IGA

‘I feel tired after six months of protesting,’ Iga (22) says. ‘But I am still angry.’ That feeling of anger started the moment the Constitutional Tribunal issued its ruling on abortion back in October. ‘I just wanted to go outside and scream.’ So she did, that day, in front of the Tribunal.
She hadn’t really been to any protests before, neither had a lot of her friends that were now going out onto the streets. ‘I think it was just the moment we felt that this government had gone too far,’ she says. ‘The government made me an activist,’ she adds with a slightly bitter smile.

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We are standing in front of the Church of the Holy Cross, a church in the heart of Warsaw that has been the scene of many protests. Over the summer of 2020, it was a focal point of LGBT -activism, with activists draping rainbow flags over the iconic sculpture of Jesus Christ bearing the Cross, causing quite an uproar. The Sunday after the abortion ruling, pro- and anti-abortion protesters faced off for hours on the steps of the church. For a while during the fall, ultra-conservative Catholics and far-right nationalists would show up night after night to – in their own words – guard the church against attacks from women’s rights activists.
‘Poland is very traditional,’ Iga says, ‘and the Church is one the most important institutions in Polish society. They have a lot of influence on day-to-day life, on the attitudes of people in society, their influence is also very strong in the educational system. I think that should change.’
‘The Catholic Church should not be part of politics in Poland,’ she continues. ‘They should stop talking about our laws, about our lives. But PiS is playing to it, they are using religion as a political tool.’ Iga thinks that it is deepening divisions in Poland. ‘The people who were already religious have become even more religious. But people who were on the fence have made their mind up and turned their back on the Church. The abortion debate made them more confident to do so.‘
Iga thinks the protests have changed her: ‘I think I am much braver now than I was before.’ But it also changed how she views the police who, citing the pandemic as a reason, tried to suppress the protests in increasingly aggressive ways. To many protesters, it looked politically motivated.
Some policemen overstep their power, she says. ‘When I am protesting, they tell me that they will hit me. They tell me that I should go home because I can’t change anything. They surround us for hours, in the freezing cold, and won’t let us leave. They use pepper spray against us. It changed how I view the police, it made me fearful of them.’ She says the police interventions had a psychological impact on her. ‘When I see policemen walking down the street in the middle of the day, I feel nervous. One time I even had a panic attack.’
Still, even now that the protests have died down, she feels that she needs to keep going. ‘I think a lot of people are tired and nervous. The pandemic and the political situation are too much for them. They want to stay at home, not watch the news, close themselves off. I understand that, I also need to take breaks. But I feel I can’t stop, I have to speak up and do something. And it’s not just about politics, we need changes in society. We should stop being aggressive towards one another. We should take care of our own lives, not the lives of others.’
Even though abortion was the main driver, Iga says a lot of different groups joined the movement. ‘Now, we are fighting for everything. And I am still hopeful that it will lead to change. Maybe in a few years, maybe with the next election. I hope that when people get to vote, they will still remember the emotions from this period.’
Iga often carries a mirror with her when she is protesting. She sees it as an artistic performance. ‘I approach people and ask them who they see in the mirror. Protesters usually smile at their reflection, several times people even started crying or hugging me. But the police officers remain silent. They can’t even look at their own faces. I’m not surprised. I also wouldn’t be able to look at myself if I was them.’

For Wojna Kris Oosting spoke with several protesters and activists about their motivations, experiences and expectations for the future. On this website you find a selection of interviews from the book.