Iza Palińska is a Polish politician, writer and a feminist. At the moment she's independent, in the past she was politically involved in the young/new left movement. Women's rights remain her political priority.
Dana: Can you describe the overall political situation in Poland?
Iza: We have a right-wing government that has very strong social support. This is not the case of a dictatorship that would rule a reluctant society with an iron fist. The story behind this support is that previously, Poland was run by a (fiscally) liberal government for quite a long time. They left the country wrecked, in terms of employment and labor policies. They made everything so flexible that people lost any sense of income security. So, of course people became very dissatisfied, struggling to make ends meet.
And the right-wing parties promised a change?
Yes, after the 2015 election win, the new right-wing government was the first one to introduce benefits for people with children since the fall of communism. It wasn’t a lot, but people needed this money and it became an absolute game-changer. With this first social transfer in ages, the government secured a large block of supporters who have stuck with them until now: they won their second election in 2020.
Despite the abortion bans?
Well, abortion got banned already in 1993. Before the 1989, we did not live in a democracy but the abortion was legal. On the other hand, contraception access was poor during that time, which could be the reason why abortion was widely allowed.
Why was abortion banned in 1993?
The Catholic church played a big role in the political overturn of the 80s. The very decision to pick a Pole for a pope a bit earlier was purely political in this context. And the Church was closely attached to the Solidarity movement. In the beginning of the 1990s, the Church officials took part in drafting a law banning abortion, providing only three exceptions. Huge demonstrations ensued, petitions were signed against this ban. There were 1 300 000 signatures, disregarded, and moved directly to the trash bin by the Polish government. So, this is how democracy started for women in Poland.
Wow. And what were the three exceptions to the ban?
Under this new law, women could have an abortion if the pregnancy endangered the woman’s health or life, if the pregnancy was the result of a crime, if the fetus was malformed.
So what were the more recent Polish “abortion bans” about?
Our right-wing government wanted to totally ban abortion, which meant abolishing even these three exceptions.
What was it like for you living in a country where abortion was banned?
I grew up with the awareness that if you wanted to get an abortion, you had to have money.
You mean to travel outside Poland to get it?
No, in the 90s, it wasn’t that easy to travel. Poland wasn’t part of the European Union, there was no Schengen zone, so “abortion travel” started later. During the 90s, abortion was actually available in Poland. From youth, I remember plenty of advertisements in the printed press that indicated towards abortion. However, these services were quite expensive, especially compared to women’s actual earnings. You have to understand that the principle of having access to human rights only when you have money is something that has shaped the middle generation of Polish people. You could say that democracy and human rights were more of a legal fiction to our citizens than actual reality.
What is the state of the abortion laws in Poland now?
As I said before, the far-right Law and Justice party wished to ban abortion altogether, so to abolish the three exceptions we had had before. During their first government term, they went the way of normal legislative process, drafted a bill, etc. That is when the famous Black Protests started all over the country and the government got afraid, so they didn’t dare to pass the bill. Instead, they chose a “backdoor” way. They asked our Constitutional Tribunal to decide whether it was constitutional “not to protect the fetus only because it may be ill.”
And the Tribunal said abortion was unconstitutional?
Yes. The reason is that our Constitutional Tribunal has been politically captured by the ruling party. Therefore, the risk to a pregnant woman’s health, including her mental health, practically is no longer considered an exception to the abortion ban because “the rights of an unborn child are equally important.” She will only be provided with medical help when the fetus’ defects put her life in direct danger. As long as the risk is indirect or distant in time, even if inevitable, she won't get help.
“So now, legally, women are forced to bear even those pregnancies that will result in the immediate death of the child after birth.”
What about risks to woman’s life?
Technically, that is still an exception to the abortion ban. But danger to her health is no longer considered, with the consequence that illnesses are left to deteriorate to a state when the woman’s life actually becomes endangered. The third exception to the ban - a grave health condition of the fetus, has been abolished. So now, legally, women are forced to bear even those pregnancies that will result in the immediate death of the child after birth.
A few months ago, an 18 weeks old dead fetus was found in a drain. The people who found it called the police and the force started a national campaign to find and interrogate the woman who miscarried the fetus. So, pregnancies are seen as a sort of public property to be strictly controlled.
Meanwhile, there comes the topic of the queer/trans movement... I think it is worth mentioning that the abortion protests after the Constitutional Tribunal ruling were broken by the internal conflicts and chaos when the queer youth started to aggressively push their demands for “inclusive language” within. Suddenly, it wasn’t allowed anymore to center biological women, females, in this situation that 100% dramatically affected females. Everything also had to be, very loudly and clearly, about them, about the "queers." The morning after the Constitutional Tribunal ruling was published, a sad and tragic day for all Polish women, queer activists gathered in front of a leading Polish newspaper to protest two interviews with feminists Kaya Szulczewska and Urszula Kuczyńska, published shortly before. They protested these interviews because the answers were skeptical about the language that was being promoted. Queer activists basically told women to “stfu” on that day.
After some time, women went back home and the Women’s Strike leaders lost the remains of trust and credibility, also because they started cooperating with many infamous liberal opposition leaders. Now, the Women’s Strike is a shadow of the organization it was in 2016.
Yes. I’ve heard that the protests against the total abortion ban started with focusing on women and devolved into something quite different. Can you tell us a bit more?
In the beginning, the protests were 100% organized by women, for women and about women. The change came slowly and not everyone noticed - it was like boiling a frog. First, there were some people who weren’t invited. Then, there were some slogans that were supposed to be avoided.
At one of the protests, women started shouting “Revolution is a woman,” and immediately, some young people in the crowd chose to chant a different slogan over them, like “Revolution has got an uterus” (laughs). There were thousands of people at the protests, so not everybody noticed these tensions. Then, the management of the Black Protests got hijacked by pro-trans, pro-sex work women, women from queer-feminist collectives. A few years back, some of these women launched a campaign saying “abortion is okay,” because the Right was pushing a narrative that all abortions are evil and women are forever traumatized by ending their pregnancies. So the glitter-queer ladies tried to change the narrative, and a huge scandal ensued because of it. Now, they are going much farther, saying “Abortion is great!” It’s so detached from the experiences of regular women!
No one wants to have an abortion. Are you supposed to invite your friends and celebrate?
Of course not, but it’s glitter feminism (laughs). They are very much pro-sex work as well. So they, multiple such organisations and the Women’s Strike, joined forces. In the beginning of this year they co-drafted a pro-abortion legislation proposal that, infamously, included zero mentions of the word “woman.” Similarly to what had happened last year in Argentina.
Another dramatic change for the worse occurred last year. During the summer, there was a highly publicized case in Poland: a young man who said he was non-binary, went by a female name (Margot) and sometimes used female pronouns, as he’s using them quite selectively, was arrested. This arrest also sparked nation-wide protests, as it was the result of him attacking an anti-gay activist. There was almost no discussion, however, on whether he should be put into a men’s or women’s prison, everyone just assumed he has his “trans rights” to demand avoiding cells meant for males. Nobody discussed incarcerated women’s right not to be put in a cell with him. People also seemed hugely misinformed, including thinking that the real “Margot” was an actual girl, one of his female romantic partners with whom he usually appeared in public. The political climate suddenly became much more hostile. I was asked to speak at one of that fall’s Black Protests and had the invitation withdrawn within 15 minutes of being asked.
For being a “TERF”?
You were one of the very first feminists to publicly come out as “gender critical” in Poland. Can you tell me how you got there?
I’ve considered myself a feminist since very little: I knew I was a feminist when I was 10 years old. I remember I wrote an essay in 6th grade for my Polish language class and made it feminist. Later, I chose to study political science because I knew feminism and politics were inseparable. But these studies were a disappointment in terms of putting any focus at all at women’s rights. When I got my degree, I continued with Cultural Studies, which gave me much more insight into feminist critique and theory. And the last stage of becoming “gender critical”? Oh well, it was just enough to note out loud and in public that what the left and the woke were doing to J. K. Rowling was actually pure misogyny. Things have quite fast-tracked since then (laughs).
“I was called exclusionary, not caring about women, privileged, rich white bitch, etc..”
When did you become an activist?
Around 2010-11, when I got to know some people in activist circles and did some stuff with them. Initially, I admired the “NGO activist lifestyle.” I felt this was a cool way to live, but also that it could be very financially unstable and violent, there was a lot of precarity, mobbing and pressure, so I preferred to stay away. Then, in 2015, I joined a new grassroots progressive-leftist political party that was just being formed, called Razem (Polish for “together”), trying to get elected to the parliament the same year. This new group was full of young people like me, enthusiastic, progressive and rebellious against the conservative-liberal status quo.
How did the election go?
We didn’t get elected to the parliament, but we gained enough votes to be eligible for public funding. So the party grew bigger and it became a theater of democracy (laughs). We had multiple administrative organs that were supposed to be democratic, but in reality, a few important people in the party took all the crucial political decisions. The first time I got into conflict with this environment, around early 2017, was when someone proposed one more point to add to our political program: about “sex work” decriminalization and “protecting sex-workers,” understood as pimps and brothel owners. At the same time, a manifesto was circulating, being signed by many organisations, whose purpose was also to “protect sex-workers.” It was also published by the most popular Polish feminist online platform at the time, which had featured many of my texts before. I opposed this manifesto openly and I managed to persuade Razem to not include it in our program at that time.
How did you do that?
As a member of Razem National Council back then I spent months researching the topic and would simply pose questions to the self-proclaimed “sex work experts” that contacted us. It just didn’t feel right. My questions were never answered, of course. It was only allowed to “listen to the sex workers” uncritically. I had the intuition back then that as a movement we were getting terribly lost and divided, that prostitution is violence, especially when linked with the leftist class analysis. I read everything I could find, but it also turned out there were not that many reliable sources. Anyway, I concluded that my intuition was right. That women in prostitution globally do not form the same interest group as their pimps and it is absurd and sexist to claim otherwise. The feminist platform I mentioned didn’t like my stance and told me they didn’t want to be associated with me anymore. I politely agreed and asked them to remove all of my texts from their page. Looking from the distance, as with the passing of time they swiftly moved from women’s rights to almost exclusively queer rights, well, lucky me! (laughs). That was also the first time I saw the “SWERF” acronym (Sex-worker Exclusionary Radical Feminist) applied in Poland, as well as TERF, around 2017.
Do you think that the sudden support for “sex-work” wasn’t a coincidence?
It definitely wasn’t grassroots. The organisations putting their signatures under the pro-sex work manifesto didn’t even understand what they were signing, as the manifesto only mentioned the “New Zealand legal model” for prostitution and no details. I asked some of them why they were supporting the decriminalization of pimping. The largest Polish LGBT organisation wrote back to me that they “saw it was written in a way supportive of LGBT people, so they signed it.” I think not many people understood what they were in favor of.
Did people call you a SWERF?
Yes, but at that time, being prostitution abolitionist wasn’t as hard as it is today. But still, I faced enormous hostility from the pro-prostitution people in my party and in feminist circles. I was called exclusionary, not caring about women, privileged, “rich white bitch,” etc.
White bitch? And they were all Afro-Americans, right?
Yeah, being white in Poland is quite exceptional... (laughs). That was when all the thoughtless copying of the western mantras started. But, although online discussions about this were incredibly hostile, more and more women started to come out as abolitionists. For example, Magdalena Grzyb, who is a criminologist, and who is by now basically banned from publishing at leftist newspapers. Other women also found our arguments convincing and I got calmer - even if the war wasn’t won, it wasn’t lost either, and we won many battles. People were getting our arguments and making good use of them themselves. I was wrong and naive, of course. The pro-prostitution lobbying didn’t stop, especially in the lib-left press and on social media, and I’m convinced that if we ever get liberals elected again, they will try to decriminalize pimping immediately.
Do you think they would also try to establish gender self-identification?
Yes, I think they would, as they copy, without thinking, everything that the West is doing in this respect. It is surreal to see some of the smarter conservatives raising all the right questions regarding the impact of self ID… While the left and liberals seem to all remain under a spell. They’re throwing women under the bus, quite literally, as the most aggressive and abusive people against us are the “modern, progressive, leftist young men.” They can finally see themselves as bigger and better feminists than radfems (laughs), while the political and intellectual elite are passively observing. The internet mob even got to remove a nuclear energy expert and gender critical feminist, Urszula Kuczyńska, from Razem for alleged transphobia, which is something they could not even define. Urszula went through hell and is now crowdfunding to get justice.