing their interventions into world debates as a defence of motherhood. Fatherhood is on the agenda too, but what they primarily want to promote as a vision is that motherhood is in danger: feminists are enemies of women, and ‘genderists’ are eugenicists who want to deprive women of their right to motherhood. So, rather than showing themselves as depriving women of the right to choose not to be mothers, they're forcing the view that motherhood is somehow being discouraged, disrespected or made difficult. Attacks on feminists in Poland focused on this a lot, and I found this very interesting because I had just written a book on feminism and motherhood, so they didn't know what to do with me – for them I was an aberration.

Elżbieta: This is connected to two other things. One, the anti-choice movement no longer presents their campaigns as anti-abortion but as campaigns to protect women. Basically, they've changed the strategy from "Every life is sacred" to "Abortion is dangerous and traumatic for women". Another, more important thing relates to the issues of family and depopulation which have been the battlefield of different movements for at least 30 years now and are very much connected with nationalism, population policy, racism, and transnational politics. The story goes like this: 'genderists' – meaning feminists, gay rights activists and other progressives – want to introduce abortion and contraception to depopulate Europe, to create a society that would be weak, rootless and easy to conquer for global forces. What these global forces are is seldom explained, but they may be global corporations or even Jews.

Population policy has also become quite a buzzword in Croatia. What do you think is the role of this whole depopulation rhetoric?

Agnieszka: That's where the colonial frame comes in. What they're basically saying is that the West, which has depopulated itself, is now trying to depopulate the rest of the world. The motivation is supposedly financial, because the pharmaceutical lobby is trying to push abortion and contraception on everyone. Also, some right-wingers, especially in Poland, are making a link with refugees: the West wants Polish women not to reproduce so that Poland becomes depopulated and then they will bring refugees here. It's a good story. That's the appeal of coherent conspiracy theories – if you believe the premise, they make sense.

Elżbieta: But it's not only about depopulation, it's also about weakening the coherence of local culture. The idea is that if you have a multicultural society, you cannot defend yourself from outside enemies.

Agnieszka: That's why masculinity is said to be threatened. When you allow genderists in, they end up dressing your little boys in dresses; those little boys dress up to become gay and transsexual – and that's the end of real men! As one of the slogans at one of the demonstrations in Poland said: "Gender is not for our hardy Poles". If you just look at the imagery, there's this idea of erect Polish masculinity versus the spineless, flabby Western masculinity.

Elżbieta: They actually had a snail depicted on this poster!

Agnieszka: Yes, the snail is something to look into! I spoke to a theologian recently who told me that the snail in the Middle Ages was a symbol of the Devil. Also, snails have no biological sex, you might say they are transgender. So this link between the absence of gender boundaries and demonic forces is really interesting.

Do you have any hope for the future? Or have we lost the "war against gender", so to speak?

Agnieszka: I think it depends on where you're looking at it. In Belgium of France you might be fascinated by the way in which gender has become mainstream. Eric Fassin, for instance, wrote that to him the eruption of antigender ideology was a fascinating moment because the debates we were having in academia are now held in the streets. But in countries like Poland you see the violence of this movement, you see that it is really a movement against liberal democracy, and you know what happens when people who support them and whom they support are now in power. And they're not debating anyone; they are closing down institutions, censoring intellectual and artistic work. Our freedom to think, speak and organize is contingent on liberal democracy, which is disappearing. So, no, I am not optimistic.  I don't think we have reason to be hopeful in Poland. We should see this as a real political struggle and not an intellectual debate about essentialism and constructivism. We may be winning intellectual debates, but they are taking over the country.

Photo: private archive

I wonder if this movement is sustainable in the long term, since it constantly requires new enemies, while at the same time it doesn't provide that much to the people who support it?

Agnieszka: I think you're wrong to say they don't provide any gratification. Sadly, antigenderism makes people happy, it gives them a sense that wilful ignorance is a virtue. There is a lot of pleasure to be found in being ignorant because the alternative would be to feel that maybe you've missed something or don't understand something or that maybe you should educate yourself. The antigender movement confirms long-lived stereotypes and gives people a very simple set of ideas - you can read an article or two and you know exactly how the world works. That's a gift! I would really enjoy having that sense of complete orientation and capacity to answer all questions.

It also gives them a sense of justified grievance. This movement is led by priests and lawyers, but it attracts people who feel they've been left out - economically, intellectually, socially, culturally, etc. Now, instead of feeling like they're the losers of the transformation process in Poland, they feel like they are actually the defenders of tradition and participating in a world-wide crusade against evil. And who wouldn’t want to be on a crusade against evil? It's a great story.

I think liberalism and feminist had a great story in the 70s, but we've lost that momentum as a movement, we've become institutionalized, our discourse has become bureaucratic and intellectual and out of reach for a lot of people, and the emotions are gone (and social movements don't thrive without emotions).

Elżbieta: I disagree! First of all, I think that the mass movement of women in Poland who oppose further restrictions on abortion shows there is potential for rejuvenating feminist ideas. I must admit I was quite sceptic about the potential of this movement at the beginning of 2016 and afraid that this flame might be very sporadic, but what I see now is a sense of resistance that many women share. Of course, the question is to what extent we can be politically effective right now in Poland, but in terms of the longer processes of how we imagine the world, how democracy works and so on, it is extremely important that we have a chance to rejuvenate this connection between women's rights, LGBT rights, minority rights, welfare state, and democracy as an ideal and as a practice.

But I'm also thinking about the US and how Trump's presidency has rejuvenated the women's movement and influenced the emergence of movements which have become transnational, such as #MeToo. But we have to admit that this is something we have been missing for quite a long time, that this work is not finished. It's also really important that a new generation of women feels the same, and there is this sense of the need for struggle. What I'm seeing in Poland, for example, but also in other countries, makes me quite optimistic about the future. Of course, the question is how these movements, which are often grassroots, will translate into hard politics and election outcomes.

Agnieszka: I have my optimistic moments, but in general I see this new wave of right wing populism as a great force on its way to change Europe (or at least Eastern Europe). These people know what they are doing and are well funded. I take part in the black protests, of course, and I admire their power and fury. But I am doubtful this new wave of feminism will be able to change the course of history.

Black protest in Warsaw, Oct 2016 (photo: Flickr, Grzegorz Zukowski)

Elżbieta, are you more optimistic than Agnieszka? Do you think that the antigender movement has been managed to undermine democracy and women's rights?

Elżbieta: I'm not sure if the antigender movement has been so successful, because so far we haven't seen that many successes either in Europe or the US. While we may have trouble as feminists and as the left worldwide with creating our own compelling, coherent, emotionally alluring narratives about the future, I would be much more optimistic than Agnieszka when I look at what the antigenderists have actually managed to achieve so far. They may have been quite successful in creating a narrative supporting specific political parties such as PiS in Poland, but they're not getting exactly what they wanted.

Also, we have to be careful in thinking they are one big happy family - because they are not. It's important to see the connectionson the local and transnational level, but it's also important to see the differences. In Polandthere are at least two factions. For example, in 2016 when Ordo Iuris pushed for the total ban on abortion (which included punishing women for undergoing abortion with prison sentences up to 5 years), there was opposition from the older anti-choice organization because they knew this would backfire and that this kind of harsh and restrictive law had little chance of being adopted. There is this schism between older organizations, which originated in the '90s, and newer ones like Ordo Iuris which were established in the last 4 or 5 years. We have to see those moments of disconnection and strategic differences between groups because those also are political openings for us.

In Croatia, these groups managed to change the constitutional definition of marriage, but they failed to prevent the ratification of the Istanbul Convention. Supposedly, they also have to pay people to come to their protests and marches.

Elżbieta: It's the same in Poland with these big marches. Of course, in some smaller cities they can organize protests, but in Warsaw they can only attract 2000-3000 people. On the other hand, spontaneous grassroots demonstration organized by the Women's Strike couple of weeks ago this was 50 000 people, we blocked the whole city. That's the difference between how this support, spontaneous grassroots support for specific ideas expresses itself. In that sense I think this struggle around reproductive rights, population policy, issues related to individual and minority rights, have been going on since the 1970s, since the first victories of the women's movements around the world. And of course sometimes we win, and sometimes they win, but, at least from the European perspective, we won in many ways. We are far from the ideal world that we had imagined, but I think we really have to see what we have done so far.

One thing which might be really dangerous is if they would be able to reconnect to these anti-neoliberal trends. What Agnieszka and I are also proposing, and what I am studying in my analysis of conservative parental movements in the post-communist region, is the situation where they link the appeal for more social support for families with this kind of hard core conservative agenda. I think that's where they wanted to go, and then antigenderism would become a new language of resistance to neoliberalism. But it's quite obvious now, two years after they've come to power, that conservatives are not genuine in that. Just look at Ordo Iuris - for example, recently there was a protest of parents of disabled children in the parliament. The groups that actually supported those parents were feminists, not Ordo Iuris. People can see that and that's how they lose their credibility as those who supposedly care about the social and economic welfare of families.

Agnieszka: What I find most disturbing is the effect these conservative movements have on education. They are successfully preventing progressive NGOs (sex educators, anti-homophobia groups) from entering schools. They intimidate teachers who try to talk to kids about gender equality. They have managed to create an aura of danger and suspicion around gender equality, feminisism, LGBT rights. This might have a lasting effect. We have a generation of Poles growing up who thing gender is a scary thing to be avoided.




Agnieszka Graff is a Polish feminist scholar, activist and media commentator. She writes for major Polish journals and newspapers. As an academic, she is based at the American Studies Center, University of Warsaw, where she teaches US culture, literature and film, African American studies and gender studies. She has authored four books of feminist essays: Świat bez kobiet (World without Women, 2001); Rykoszetem (Stray Bullets – Gender, Sexuality and Nation, 2008), Magma (The Quagmire Effect, 2010), Matka feministka (Mother and Feminist, 2014).

Elżbieta Korolczuk is a sociologist, author, and women's and human rights activist. She works at Södertörn University in Stockholm and teaches Gender Studies at Warsaw University. Her research interests include social movements, parenthood and gender. Her most recent publications include: Civil Society Revisited: Lessons from Poland co-edited with Kerstin Jacobsson (Berghahn Books, 2017) and Rebellious Parents. Parental Movements in Central-Eastern Europe and Russia co-edited with Katalin Fábián (Indiana University Press, 2017).

Zadnja izmjena: 12-07-2018 @ 09:05