WORDS Melissa Santos PHOTOGRAPHY Jakub Baran ART DIRECTION Vasco Oliveira Special thanks to @1kpinkballoons& @xstcu
2020 has been the year democracy finally took centre stage. As oppression and extremism are sprouting like poisonous mushrooms around the world, we have been forced to acknowledge the cruciality in making our voices heard. From protests against government-enforced police brutality in Nigeria to an election on the state of modern democracy in the US, our attention is now being directed at the pro-choice movement and protests that are taking place in Poland.
Over 100,000 women have taken over the streets, and the words ‘I wish I could abort my government’ are in a lot of people’s mouths and minds. Yet, as the word spreads across borders, one is left with nothing but the question, How long has this been going for?.
Justyna Plec is a professional tattoo artist, and a full-time pro-choice activist from Krakow, Poland. Through a Zoom call with the artist, we discussed the history of the sexual liberation movement in the country and why women, to this day, are still fighting for the legalisation of abortion.
The conversations around the abortion law re-entered the Polish political arena in 2016, one year after the election of right-wing politician Andrzej Duda as the new President. Leading a government with a highly religious and conservative character, one of the matters that concerned women all over Poland the most was his clear opposition to abortion. From day one, the intent in turning it illegal was clear. Since then, Justyna and many other pro-choice supporters have been living in a feeling of constant unsettledness, dreadfully waiting for the day it all becomes official. On October 22nd, 2020, it happened.
“I left to work feeling very nervous. I knew the announcement would be made during the day”, Justyna recalls, “When I am tattooing I am isolated from the world. So, I felt really nervous. It’s not that I expect much from my government…they’re evil. Still, I was naïve to think that I would be back home and my boyfriend would give me kind of good news”.
Unfortunately, the nightmare prevailed. Through an informal online livestream on the Internet, the new restrictive law on abortion was presented to the people. From then on, women can only seek abortion in cases of confirmed rape and severe health endangerment to the mother. With Coronavirus taking over the news on an hourly basis, President Duda and his government just hoped the announcement of the law would pass unnoticed. Little did they know that the activists had their eyes on them. For Justyna, and certainly for many other women, that is a day she will never forget.
They’ve never had the balls to announce it…I felt intimidated. I felt as if they’d just spat on my face.
Soon, the streets were taken over by protesters hopeful that the strength in their actions would speak louder.. Out there, a “burning fire of anger” united women from all over Poland.
“I came back home from work late, so the very first protest had already happened. But, activists from my city and other places in Poland were planning other protests for Friday. So, for me it was quite obvious. I knew the following day, I would go to work, come back home, put on some warm clothes and go fight”, Justyna recalls.
Let’s not be fooled, the journey on the streets is neither easy nor safe, when even the police – an entity that is expected to protect the people – is under the control of a highly oppressive leadership. Nationalist and radical right-wing groups take on the role of saviours of the nation’s morals and values, threatening the right to safe and peaceful protest. In a moment of vulnerability, yet with no hesitation, the tattoo artist shared a specific instance in which a young, pregnant woman was violently kicked by a conservative religious group.
“I went to a protest in Krakow. After…I stayed with the organisers, just to make sure that if the Police approached them, there would be someone to record it…You never leave anyone alone, especially the organisers, because you don’t know what might happen. The leaders of the protest had already been stopped by the police. And, then I heard from a friend that there was a girl being beaten up in the main square in Krakow. She was answering some questions from a police officer, and then one of these “church saviours” just ran towards her and started hitting her in the belly…She was pregnant.” What astonished Justyna the most was the response given by the authorities. Even though they took the aggressor in custody, the girl was utterly disregarded. “She was in shock. While we waited with her for the ambulance, under the rain and freezing cold, the aggressor was taken into the warm inside of the police car…So, he was just like, way more comfortable than her”.
As the fight continues on the streets, the message of support spreads across in the most outstanding ways. In Poland, television channels and, even, radio stations are at the mercy of the government’s controlling hands.
[The] revolution won’t be televised.
Fables of conformity and union, but also of discrimination and condemnation are the narratives adopted. “For me, fighting for abortion is neutral. And, I think that I am extremely neutral. But, for them and for society, I am the radical; the angry, loud, feminist”, Justyna further confirms that “my rights are zero level; they’re fundamental. Radical was the setting of this so-called abortion compromise”. All in all, the artist wishes that we, the ones that are spread all over the world, need to know what is really happening behind Poland’s pretty statues and the good food.
We should spread the news that Poland is a nasty place. ‘Cause when you think of Poland, you think of all the nice landscapes. But, what people should really know is that it is such a homophobic, nasty place.
So, in between an oppressive government and highly controlled mediums, activists were left to themselves and their creativity. No matter what, the message had to be spread, and revolution truly achieved. “There are these traditional ways…stickers, chalkboard, posters. Even if you’re a non-Facebook user and you live in a small town, you will still see the message”, the artist even shared with us the name of a non-for-profit organisation, Dreamteam, that helps women cross borders and have safe abortions. “Their number is now sprayed all over Poland. And, that’s just great!”.
Since the 1980s, the issue around the Polish abortion law has been a constant repetition. But now, there is hope. Once the message is out, there is no turning back.On the streets, the fight will go on, the word will keep on spreading, and organizations will continue helping women having legal and safe abortions. Even though Justyna admits to be a pessimist, she still looks at the future with hope. 2020 has brought something different. A true revolution.
“The Human rights virus has spread all over to these small, conservative, villages. So, something really good will come out of that. Also, young girls are joining the fight. They’re restless…In a way, something has cracked open, and people now see that this is all bullshit.”
Enjoyed this story? Help keep independent queer-led publishing alive by becoming a BRICKS community member for early bird access to our cover stories and exclusive content for as little as £2.50 per month.