Throughout 2011, the attention of the international community has been captivated by news of the Arab revolutions against the authoritarian powers in Egypt, Tunisia, Yemen and the other countries which followed suit. The Arab nations woke up to the oppression of dictatorship and took the power into their own hands. People went out onto the streets and started to demand their basic rights of freedom and prosperity. Naturally, the international media was on the spot to broadcast the unfolding events live.
While those in the West sat at home glued to their TV sets watching the media coverage of the Arab Spring and the fall of the authoritarian regimes in Egypt and Tunisia, one person was observing these events from a slightly different perspective. Shana Penn, an American author and women’s rights activist not only paid special attention to the role of women in the fight for democracy but also found herself in a unique position to answer a déjà vu question. Penn, who visited Massolit Books in Krakow, Poland on November 6th, is the author of the book Solidarity’s Secret. The Women who Defeated Communism in Poland.
In the book, on which she spent 12 years of empirical research, Penn analyses the role of Polish women in Poland’s democratic opposition, and their role as leaders when the men had all been sent to prison during the period of martial law between 1981 and 1983. Penn’s first-hand knowledge of women’s role in combating the authoritarian regime in Poland has led her to investigate the role women have played in the Arab world. Similarly to when she was working on her book about Polish women and quite often came to unexpected conclusions, in 2011, again to her surprise, Penn has seen how different the role of women in these two revolutionary periods has been.
Penn shared her thoughts and ideas with the audience in Massolit and pointed out that despite the same goal that pushed women to get politically involved in both Poland and North Africa, it is very difficult to compare these two revolutions. And while making comparisons between the two revolutionary periods, she mentioned some significant differences: for example, the women of the Polish underground organised their revolution without mobile phones, the Internet, and social media, which can and has worked in favour of Arab women and modern revolutions. The Arab rebellion exploded rapidly onto the political scene and happened relatively quickly, while in Poland the situation evolved over a number of years. Polish women did not go out onto the streets, screaming and protesting for their freedom – they stayed at home, in between working in the factories, taking care of their children and helping neighbours with their shopping. They also stepped in and took on leadership roles of their husbands and male colleagues when they went into hiding or were sent to prison. Conversely, Arab women did go out onto the streets and had a visible presence. Most importantly, the women fighting communism in Poland lived in a country where gender equality – at least in the official discourse and party ideology – was higher than it is in the Arab world where women still hold very low positions in society, and their basic rights are being continually and habitually abused. The revolution the Arab women fought and are still fighting for is an attempt to win their basic civic and human rights. They want to show that they are equal members of society and demand to be treated with respect and attention. In these claims they are actually closer to Western feminism than Polish women ever were.
The discussion which followed Shana Penn’s speech was vivid and inspiring. Many questions were asked, by both male and female participants of the meeting, and interesting ideas on how Polish women could get involved in the plight for Arab freedom were shared. The expressed interest in the topic, as well as the compassion and support for the Arab women and their fight for freedom has showed that for women, the slogan of solidarity is still very much alive.
Olga Adamczyk is a political science student at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland and an intern with New Eastern Europe.
More pictures from the event can be found here.