‘We Are Governed By Morons': Poland's Leading Pro-Choice Activist

VICE World News speaks with Marta Lempart, the co-founder of the Polish Women's Strike about the daily threats she receives and the future of the movement.
January 25, 2021, 5:46pm
​Marta Lempart
Marta Lempart. Photo: Pawel Macze

Last Wednesday, the Polish Women's Strike – Poland’s largest pro-choice group – organised its first big protest of the year. Dubbed “The Season Opener”, the demonstration attracted several hundred people to Warsaw. Protesters carried banners as they marched through the city centre, joined by anti-fascists organisations protesting police brutality. 

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The demonstration was a continuation of widespread protests that were sparked in October 2020 when hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the country in outrage following a ruling by Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal that instituted a near-total ban on abortions. The mass movement forced a partial climbdown from the ruling right-wing populist Law and Justice party (PiS), which is yet to enact the court’s conclusion that abortion in the case of severe foetal defects was unconstitutional. Doing so would remove the most common of the few existing grounds for legal termination in a country whose abortion laws are among some of the most restrictive in Europe.

At the front of Wednesday’s march was Marta Lempart, a co-founder of the Polish Women's Strike, which predates last year’s abortion ban protests. Lempart has been at the forefront of Poland’s pro-choice movement ever since she called for the “Black Monday” demonstrations in October 2016. Taking place across 150 cities, the demonstration became Poland’s largest-ever women’s protest.

VICE World News spoke to Lempart about her group’s recent wins, the threats she has faced and the future of the movement.

VICE World News: How did you find yourself leading this initiative?
Marta Lempart:
I wouldn’t say I’m leading it. I’m certainly responsible for co-ordinating support for the people who want to protest. I’m responsible for the financial, legal and media support for the action – for anything you need to organise a protest.  So it’s more like I’m leading a help desk for the anti-government protests, but the Polish Women's Strike has been created by lots and lots of people.

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It all started with you, though.
Indeed, it was me who said in the very beginning that we have to go on strike, and I set the date for the 3rd of October, 2016. I was furious. I felt that the government is taking our constitutional rights from us. At the end of September, 2016, I spoke at one of the street protests organised by the left-wing Razem party. It was then that I shouted that the Law and Justice party were murderers and that we were coming for them.

Has it been difficult to create the structures that helped the Polish Women's Strike grow over the past five years?
It was very difficult because we are a post-Soviet nation. As citizens, we have this need of being controlled by the government, which has always told us what we can and cannot do. On top of that, there is our own want to control each other. At the Polish Women's Strike, we’ve had to unlearn this so that everyone can act according to their conscience – as long as they don’t promote violence. The women who marched in protest in so many Polish cities and towns at the end of 2020 didn’t do that because someone told them to. They felt they must go and manifest their opposition. For us, the fact that women’s protests have been organised in smaller communities too — where it is much more difficult because fewer people participate and sometimes everyone in town knows each other — is an enormous, shared success.

What did you do before the Polish Women's Strike?
I’m a lawyer by trade. I was a member of KOD [a Polish movement created in 2015 to oppose the ruling Law and Justice Party]. Since childhood, I’ve volunteered at the Centre for Rehabilitation and Therapy of Hearing-Impaired Children and their Families, which was co-founded and run by my mom. In the early 1990s, she introduced her original rehabilitation and therapy program for deaf and hearing-impaired children. Her ideas that those children could attend inclusive and ordinary schools, that they could have a normal start in their lives, were criticised and opposed by many people, who were mentally stuck in the 19th century. That also taught me how to fight for equal and fair treatment. For everyone.

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Why do you think the Constitutional Tribunal ruled on abortion in the middle of a pandemic?
I think we are being governed by such utter morons. And when the ruling was passed, setting off a wave of dissent, and making us take to the streets in even greater numbers, it was simply too late. The government couldn’t back out. They’d show weakness to their conservative voters and lose to the [far-right] Confederation party who pretend they're libertarians, while, in fact, they’re regular neo-fascists.

What was the hardest moment of 2020 for you?
It was hard all the time: shitty but stable.

One of your most recognisable slogans is “Fuck off!”. Because of this, some people criticize the Polish Women's Strike saying that your bad language puts off undecideds.
No one is being made to shout things they don’t want to shout. When I go to a town to make a speech at a protest at the request of local women, I always ask them what they expect, and what they don’t want. If they don’t want me to say something specific through a loudspeaker, I always observe their guidelines. I know my role, and I’m their guest. But if a protester feels the need to shout “fuck off!” or to put it on their banner and march with it, no one should forbid them.

It’s kind of funny that everyone tries to interpret this slogan in their own way, adding various meanings, analysing, and looking for strategies. Truth is, the “Fuck off!” slogan originated before one of the protests as we were wondering what single word would fit on a banner. We asked ourselves: “What do we want to say to the government that wants to decide about our bodies for us? Well, we want them to fuck off!”. And so the “controversial” slogan was born.

One of your most recognisable slogans is “Fuck off!”. Because of this, some people criticize the Polish Women's Strike saying that your bad language puts off undecideds.
No one is being made to shout things they don’t want to shout. When I go to a town to make a speech at a protest at the request of local women, I always ask them what they expect, and what they don’t want. If they don’t want me to say something specific through a loudspeaker, I always observe their guidelines. I know my role, and I’m their guest. But if a protester feels the need to shout “fuck off!” or to put it on their banner and march with it, no one should forbid them.

It’s kind of funny that everyone tries to interpret this slogan in their own way, adding various meanings, analysing, and looking for strategies. Truth is, the “Fuck off!” slogan originated before one of the protests as we were wondering what single word would fit on a banner. We asked ourselves: “What do we want to say to the government that wants to decide about our bodies for us? Well, we want them to fuck off!”. And so the “controversial” slogan was born.

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How many court cases have been opened against you?
At this moment there are 65 cases against me, but some people have more. I’m appearing in court for “Environmental destruction and public use of a loudspeaker” and for “Placing an advertisement without the manager’s approval”. Then there are more serious cases, like “insulting a police officer”. There’s a lot of them, but I’ve won every single one so far.

Have you received threats because of what you’re doing?
Yes, I get threats virtually all the time — online hate, emails, and phone calls, until I changed my number. Some people still find the time to send old-fashioned threatening letters to the Polish Women's Strike office. Sometimes I get several hundred threats a day. Someone published my home address, so there have been banners in front of my windows saying “You will answer for the slaughter” and “Lempart you have blood on your hands”.

Do you feel safe in Poland?
No, I don’t feel safe. I fear that if someone wanted to hurt me, no one would be held accountable because there would be no will to act from the authorities. Of course, I reported the threats to the police, and it seems they’ve started to worry about my safety, too – but more likely because if anything happened to me, it would be troublesome for them, and it would make them look bad.

What was last year’s biggest win for the Polish Women's Strike?
We’ve had many wins! The support for PiS is at its lowest since 2015 because even if their voters aren’t angry about the government taking away women’s rights, they’re still furious about them not taking care of the pandemic. And more importantly, the high court’s ruling hasn’t gone into effect yet. The publication deadline passed on 2nd of November. This means the government is afraid of us.

What are your plans and challenges for 2021?
First, we want to organise the International Women’s Strike again, which we’re scheduling for March. Other than that a lot is going on, but we’ll keep on fighting.