Monday, November 14, 2016

The monster next door
A system going feral
by Smo Sienkiewicz & Anid Stone

 The much dreaded Berlin winter is here again. We go to parties, performances and exhibitions under a sad, gray sky, and really need that Glühwein to stay warm. Yeah, life is tough. But cheer up, some have it worse. 
For example, in neighbouring Poland: nationalistic thugs walk around with axes and machetes in the light of day, textbooks in school teach that rape is the victim's fault, and the exhibition „Homosexuality threatens life“ is displayed in multiple cities.
All of that with full government support. And the weather is not any better.

 This is an attempt to explain what is actually going on in Poland. This article is a result of a fiery discussion between two young women, who decided they didn't want to passively watch as the country next door is going feral. This is how I got to be interviewed by my dear friend Anid Stone.


Anid Stone: Hi Smo! Thank you for taking time for this interview. Could you shortly introduce yourself?

Smo Sienkiewicz: Thank you for having me.
My name is Smo Sienkiewicz, and suffice to say, I am a young, polish woman. Like millions of other people, I’m extremely concerned about the current political situation in Poland. I’ve lived in Berlin for two years, and I see that despite the geographical closeness, Berliners have very little idea what's going on behind the eastern border.
And why should we care, you might ask?
Because the way things go, you just might find yourself living next to a fascist, christian-fundamental monster before you can say „Mary ever virgin“.

Disclaimer: I am no politician, journalist or any sort of authority on the subject. I'm just a regular polish girl who describes the situation as she sees and understands it.

Anid: Yes, and that is the reason i wanted you for this interview. So let's start with what everybody who watches news in Germany noticed happening. The protest.
Why were women in Poland demonstrating?

Smo: The initial spark which started the protests was the bill to completely ban abortion in Poland. Right now, abortion is allowed in 3 cases: if the pregnancy is a result of a forbidden act (rape or incest), if it threatens the mother's life, and if the child would be born with severe genetic disorders. If this abortion banning law passes, a woman who had an abortion would go to prison, and every miscarriage would be investigated.
Even though abortion in those cases is legal, in practice it is extremely difficult to get it due to the conscience clause.
In the whole of Poland there are only a few hospitals where legal abortions are performed.
Anid: Why did a second protest happen?

Smo: The first protest united over a hundred thousand of people, and the people in power got so scared that they voted against the bill which they initially supported.
If you are curious what the protest looked like, here is a short video about it that I made:
After that, the debate about abortion has become a part of something much bigger: women's and human rights, which are continuously broken in Poland. Thousands of women and men are protesting because they are sick of the patriarchal, misogynist, hypocritical government and church. They – we – are sick of outrageous displays of intolerance and cruelty done „in the name of God”. The abortion ban situation was a wake-up call for the underprivileged groups, which were used to taking one insult after another for years, and not believing anything could ever change. It is as if society was asleep for decades, but now it's awake, and it's seriously pissed off.
Last but not least, the very democracy in Poland is seriously threatened. The ruling party plans to change the constitution and remove the constitutional Tribunal. This subject doesn't inspire as much outrage as the abortion ban, as it is very abstract for most people, but in fact this is probably the biggest threat to the country. Add to it the propaganda in the national media, trying to ban the liberal media, removing books about democracy from circulation... pretty damn worrying I would say.
Way before the women's protests, there were already protests to defend the constitution, but none of them were nearly as massive or influential as the protest for women’s rights.
The success of the first protest has shown us that we do have influence on what is going on. We can block the streets. We can write petitions. We can try to make our case seen in the international scene, which is what I'm trying to do right now.
It is a tedious process but it does bring results.
I must add it's very saddening to see the version of the story that western media shows: evil government wanted to make an abortion ban, people stepped up and won, all is good. Hooray. That is not true.

Anid: What kind of people were on the street? Was it the polish academia? Or working class? Have you seen immigrants? Was it young people or all ages?

Smo: Mostly women, but also a lot of men, all ages. As for the social class, this is not something I would be able to tell just by looking at the crowd.
On the last protest in Gdańsk there were many elderly people, who used to fight in one way or another against the communism back in the 80s. It was awesome to stand by the side of these veterans. Many of them say that what happens now in many ways resembles the regime.
About the immigrants, I don't know if there were any, not that I could tell. Poland is a very homogenous country. It's not like Berlin, where you see people with many different backgrounds. Foreigners and people of colour are rare in Poland. The migrants in Poland are mostly from other post-soviet states, and they blend in completely: they look just like Poles, and often speak absolutely perfect Polish.

Anid: What does the mass media show in Poland about this issue? And who are the people whose opinions are shown as leading?

Smo: I avoid Polish National Television like the plague. The news they show is so biased it makes me furious. The name of the station is TV Poland, but people mockingly call it TV PiS now. (PiS is the name of the ruling party.)

The liberal station TVN seems to show the events quite accurately in my experience. The ruling party's representative Krystyna Pawłowicz is currently actively working towards removing the station's broadcasting license.

Anid: Can you give us an example of what happened that made Polish people so angry that they protested?

Smo: Let me answer that with a few quotes from politicians and public figures in Poland.

The leader of the ruling party, Jarosław Kaczyński, said recently:
„Our goal is that even when the pregnancy is extremely difficult, and the child is heavily deformed, bound to die; that this child is born, so that it can be given a baptism, a name and a funeral.”

Regardless of very questionable ethics on this one, this statement is against the constitution and discriminating towards non-Christians. Poland is supposedly a secular country by law. What if the parents don't want to baptize their child?

In Polish there is a saying: “if you don't know what something is about, then it is about money”.
It is no secret that Kaczyński's party won the elections largely thanks to the Catholic church's
support. And that church charges roughly between 80 and 500 PLN for a baptism service, and between 100 and 1800 PLN for a funeral service.
That would give an arithmetic mean of 1250 PLN (about 290 euro) of income per every child that was born just to be baptized and buried.

So what is representative Kaczyński actually worried about? The salvation of poor souls, or funding his most important ally? I'll let you consider for yourselves which option you think is more likely.

When talking about children born only to die, you can't omit the person of doctor Bogdan Chazan, famous for denying an abortion in the case of very serious genetic disorders. Even though the mother had the right to end the pregnancy, the doctor had the right to refuse to perform it, based on the conscience clause. As a result, the woman gave birth to a child that had no nose, no eyelids, a hole in the cheek, and a large hole in the skull, through which the brain was visible. The newborn was in excruciating pain and was dying in front of its parents for ten days.
According to the pro-life societies and doctor Chazan, it was a more humane solution than terminating the pregnancy before the fetus developed a nervous system.
Fun fact: the very same doctor Chazan used to perform hundreds of abortions back in the communist days, when it was legal.

A famous right-wing publicist Tomasz Terlikowski comments: „The child’s torture and agony, seen by its parents, enriches their relationship.”
How jealous the parents of healthy children must be of this enrichment!

Anid: These people you quote, are all men. Is there anything said about women's opinions on it? There must be a connection for the protesters to be saying something like „My body, my decision.”, right?

Smo: Women who participate in the protests are notoriously attacked and insulted both in the media and in private situations. There are two basic approaches:

1. „Clueless idiots”
According to this scenario, favored by the country's so called elite, the whole protest was staged by the opposition, who manipulated the poor, stupid women to go on strike. The gracious politicians forgive them, for they know not what they do.

Alternatively, people were paid to protest. (Who could pay off hundreds of thousands of people in hundreds of cities both in Poland and abroad? Leftists? Masons? The Flying Spaghetti Monster?)

Janusz Korwin-Mikke, a member of the European Parliament, expresses his thoughts on women’s opinion as follows:
„One cannot be the judge in one's own case, so women's opinion should not be considered, because they cannot be objective. It is the father's rights that are the most important”.
Fun fact: mister Korwin-Mikke is also famous for his dream to take away women's voting rights.

2. „Baby-murdering whores”
Rather self-explanatory, usually seen in the comments in social media, often accompanied with murder threats aimed at women's rights supporters. (Is it just my feeling, or is it slightly inconsistent to publicly wish someone death and call yourself „pro-life”?)

Representative Paweł Kukiz says „You should have paid attention to who and how you gave your body to.” This is disgusting already on a linguistic level: „giving your body”, as if sex is an act of a woman giving something to a man, rather than two people doing something they both want. Also, how does this advice apply in case of rape? Persuade the rapist to wear a condom?

Anid: You are studying in Poland. How do you perceive other students and their opinion on this issue?

Smo: I don't know what the beliefs of my fellow students are. I try to leave politics out of school because we all know how ugly it tends to get.
Every time I post something on Facebook I wonder if maybe I'm going to be mocked or attacked by my peers in my country.

Anid: You say „We all know how ugly it tends to get.“. To be honest, I don’t know. Can you explain?

Smo: What I mean is that if you speak your mind, you're making yourself a target for hatred. The „pro-life“ circles are known to be extremely aggressive and judgemental. I don't know what other students think about the issue and I will not risk confronting them about it, because I don't want any potential hostility to interfere with my education.

Anid: You mentioned underprivileged groups earlier. In the last year Polish media got attention due to its racist propaganda. As far as I know there was no protest in Poland because of that. Why do you think there was none? And how do you, as a person who is not a target of racism, perceive the current situation on that manner?

Smo: In Poland everybody's used to racism, sexism, homophobia and every other type of intolerance you can think of. People don't even recognize it as intolerance, because it is the norm they are used to.

Women finally stood up for themselves, but women are 52% of Polish society, and still it took a bill that threatened their life and health to finally unite and fight back.

But who would stand up against racism? Personally I don't know any people of colour in Poland – which says something about how few and isolated they are. I believe there must be a large number of Poles that disagree with racism, but it doesn't affect them enough to do something about it: they are white, everybody they know is white. Why should they stick their necks out and disagree with dangerous nationalists who probably won’t be persuaded anyway?  

A single person can try to discuss with another person, but a single person can’t change the whole society. Personally I couldn’t stand the intolerance, but I couldn’t fight every person I know every day of my life either. That was the reason I moved to Berlin. Not to have better income, not to go partying, not even for the cultural life - although all these things are nice and I appreciate them. But I left Poland because the close-minded, judgemental, conservatist mentality was literally making me sick.
That was two years ago, and I felt utterly alone with those feelings. Now, on the wave of the protest, I connected with thousands of people who feel the same.

Anid: You seem to have reflected on the issue of racism in Poland. How hostile do you perceive the nationalists in Poland?

Smo: I don't know any nationalists other than from comments on Facebook. It's not my social circle. From what I see and hear, they can be very hostile.
Still, people I do meet, often speak or joke in a discriminating way, and they either don't realize it or don't care. Again: Poland has different standards compared to Berlin. Intolerance is the norm. In other words, an average Pole behaves in an intolerant way, either realizing it or not. I don't believe they are actually hostile. Most of them are common, reasonably nice people not understanding what they are saying. What they are is: uneducated.
Recently, for example, on one of the protests I had a banner saying “a fetus is not a baby”. A few of the counter protesting “pro-lifers” were very confused by it and came over to me. They asked me to explain what I meant. So I explained the difference between a fetus and a baby to them. They really were listening and obviously trying to understand.  They really didn’t know. I was happy to talk to them, because I realize I was just more lucky in life than they were. I think privileged people like me owe it to society, to share our knowledge.  

Anid: And what about the nationalistic hooligans you mentioned above? Are they in jail by now?

Smo: No, and they won’t be, because the government is on their side. The hooligans are exactly the kind of people who vote for PiS, and now PiS will do everything to please them, so that they keep voting for them. Which in practice means, if a policeman uses force to stop a thug, it is the policeman who will end up in jail.

Anid: Thank you so much for your time and patience explaining it all to me and the readers! I really hope we can contribute with this interview to a broader awareness.

List of links with further information:
More about conscience clause and abortion in Poland:

A petition to the polish prime minister and president to respect the constitution, prepared by the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights and signed by 90 organizations from the whole world:

Translated quotations from textbooks:

Smo's video about the protests:

Anid's blog: