On reactionary social movements, political opportunities and the antifeminist state

International-Journal-for-Crime-and-Justice-97-by-144-pxIn May 2014 I had the pleasure of taking part in a workshop organised at the University of British Columbia by Professor Susan B. Boyd entitled “Men’s Groups: Challenging Feminism”. The main aim of the workshop was to gather international scholars working on issues such as antifeminism, men’s social movements, mothers’ and fathers’ rights in child custody, domestic violence etcetera. During this two-day event, academics from Canada, the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, the United Kingdom, Poland, Sweden, and Taiwan analysed contemporary activism and debates and discourses on the resistance to feminism and discussed how to support the advancement of feminist theories and strategies with regard to preventing the development of antifeminist practices, discourses and legislation all around the world.

One of the workshop’s outcomes is the special issue of the International Journal for Crime,  Justice and Social Democracy edited by Molly Dragiewicz and Ruth Mann entitled “Fighting Feminism – Organised Opposition to Women’s Rights”. The main aim of this particular special issue is to present the form of (growing) antifeminist activism in different historical, regional and political contexts (Dragiewicz & Mann 2016), and my paper “Masculist groups in Poland: the aides of mainstream antifeminism” can be seen as an attempt to shed light on the situation we are dealing with right now in my country of origin. In the article I discuss the role of Polish masculist groups, namely the hardline wing of the fathers’ rights movement, catholic men’s groups and, to some extent, the Masculinum foundation, in supporting so called mainstream feminism, which can be a synonym for “state antifeminism” and is analysed in the same special issue by Francis Dupuis – Déri (2016). In doing so, I argue that since 1989 Polish public discourse has been strongly dominated by antifeminist rhetoric, and masculist groups can be seen as aides in strengthening antifeminist discourses and practices. This particular rhetoric is not only used in the media and in political discourse; it also influences legislation (through the regressive social movements’ activity). I therefore decided to analyse Polish struggles over abortion reform, the struggle for the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women, and last but not least the activism of the masculist movement.

However, the paper is based on the analysis of material gathered up until 2014. Now, with the recent changed political context (since 2015 when the right-wing party Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc won elections and formed government), one could have the feeling that my article is a tale from the golden age when women’s rights were fully respected in Poland. But let me start from the beginning. The paper starts with the presentation of the struggle over abortion that started shortly after socio-political transformation in 1989. Before this date, abortion in Poland was legal, while in 2014 (and still today) Poland had one of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the entire European Union. Nowadays, performing an abortion is only possible when a woman’s health or her life are in danger, the fetus is strongly deformed, or when the pregnancy is a result of a criminal act (but only if it has been reported to the police). In other cases, the person who helps women with pregnancy termination risks imprisonment (8 months to 8 years). Nonetheless, such restrictive legislation is still too liberal for a number of pro-life activists who have been active on the political scene since the beginning of the XX century. The contemporary movement organises regular campaigns calling for a total ban on abortion and organises marches, riots, protest actions and regular public mobilisation initiatives, gaining substantial media attention (e.g. by organising photo exhibitions where abortion is compared to the holocaust). Once in a while the movement’s activists collect signatures for a citizen’s law proposal for abortion ban, which is submitted to the parliament and is supposed to be discussed and voted on by the MPs. Until now every parliament has rejected such projects. Unfortunately, this time the situation might be different as at the beginning of July 2016 members of the pro-life organisation Fundacja Pro-Prawo do zycia submitted a project with over 450 000 signatures. This time there is a serious threat that the parliament dominated by right-wing parties will support it. According to the proposal there will be a total ban on abortion, but the project also includes “(…) the threat of criminal prosecution for both doctors and women (up to 5 years in prison).” The proposal stipulates that the prosecutor can drop charges under extraordinary circumstances, for example if the pregnancy will be terminated to save the life of a woman. However, there is a very real chance that even women who undergo involuntary miscarriages will be punished by up to 3 years in prison because the law proposal stipulates that the person responsible for “fetal murder, even unintentional, may face criminal charges.” (Korolczuk 2016)

Another alarming issue is the violation of the Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence Against Women that Poland signed in 2015. According to the Convention, every country has a responsibility to provide or arrange specialist women’s support services for all women victims of violence and their children and to provide for the setting-up of appropriate, easily accessible shelters in sufficient numbers to provide safe accommodation for victims and to reach out pro-actively to these victims, especially women and their children. Since such centres have operated in Poland for years, the government has an obligation “only” to support such initiatives and create a positive atmosphere for their further development. However, two months ago one of the oldest and most well know organisations that helps women and children who are victims of domestic violence was deprived of public financial support as the responsible Ministry argued that the Women’s Rights Centre, by supporting female victims of violence, discriminates against male victims of this form of violence. I do not need to add that the government has not started any kind of initiative aimed at opening shelters for male victims of violence (which are also needed in Poland), and that with this line of argumentation they have only proved that women’s rights and their well-being are absolutely against the government’s ideology: state antifeminism (Dupuis – Déri 2016).

Last but not least, for several months the hardline fathers’ rights movement has also been triumphant. With the support of another right-wing party, Kukiz’15, members of the movement submitted a law proposal where custody rights and arrangements changes will favour divorced fathers. The most important changes refer to 1) the abolition of alimony and 2) unconditional shared custody arrangements, even in cases where one of the parents is a perpetrator of domestic violence. A more detailed analysis of this particular proposal will be delivered in the next post, but the important conclusion here is that since 2014, when I started to work on my paper, the political situation in Poland has rapidly changed. Today, the political opportunity structure (Tilly 1996, McAdam 1996) acts in favour of conservative, antifeminist social movements, finally enabling them to carry out (or rather complete) their antifeminist (r)evolution. Political opportunities defined as “consistent but not necessarily formal, permanent, or national signals to social or political actors which either encourage or discourage them to use their internal resources to form social movements” (Tarrow 1996: 54) strengthen the influence of regressive social movements mostly through (McAdam 1996) 1) the openness of the political system (the case of two legislative proposals) and 2) the presence of elite allies (the case of the hardline fathers’ rights movement and Kukiz’15 MPs). At the same time, the progressive movement’s activism is constrained by 1) denied financial support (Women’s Rights Centre case) and 2) the creation of and support for an atmosphere of fear – for several days feminist and pro-choice movement activists collecting signatures for a citizen’s law proposal for abortion liberalisation have been systematically bullied and attacked on the streets of Polish cities.

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