An interview with Agnieszka Graff, published in Przekrój (no.10/3220, March 8th, 2007), conducted by Piotr Najsztub on March 1st, 2007.
* * *
Agnieszka Graff (37) writer, translator, publicist and feminist studied at Oxford University, Amherst College and School of Social Sciences at The Polish Academy of Sciences (PAN). In 1999 she received doctoral degree in English literature. In 2001 she published World Without Women, in which she described the absence of women in Polish public life and the patterns upon which the discrimination in Poland has been signed. She has had translated works of Virginia Woolf. She works for Warsaw University’s Institute of Americas and Europe, where she lectures Gender Studies to sociology students. Her essays are being published in Gazeta Wyborcza, Zadra, Literatura na Świecie and Katedra. She is a co-founder of Porozumienie 8 Marca, which organises the annual Women’s Day March. She’s married to a photographer Bernard Osser.
Przekrój: Do Polish women have anything to celebrate during this year’s 8th March Women’s Day?
AgnieszkaGraff: – No. The situation is dramatically bad and the fact that both: the majority of women, and the general public underestimate it is even more dramatic.
So what is dramatic about what is going on?
– The situation is symbolised by the constitution amendment, that is being forced by Deputy Prime Minister Giertych and a part of the Law and Justice Party (PiS). Which de facto leads to total ban for abortion. However this is a part of a bigger thing: the total seizure of Women issues by the extreme right.
Because only they talk about it?
– This subject has been given away to them like they owned it. They became experts for Women issues.
Who has given it away?
– Other parties, and most of the media. This obviously sprung due to the number of scandals the left side were engaged in. However before it collapsed under all the scandals, there was a very clear “non-agression pact” between them and The Catholic Church. For the price of its support for joining The EU, the left has given up the debate on abortion. And the view that this odd, current abortion law, one of the most restrictive in Europe, cannot be changed, has consolidated. That it is better not to touch it, because something terrible may happen.
Some call that law “the wonderful compromise”.
– This is reputed-comprimise. Comprimise of the rightwing with other rightwing. And the thing that is happening now, I think, is seen also by a part of The Church as dreadful, or deeply immoral.
What could be dreadful for them?
– The idea of a total abortion ban, including the cases of rape, adultery, and handicapped foetus.
Why would it be dreadful for them?
– Because The Church is not a ferocious institution. It is, from my point of view, an anti-women institution, deeply traditionalistic, but it is not a criminal institution. However the idea to force a woman to give birth, a woman who can lose her life during the labour, i see as criminal, as threatening the biological existence of women. The newest proposals for constitution amendments are being ignored in Poland, and seen as some kind of folklore, because no one believes the extreme-right will ever execute those regulations.
And will they introduce it?
– I think many people believe they will, but no one believes that they will execute it effectively. To let them for such antics in Polish constitution seems to me like like giving up completely. This is a coup on democracy – closing the debate on a subject that divides the Poles. This is frightening for me, however Poland is not the only country in which such things happen. Nationalists, when let to power, take over the control over women, and the whole rest agrees for that. You cannot let the extreme nationalists govern the foreign policy, you cannot give the extreme populists the power over economy, but since something has to be given to them, women are being sacrificed. And this is happening in Poland.
Do you feel it personally?
– I am not in the position of a woman living for 180 euro a month, who gets unwanted pregnancy. So I do not feel personally threatened -I will be fine. But this is my country, and I do not want to live in a country that despises of women. The situation of most women is similar to the situation of people being hijacked on a plane. Giertych and company are the hijackers – and the rest of ruling class negotiate. On our expense.
But maybe most of these women, having the alternative of being hijacked or not, would have chosen to be hijacked?
– No. The number of people supporting the total ban for abortion is 9 – 10 percent, and these are mostly people who have long passed their reproductive age. This is some kind of an extreme group. I also represent a statistically extreme group, because I believe that abortion should be safe and legal – and with the easy availability of counterception – should be treated as a medical service. This is a cliche in the West. Well, 10 percent of the Polish society shares my view. All others are somewhere in between. They think for example that abortion should be available for economical reasons, or they more or less support the current pseudocompromise. Which is abortion legal in the instance of rape, serious foetus handicap, or a threat to mother’s life. Many women say “I would never have an abortion, but I think women should be allowed the choice”. Or: “Abortion should be banned, but if my younger 15-year-old sister got pregnant, of course I would have helped her to get a surgery”. There are many inconsequent and self-contradictory emotions involved.
Should only women decide on the right for abortion, or men too?
– Many people from my environment think that women should decide. I do not fully agree with that. The right for abortion is a part of a set of women’s rights called ‘reproductive rights’. These are human rights. Rights of a human, who is a woman. And I don’t think, let’s say that only Afroamericans in The USA should support fighting racism – this is an issie importaint for the whole America. Similarly, I believe that it is an issue of all citizens of this country to decide, how will women’s rights be. Reproductive rights are some kind of an emancipation of civilisation level and level of Church interference with the state. So not only women, children also have fathers. And the childless do not have to be keen to live in a country where Marek Jurek and Wojciech Wierzejski are Women issues experts.
You said that the attitude to women’s rights is the gauge of civilisation level. Measured like that, where are we?
– You want me to say that…
No, it is not like I want you to say something.
– … that we live in The Middle Ages or in Africa, but I don’t believe that progress in inevitable.
So is it The Middle Ages all the time?
No. I think all kinds of occurrences – even not related to women issues – have influence on the attitude towards women’s rights. At this moment the issue of women’s rights in Poland is greatly influenced by the increase of nationalist moods. Nationalism debases women. These mechanisms were very beautifully and deeply analised by Professor Maria Janion in her last book Niesamowita Slowianszczyzna (The Incredible Slavs). To make the long story short, nationalism is the ideology praising the manhood. Manhood based on a certain vision of “brotherhood”, a bond between men. But at the same time the fatherland is really the motherland. This universal phenomenon, that the personification, the symbol of the country nationalist loves, the nation he feels part of, is in fact idealised womanhood. In Poland it is the Holy Mother, together with Polonia and the mythical “Polish Mother”. We hear all the time the right wing MPs idealising that womanhood, who is supposed to make sacrifices for them. They show their mentality very clearly. But the same can be said about nationalists in Ireland, Singapore or Sri Lanka. From research and observation we know now, that the more idealised is the symbolic womanhood, the more humiliated, and the more powerless the real women are.
So we should destroy that myth of Polonia-Holy Mother-“Polish Mother”?
– You cannot destroy myths. You can cure yourself from myths, you can mock and ridicule the myth in a creative way. Professor Janion believes that is what the contemporary Polish literature (for example Maslowska, Kuczok) and art (Nieznalska, Zielinska, Baumgart) does. I am more of a pessimist. These works of high culture, very interesting, have no influence over the Polish mentality. Roman Giertych very effectively communicates with that mentality. It is his great symbolical success and should be not depreciated as extremity. I have found an information published by the Polish Press Agency (PAP) in August 2006 describing the beginning of the campaign for changing the constitution. Roman Giertych visited the Jasna Gora shrine and has made a vow to the Holy Mother that he will change the constitution. He added that the abortion can be “analogically compared” to Holocaust. This is the classical example of sacrificing the real women on the altar of the symbolical woman. And the Holy Mother of Jasna Gora, is here basically personification of Poland itself. Giertych’s Holy Mary is some kind of a ferocious goddess, to which women have to be sacrificed. This is incredibly graphical and powerful rhetorics – today it strikes PiS too. They are afraid to be against it, to say: it’s cruel. It would mean they are not patriotic enough, that they signed out of the “brotherhood”.
So maybe Jerzy Urban is right calling the Holy Mother of Czestochowa “an indian woman with cuts on her face”, maybe this is the way to fight it?
– No, disdain and tainting the symbols is not the right way, because it’s basically doing the same thing au rebours. What we need is a strong, alternative, secular discourse. A discourse that neither puts the Holy Mother into the centre of Polishness nor does it offend her or throw objects at her. Some serious feminist force from inside The Church would also be handy…
Maybe there is no alternative to the Holy Mother as the centre of Polishness, and that’s why it’s happening?
– That’s why we will probably end up having the total ban on abortion in our constitution. A terrible thing is happening: women’s rights have been made equal to betrayal of Polishness. What Polishness is about is that our women our different than that bitches in the West, our men are real men not some transvestites or transsexuals from Berlin.
Our real men will introduce the ban on abortion into constitution. Do you think nothing will change and we still will have such widespread underground abortion service? It’s estimated that 80-200 thousand surgeries are carried out every year.
– The question is will the underground abortion service be safe? Now the underground service is very civilised. It is expensive, but abortions are being conducted by doctors. Before the Second World War or in the 50s-60s in the United States, before abortion was legalised, abortion was the cause of death of many women, often already mothers, who died in hands of some freaks. I don’t know if PiS will bend to the next idea of the extreme-right, to the idea of liquidating the underground abortion services. If they start sueing doctors doing those surgeries we may end up again in “women’s hell” as Boy-Zelenski called it. The League Of Polish Families (LPR) party are religious fanatics, they could do that. I hope for the optimistic alternative, that this will cause the women’s rebellion.
How could it look?
– For example forming a women’s party, which in opposition to Manuela Gretkowska’a party will take care of the subject of abortion.
So one more women’s party?
– I don’t know if one more. Manuela Gretkowska’s Manifesto published in Przekrój has pointed to the barbarianism of the idea of a total abortion ban. And it was a Manifesto of justified anger against making women powerless. Since then from what Manuela’s been saying, it seems she’s scared of this subject. Lately she said in an interview for Dziennik, that she can imagine herself voting both for and against the right for abortion. That doesn’t mean anything, only that she pulled out, that she got scared – like the whole Polish political scene – of The Church and that odd idea that Poland equals the Holy Mother, and the Holy Mother equals no abortion. I hope that women is this party will realise, that this matter cannot be postponed until later, because these mad people will eat and digest all of us.
Apart the abortion, do Polish women taking part in this years Women’s Day March have other reasons to worry?
– Job market for the starters: sexual harassment, pay gap, or employers during the job-interview demanding a declaration that a woman will not have children. I can go on like that for long. Poland is the country in Europe in which there is the biggest difference between the level of employment of men and women. 59% of men aged 15-64 are employed, compared to 47% of women. That’s 12 percent. In Denmark or Sweden it’s only 4.
It has been worse, so maybe it’s better now? And I don’t mean the communist era, but the 90s. In the communist era there was full employment.
– It’s not about full employment. It’s what womanhood is. Then women identified themselves as functioning in public life. Now, because of the discrimination, and the attack of the nationalist ideology, many women don’t even attempt going back on the job market after having a child. This is of course related to the problems with kindergarte. If a woman earns 180 euro per month and there is no kindergarten near her, or the kindergarten cost 150 euro, it’s more appealing for her to stay home with the child. From many years there were attempts to push women back on the job arket with other methods. And childbirth-benefit is one of the most scandalous idea. Its main result is, i think, the fact that women who would have given their children for adoption after giving birth, now decide to keep them.
You don’t see any positive outcomes of childbirth-benefit?
For some women these money mean they can buy something.
– Of course, but this money can be spent in a more reasonable way. Encouraging having children should not have the form of single time financial benefit, but a complex system of supporting the parenting.
And when the state is not able to create such a system, maybe it’s bette for it to give away the child-birth benefits?
– Well yes, but that generates lots of pathologies. Already couple thousand children in dysfunctional families were born. Only to receive the benefit, and go drinking or other things like that. Because of the childbirth-benefit less women leave their children for adoption at the hospitals. After few months they end up in foster care.
Do you see in the Polish parliament anyone thinking similarly?
– I have great sympathy to Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka. What she says always makes sense, however it not always is reflected in what later happens. In relation to the current parliament I have chosen the attitude of something like internal emigration. I no longer listen to every debate.
Before have you?
– Yes, I had the parliamentary debates downloaded from the internet, i knew the names of MPs, I was interested in the actions of the Parliamentarian Group of Women. When I returned to Poland after graduation in 1995, I was in such a naive and enthusiastic way a patriot. I thought to myself that Poland has regained independence, that we’re building a modern democracy, that this my feminism is my input to the common good. When I read now some fragments of my old books, I smile. I was so excited, so patriotic, so optimistic.
PiS needs patiots.
– I never predicted that the word patriotism will be seized by people, who in my books act as weirdos throwing rotten eggs at us. The boys who were throwing object at me in Wladyslawowo couple years ago, are MPs now.
They are in LPR, but PiS… PiS needs patriots.
– No. PiS uses the word patriotism, to describe something, which is nationalism. This patriotism we have now, is not from my world. That’s why I stopped saying “this country”, and I say “my country”. Because I got scared that me and my environment will get pushed on the position of ironists, distancing themselves from Poland.
Why did you get scared of such perspective, if you already are on “internal emigration”?
– Because this is after all my country. I am on my internal emigration in my favourite district of Warsaw. I love this city, I love those landscapes. I returned with full understanding, that after seven years of emigration, this is the place where I want to live, and I don’t want to be offended by some…
Do you want to live in a country in which women will have their rights taken away?
– Where would a feminist live if not in a such country? This is the place, where things need to be done. This is my country, and it has been stolen from me by PiS inc. I’m not shopping, I’m not looking for a cool place, with best options for women.
Do you feel Manifa (the Women’s Day March) has supporters in the media, or not really?
– This year Porozumienie 8 Marca has decided that there shall be no more happenings, no more funny wigs and stuff. Manifa is serious. And this is a serious ideological decision, and also a challange for the media. Because the media got used to that a colourful March of girls and boys walks down the streets of Warsaw, and no one really knows what its about, but there are funny signs like “Sex yes, sexism no” or “Feminism, I’m worth it”. But we are no longer on the stage of celebrating our internal unity, that we’re so emancipated, that we have read those cool feminist books. Our country is now gripped by nationalist plague. And I hope that the media will see what is happening, that there is something importaint going on, which concerns all of us. Not only women in reproductive age.
What would be your dream parliament-act concerning women’s rights?
– Gender Equality Act, like they have in many EU states. And which we still don’t have in Poland. However in the matter of abortion, the best act would be a blank sheet of paper. It’s just not a matter for politicians or lawyers, but doctors and women. Or first – women, and doctors second. It is the women who takes the costs: both economical and emotional – of having a baby. It’s mostly men who make law, but they leave the whole responsibility to women.
So your dream is to cross abortion matters out of law regulations and constitution?
– Yes, maybe except medical regulations defining the moment until which abortion should be available.
You have convined me, I’ll come to the March. What do you expect from men, who don’t share the ideas of nationalist ideology?
– A serious interest in women’s rights, including reproductive rights. Not as one of many issues, but an issue that has become the symbol of fight for Poland. Because everyone in the media thinks it’s the matter of lustration and everyone argues about it constantly. But this will pass, together with the generation concerned. However the women’s rights can be lost for many years. And it’s not only about women, but also about what you tell children in schools, on those lessons that re no longer called “sexual education” but, i don’t know “preparation to life in virtue”. This is the moments that decides about atmosphere in Poland for generations.
* * *
If you enjoyed this post why not visit Polandian, a collaborative blog on Poland.