By Laura James
On 22 October 2020, the Constitutional Tribunal in Poland ruled that abortion on the grounds of fetal abnormality was unconstitutional, further restricting Poland’s already stringent abortion laws (Thebmjopinion). This abortion ban caused outrage among Polish people and resulted in mass protests in the streets. Zula Rabikowska, a Polish-British documentary photographer and videographer, currently based in Karków, attended these protests as they unfolded in order to document the events but also to stand in solidarity with Polish women and help secure the basic human right of safe abortion healthcare.
In what follows, Zula talks about the current situation regarding the abortion ban, shares her lived experiences of the protests and explains how the Polish people are fighting for their human rights, freedom of speech and going against the tyrannical government currently in power.
What was your motivation for documenting the protests?
That’s an interesting question. I think it was multi-layered to be honest. I felt a sense of responsibility on a personal level as a female identifying individual who is Polish. Having recently moved back to Poland after living in the UK for 20 years I almost felt like this is something I have to do to show solidarity with other women in Poland, but also for myself and for my own rights to abortion health care. I believe it is a fundamental human right that unfortunately the Polish government does not share.
So, that was the first layer of my motivation. The second element was that I wanted to be there as a documentary photographer and I was really frustrated to see just how many male photographers were present but there was only 1 or 2 women (In Kraków). From my general understanding, and from having had conversations with other photographers who have covered other areas in Poland, there was a general consensus that this is something that is being covered by male photojournalists. I felt a double sense of frustration as a participant and also as a photographer as I felt like female photographers should have been given more of a voice in this and get their perspectives heard and seen.
What was the atmosphere like at the protests?
In the winter months it was relentless, it was all the time. It wasn’t just protests which were happening, there were pickets, road closures, transport strikes. The tension in the atmosphere was really tangible, you could see in the streets and you could feel it just walking around. The protests have a symbol of the red thunderbolt and you would see this in bakeries for example, people would have the red thunderbolt in their car windows, on their jackets, on their phones, on their faces, on their masks. It was very much a movement that to this day is still going on. The other day, I was checking out a local a tattoo parlour and there are artists who specialise in the thunderbolt, due to a demand for people to have this tattooed on the body.
This is something that has really affected the Polish society and it quickly became not just about abortion, it became about the oppression from the very right-wing government here. Some of the protests I was going along to were about pedophilia in the Catholic Church. People just took to the streets to show how fed up they were with the current tyrannical government.
What was the main message the protesters wanted to convey?
I think the main message was to show the government, and internationally, that people disagree with this ban. Poland isn’t this homophobic, homogenous, Catholic, conservative country that the government would like everyone to believe. This is the message that appears in the state-owned media in Poland, it is pure propaganda and it’s quite frightening how the message is portrayed. Alongside this, the way they portrayed the protests and protesters in the state news was horrific. It didn’t really show this message of abortion health care and the need for women and for people to have a say about their rights.
The baseline message was that people wanted to express their discontent for this ban and their need to have safe access to abortion. The second message would be this wave of being fed up and ready for a change of government.
You said that the protests are still happening today, is it in such a large capacity as back in winter?
Yes and no. Before in Kraków, every other evening there would be thousands of protesters taking to the streets, and I haven’t seen it happening as much right now. But that is not to say that protests on a smaller scale aren’t happening.
This weekend it was actually 11 years ago that a plane crashed in Poland and 93 right wing politicians died. So, the current president that we have now, his twin brother and mother died in that plane crash. As a result people took to the streets and to the main market square in Kraków to protest against the government, so this kind of discontent is very much present. In addition, on 1st May Poland observed International Labour Day, which is traditionally a day to celebrate labourers and the working classes, and lots of people demonstrated with the thunderbolt symbol on this day. I went along on 18th April to Wawel Castle in Kraków as Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the leader of the Law and Justice party, came to the city. On this day the politicians were greeted by a small crowd of protesters holding up banners and with their faces in red thunderbolts. The way the large-scale protests were happening in January, October and November and even in December have changed, but it doesn’t mean that people aren’t still striking.
Did you feel safe documenting the demonstrations?
Once again, I was in Kraków, yet in Warsaw a lot of arrests of photojournalists were being made and this completely infringed freedom of speech in my opinion. This did happen in Kraków to an extent but obviously the protests weren’t as big as in Warsaw. Yet, there were a few occasions when I thought to myself should I be here? And that wasn’t because of the protesters, but the main threat came from the police who were kitted out with tear gas and shields, and really looked in full combat mode. When you are surrounded by 50 or 60 police it is really intimidating. But intimidation was definitely one of the tactics that they were going for with that presence. The other threat was that the police used the pandemic and used megaphones with the slogan ‘you shouldn’t be meeting in groups of more than 5 people’. They used this as an excuse to arrest people or fine them.
Within the community do you feel there is a sense of polarisation between supporters of the abortion ban and those who are protesting against it?
I guess that is happening all around us these days. I could compare it to Brexit in the UK and we are seeing it right now with people being pro-vaccine and anti-vaccine. But I suppose within the liberal bubble that I live in in Kraków, I personally didn’t encounter anyone directly who was anti-abortion. But I have seen the countermovement of the right wing people come out to confront the protesters. I remember there was a group of nuns and priests who came out to the protests with huge speakers to drown out the protesters with religious songs and the police didn’t stop them. This is one of many examples of such actions.
As a Polish woman do you feel your human rights are being violated by this ban?
Yes definitely 100%. It is a huge violation and is very upsetting that the government and parts of the society do not see it that way.
Do you think the protests will continue until the ban is lifted?
I think it is difficult to say to be honest. But this time people have explicitly been taking to the streets. People have been fired by their employers for protesting, so people have been losing their jobs because of this. Nevertheless, people are still willing to protest and to let the government and society know that this is not ok.
At the same time, I think things will only change when we elect another government as the situation right now is really tyrannical, not just in terms of the abortion ban, but with the lack of freedom of speech, democracy and even the way the state news reports on what is factual and not factual is frightening.
Will you continue to document the protests via photography?
Yes definitely. But photography is only one of the tools I use, I also use multimedia and video to make sense of the world around me and if other people are finding it useful to help make sense of the world then great. So I have no intention of stopping at least for the near future.
All photographs ©Zula Rabikowska