Bored to be a bystander only

Prof. Małgorzata Fuszara

The Heinrich Böll Foundation in Warsaw is honoured to congratulate Professor Małgorzata Fuszara on becoming Goverment Plentipotentiary for Equal Treatment. May energy and satisfaction provide her with energy necessary to mainstream gender equality policies in Poland. Given our long cooperation, we wish to present again an interview with Professor Fuszara about the Congress of Women, political representation and quotas.

Agnieszka Sosińska: What are the origins of Kongres Kobiet Polskich (Polish Women's Congress)? Where does the idea come from?

Prof. Małgorzata Fuszara: It all sprouted from an experience that many women had in 2009, during numerous ceremonies celebrating the 20th anniversary of the democratic change in Poland. Practically no women took part in the ceremonies - we were all being invited, but as spectators, not participants. Amongst all the people that discussed the transformation, reminisced about it or were decorated for their part in it, there were disproportionally more men than women. Being reduced to observers not only bored us, it also irritated us. In our opinion it was a way of distorting history, it had nothing to do with democracy and justice. So we had the idea to celebrate the anniversary of the democratic transformation of 1989 from a woman's perspective. To show how women benefited from the changes, to what extent they took part in them and how they saw them. At first, our plans for seminars or conferences were modest, but eventually the idea of a women's congress bloomed. It was possible to mobilise a lot of people in a really short time and they volunteered to help organise the congress. And that was a great success, because when we decided that the congress would be held in Warsaw’s Sala Kongresowa, we weren't really sure how many w would be interested, especially if it was mostly women who participated. Of course, there were discussions whether it ought to be women only, or both men and women. We had experiences from past meetings, where women wanted to discuss women's issues and even if only a few men were present, they would start to dominate the discussion, play their power games, instruct women on what they should do, how they should act, how they should solve their own problems. Never before had there been such a broad platform in Poland, a space where women would talk with each other about what they considered important. That's a preliminary condition that is needed to create a women's agenda and I found the congress to be a wonderful occasion for change. A lot of people backed me up and this first congress was held for women only. The following ones will not have this rule about excluding men, but we will invite mostly women to our panels. In our panel before the presidential elections, one could clearly see exactly how men dominate the political scene. Only men participated in this panel because no woman ran for president. But this year, before the parliamentary elections, we invited women to join our political debates. We wanted them to have their place and time to discuss among themselves. I did a number of researches and the result was that women not only have worse places on the ballots, but also that they are less promoted in election campaigns. They do not get the same amount of support or time in promotional videos, and they are portrayed differently than men are. We want to create a space for women where they can discuss politics and present their agendas.

We thought that the first congress would be a one-time event, but it turned out to be a marvellous success with whole groups of women arriving from different places in Poland. The event certainly went beyond Warsaw or other major cities. This year, we planned something I really cared about, a major panel on women from the rural areas, because that is where a significant number of Poles still live. Women that live in the rural areas have a difficult time to exchange thoughts about common problems, they don't have the conditions to meet and discuss problems they find important.

AS: Let's talk about women's participation in politics and the obstacles they face, the ones that you mentioned. The Women's Congress is widely associated with the claim for gender parity on the ballots.

MF: That was one of our main demands after the first congress. There were 30 of those demands, as we have a rule that each panel group has its own. I led a panel group on women's participation in politics, whose main demand was the introduction of parity on the ballots and that became the congress's goal. Later, I consistently presented our legislation proposal during the first reading in Parliament. I'm even prouder because I've been talking about this issue since the beginning of the 1990's, when Prof. Eleonora Zielińska and I wrote a legislative project on equal status of men and women, which also included parity. At the time we cooperated with the Parliamentary Women's Group (Parlamentarna Grupa Kobiet), but our project was not transitioned to factual law. As you can see, the picture is complicated: on the one hand you can say that now we managed to introduce legislation on reserved ballot positions quite fast, but we must not forget that it is thanks to trials that were going on practically since the beginning of the transformation. Earlier they failed because there was no political will. The congress became a force that was able to promote this idea effectively. We did not succeed with the parity, but we did with the reserved ballot positions.

AS: Apart from working on presenting the issue in the media, the congress also made substantive actions to implement the legislation.

MF: We had to write the legislative project and do a lot of things that always accompany civil legislative projects. We had to collect 100 thousand signatures - and this was an enormous work for the initiative, a project with practically no backup structures. It is easy to collect signatures when the church or political parties are involved. They have their offices, members or followers, their structures, while this was a truly civil initiative. I took part in collecting signatures in shopping centres myself and I know what it looked like. Of course, we succeeded partly because a whole lot of influential people supported us from the very beginning. People from culture, media and science, really big names. The actress Krystyna Janda made an appeal to sign our project, well known journalists helped with collecting signatures. The importance of this was enormous because without such a friendly atmosphere we would've never had such a lobbying force.  But, of course, it was also an enormous amount of work. People who were not directly involved in the initiative usually had no idea about all the work going on in the background. In practice, it often looked like this: volunteers who had worked on PR numerous times before set us up with leaders of every parliamentary club, political party and legislative committee of both Sejm and Senat. We collected law opinions that were favourable for our project, while it turned out that the ones ordered by Sejm were often unfavourable. We also arranged meetings with the president, prime minister, with party leaders. Carrying out such a project is a lot of hard work.

AS: How did it happen that a proposal of parity on the ballots ended up as 35% reserved ballot positions?

MF: There was a whole number of factors that made it possible to achieve reserved ballot positions for women and this was the first major step forward since achieving voting rights for women in Poland in 1918. Politicians, also from the ruling Civic Forum (PO) pointed to the fact that it wouldn't be possible to achieve parity with one step. The PO earlier on applied a solution to their lists, which in literature is called a ‘soft reserved ballot position rule’. This means that a rule concerning reserved positions on the ballot is set, but it is not written in the party's statute. Thanks to an initiative of some MPs from the PO in the past election, there already was the rule that there had to be at least one woman among the first three positions on the ballot, the so called ‘top three’. A ‘soft reserved ballot position rule’ is not as successful as legislative regulations, because there will always be places and lists where it is ignored. I used to go through old PO lists and there were constituencies where despite this ‘soft rule’ the first woman was on the ninth position. As I was told later, this happened when a woman who ran for the higher slot resigned from running. But that is a weak argument, since the lists could always be designed in such a way that the following woman is not so far down the list.

When it turned out that politicians could not be convinced to support a 50% rule, various other propositions appeared and the highest one that the ruling coalition - Civic Forum (PO) and Polish People’s Party (PSL) - supported was a 35% rule. It is not a secret that in order to have a new group enter parliament, someone has to be removed from the old group. You do not extend places on the ballot. I understand the problems of the party leaders: there are conditions they are able to fulfil and others they cannot. We supported parity among other things because it was legitimised by society. We did not collect signatures in support of reserved ballot positions, we wanted parity and this was not an issue we could negotiate on. The final decisions were not ours, but we did our best to look after the initiative's wellbeing. Ultimately, and to our satisfaction, PO, PSL and part of the Democratic Left Alliance (SLD) agreed on the 35% ruling for legislation. The percentage is lower than we wanted, but it is still a lot for a start.

AS: Would you like to make an assessment of how this 35% reserved ballot positions will work at this moment, shortly before the parliamentary elections?

MF: I am responsible for a project that counted the data on ballots at the Institute of Public Affairs (Instytut Spraw Publicznych). We can already see that all political parties have twice as many female candidates on their lists than in the previous elections. This is an independent success, although we don't know what the ultimate effect will be. But let us keep in mind what is obvious for the political scientists: that in order to see real changes on the basis of changes in electoral law, we need to observe at least two elections. Women make up 20% of MPs and both - the amount of women who are candidates and the number of those who are elected in the end - have not changed for the past three elections. One of the main arguments for reserved ballot positions was that if political parties wanted to work on a balanced representation, they would have already done it. In the year 2000, women's NGOs organised a huge campaign to increase the number of women in parliament and that amount changed after elections in 2001 from 13% to 20%, but after that nothing else has changed. This shows that nothing will change without legislation. I suspect that thanks to an increased number of women on the ballots the representation of women in parliament should rise to about 25%-27%. But there also is another very important outcome of the Women’s Congress. People started to talk about women's participation in political representation. Before the congress, it was a topic that was completely ignored in the public debate. Nowadays, the media constantly release information on how many women there are on the lists, why they should be there, what barriers to political activity women face (e.g. in political parties) etc.. Before the congress, these topics were not present in debates, talks in political parties, casual conversations or media, whereas now they've become a political issue. Such reflections and debate are of utmost importance. If political parties have to look for female candidates in different constituencies, this means that the debate will practically take place in every part of Poland. A lot of attention was given to some women's resignation, especially Wanda Nowicka's[2] withdrawal from the SLD's list in Warsaw because she was being pushed down the list. Unfortunately, we get a lot of such information in the Women's Congress, across all regions and political parties.  Placing women lower on lists happens in various countries, but in Poland it happens in every type of election. After looking into women's participation in local politics it also turned out that in different, distant places of the country, this situation was almost always a norm of political reality. Women do not say that they feel discriminated against in political life, but at the same time they state: it irritates me that I'm always second on the list even though I get most of the votes. This is one example of a gamesmanship aimed at women in politics. Officially, the parties state that the first place on the list is given to a ‘locomotive’, that is the person who had the most votes in the last election. But quite often if that person is a woman, then despite her success and although she got most votes she is put in second place, while a man gets the first.

AS: Will the Women’s Congress act further on reserved ballot positions and parity?

MF: Now we're saying: we're checking you. Political parties not only promised to comply with reserved ballot positions regulations, as this is what they have to do, but also to play fair during the list-making process. Now we do have the lists and we can see what's happening there. An analysis should take a few aspects of list making into account: not only how many women there are among the so called top three, but also why - –for example women are given the first place on the list only where it is obvious the party has no chances in the elections. Most often I quote the example of the PSL, which promoted women in Warsaw. The vice-speaker of the Sejm, Ewa Kierzkowska, who has always participated actively in the congress and became vice-speaker during the first congress, is the only female MP for the PSL. She always favoured reserved ballot positions and I think she does a lot to increase the number of women there. Another male leaders' strategy that is more difficult to spot is based on replacing women that have already gained some popularity and a position with other women that are just starting their political activity. This is not unique to Poland. I made similar research in six other European national parliaments. Female MPs in Spain called this ‘boycotting the idea of equality‘. It manifests itself in such a way that in every coming election, the lists are filled with different women. Such political games of party leaders do not allow women to develop their own political career. They are on the lists and sometimes are chosen, but when someone enters politics for the first time they just gain their ability to act politically, to work out their position and their field that they can be responsible for in politics. Of course, this needs time and if there is no time, there is no possibility for political action. The number of men and women is correct, but what is not is the real possibility for action. The notion of ‘undercutting’ women in politics was brought up in a lot of European countries. But coming back to Poland: right now we are checking the ballots, especially for clues of whether or not political parties treated women's participation on the lists honestly. If not, our first action will be to try to add the zipper rule to electoral law. The zipper rule means that men and women on the lists will be placed in turns, at least for the first three places. But the real threat in Poland is preaching a first-past-the-post system[3]. Every analysis in the world will tell you that such a system means a significantly lower number of women.

AS: What's the difference between the first and the upcoming third Women's Congress, which will be the European Women's Congress?

MF: It was important to us that this congress would be an official part of our presidency, which would mean that the Polish presidency in the European Union has some gender element, because apart from the congress there were no plans for any other event of this sort. And the Congress is made by a group of women that organise it because they have an interest in this, because they care and all this is happening outside EU structures responsible for events during the presidency. This congress will have a European dimension. Women from countries other than Poland will take part in some sessions. They will talk about their political, business and work experiences. These are the three major topics of the congress.

AS: Can you give us some names?

MF: The panel discussion I am leading will not have any foreign guests because it concerns this year's elections. The leading topic of this congress will be labour economics and the issues of equal pay for equal work and closing the gender pay gap in Poland. Reserved seats in business are an idea that is extremely important in Europe at the moment. But because we are close to our parliamentary elections we cannot ignore the political angle of this year’s congress. The session I'm organising is titled "Why is it worth it to vote for women?" and it consists of two parts. During the first part, women who run for the elections will speak. These are women who are not number one on their lists, but who already have done something for women’s rights and who deserve our attention because of that. Each of them will have three minutes to say what they want to do for women’s rights if they're elected. It is an attempt to build a network of women, who will engage themselves politically on the side of the women's agenda. On our congress's website I also created the possibility to allow anyone, regardless of their gender, to come forward and place their messages to women during that session. These are not meant as questions to politicians, but in order to hear a woman's voice on these issues, to make propositions and talk about things they find important and what the parliament should do about it. In my opinion, the biggest value of this congress is that it creates a space for women with very different backgrounds, a space where they can discuss their matters, their expectations regarding the parliament that we will elect. Without such a discussion there is no possibility to lobby the parliament on concrete issues. We have to talk, decide on what we want and then be consistent at pursuing these goals, in the same way as to some extent we have managed to do with the question of parity.

AS: I'd just like to ask about the lively discussion that went beyond the women's movement in Poland, about issues the congress does not touch. For example, reproductive rights. Why is it that this is a topic the congress consequently ignores?

MF: This is not completely true. Despite such topics not being present in earlier plenary sessions, there was an extremely dynamic discussion on reproductive rights, abortion included, during a major session at the first congress. Hundreds of people in the auditorium discussed and argued about it and it resulted in creating extensive recommendations. Because the congress attracts women with very different worldviews, it is impossible to have them come up with a clear message: legal abortion on demand, or not. We need to create a place for such a debate. This year it is possible to talk about it during a plenary session thanks to women that have spent years working for reproductive rights. Wanda Nowicka, the leader of Federacja na Rzecz Kobiet i Planowania Rodziny[4] , will take part in one of those plenary session. And Agnieszka Grzybek[5] will take part in my session. Unfortunately, she's one of the candidates who were pushed down the list. I invited her and it seems that when it comes to reproductive rights she has some political plans. I don't know what she'll be talking about, but the possibility to talk about it definitely exists. Let's keep in mind that the first congress produced thirty pages of demands, including a few pages on reproductive rights. It is not possible to promote thirty pages of demands at once; we had to choose the main ones. And according to our diagnosis, it is impossible to achieve anything concerning reproductive rights without having a strong voice in parliament. The first and foremost reason for a lack of perspectives for change is the fact that there are no women in the parliament that would be able to force this project. The situation looks similar in other issues important to women.

AS: Let's come back to Poland's presidency of the Council of the European Union and the European dimension of the congress. Could you say what is most important in this year’s Women's Congress from Europe's point of view? Can we talk about some universal demands, a special message?

MF: Last year, I wondered whether it was possible to implement the reserved ballot positions rule into electoral law on the level of the European Union through a European citizens’ initiative, but because of law-related reasons this is extremely difficult. Poland implemented the idea of citizens’ legislative initiatives earlier than the rest of Europe and we used it well in our project concerning parity. Such initiatives will soon be possible in the whole European Union. This is a way of action that has to be used, especially when in the future of public space civil initiatives, those outside traditional political party structures, will gain importance. Either the women of Europe will use this opportunity straight away and acknowledge the possibilities such regulations create or they won't achieve anything for half of Europe's society. A lot of demands from our congress are in sync with the voice of Europe, for example equal pay. Despite legislative and EU regulations it has not been achieved everywhere, and the problem, as always, lies in separate solutions. In this case, sometimes some tensions between values, for example between the free market and regulations necessary for eliminating discrimination, are being used in a manipulative or serious way. Earnings secrecy is often used to hide the fact that women are offered much lower wages than men. My students gave me the following examples: a male and a female student go to a company, he is offered a much higher amount than she is and both sign a Non-disclosure agreement. If people are friends, they will still discuss such matters. But this situation means using secrecy to tolerate or even introduce inequalities. Such issues need to be resolved, otherwise all equality rules will be there on paper only while we will still have to confront a reality in which women, despite having a better education, earn less, have smaller pensions and are more often victims of poverty. There are no arguments that could justify this and this is a problem that women in the whole of Europe have to face, which means that we have to change this on European level.   

Prof. Dr. Małgorzata Fuszara is a sociologist, a co-founder of the Women's Congress and the co-creator of Gender Studies at the Institute of Applied Social Sciences at Warsaw University. She is an expert for the Council of Europe on introducing gender equality to the political and social mainstream.

[1] Agnieszka Sosińska is a women’s rights activist and was at the time of the interview acting programme coordinator for Gender and Equality at the office the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Warsaw. The interview took place shortly before the Polish elections.

[2] Wanda Nowicka is a well-known activist for women’s rights, health and human rights.

[3] refers to an election where the candidate(s) with the most votes win.

[4] Federation for Women’s Rights and Family Planning

[5] Agnieszka Grzybek is a feminist activist, journalist and gender equality expert who has been involved in the women’s movement in Poland since 1997. She is currently programme coordinator for Gender and Equality at the office the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung in Warsaw and a member of the National Council of the Polish Greens (Zieloni).