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Behind the Headlines Women Lead Resistance in Poland and Belarus

11 December 2020 -  The recent anti-government protests in Belarus and Poland were the focus of the Trinity Long Room Hub’s latest Behind the Headlines discussion which highlighted the predominance of women at the forefront of these movements.

Four expert panellists spoke as part of the latest Behind the Headlines discussion on ‘Women and Resistance in Poland and Belarus’, commenting on the remarkable endurance of the protests and the motivations of the protestors.

Dr Balázs Apor is associate professor in European Studies at Trinity College Dublin and a historian of Central and Eastern Europe in the 20th Century, with a special focus on the Communist period. Director of the Trinity’s new Centre for Resistance Studies, Dr Apor compared the two protests in Belarus and Poland, noting the “astonishing fact” that “these protests [in Belarus and Poland] are the largest demonstrations to have taken place in the two countries since the collapse of Soviet rule in Eastern Europe in 1989 and 1991.”

He highlighted how the protests have resulted in the mass mobilisation of women “that seems to be unparalleled in the recent history of these two countries”.

The fact that there is no centralised organisation of these protests “arguably confused authorities at the beginning” said Dr Apor, particularly in Belarus where it was difficult to come up with “an easy scapegoat” to blame for the protests, resulting in an “untargeted violence.”

Dr Jacqueline Hayden is director of the Centre for European Studies at Trinity College Dublin and author of Poles Apart: Solidarity and the New Poland and The Collapse of Communist Power in Poland: Strategic Misperceptions and Unanticipated Outcomes. Her talk focused on what went wrong in Poland’s ‘democratic’ transition and how women ended up being the losers.

The gradual encroachment on liberal principles in Poland, including the recent attacks on women and the LGBTQ community, has been a shock to many who applauded Poland’s transition to democracy, Dr Hayden said. Dr Hayden was awarded the Knight’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland in 2013 for her support for democratization. Her archive of over 65 interviews with key activists in Poland’s transition from communism contains recordings from 1980 -2013 and includes repeated interviews with both opposition and communist party leaders such as Lech Wałęsa and General Wojciech Jaruzelski.

The most recent attacks on women’s reproductive rights with moves towards more restrictive abortion measures, prompted Dr Hayden to comment on how all these issues were “embroiled in a battle to reframe Polish identity in post-Communist Poland” and “a sharp resurgence in Catholic church activity in public life.”

Discussing the Belarus protests, Dr Aliaksandr Herasimenka, a postdoctoral researcher at the Computational Propaganda Project at the Oxford Internet Institute said that following the presidential election day and the falsification of the election results, “large protests erupted across the country”.

Dr Herasimenka’s work investigates the use of social media by governments and political groups and how people organise protest movements in authoritarian countries.

Dr Herasimenka said that when women in Belarus took to the streets it changed the dynamic of the protests fundamentally. In a society dominated by males in politics and public life, Dr Herasimenka highlighted how women in Belarus became the “symbolic leaders” that inspired people, while many men were organising people behind the scenes and mobilising resistance online.

He highlighted how women managed to use the weaknesses of the repressive practices of the state “as a strategic asset in their fight with the Belarusian regime.”

A nation-wide protest movement which included all ages resulted in widespread violence and detention of protestors by the regime.

“Women in Poland are definitely inspired by the courage of the women in Belarus”, said Dr Aneta Stępień, a Critical Skills Programme tutor at Maynooth University as she looked at the women’s protest in Poland that emerged in 2016 and how it sparked the most recent wave of feminist resistance.

She outlined “the radical shift in the nature of the women’s strike in 2020 which is no longer only about reproductive rights but has become the fight for civic rights and freedom with abortion however becoming a symbol of this fight.”

Dr Stępień has taught Polish language and literature, cultures of Central and Eastern Europe and gender at the universities of Glasgow, Surrey and Trinity College Dublin. Her recent article “Women’s Organizations and Antisemitism: The First Parliamentary Elections in Independent Poland” (2020) appeared in Nationalities Papers.

Discussing the use of powerful visual imagery across social media, Dr Stępień highlighted some of the symbols and slogans which have captured media attention, and which showcase the “determination, creativity, anger but also humour of the protestors.”

The most recent protests also emphasise the “radical and uncompromising nature of the ongoing protest” and the generational shift which has seen young people reject the “moral authority” of the church and their definition of what is an acceptable way for women to live their lives.  

The Trinity Long Room Hub’s ‘Behind the Headlines’ discussion series draws on the expertise of distinguished panel contributors to explore contemporary issues in the broad contexts of Arts and Humanities research. Introduced in 2015, the series provides a forum for public understanding and creates a valuable space for informed and respectful public discourse. View all our previoius discussions here.

The Trinity Long Room Hub Behind the Headlines series is supported by the John Pollard Foundation.

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