It wasn’t in her native Poland that I met Ala Budzyńska, a philosophy and Polish literature student at the University of Warsaw. But during a course on literary theory in Prague, back in September 2016, when the conservative ruling party PiS (“Law and Justice”) was drafting a legislation to restrict access to abortion in Poland. Dressed all in black, carrying a coat hanger (a symbol of clandestine and “home-made” abortions), Ala joined a protest in front of the Czech capital’s Polish embassy. Later, in a Vietnamese restaurant with her friends, they told me about their political and social engagement; surprised that people abroad might be aware of what was happening in their country.
I met Ala again a few months later, in Warsaw, her hometown. During our discussion, she told me about the important role of the Church in Polish society under communist rule, when places of worship and prayer enabled people to express their opinions freely. Shortly before going our separate ways, she told me she was taking part in a feminist gathering organized by the Catholic magazine Kontakt, which she collaborated with. “How does she reconcile those two engagements?” I asked myself. But she was already gone, leaving all my questions unanswered.
Three weeks ago, I read in the newspapers that the Parliament was, once again, trying to restrict abortion rights for Polish women. I directly thought about Ala and our conversations: this was the perfect time to ask her all my remaining questions.
Hello Ala! You are still collaborating with Kontakt. Can you tell me more about this magazine?
Kontakt was created about ten years ago by a group of friends. Initially, it was mainly a local newspaper for the member of the Club of Catholic Intelligentsia (Klub Inteligencji Katolickiej in Polish). After a few years, it gained momentum and became a voice for people identifying themselves as Catholic left-wing. However, Kontakt still has a hard time reaching a wider audience.
What is your editorial line?
Kontakt’s unique approach and philosophy have many different sources: liberation theology from Latin America, French philosopher Emmanuel Mounier’s “personalism” theory, or the ideas of people like Dorothy Day and Jan Zieja. We mainly focus on social inequalities and injustice experienced by the most vulnerable groups of society. But we also cover ecological topics (our approach is in many ways similar to Pope Francis’ Laudato si’), feminism and, more generally, gender issues within the Catholic Church, as well as “post-tourism” (how to travel while remaining respectful of local cultures and not infringing on their lifestyle).
We are deeply convinced that there is no contradiction between Catholicism and socialism, and that is what we try to show in our articles. We are the only ones, in Poland, to have such an approach and editorial line, trying to reconcile those two words often perceived as incompatible, to say the least.
How do you relate, personally, to the Catholic faith?
I’ve been a member of the “Club of Catholic Intelligentsia” ever since I was little, and it has, quite naturally, had an enormous influence on my life, my career choices and the way I see the world. It’s quite hard to summarize in a few words the goals and purpose of this community, which works in a variety of ways and takes on a different role and function at each stage of our lives: for children, it’s a bit like the Boy Scouts, for instance; however, the Club is, above anything else, a social and intellectual group born out of the opposition during the Polish People’s Republic.
What do you think about the Catholicism advocated by the PiS?
First off, let me say that there are many different ways to be Catholic in Poland. The government’s version and the reactions it provoked proves it all too well. There are strong divisions and fractures, in the Polish society, of course, but also within the Catholic community. The government’s positions are increasingly at odds with those of Pope Francis. Let’s just have a look at their immigration policy! Politicians exacerbate the population’s fears and prejudices to convince the citizens that a cultural war is opposing Christian and Muslim countries, while covering themselves with Christian values.
Terrifying statements are made, every day, on this matter. A PiS politician, for example, once said: “We first have to protect the Cross, not the Crescent. And protect Poles, wherever they are. There is a Christian order of mercy [ordo caritas]”. It gives me chills.
The Polish government wishes, once more, to restrict access to abortion. What do you think about it?
Yes, they now wish to forbid termination of pregnancy decided on the grounds of a fetus malformation diagnosed in a prenatal analysis. Up until today, the law authorized an abortion in three cases: rapes, health complications for the mother, and fetus malformation. In Poland, most abortions are made in this third situation. By trying to revoke this possibility, the government aims to outlaw most abortions.
Personally, I don’t believe it is the policy-makers or legislators’ role to decide when life begins. Due to many extreme situations, abortion is a complex issue that goes well beyond the simple division between pro-life and pro-choice. For example, when the parents know that their child will be born with an incurable disease and spend the few hours of his life in agonizing pain. In such situations, I’m convinced that only the people directly involved can – and have the right to – make such a decision. What pro-life movements advocate is, from an ethical point of view, much more complex than it appears.
Why do you think the ruling party is attacking women’s rights?
Their view of the world is very black-and-white. To them, feminism is nothing more than a rejection of traditional values. The July 2016 law on emergency contraception was, in this regard, one of the most scandalous measures: women now have to see a doctor and get a prescription to get such pills. It’s an enormous hypocrisy.
Would you define yourself as a feminist?
Yes. But feminism comes in many forms. For me, being a feminist is, above everything else, refusing injustices due to gender. Feminism should be based on non-essentialism, a doctrine which presents human beings first and foremost as a person, before being a woman or a man.
Catholicism and feminism may sometimes feel unreconcilable…
As I said, people are human beings before becoming a gendered entity. Feminism shares many common positions with the Catholic faith. Both of them advocate the right for human beings to be free and treated equally, regardless of their faith or gender. Feminism is, therefore, a specific expression of the message of Catholicism; a path to social emancipation.
But the Catholic religion often depicts women as inferior.
Not throughout the whole Catholic doctrine, but rather in the tradition of the Church. Today, the main goal is to turn our backs on this tradition and move forward.
What do you think about the FEMEN? For instance, in France, they organized a topless happening in the church of La Madeleine.
I don’t think their actions can be defined as blasphemous. Of course, it’s provoking but I don’t feel violated, neither in my faith nor in my intimacy. Their movement’s aesthetics are not mine, but I still don’t find them as shocking as many people try to make it.
Did the #Metoo movement have an important impact in Poland?
Yes, undoubtingly. The most revealing episode was the publication, in an online feminist media, of a text accusing three male journalists of sexual aggression and rape. This article was so widely shared and spread at such a rate that the server eventually crashed. This shows the enormous power women’s anger can have. I hope that politicians will take it into account.
Are you afraid for women’s rights in Poland in the future?
Yes, even more so when I see how low public debate has sunk. But I don’t think a dystopia such as The Handmaid’s Tale could become a reality. I’m not that pessimist!
Interview conducted by Annabelle Martella
Born in 1995 in Châteaudun, France, Annabelle Martella studied literature at the Lycée Jules Ferry and the Sorbonne Nouvelle in Paris, before pursuing her studies in journalism at the Institut Français de Presse. A former student of Charles University in Prague, her numerous travels in neighbouring countries (Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine) enabled her to gain a greater understanding of Central and Eastern European nations, their cultures and worldviews.