During the COVID-19 emergency, contact with others for many of us is conducted through windows. We talk through them but also use them to display our hopes, emotions and frustrations. The windows on my own terraced street have become a gallery of rainbows, thank-yous to diverse workers, climate worries, Black Lives Matter fists and the left-over traces of Brexit.
Recently, a pink and yellow paper lightning bolt struck in one of the windows. The sign, pasted onto the pane by two neighbours, was their way of proclaiming their support for the mass campaign of civil disobedience and protest in Poland, where a constitutional court had ruled to ban abortions in the case of fatal abnormalities in the foetus.
In the protests that followed, tens of thousands of women and others held up signs bearing a red lightning bolt. They marched nightly and eventually forced the government into pausing the legislation to implement the court’s ruling. This was a rare victory. The ruling Law and Justice party has been seeking to restrict abortion rights for several years. Publication of the court’s ruling has been delayed, as emboldened protests continue daily.
I wasn’t surprised to see the lightning symbol appear in my street. The anger of Polish women denied terminations of pregnancies has resonated around the world. The slogan “I think, I feel, I decide” has captured the frustrations of women living under many regimes around the world whose bodies have become the collateral in a turn towards authoritarianism and religious fundamentalism.
This isn’t the first time women have withdrawn their labour in defence of their rights. In Poland, it has only been four years since women last went on strike, wearing black, to defend abortion rights. They were inspired by a longer history.
In 1975, Icelandic women spent a memorable October day protesting their low pay and marginalisation. An estimated 90% of Icelandic women took part in this “day off”, leading to a shutdown of Icelandic schools, factories and shops. Fathers had to take over the care of children, while women marched and sang. Equal pay legislation came hard on the heels of this action, and in another five years, Iceland became the first European country to elect a woman as head of state.
Icelandic women had been inspired by earlier efforts in the United States in 1970 to invite all women to strike on the 50th anniversary of US women’s enfranchisement in 1920. Under the slogan “don’t iron while the strike is hot!”, they created alliances of women strikers. Some spoke out against poverty and low pay, others boycotted products that appeared in sexist adverts. Abortion rights were centre stage, and women in Boston distributed contraceptives to passers by.
Women’s strikes have been widely taken up in Latin America in recent years as part of the ongoing campaign against the violence, murders and rapes suffered by women. The tactic was also used recently in Spain, Ireland and Switzerland, and has been expanded into an international women’s strike that has inspired stoppages on March 8 – International Women’s Day – across the globe.
In Liberia, women mounted a sex strike to protest the ongoing civil war in 2003. When peace talks began, 200 of them barricaded themselves in the room with negotiators and threatened to strip if men evaded key issues. In Kenya, thousands of women similarly mounted a week-long sex strike in 2009 to protest at the bickering and bad faith of male politicians. Their numbers included the wives of the warring president and prime minister, and led to new negotiations.
The worldwide Wages for Housework movement has also regularly been cited during women’s strikes to draw attention to the work women do without compensation. The simple withdrawal of labour and the use during protests of household objects – brooms, mops, coat hangers – makes vividly visible the injustices women face.
But the lightning bolt adopted in Poland and emblazoned across hats, masks, torsos, cheeks and windows makes it clear that this strike is not just a downing of tools. It is a strike in quite another sense, representing a bolt from the blue that has galvanized the broadest of coalitions – in Poland and well beyond its borders.
Poland’s government has been forced into looking for a “new position” on its suspended abortion legislation. What are the limits of governability? No politician can afford to assume that what is mandated in the courts or legislature will be workable in practice. Poland’s women’s strike reminds us that even in authoritarian states, populations can sometimes just refuse what governments dish up.