Friday, 20 May 2011

Bożena Umińska-Keff

Here is the promised review of the evening with Bożena Umińska-Keff, the noted feminist, Jewish Polish woman which was at the Edith Stein House, as part of the 'Three Women' series.

Before I shall do the review, I shall give you a brief summary of feminism in Poland (a longer version is on wikipedia); I shall then briefly summarise the modern situation of feminism in Poland (using Pani Bozena and others) before coming to the event that happened in the Edith Stein House.  There is little work available in English on Pani Bozena, so excuse the fact that I am trying to be quite thorough.

Feminism from 1800 till now

From 1800 till 1918  four waves of feminism happened, largely taking its cue from western countries and which showed a concern on education, equality in the professions, the perverting of the fundamental humanity of women by society, female passivity and prostitution.

The new Polish state of 1918 brought changes, and led some women to believe that their liberation has having occured (equality in education and in work, as they saw it).  Some however saw new concerns and radical feminists railed against emotional relationships with me and other issues were raised, such as that of planned parenthood, sexual education, divorce and abortion, as well as the 'interference by the RC church'.

WWII effectively silenced feminsts (though who knows, perhaps some feminist tomes were made in women's camps?) and the next wave was from 1948 with the establishment of the communist state of Poland.  The state actively promoted equality of the sexes with regards to productivity and farming.  Abortion was legalised in 1956.  However, feminism was something from above, and other issues were supressed by the state.

The change of 1989 also brought changes for women.  The RC church's increased power showed itself in a fierce opposition to feminism, which identified feminism as having the poor communist era reproductive policy.  Abortion was delegalised in 1993 and till now sexual education and a state funding of contraception has been suppressed since 1998.  According to Pani Bozena (in this excellent publication you can read here) feminism was linked in the minds of many with left-wing traditions, traditions which are not popular in Poland since the end of the communist state. 

This has been shown by Elwira M. Grossmann, who when analysing Polish theatre said that "When one scrutinises the language of Polish scholarship, it becomes quite obvious that the majority of both sexes still considers feminism to be a dangerous disease of people who are intellectually inferior. The stigma attached to the term “feminism” forces many to search for euphemisms when presenting their views in public."

The RC church plays a part here.

'Solidarity' and the Roman Catholic church in Poland

To tell the truth, I am partly loath to go down what for many people on the left is a familar route: To demonise the RC church, especially when it is clear how much good the RC church achieved in Poland before 1989.  That said, it would not be possible to talk about feminism in Poland without mentioning what feminsts are saying about the RC church (also when it is not their campaign against statist communists which is being criticised, rather its sexism).  Pani Bozena purports (on page 18 and 19 here) that the RC church is a 'hierarchical, inflexible (church) based on obedience' and where women are less important.  It was this that she says strongly influenced the Solidarity movement, where, as Sylwia Chutrik says (in the same publication on page 40), anti-communism was linked with the RC church.  During the round table discussions in 1989 only one person out of thrity on the solidarity side were female (on the opposing side there was also only one woman)

Two current issues for feminists

One is abortion.  Pani Bozena highlights two aspects to the delegalisation of abortion: One is that it forces women to undergo illegal abortions which can be dangerous (or force them to go across the borders to pay out for abortions there); the second is the danger to women that results.  She mentions the story (on page 22) of a 25 year old girl who had a disorder in her intestines.  The doctors were afraid to touch there as due to the foetus, and the girl ended up untreated as a result (for 'reasons of conscience').  She died as a result.

The other issue is that of free market capitalism.  Despite what one hears in right-wing newspapers in the west, not everybody has seen an improvement in the situations of their lives since the end of communist rule here.  Consequently many feminists have linked their work to that of things like anarchism (many anarcho-feminist collectives exist in Poland) and, not trusting the state to surrender their (largely male) power and have therefore set up many NGO's.  Indeed, in other countries criticisms from and even towards feminism has came from the left (the book mentioned here in Germany postulates that many women are in a comfortable situation due to their husbands being rich, and therefore limit their campaigns to things like baby-care and ignore the fact that many other women are not so lucky and have more pressing concerns; while an article in konkret magazine submits the claim that the quota-debate in Germany ignores the real situation of women, largely immigrants from the east, due to capitalism).

International Women's Day
Only anecdotally speaking, but I gather that some feminsts in Poland are highly criticial of the day that feminsts in richer countries are supportive of: International Women's Day (though it must be said that IWD is very small in the same countries), in that, it is like saying, 'You women must do most of the child-rearing alone, and we won't always listen to your voice, and in the professions you shall find that your prospects are limitted, but nevermind, here's a flower to make you think we respect you.'  (I would say that a greater profile of International Men's Day (November 19th) is needed in Poland, seeing as the promotion of gender equality, i.e. also for women is one of its aims.)

Indeed, the reknowned feminist writer Agnieszka Graff in an interview with her speaks of how women have nothing to celebrate in Poland during IWD, due to what she sees to be the siezure of women's issues by the far-right (i.e. some members of the PiS party.)

Whatever one thinks about IWD, it shows that the situation of feminsts in Poland is such that such a view is a minority one, due to the aforementioned prejudice against feminsim in Poland.

Finally, the review of the evening in the Edith Stein House!

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During the evening she read from the book mentioned in this review (which is about the play version of the book), which is about the relationship between a Shoah survivor and her daughter.  While the issue of the impact of the Shoah may be the main interest, the discussion during the evening went in another direction: That of the power of the mother, whose 'power is absolute'.

During the discussion many people spoke of their experiences with their mother as well as with the rest of the older members of the family.  The common theme was of domination, of not being free to live one's life, to make decisions for oneself (such as to what one studies, who and how one marries).  The picture presented were generations of people (including people who are in their 50's) who have been oppressed by their parents, but have not been aware of this, as, as Pani Bozena says, the cultural 'norm' that one 'respects ones parents' is so strong that people are not aware of an alternative, the consequence being that it is not considered to be a problem.  She also said that, while other issues in Poland may be more spoken of (say, treament of people with mental health problems) may lead to books and articles, the generational conflicts that occur in Poland is not thematised.

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Again, anecdotally speaking, I know plenty Poles for whom the relationships with their parents and older family members are problematic.  Of course, Poles are not alone in having this (see this poem from the British poet Philip Larkin.  The born in Poland psychoanalyst (also of Jewish descent) Alice Miller has written of how people are prone to consider criticism of their parents (in her writings on child abuse), as they were encultured to love their parents, upon whom they are dependent, and therefore nurse, as she says, an unconscious anger against their parents for abuses they may have suffered.  

Now, I am not saying that all Polish parents abuse their children with violence.  I am saying that our cultures tend to tell us that those who are our parents (and by extension, people older than us) are good people and it can be difficult to consider that they may have done bad things.  Such a revelation was strongly apparent in the German generation who were students in the 1960's.  Of course, in GB The Beatles benefitted from an opening ability of young people to rebel against their parents.  In GB, the US, Germany and many western countries, the 1960's saw such waves of rebellion, rebellion that was fed by culture (and vice versa).  Such events in Poland did not happen as people had other concerns, living as they were in a statist country.

As I have said before the ability of people in Poland to deal with problematical issues is still being affected by its history, and the thematisation of feminism and the domination of children by their parents are underdeveloped themes.  Pani Bozena laments that on this video (it is in English).

Anyway, many people participated in the discussion and the evening lasted a lot longer than planned.

Some more about Bożena Umińska-Keff

As one could see in the event in the Edith Stein House, Pani Bozena engages herself with more than straightforward "women's issues'.  That makes sense for a feminist, in that one key aim is dealing with domination (termed as 'patriarchy'; I am happy with the concept though not with the name).

In this video

she also deals with the treatment not only of Jewish Poles, but also people who are LGBT in Poland.  As it is in English I do not need to write any more about that, only to say that she as a heterosexual person has been very vocal in her support for members of the LGBT community in Poland.

An area that I shall like to briefly focus upon is patriotism.  In this article (the translation is not the best but better than nothing) she approves of Tomasz Zuradzki who spoke of patriotism as being the same as racism, and goes on to link patriotism to 'patriachy' and militrism, as well as stereotypes, prejudices and resentments.  She quotes from one of Agnieszka Graff's works, speaking of grass and sky where there is nothing particularly Polish, and where the same sky is over Slovakia.  She says 'The planet will be much longer than we are.  And our patriotisms.'

I would add, and our gender roles as well.

Post Scriptum: This article published just over a month ago written by Agnieszka Graff supports many of the points here, but points a more positive future due to the work of the current PM, Donald Tusk (I say quickly that I am not a total supporter of his, but am quoting what Pani Agnieszka says.)

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