Interview
06 Jul 2018

Inga Iwasiów -- Flowers from real women for bad feminists?

Polish writer and activist Inga Iwasiów discusses fighting for abortion rights in a religious state and the importance of communicating across generational and political divides.

Wysokie Obcasy
Dorota Wodecka Wysokie Obcasy, Global
Inga Iwasiów -- Flowers from real women for bad feminists?  - NewsMavens
Inga Iwasiów, WikiCommons Media

The following selections from Dorota Wodecka's interview with Inga Iwasiów appeared in the Polish weekly “Wysokie Obcasy” in May 2018.

Dorota Wodecka: Is this "our" spring?

Inga Iwasiów: I’m not a motivational speaker, so I’ll just say, it is either “ours or theirs.” It depends on what we want to talk about -- the rapidly changing political reality or our feelings.

DW: We know the reality.

So let’s start from our feelings -- depression is still a threat in our community. We go out into the streets to protest, and the government or the ruling party keeps doing whatever it wants in spite of civic opposition or, even worse, consumes our energy for their own ends. We are left with banners that say “enough” -- like props after a performance. We fall into a dark pit of despair. And then, especially in cities like Szczecin, immediately after a protest we start worrying about how many people will show up for the next one.

DW: It is true that the number of protesters doesn't keep growing.

Depression happens at the moment a mobilized group fails to reach its goals.

That is when those positive feelings of community and strength smash into the wall of society's indifference.

DW: But why do you think we aren't succeeding?

Because success would require a recall of the government or a radical change of course, for instance the liberalization of Poland's anti-abortion regulations.

DW: But on the question of abortion, aren’t we on top right now? Don’t you think that the street protests [in March 2018] prevented the tightening of anti-abortion regulations?

The government only stopped as a strategic measure. We have to remember that they can change direction at any moment, even in the middle of the night.

We’ve only neutralized the toxin by administering a dose of sober reality. 

DW: Does awareness of this precarious situation contribute to the feeling of depression in our community?

Yes, but the analysis of every possible scenario can also strengthen us. If we tell ourselves, “we won’t give in, [and] we won’t turn our attention away from our goal,” then we can avoid these feelings of depression.

There are many other remedies for this discouragement at our disposal. It helps to be aware that feeling a disheartening lack of agency can be misleading. We are working on shaping society for the future -- in one month, in a year, and in ten years. When we look at it from the long-term perspective, even accounting for losses, we can see quite a few gains on the positive side.

DW: Such as…?

Discussion of politics and its connections to everyone’s life. New people taking action. The bursting of social “bubbles.” People meeting on the public square and in the streets whose paths have not crossed before now. The acceleration of civic education which will certainly pay dividends. The visibility in the streets of work that engages and challenges the comfortable liberal theory of self-sufficiency.

On one hand, we have won only small victories, but on the other, we are changing a narrative that up to this point has seemed immoveable.

DW: Why does PiS [the right-wing Polish majority party] need to go back and forth on this issue?

They can manipulate our emotions in this way. Telling voters on the street -- we hear you and will do what is right.

We have two or three scenarios ahead of us. The first: women and men in Poland will take to the streets, bring the country to a halt and remodel it. The second: apathy. People will not fight because they will come to the conclusion that a topic such as abortion does not really concern them. To tell the truth, haven't we already gotten used to the fact that pregnancy cannot be stopped in Poland?  Some women can afford to spend three thousand euros on treatment abroad. Others may find that they have already fought enough in their lives. Why take to the streets? I have the flu today, and tomorrow I will be shopping. That would be the worst case scenario. The most realistic is always the third solution -- something will happen that is between revolution and stagnation. We will get a so-called "compromise" from the government. A compromise sprinkled with hypocrisy. We are already prepared to see it undermined in practice.

DW: How can we fight this hypocrisy?

By providing data, and being able to talk about individual experiences. It is necessary to speak about the scale of abortion, about the medical consequences of poor prenatal care, about inflated myths that impose guilty feelings upon women.

DW: What myths do you have in mind?

Religion creates feelings of guilt through the schools, the anti-choice offensive, and mass culture. Similar ideas come from many different sources.

We say that the right to abortion does not entail a compulsion to abort.

The opposition says that asking for the right to have an abortion is equivalent to being a murderer. We want choice; they want coercion. It is not the same.

We start from different positions. After all, it does not bother us that they profess their beliefs and fulfill the commands formulated by the Pope or the Episcopate. Rather we are bothered by the mixing of religion with the Polish legal system.

DW: How does the tightening of regulations cast such doubt on women?

If we segregate society according to fertility, we create the world of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It is possible to imagine that medical records will cease to be confidential and will become open to prosecutorial investigation. Medicine has become the ally of suspicious officials. Every woman beginning pregnancy will need to consider whether she wants to see a doctor in a local clinic or seek care abroad because a registered pregnancy will be subject to surveillance. It's not hard to imagine that 14-year-old girls in school will become subject to observation and it is not hard to predict how their colleagues, who are not threatened by the consequences of producing sperm, will treat them.

Surveillance treats women not only as objects of permanent suspicion, but also as immature, as persons unable to make good, rational decisions who must be repressed by an ethical system -- in this case Catholic -- imposed in advance.

Catholic ethics have an orthodox concept of gender, subordinating women under a robe of "dignity" and giving them a special mission.

Women who are under permanent suspicion and treated as too immature to make good, adult, decisions cannot be partners in any sphere of life. They cannot be regarded as trustworthy in any way if they are unable to manage their own uteruses responsibly.

DW: You emphasize on Facebook that you are an advocate of dialogue, but how can we have a conversation when we are so divided at the dinner table?

When teaching, I promote discussion. I attempt to avoid immediately proceeding to political or ideological arguments, but to consider phenomena, and experience, to show how sometimes positions distant from each other can meet. When we discuss the raising of children or the division of responsibilities, for instance, it happens that even the most conservative women expect assistance from their husbands. We don’t start the discussion from the question of whether someone is a murderer of children or if someone else is a murderer of women.

DW: At the demonstrations immediate confrontations ensue. In Wrocław, the All-Polish Youth shouted “Murderers!” at the women, and they stood in opposition and shouted back, “Fascists!”

In Szczecin, girls from ONR [the far right-wing “Radical National Camp”] came and passed out red roses. They knew me, using my first name and professional title. We knew that this was a spectacle, but we accepted these red roses. I did so without comment. Sometimes silence speaks louder than words.

Flowers from real women for bad feminists? OK. But let’s discuss it on my terms.

DW: What distinguishes their red roses from our white ones?

Symbolism, intention. Both white and red roses have a story to tell, one not necessarily so subtle as rose petals. The interpretive task is to read these stories, to translate them from image into words and into the actions that they call for. I take a flower, but then I immediately state my position. A discussion is possible with anyone who does not display aggressive, hostile intentions toward me. One can have a discussion even with those who are unwilling.

DW: I wonder if it is not magical thinking that women’s time will come, even in Poland.

There are those who believe that today there are no more facts, only media. If that is so, then let us make this the time of women. Let us show them that it is coming. Optimism can be a strategy. As an academic and a writer, I am always looking for a way to reconcile analysis based on empirical evidence with an affirmation of the positive effects. Unlimited optimism would be naïve, but at the same time there is an excessive attachment to data, surveys, and only carefully justified predictions. In humans, feelings can vacillate, as can social processes.

It’s bad in the Polish state, but where else have I met so many wise, determined people? There is something they say in Poland from Rebecca Solnit’s popular book with the strong title, Men Explain Things to Me: “you never know what the long term positive effects of your actions will be.” Life experience suggests, as we’ve been saying, that a lot is changing for the good.

Yes, we have a conservative backwater, but we also have a bolder formulation of expectations and perspectives, and more inclusive events.

I am sober in every sense. I meet young people who are not interested in politics and those who are very engaged. I know that the real crowds on protest days are at the mall. But I am certain that the process is also about stories of positive engagement.

DW: Do you see any particular solidarity among women today?

It has always existed. For years I have tried not to repeat the clichés that include the claims that we do not have solidarity, or that the worst enemies of women are other women.

DW: Will the upcoming elections bring change?

It may be that change is in the overriding of political priorities, an indication that the personal is political, but in a different sense than politicians have considered before.

We have an intuition that something extraordinary is happening, that something is spreading, that all this work of protest and debate is truly changing us.

Until now, “the personal is political” has been about getting into people’s bedrooms, controlling sexuality, but now it means that we will not barricade ourselves in our homes, because we already know the consequences of passivity.

DW: Reading feminist blogs or Facebook posts, I see significant differences across generations. I’m simplifying, but is it about the radicalism of younger women versus… well, what?

Well, I have always been radical, but polite. Radicalism has many faces, revealing itself, for instance, in firm adherence to principle, unwillingness to compromise. What is new is that the younger generation is not inclined to listen to authority, not only because of intergenerational dynamics, but because the rules of communication have changed. Action and reaction are literally simultaneous -- the writing of one opinion which doesn’t appeal to a young colleague active on the internet immediately reorganizes the poles of the debate. Of course I also find mass, pop-culture feminism grating, or when something that was important to me years ago, and for which I had struggled to find supporters, gets translated into simple language as if it was obvious. I try to neutralize these feelings within myself, so that they do not impede the joy of seeing independent girls powerfully entering into the public space. Isn’t that what it’s about? After all, it’s not about them admiring us and asking for our opinions.

****

Professor Inga Iwasiów -- A leading Polish feminist literary scholar and critic, poet and novelist, Iwasiów conceived the “Gryfia” prize for Polish women writers. Her novel, Bambino, was a finalist for the Nike Prize, Poland’s highest literary award, in 2009, and she has published four more novels since. 

--Translated from the Polish by David A. Goldfarb

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