Manifa mon amour?: Why do we still need to go out on the streets!
If you type the word „Manifa” in the popular Internet search engine, you will get millions of links back. First of all it will direct you to the Manifa’s organizers’ website: the 8th March Agreement. Then you will also see information about Manifas that are organized in different cities, such as Poznan, Łódź and regions such a Silesia, and links to a numerous articles on Manifa that appeared on in Polish media. Interestingly enough, you will also notice that even those who are against what Manifa stands for use the word in their Internet activism. For instance, you will find out that one of the internet domains with that has Manifa in it was bough by the mysterious Center for The Social Equvilism. This group’s representatives – whose names are missing from the website – use the domain to argue that contemporary feminisms turned into movements that “aim at increasing the rights of some people by limiting the rights of others”. They proudly announce that buying of the domain that has Manifa in its name, is one of the first actions undertaken by the Center. There is no doubt thus that – as one of the slogans printed on Manifa’s and T-shirts and accessories states – „Manifa is Powerful”.
Today, it is hard to believe that it all started with few dozens of young women, who had enough of discrimination and humiliation from the consecutive Polish governments. Violent police intervention in the gynecological office in Lubliniec, when policemen forced a patient to undergo gynecological examination (the woman was not informed about her rights), to verify the complain about an illegal abortion taking place in the office, has become an ultimate impulse to establish 8th March Agreement. In reaction to this event a protest letter singed by a number of women’s activists was sent out to media and Obundsman of the Human Rights , and the necessity to establish the Agreement emerged.
This brutal intervention also illuminated that the authorities do not do as much as respect existing – extremely restrictive – abortion law in Poland. Although according to the law these were doctors and people who assist abortion were to be punished for illegal abortion, in reality the consequences of the limitation put on the access to abortion hit women: mostly those women’s whose life situation was already extremely hard. As Agnieszka Graff argued in her Manifa speech in 2001: “I consider current abortion law deeply immoral, as the State cannot force woman to give birth to the child. This ban is indeed against the poorest women ”.
Women who started the 8th March Agreement wanted to „take over” the March 8th holiday – the International Women’s Day – and make it the day of the real celebration of women. They wanted to fight for the access to public space, and the right to speak loudly about women’s need for equality, and equal access to power. They wanted to voice women’s rights to decide about their own bodies and their right to equal pay, rather then focus on giving women a symbolic flower or the kiss on the hand. It was not an accident then, that on the poster from 2001 Manifa the woman is „throwing up” red carnations – the symbol of the PRL (Polish Socialist Republic between 1945-1989) tradition, according to which women were only symbolically rewarded for their work and input to the society, without paying attention to the conditions of their lives, the problems and expectations that they had. During the demonstration in 2001 Katarzyna Bratkowska argued: “Women are fed up with the empty, superficial gestures that in reality do not change anything in their legal and economic situation. Instead of adoration we want the real representation in the Parliament and in he whole public life” .
Countercultural forms of manifestation accompanied political goals of first Manifas. Performances, uncompromising slogans, colorful outfits and laud music have become a feminist weapon that Manifa’s participants used to put their massage forward. As Adam Ostolski argued: „Manifa smelled like spring. There was excitement in the air, the mobilization to fight and the feeling that something new begins” . Today, I think that a lot of courage was needed to go out on the streets in the pink wig, to dance around Stefan Wyszyński’s monument and to speak publically about women’s rights. There was a confrontation in it and incredible powerfulness, which seduced and pulled me – then the student who tried to find her life path – in.
Manifa has changed since then. Instead of few hundreds participants now few thousands women and men march the streets. The slogans more often relate to the economic and structural issues, and media stopped patronizing us and looking at us with the astonishment. I have changed too – I’m not only participating in Manifa, I also co-organize it. What didn’t change is a pure joy, that I feel when the march is starting to the rhythm of music, the energy that just surrounds the crowd, and the feeling that if some many people believe in change and try to implement it, it is possible.
I am not objective and I do not intend to be. I devoted part of my life to Manifa and even when I will not organize them I will still have „my Manifas”. But many others, including people who are not as engaged in Manifa as I am, to the event, share my opinion that Manifa is a success. For instance Adam Ostolski, a sociologist from Krytyka Polityczna, and the member of the Green Party calls the organizers of the May 1st celebrations to look up to Manifa . I think it is worth to reflect on why Manifa become a success. Why media started to treat Manifa seriously and why thousand of people want to participate and organize it? I’m convinced that the key to this success is what makes us troubled in our every day activism and what is often the perceived as a source of conflict. It is the fact that the 8th March Agreement is not a group that speaks in a homogenous voice, our group identity build on the need to work on behalf of women, but that need and activism is – in practice – constantly discussed and negotiated.
The hardest moment in every year’s organization of Manifa is making the choice about the theme of the march and the leading slogan; it is then, when the major differences surface and often lead to heated debates or even open fights. Final decision rarely satisfies all of us. It is not easy to give up on one slogan over another particularly because so many of our goals are still to be fulfilled, we are not just moving from one claim to another, but rather experiencing a culmination of problems and claims. Even the first demonstrations focused on number of issues and did not limit their slogans to just access to legal and safe abortion. For instance the main slogan of the first Manifa was „Democracy without women is half democracy” and the participants talked about the fact that women make 2/3 of men’s salary (even though they are better educated then men), that women constitute 60% of all unemployed, that women are loose their jobs in the first place, and that it is more difficult for women to find a new job. The participants of the first Manifa also protested against the government decision to shut down antiviolence against women campaign and its refusal to co-pay for the contraception. Finally they were also voicing their concerns not only with the experiences of Polish women, as some of the march’s participants were wearing burqas that symbolized dramatic situation of women in Taliban’s’ Afghanistan.
The slogans of the demonstration transformed over the next few years. In 2002 the Letter of 100 women was published- the women who signed it (not only the members of the 8th March Agreement but also academics, business women and the representatives of women’s NGOs) and Manifa’s participants protested against „trading of women’s rights that takes place within the process of the Polish integration with the European Union”. In 2004 when the artist Drorota Nieznalska was sentenced for offending religious feelings of Catholics, demonstration was referring to the censorship and the expansion of the Catholic Church into a public life. In the years 2005-2006 – during the ruling of the Law and Order (PIS) League of Polish Families (LPR) and Self-Defense (Samoobrona) – there were so many reasons to protest that apart from traditional Manifas we also organized sit in for the defense of the constitution, for which few thousands people gathered. Main reason for the protests was the idea to introduce a total ban on abortion to the Constitution. The Agreement engaged in preparation of the equality Parade, which was outlawed by then president of Warsaw, Lech Kaczyński. During the last years the economic issues became more and more prominent: in 2010 we marched under the slogan „Solidarity in the Crisis! Solidarity in the Struggle!” and in 2011 „Done with the exploitation! We will no longer serve you.”
The multiplicity of the problems and the growing number of claims might seem like Manifa’s weakness. I myself used to think that it weakened the media perception of the demonstration, and made Manifa less accessible to the broader society. On the other hand it exposed Manifa’s massage to manipulation by media and politicians: until very recently no matter what was the slogan of Mainf most of the media coverage focused solely on the abortion issue. Today I have a feeling that this is the role of Manfa to expose the problems to be solved, and issues to be resolved, reminding the public that for many years we demand respect for our basic human rights and that we will never give up on these demands.
The repetitiveness allows some topics – such as abortion, or the question of the proper sex education – function within the public debate, even though many journalist and politicians would like to hide them in the closet and once and for all and put in under the carpet. In this sense Manifa is like a nagging mosquito that makes an irritating noise around the ears of the consecutive governmental representatives, not allowing them to forger that not all of us are happy with the “compromise’ that they made above our heads.
The polivocality of Manifa raises the question about feminist priorities and often leads to conflicts, but it is thanks to the combination of various demands that it is possible to bring together many groups, which did not cooperate before. Inclusion of the next issues allows us to show that discrimination is not only a question of gender, but also sexual orientation, social class, ability or health. In this sense Maifa is a platform, which as organizers, we want to open up to the groups, whose voices are marginalized in the public space. It is not an accident that our slogans often relate to Solidarity and community. The phrase „We are strong! Together we are stronger!” is not an empty slogan, the history of the social movement around the world shows that if we want the social change, we must collaborate with each other. The symbolic of solidarity and community as a crucial Manifa’s ideals, for me is the best manifested by a balloon in the shape of zeppelin that hang above the march in 2005: on one side there was a slogan talking about the rights of lesbians, on the other a the slogan that said „Government should live of the nurses’ salaries!”
Certainly the inclusion is not always easy. The fact that over the last years Manifa focuses mostly on economic issues (the garbage contracts , outsourcing and low salaries) and builds coalitions with labor unions, was debated in terms of identity of the march: is Manifa still a women’s or maybe it has become a union event? Does it mean that Manifa loses its signature feminists identity? Aren’t we avoiding talking about abortion and the rights of non-heterosexual people to be able to march with more traditional groups such as nurses and teachers? It is worth asking these questions as they touch upon the fundamental issues such as how doe we define feminism? What kind of social change are fighting for? If we recognize that feminism is only about evening out the rights and privileges of women and men, we should in fact focus on issues such as abortion, or contraception then preoccupying ourselves with the garbage contract and outsourcing makes no sense. But we can also argue that feminism is in fact a struggle for a social system that is based on fighting hierarchy based on class, race or ability division – it is a fight for a system that is fairer for everyone. Then the focusing on the ways in which various kinds of discriminations interact is obvious. There is no doubt that today the possibility to use our rights is related to the size of our wallets. Women who can afford it, can buy contraception, they have an access to abortion and childcare. And those who cannot afford these things experience double discrimination-based on gender and class. It is impossible to hide that is much better today to be a young educated woman from the big city the old man with no education who lives in the countryside.
In this sense gender is only one element of the jigsaw, for me as a feminist it is the most important, but not the only one. It is not enough to critique systemic exclusions related to functioning of the free market, we need to implement this critique and find a way out of the trap of defending the particular interest of some groups.
Magda Środa argues that „a history of Manifas, seen through slogans, engage, dynamics ofparticpation is a history of development of women’s movement in Poland” . And what is the future? Various scenarios are possible. Personally I would like for Manifa to remain an event that gives voice to certain problems, introduces them to the media and to the street, and, at the same time creates a possibility for a meeting of various people and groups, and is our common celebration. What can happen is that the focus on economic issues and coalitions with labor unions will take away countercultural allure of Manifa, and Manifa will become another labor union demonstration that the media will describe as representing “demanding” social groups. The worse case scenario is that Manifa will become boring and no one will want to go out on the streets to once again shout against illegal abortion, violence and unequal pay. Or that everybody will decide that Manifa will happen every year anyway, so it is better to drink hot tea then freeze again in the snow storm. Luckily, the future of Manifa depends on us: So see you next year!
The article can be downloaded as a PDF file here.