The escalating force of the Polish far right, represented by the currently ruling United Right coalition, draws ideologically on national hegemonies of Catholicism and anti-communism, which frame feminist and queer politics as alien, imported or imposed from outside by “cultural Marxists” and the “rotten West”. Violent attacks on women’s and LGBTQ rights and bodies, undertaken by the Polish government and their allies, are constitutive elements of these conservative, deeply patriarchal mobilizations. However, the electoral success of the far right in Poland in 2015 and 2019 was also aided by those parties’ promises to respond to the fears and resentment produced by growing insecurity and precariousness generated under the conditions of neoliberal capitalism, which had been effectively promoted by Polish local elites since 1989 (when the Polish systemic transformation from communism to capitalism began) and the European Union.
As feminist movements are often at the front line in ongoing struggles over democracy and human rights, it is important to capture the richness and sheer diversity of their activism. In this blog post, we present the results of quantitative and qualitative research based on data (focus group interviews and content analysis of internal documents) from more than 600 different feminist groups and organizations that have applied for funding from the Feminist Fund (FemFund) in Poland in the last four years. FemFund provides flexible financial support to both NGOs and informal groups in the form of small grants dedicated to specific activities, emergency grants, and more substantial core funding. FemFund is a participatory grant-making institution, which supports local, grassroots, feminist, and queer movements, and successfully reaches out to rural communities and movements ‘from the margins’ – such as projects instigated by refugee and migrant women, queer and transgender communities, or women with disabilities. Thus, examining FemFund data offers a unique insight into the rich diversity of contemporary feminist struggles in Poland.
Multi-faceted realities of oppression
The research presented by the FemFund team reveals the multiplicity of local and situated experiences of gender oppression, and showcases a wide range of different strategies deployed to oppose and cope with it. In their diversity (including, among others, sex workers, refugees, rural women, pensioners, transgender youth, and mothers), the actors in what are broadly understood as feminist and queer movements challenge the notion of “non-normative” expressions and practices as a singular category, showing that these are always highly contextualized phenomena. This means that marginalization and discrimination are always experienced through the lenses of specific social, political, and economic conditions in which people live.
Our analysis of the data provides a unique overview of the state of what we broadly define as feminist and queer movements at the beginning of 2021 in Poland. According to the experiences reported by women and queer activists, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, and ableism are facts of everyday life, common and normalized phenomena, which impact upon every area of their lives. Oppression manifests itself as unequitable treatment and discrimination, including exposure to physical, economic, psychological, and sexual violence; limited or no access to public services; restricted opportunities for contact with other feminists; and limited access to feminist knowledge and networks. Last but not least, oppression is experienced as burnout and exhaustion, which are inevitable consequences of everyday struggles, personal engagement in activism, and the lack of appropriate conditions for resting and regeneration. These problems are exacerbated for those with poor access to public services and infrastructures (for example, public transportation, medical and social services, etc.), which is the case for many inhabitants of rural areas and those who do not enjoy socioeconomic class privileges.
Feminist responses: local, practical, immediate
Faced with the reality of normalized systemic violence, feminist groups and organizations in Poland take an active stand against it, brandishing a wide array of strategies of resistance. These include self-education, awareness-building, and skills improvement, as well as offering direct material support and emergency assistance to the oppressed. Some activist groups also create alternative spaces – such as women’s clubs, feminist and queer camps, mothers’ circles, or feminist fora – where the well-being, safety, and the knowledge of marginalized groups are prioritized. Overcoming social isolation, creating opportunities for forging and maintaining personal relationships, and creating spaces for discussion are all still, in the Polish context, essential strategies of resistance and emancipation. Many of these spaces foster various forms of self-care and regeneration. Finally, some activists’ efforts focus on outreach work such as educational activities targeting various audiences, or engagement in public debates, often through social media.It becomes clear that feminism is first and foremost defined in terms of action: as everyday practice and the experience of getting connected to others, empowering and encouraging one another to act; mutual support. Everyday practical feminism as it is carried out by the majority of feminist groups in Poland focuses on specific small-scale problems, rooted in local contexts, issues that are often perceived as not directly connected to the ongoing national politics featured in the mainstream media. These initiatives aim to re-organize ordinary practices, providing emergency support, with efforts guided by the first-hand knowledge that activists have gained through their own personal experiences. Importantly, although the aims of such efforts may seem limited to the local, according to our respondents, these activities are fundamental to building the potential for broader social change.
Intersectionality and its limits
Within the current wave of feminist mobilizations in Poland, intersectionality is becoming a key factor, both as a discursive concept, and as an activist toolset that can enable alliances to be forged between different groups and movements. . The FemFund data shows that at the level of narratives, groups and collectives adopt increasingly inclusive language. This means, for example broadening the scope of “reproductive rights” as a category to recognize that there may be transgender persons who need abortion, and strong emphasis on the need for cooperation between different movements and across various struggles (e.g., linking the feminist cause to demands for action on climate change and social justice, or support for refugees).
New narrative strategies thus encompass maintaining ongoing dialogues with a comprehensive set of contemporary democratic and feminist values (e.g., “radical empathy”, “responsibility” and “care”); as well as upholding the idea of feminist solidarity (e.g., utilizing the LGBTQ+ movement slogan “You will never walk alone” in the 2020-2021 protests for abortion). At the level of practices, intersectionality and solidarity are built through connectivity between different movements, active engagement to learn about one another’s struggles, or taking measures to ensure marginalized groups (e.g., persons with disabilities or non-Polish speakers) are able to access a movement’s activities and practices.
For persons and groups that are affected by oppression in complex and multiple ways, intersectional feminism provides the bedrock, a prerequisite for successful activism, a shared point of reference, and at the same time a new strategy connected to values that are emerging as key for feminist politics – empathy and solidarity. For many members of youth and queer groups, activists with disabilities, migrant activists, and urban feminists, intersectionality, which developed out of different branches of feminism, is taken for granted as an indispensable strategy to fight various forms of oppression. Yet, for others, especially rural cis women, practicing intersectional feminism based on ideas of social justice, collaboration, and solidarity, is not always an easy project. Structural deficiencies in terms of public infrastructure, geographical isolation, economic pressures exacerbated by gender, and weak connections to other feminist communities, often limit the emancipatory horizons of their projects to addressing the immediate context. In the face of limited resources and unmet practical needs, intersectionality often seems to be too demanding, too complicated, or quite simply unattainable.
Decentralized feminism against the hostile state?
Everyday feminists and queer activists in Poland rarely see their work as part of a coordinated effort aligned with the actions of feminist elites, feminist leaders, or even a common feminist movement as such. Actors from various movements express different fears and reservations in relation to the idea of a single, massive, united feminist movement — instead, they actively attempt to re-configure established conceptions about what kinds of action are most effective, powerful, or necessary for the social change they seek to bring about. They also raise concerns about top-down management and power dynamics within feminist movements, which they feel put inclusivity and the recognition of internal differences at risk. Although some activists were involved in co-creating local strikes and massive street demonstrations against the abortion ban in 2016 and 2020, many of them prefer to dedicate themselves primarily to their everyday activism, undertaken on a smaller, local scale, rather than making state institutions or political parties their core focus. These observations leave us with some ambiguities and open questions. To what extent or under what conditions may such diverse individual, small-scale movements be effective in pushing back right-wing measures – structurally supported by the government and institutional powers – to impede or reverse progress on women’s and queer rights? How may disparate and micro-level acts of resistance become a significant force to counter the structural, root causes of the extreme right’s electoral success and their institutional, nationwide politics?
Does the FemFund data indicate a need for intensive discursive work that could enable us to re-imagine common feminist identities and feminist futures? Should we leave behind the old projects of top-down feminist pedagogies, and instead embrace deeply democratic and horizontal forms of participation? Can we imagine repressive state policies being forced to change as a result of the collective impact of multiple actors and movements – dispersed, local resistance, and individual, everyday struggles – or can such change only be brought about by coordinated, centralized mobilizations? Are we still missing something that could concentrate all of the courageous and praiseworthy work of individuals and groups into a political force that can one day unseat the authoritarian and nationalistic right government in Poland?