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#MeToo Under the Threat of Nationalism

For the past two years, Polish women have been taking to the streets in protest against the draconian anti-abortion law the right-wing government under the leadership of the Law and Justice party has tried to pass. The proposed law – which called for the penalization of miscarriage and abortion – mobilized various groups, beyond just women and feminists, to become active in Poland’s civic space (you can read about it in the New York Times, 2016, in the Guardian, 2017, and on AlJazeera, 2018). In the end, the need for safety is not exclusive to feminists – as all women who are considering getting pregnant or just who ‘happen’ to get pregnant, as well as their families and friends, would hope to avoid jail time should their pregnancies terminate prematurely. 

Today, feminism (or rather feminisms) in Poland is gradually gaining momentum. To the government’s dismay, with the upcoming 100th anniversary of women’s voting rights (November 2018), women are speaking about herstory (women’s history) to challenge the prevailing absence of female voices and legacies in the dominant discourse, running successful feminist research projects, drafting new pro-choice laws and policies  and also demanding equal rights during monthly protests. It therefore comes as no surprise that Poland picked up the #MeToo and #ItWasMe movements (more on #ItWasMe in the New Yorker and Huffington Post and quite interestingly, on a lot of Polish pages – perhaps the hashtag gained more traction in Poland). Given how multifaceted these movements have become, seeing friends (mostly female) of different political stances and ages post the hashtag on social media have evoked in me three particular but also distinct reflections. 

First, while the experience of harassment and gender-based violence is universal, the silence surrounding such crimes makes one repress painful memories, if not belittle them and self-victimize. A good example of such a mechanism is presented in European Fundamental Rights Agency’s publication of its 2011 report on the scale of gender-based violence in Europe. According to the report, Poland had one of the lowest rates of gender-based violence – only 19% of women had experienced some kind of sexual or physical violence. However, according to the Polish-based STER Foundation, 87% of Polish women experience gender-based violence and every fifth Polish woman falls victim to rape. It could be argued that the problem this highlights is that FRA’s researchers were Scandinavian and not aware of the context particular to Poland, where there is low awareness of what constitutes gender-based violence. Hence, probing this phenomena would require asking additional research questions. For example, one of the questions in the study asked, “Have you been raped?”, which assumes not only that women speak about rape freely (while, in fact, only 2% of Polish women report rape to the police and only 30% speak to their friends about it), but also that they know what constitutes the notion of rape - for instance , among others, marital forced intercourse or sex performed on an unconscious drunk person. “Fun” fact, 30% of Poles are of the opinion that rape can be explained under certain circumstances. In this light, #MeToo does the job of both drawing public attention to what sexual violence constitutes and reinforcing the reality that harassment affects the majority of women and girls. 

Second, the power of the hashtag lies in that it reaches sectors of Polish society typically uninfluenced by offline feminism. Many feminist groups and NGOs were proud to see how many signatures were collected under the pro-choice law draft. However, a look at the online map on engaged demographics shows that these signatures were collected largely from large urban cities. Although feminism (or rather feminisms) is a growing movement in Poland, it is still a city-based movement (with the exception of online groups), and perhaps even predominantly an academic movement. The hashtag, however, reaches those lacking e.g. a circle of feminist friends to speak out about their traumas and experiences. Across the globe there seems to be a consensus that there is never a good time to speak about sexual assault without being questioned, judged, stigmatized and condemned. To many people, #MeToo is such a movement because it allows women to see that these are not isolated incidents where a particular woman is to “blame” and creates the foundation for solidarity among people who have decided to look for justice and/or validation of their experiences. I mentioned the monthly women’s protests not only to provide a background of women’s current mobilization in Poland but also to pose a question: do you need to be a feminist (and a female) to disagree with gender-based violence (systemic or personal)? 

Third, the types of reactions to #MeToo in Poland are not much different from those in the US. There are feminists who disagree with or are even disappointed with the movement because in their view it deprives women of agency. There are feminist heroines who protect a male friend accused of harassment; there are male feminists accused of violence and subsequently, there are right-wingers joyfully narrating about feminists hating everyone, even their male allies; and in the end, there are also people blaming survivors, while casually mentioning the danger of false accusations (which, in reality, is the case with only 2-10% of claims) and expressing concern that men will now simply not know how to behave ‘correctly’ (the easiest answer would perhaps be to respect other human beings and not harass them). We witnessed a class clash when an acclaimed writer was accused of harassment and sexist behavior and many men and women alike claimed that it was just his artistic persona and style – so he was not led to be held accountable for his action/s (aka his career was not at risk). We saw an intergenerational clash when Agnieszka Graff, a respected academic and one of the leading Polish feminists, disregarded younger activists and their motivations to join #MeToo. In the end, we also saw a gender clash when Codziennik Feministyczny, a feminist news outlet, published a piece in which they expressed they’d rather have men not publish #ItWasMe in order not to take space away from women or when LGBTQI+ activists published their take on #MeToo. Finally, #MeToo took down two notable, leftist journalists (Jakub Dymek of Political Critique, and Michał Wybieralski of Gazeta Wyborcza) who were accused by eight women of sexual harassment and rape in an unauthorized piece at Codziennik Feministyczny. This case caused a public heated debate on societal  ‘costs’ of  what was framed radical feminism, manhunt, false accusations and the crisis of the left. Dymek who is a graduate of Gender Studies and oftentimes identifies himself as a feminist questioned whether what happened was really rape if the survivor, his ex-girlfriend, later stayed in close touch with him and spoke about him fondly. The bottom line is that what we observe in the US is to some extent reflected in Poland as well. This may perhaps mean the experience of gender-based violence is as universal as the types of reactions to survivors speaking out. 

The main difference is, however, that while the campaign in the US began ten years ago, it has only recently gained momentum thanks to the involvement of top artists and celebrities. This publicity impacted the fact that it is still going strong and new names are being called out each day. However, in Poland the process seems to be dying down after a few accusations have been made. Perhaps it is because the most prominent representatives of the establishment either did not lend their support to the campaign or even mocked and questioned the survivors. Or perhaps it is because in the US the campaign started from celebrities, while in Poland the movement grew out from the public. Perhaps it is because Polish women still do not believe that their voice and testimony matter. In 2016, only 20 cases concerning sexual harassment were heard in courts across Poland. 

#MeToo provides a platform for many to finally seek the ways to speak about their trauma and receive support and acknowledgement, if not the sense of justice, they need. The next months will show whether it was just another short-lived social media outrage or whether it is the beginning of a r/evolution that can lead to some systemic as well as social change. 

References

DiCanio, M. (1993). The encyclopedia of violence: origins, attitudes, consequences. New York: Facts on File. ISBN 978-0-8160-2332-5.

European Agency for Fundamental Rights (2011). Violence against women: an EU-wide survey Results at a glance. ISBN 978-92-9239-379-3.

European Commission (2016). Special Eurobarometer 449. Report. Gender-based Violence. ISBN 978-92-79-62608-1.

Grabowska, M., Grzybek, A. [ed.] (2015). Przełamać tabu. Raport o przemocy seksualnej. Fundacja na rzecz Równości i Emancypacji STER. ISBN 978-83-944788-0-3.

Lisak, D. et al. (2010) False Allegations of Sexual Assault: An Analysis of Ten Years of Reported Cases. Violence Against Women 16(12), pp. 1318–1334.

 
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