A (Polish) History of Violence: The Difficulties of Advancing Women’s Rights in the 21st Century

by Adrianna Minta

This April, a fresh controversy related to gender politics took Polish media by storm. Jarosław Gowin, Poland’s current minister of justice and a Civic Platform politician, stated loud and proud that he would vehemently oppose the signing and ratification of the Council of Europe Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence.

(http://www.conventions.coe.int/Treaty/EN/Treaties/Html/210.htm )

Prior to his political career, the minister was a well-established Catholic publicist, journalist, and author of several books on the subject of the Catholic Church and its place in recent Polish history. Thus, it might not come as a surprise that Gowin’s objections are of an ideological rather than legal nature. According to Polish conservative politicians, the issues with the Convention are many. Krystyna Pawłowicz, of the conservative Law and Justice party, attacked the document over its seemingly onerous definition of gender (“socially constructed roles, behaviours, activities and attributes that a given society considers appropriate for women and men”) and reference to non-stereotyped gender roles. She called the ideas ‘absurd, against the natural law’ and the document itself ‘ultra-leftist, feminist and ideological’. A number of Catholic women’s organizations followed suit, driven, no doubt, as much by the Church’s teachings on marriage and gender, as by the relentlessly bad press feminists receive from conservative media outlets. They signed an official appeal against the Convention, citing complementarism, a religious concept which conceives of women and men as ‘equal, but different’ in God’s eyes, as well as the perceived ‘antagonising of the sexes’ that the Convention would lead to, as their main reason for opposing its ratification.

Gowin himself, inexplicably to some, believes the formula to be the EU’s sneaky way of promoting same-sex marriage. Since it may be argued, he says, that the stereotypical role of women and men is to be husband and wife, mother and father in a monogamous relationship, the Convention stands in direct conflict with a ‘healthy, traditional model’ for marriage (as a union of one man and one woman) and child-rearing allegedly delineated by the Polish constitution, and effectively violates Articles 18 and 23 of that act.

Undersecretary of State at the Ministry of Justice, Michał Królikowski, is also in denial about the Convention, as demonstrated in an interview he gave to the Catholic Information Agency (KAI). He called to question the document’s assertion about the detrimental influence of gendered stereotypes on women’s position in society, and accused feminist organizations of weaving an ‘aggressive narrative’ on the issue as well as actively advocating for a ‘radical social revolution’.

Mr Gowin’s reservations were criticized by Poland’s leading feminists, who accused the minister of toadying up to the conservative electorate at the cost of women’s interests and safety. According to Małgorzata Fuszara, a University of Warsaw sociology professor and jurist, the minister’s objections are a non-issue because Poland has already ratified the United Nations Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and is therefore bound by international law to implement measures identical to those Królikowski and Gowin oppose in the Convention. Fuszara is joined in this assertion by Agnieszka Kozłowska-Rajewicz, Government Plenipotentiary for Equal Treatment, validating concerns that Gowin, with his lack of formal legal training, might not be best suited for the office.

The Convention also requires relevant NGOs to be involved in developing the necessary awareness-raising strategies and campaigns together with the government. This condition is especially likely to draw criticism from the socially conservative fraction of Polish political arena – a fraction that also exists within the ruling Civic Platform party of which Gowin is a leading member.

Social conservatism and feminism don’t go hand in hand in Poland. The most tragic consequence of that dynamic, according to Joanna Piotrowska of the Feminoteka Foundation, will be further secondary victimization of abuse survivors. This issue will be difficult to resolve without proper gender-based education targeted specifically at law enforcement professionals and the judiciary. Feminoteka’s research has shown, for example, that 40% of the police force and 20% of public prosecutors don’t effectively believe that rape as a crime exists (an assertion based on their beliefs of what constitutes an act of rape).

Society at large is in dire need of education on the matter as well. According to research carried out by SMG/KRC Institute in November 2011, one in five Poles consider domestic violence a ‘norm’, and one in four feel justified in not reacting to violence because ‘the perpetrator might be right’. Organisations including Amnesty International, Polish Society of Anti-Discrimination Law, and the Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights have all voiced concerns that minister Gowin’s position may lead to further legitimization of violence against women.

A significant majority of the Civic Platform party, including Prime Minister Donald Tusk, is currently in favour of signing and ratifying the Convention. So far, the Convention has been signed by 19 countries.

(http://www.conventions.coe.int/Treaty/Commun/ChercheSig.asp?NT=210&CM=1&DF=&CL=ENG )

Adrianna Minta has completed her undergraduate studies in Glasgow and Sydney. She holds a joint MA in Art History and Theatre Studies. Her interests include women’s history, film, gendered analysis of politics and pop culture, American politics, LGBT rights, black history and the dynamics of religious conflict. In her free time she enjoys stand-up comedy, heavy metal music and science fiction.  

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