Hannah Phillips explores the toxic interplay between Gender and Catholicism in Poland today
‘In times of oppression the struggle for independence is considered a serious matter, and the fight for women’s rights is not… It took some time before I realized that democracy in Poland has a masculine gender’
Marion Janion (Conference of Polish Women, 2009)
As though to prove the relevancy of Janion’s pessimistic view of contemporary Poland, an emotionally charged and intoxicating debate has been unfolding in the Polish media. Similar to the 1990s popular, anti-feminist backlash in the West (mainly the USA and Britain), two ontologically opposing camps are at loggerheads in Poland: the conservative right alongside the Church versus the feminists. With fear-mongering banners and statements such as ‘Gender=666’ and ‘Gender- the devastation of man and the family’ strung across buildings and scattering the news, it is clear that a war has been declared against “Gender ideology”.
Like most meaningful political and social concepts, Gender theory has been notoriously difficult to define and is largely in the process of transformation and revision. Having been sculpted by post-structuralist thought, it has criticised putative concepts we deem rigid and “natural”, such as sexual identity, illustrating the oppressive capabilities of socially constructed “norms”. The rather abstract nature of Gender construction has led, unfortunately, to an easy manipulation of meaning by Catholic conservatives and right-wing politicians in Poland. In the 29December 2013 annual ‘Feast of the Holy Family’ for Roman Catholics, the Polish Episcopate publically declared in its Pastoral letter that Gender was the official enemy of the Church. The Episcopate paints a conspiratorial picture of a parasitic ideology that infiltrates various social structures, such as education and health systems, without the consent or knowledge of Poles. Perceived as an accumulation of foreign concepts, including radical feminism, Communism and eugenics, Gender is seen as destroying Polish families and over-sexualising children. The final version of the letter, currently available online, is milder than the original, previously entitled ‘Gender ideology risks the family’. It was revised aftera moderate Catholic weekly, Tygodnik Powszechny, published the draft showing the original inflammatory edits.
The more extreme and exotic claims from the Polish Catholic church entail the vilification of various international institutions, blamed for leading the Gender conspiracy. There is a widely held belief that the Council of Europe’s ‘Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence’ is the vehicle through which Gender ideology penetrates the Polish society. According to the Episcopate this Convention is allegedly breaking down the education system in Poland in order to force homosexuality and transgender education on children. More audacious claims insist that the WHO is even promoting masturbation in Primary schools. This was further echoed in a lecture held in the Sejm earlier this year by the theology Professor and Priest Dariusz Oko, ubiquitously present in the media for his extreme, anti-Gender views.
These views are not however uniquely held and promulgated within religious circles. In the political sphere, Conservative politicians have also voiced their contestation, forming a new parliamentary group in January this year named ‘Stop Gender Ideology’. Open to any MP regardless of political party affiliations, the aim of this group is to defend human sexual identity and work towards legislative changes to defend the rights of traditional families and support family-friendly policies. Beata Kempa, in the past a member of the right-wing Law and Justice Party before forming a new right-wing party United Poland, is a current President of an almost entirely male-membered group, with plans to promote the anti-Gender campaign during sixteen conferences across Poland this year.
As stated by Małgorzata Fuszara, a sociologist and head of Gender Studies at Warsaw University, there is a deliberate intellectual laziness in comprehending Gender to further the Church’s self-interests. Luckily, in the majority of reputable Polish media outlets the weaknesses in the Church’s arguments have been ardently pointed out. Polish Feminists, university Professors, philosophers and politicians have strongly opposed the Church’s conflation of the ills of society into this fictive “Gender ideology”. Magdalena Środa, a philosophy Professor, feminist and columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, has vehemently discredited the Church, outlining how it is using scare tactic propaganda against Gender as a distraction from the contentious issue of paedophilia. By alluding to foreign supranational entities, for instance, the responsibility for “society’s evils” is by virtue of exogenous factors out of the Church’s control. It is no coincidence that the anti-Gender debate comes at a time of moral crisis for the Church as scandals of child molestation and ill-treatment of children by religious officials effectively dent its former image as the nation’s moral compass.
It is important, however, to highlight that this debate is not unique to Poland, or Eastern Europe, for that matter; a similar debate led by religious and political right groups is also currently unfolding in France. Alongside the current economic crisis and uncertainty regarding the future developments of the European Union, there is a pull amongst populations towards a form of stability. For many this means reinforcing the historically cemented roles of the family and the reassuringly fixed structures provided by Catholicism. The debate in Poland is thus illustrative of the stronghold of staunch Catholic religiosity playing a crucial role in the self-identification of Poles. For many Polish feminists it is also a reminder that Poland’s democracy is still male and proudly sporting a clergyman attire.