‘Zombie ideas’ and the fight for women’s rights in Poland

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In October 2020, the Polish government passed a near-ban on accessing abortion, a move that critics say violates the human rights of women, puts lives at risk, and reinforces gender inequality in the country.

Women protest in Warsaw, photo by Grzegorz Żukowski via Flickr

Dr Agnieszka Golec de Zavala has researched the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the early decline, and then rise, in popularity of Poland’s right-wing government and public support for ideas which discriminate against those seen as dissenting from conservative societal norms. As a Polish woman and a social scientist specialising in social inequalities she was recently invited to contribute toward a panel at UCL about gender equality and protecting reproductive rights. 

We caught up with her to expand on this discussion, exploring how a populist government has spread regressive views and how Poland’s younger generations are fighting back.  

Sarah Cox: What impact has the recent rise of right-wing populism in Poland had on gender equality?

Agnieszka Golec de Zavala: Poland’s history with regards to gender (in)equality is peculiar. Polish women have had voting rights since 1918, relatively early compared to the rest of Europe. They have had limited access to abortion since 1932 and enjoyed full reproductive rights since 1956. However, since the fall of communism, rights and status have been systematically reduced despite them being an important driving force behind the fall. Notably, women’s reproductive rights were severely reduced in 1993. 

As in any country where it has a strong influence over public life, the Catholic Church in Poland worked to maintain gender inequality and hetero-normativity. But only right-wing populism has allowed the Church to wage an open war on non-traditional women who challenge gender hierarchy. While this shift is a worldwide phenomenon, Poland is susceptible because of the close involvement of the Catholic Church in state institutions since 1989. Populists got to power by fighting ‘gender’ and ‘LGBTIQ ideology’, a tortuous mental construction created to instigate fear of foreign ideological invasion and a ‘disease’

State institutions openly oppress women activists and state police target and harass them. Poland now has the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in the Western world and the Polish Parliament is currently debating laws that would punish women for terminating pregnancy. The government is also making motions to withdraw Poland from the Istanbul convention against domestic violence. The situation is desperate and outrageous. 

SC: What do curbs on abortion access mean for human rights? 

AG: The abortion ban is a violation of the right to privacy, the right to health, dignity and self-determination. It constitutes a differential treatment because of group membership – which is the definition of discrimination. These are basic human rights which are being violated. As a member of the EU, Poland is obliged to respect and protect those human rights but it’s depriving half its citizens of them. 

The Polish state institutionalises sexism and discrimination and uses state violence against women who are challenging the status quo. From the point of view of a social psychologist, this is what the Polish government is actively pursuing – it’s using state apparatus and propaganda to advocate an understanding of gender categories and hierarchy that has been challenged for 200 years. 

SC: How does this propaganda work? 

AG: State propaganda floods the public sphere with ‘zombie ideas’ – ideas that have been discredited by scientific evidence and social practice but are resuscitated and brought back into public life, repeated and repeated again until we stop being outraged. They ‘start eating our brains out’. Zombie ideas spread in the way a zombie apocalypse spreads. They’re dangerous, and people and institutions have to mobilise to stop them.  

We’re being repeatedly taught by the government that men and women constitute different ‘natural kinds’, that we’re genetically so distinct that the categories don’t overlap, and we have different characteristics and functions. That is what is being used to justify a different standing in the face of the law. Science tells us this is not true. Gender categories, and really any social categories and hierarchies, are a social construction – how we understand what it means to be men and women is culturally varied and malleable. This is not to say that gender is in any way an ideology. Rather, gender differences are not really all that meaningful and should not be used to justify differential treatment.  

In psychology we call those zombie ideas ‘gender stereotypes’ that function as ‘legitimising myths’ – myths that are spread by the group that is on top of the hierarchy, for the group that is disadvantaged to believe and to not question the existing hierarchy. This is the big challenge for discussion of gender equality in Poland. 

SC: What sparked recent protests? 

AG: The direct incentive for protest was the contested Constitutional Tribunal ruling to invalidate the constitutionality of access to abortion on the grounds of severe defects or illness of the foetus. Over 70% of Polish society opposed this ruling. Almost 60% support abortion on demand. The protests that took place in Poland in October 2020 gathered as many as half million protesters. The leader, Marta Lempart, was named one of the women of 2020 by the Financial Times.

SC: Who is protesting and what has the impact of the protests been? 

AG: The ruling coalition of right-wing populist parties has started losing popular support. But the impact was the most profound among young people. Our monthly monitor of political attitudes in Poland showed a dramatic change between summer 2020 and winter 2021 in political orientation towards the political liberal left among 18 – 24-year-old women, followed by men from the same cohort. These are predominantly protestors contesting the conservative social word-view and gender inequality. The presence of LGBTIQ activists in those protests is also important as these groups are also openly targeted by the state hostility. Last but not least, the protests are supported by activists opposing the ongoing corrosion of democratic laws and procedures in Poland.

SC: How has this issue acted as a trigger for protest against a wide range of inequalities? 

AG: We’ve moved backwards on views of gender equality in Poland at a time when other countries are moving forward, not only guaranteeing equal laws to women but working toward gender equity, which takes the whole history of discrimination against women into account. So women in Poland are now saying they’re going for a total change in discourse around gender and gender equity. 

Addressing gender inequalities in Poland is necessary for this country to address any other issues of social inequalities. The state discriminates against sexual minorities – the infamous ‘LGBT free zones’ in Poland led to the European Union calling itself the LGBT freedom zone. Poland finds it difficult to deal with its history of anti-Semitism but it made it against the law to be critical about the nation’s history which it uses to prosecute historians! Poland embraced neoliberal capitalism creating very strong classism in a very short time. There are so many man-made social divides on which the current authoritarian government preys because they work in its favour. The divide and rule strategy is not a Polish speciality but currently Poles are very good in using it. The government propagates a very exclusive and divisive vision of what it means to be Polish that serves it very well, creates enemies within and excludes them from the national community.

SC: What needs to happen to embed longer-term change and a step forward for equality?

AG: Social science shows that there is nothing as effective in changing attitudes toward equality between social groups as effectivly executed legislation is. And the legislation in democracies guarantees equal laws to all citizen. A systemic change is needed in the execution of those laws. It is very important to create a social norm of equality and justice in the public life. When laws are accepted and not violated they create a climate in which it becomes unquestionable that people’s fundamental rights have to be respected regardless what social category they currently belong to. This is when a social movement that protests violations of those rights is absolutely crucial. To say: this is not acceptable and even more should be done. It is the very idea of the peaceful, democratic protest to be annoying and to disturb social mores if they violate such basic rules for democratic states.

SC: How can supporters of equal rights in Poland move forward and capitalise on the current tension? 

AG: Change the government and reinstate the rule of law! As a psychologist my research looks at how we approach issues as individuals. As citizens of democratic countries we need to deal with tension, uncertainty, and different points of view all the time. The psychological question is how we approach them. It’s a question of making open-mindedness and tolerance a social norm. 

My research into group narcissism shows that a lot of people believe in the idea of Polish exceptionalism and that it has gone unrecognised, so they have to stand up and fight for it. Our research shows that this sentiment is what brought the populist government in Poland and populist governments elsewhere to power. It’s a type of thinking related to all dangerous ‘isms’ and ‘phobias’- all forms of prejudice and conspiratorial thinking, searching for imaginary enemies everywhere. There’s now been a massive change in young people supporting this outlook. There was a mobilisation during the summer presidential elections but afterward a spectacular decrease in support for national narcissism. The fall in support from young women has been spectacular but there’s also been a decrease from young men who had long been more narcissistic about Poland, nationalist, and right wing. 

There’s a lot of hope in this. These are the people who are participating in protests and running a new social movement and they’re people with energy in their formative years. That gives us hope for change that is long lasting. They will stay with this experience and stay with this world view in their political development. It’s a chance for all of us who identify as liberals in a social sense – those who stand for social justice and equality.