This blog was originally written for ExChange The World.
Find out more about at Sustainable Development Goal 5, Gender Equality.
That's how I opened the jar!
FUNDACJA AUTONOMIA | Poland
Let me tell you how I became a feminist.
It all began in Ojców, Poland, many years ago. At that time, I was a student addicted to self-development who had just discovered that there is racism out there in the world. During a trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I saw with my own eyes how much the colour of the skin matters, and despite the attempts to blur the differences, I remained white throughout the trip, which meant privileges, power and the inability to build a real relationship with local people. Deeply moved, I applied for a course that aimed at preparing participants to conduct anti-discrimination and gender workshops, organized, among others, by the Autonomia Foundation.
At the Autonomia Foundation, we support girls and women in building the courage to go beyond various standards, to reach for things that seem to be neither accessible nor good to them, to build alliances to face difficulties together. Autonomia works to ensure that every girl and woman is safe and brave, she can decide about herself, develop and shape the world together with others. Our motto is: "Strength, Courage, Solidarity".
The course consisted of 3 meetings. The first meeting concerned discrimination in general and gave me great knowledge and a lot of tools to work with this topic. The second meeting turned my life upside down. At that time I was convinced I had never experienced discrimination and I had nothing in common with feminism. And there, for three days, step by step, I was discovering the very existence of gender, invisible social norms and that discrimination is not about whether I experience a single act of injustice, but about the general condition of women in Poland and in the world.
I began to talk about myself as a feminist after participating in an international feminist camp, to which I went a bit by chance, in lieu of my mother. I went to this camp as a person who on the one hand had very progressive views about the role of women, men, the right to decide about myself and my body, but at the same time, I didn't use female-personal forms, because I thought that male-personal are universal. I thought that I didn't want to be called a feminist because it is boxing me into some framework it was not me to build.
It's a bit like opening a third eye. Suddenly you see all those messages hidden in commercials, proverbs, movies, songs, invisible norms that surround you every day. Always.
As D.F. Wallace put it, “There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
Discrimination against women is much subtler than before. After all, we have the right to vote, we can go to work or study whatever university (which, by the way, wouldn't be possible without feminists). Discrimination has become our water, a glass ceiling, a sticky floor. Women still earn significantly less than men in the same positions. They still spend more time doing household chores, looking after children, even though they work full time, just like their husbands and partners. A woman still has less chance of employment, because she can get pregnant, because she is weaker, because of this and that. Violence is still taboo, and the victim is guilty of rape. I had no idea about all this and many other things on my way to Ojców. And suddenly Agata Teutsch and Monika Serkowska opened my eyes to zillions of things I probably didn't want to see at that moment. The problem is that once the eye is open it cannot be closed again.
For me, feminism is about freedom, it's a group experience, it's a process of learning, getting to know each other, and opening our eyes. I had the impression that my third eye opened, that I began to see more in the world that surrounds me. Much greater sensitivity to various meanings, to people's situations, understanding why they are in this situation, a bigger ability to read in between the lines when it comes to structures, power relations in society, and inequalities. Feminism is about freeing as many people as possible from the prison cages which were created for us by patriarchy. For example, women are massively experiencing violence and we want them to know that it doesn't have to be that way, that they can live free from violence, free from sexist comments, that they can oppose violence, be it verbal, mental or physical, that they have the right to decide about their body. We want to change the law, the institutions, so that, for example, beating a wife would be at least as seriously treated as beating a stranger on the street. And this is not even about the amount of the penalty, but about the attitude to this crime - it's how the services work. No one explains to a beaten man that he was badly dressed, they don't ask him fifty times if he definitely wants to report the crime, etc. We want sexual harassment to be unacceptable, it cannot be the norm and ritual played in every society.
Picture: Poland, August 2020. Agata Teutsch and Anna Książek during LGBTQ+ rights manifestation in Kraków.
A few years later I decided to go to the Feministyczna Akcja Letnia – FAL (Feminist Summer Action). Despite a greater awareness about discrimination and gender, despite a bigger familiarity with the term “feminism”, I was still far from this world. Beside the people who organized the workshops in Ojców I didn't really know anyone seriously involved in women's empowerment activities. I was quite a stereotypical mainstream girl who was lucky enough to be born in a city, in good conditions. We have always had enough money for food, housing or school supplies, I have never experienced violence in my life, my mother is a strong, independent woman who gave me values related to equality, freedom and high self-esteem. And yet being aware that the world of most women doesn't look like that gave me no peace. I wanted to learn more.
I didn't know anyone on my first FAL. I only knew that Agata from Ojców would be there, but it was difficult for me to recognize her as a friend, she was one of the trainers, I wasn't even sure she would remember me.
There is a group with which I have very long experience of cooperation, the informal group Ulica Siostrzana (Sisterhood street). After participating in the international camp, which I mentioned earlier, I had a dream to do such things in Poland. Finally, in 2001, I managed to find those few girls who had a similar desire and determination and we organized the first feminist camp in 2002, and then with more people other 15 of them. In each camp, there are around 60 adults and 15 children. Today I am talking about adults, previously they were women, then people socialized for the role of women, now trans people also come, which depicts a certain process.
On my first FAL there were no trans people yet, we used only the female version of verbs and adjectives (the Polish language applies grammatical gender to nearly any word). It was the first time I found myself among feminists, some of them lesbians. Actually, I was a heterosexual minority, for the first time in my life I was a minority. An amazing opportunity to learn, especially in a group that patiently answered all my naive questions. Questions from a person who still didn't feel feminist.
Do you have to be a feminist to come to the FAL? I don't know. Do you have to think about yourself: I'm a feminist and I'm going to a feminist camp? You don't have to. Do you need to read any book or watch any movie? You don't have to. Do you have to be involved in organizing manifestations, activities of the Women's Rights Center or other feminist organizations? You don't have to. At the same time, it seems to me that there must be something inside a person that makes her go to a feminist camp. There are plenty of other things to do in the summer. And yet someone comes to the feminist camp, why?
Because somewhere inside she knows that something is wrong with this world. That even those women and girls who don't feel discriminated against, not to mention those who experience strong discrimination on a daily basis, see some of their power and strength, and self-esteem being taken away. That behaviour I have seen so far as unfortunate and uncomfortable are a common experience for almost all women.
I first participated in Wendo at a feminist camp when I was 19. This workshop gave me a lot. Later on, I tried to participate in as many as possible, also organizing them in different places. Wendo gave me the opportunity to confront the violence I experienced in my life, I could speak it out and get rid of it. Sometimes expressing an experience is a huge step towards liberation from the burden of keeping it secret. And to realize that women all over the world have such experiences as meeting an exhibitionist, or someone paws them on the tram, grabs their ass, or tells them something unpleasant. This is very common and it is not that there is something wrong with us, but with this world that accepts this type of behaviour towards women.
At the FAL, Wendo workshops are organized every year. There are always more people willing to participate than places. I was lucky to be drawn randomly and to participate in Wendo at my first camp.
Wendo is a method of self-defence and assertiveness, building confidence, created and conceived for girls and women. The name itself comes from two words – the English “women” and the Japanese “do”, which means women's path, choice of life path, mode of action. It is primarily a method of preventing violence. During Wendo, girls and women have the opportunity to experience their strength, agility, decision-making, look at what is uncomfortable for them, what they can do when someone crosses their borders. They can experience their body defending and favouring them. Wendo lasts 12 hours and it is run by qualified trainers.
Picture: Poland. Agata Teutsch keeping the board with words: “nothing is so embarrassing that we can't talk about it”
At the end of the first 4-hour session comes the moment in which you should break a wooden board with your bare hand.
At Wendo, we offer an experience that is related to decision-making on the one hand, and an experience of strength on the other, which is breaking a pine board.
Break a board with your hand! ... since Agata, the leader, says it is possible, it has to work. I wanted to break it first, but another person was faster. I quickly got up to try the next one.
On my first Wendo I broke the board. I don't think I even imagined that I would fail. I've always been strong so it seemed fine.
The closer the board, the more adrenaline rises. I could barely hear what Agata was saying to me. Break the board with your hand. I swung and hit the board with a shout. It seemed to me I did it with all my strength.
I broke the first, second, third board.
The board remained intact. Unbroken.
In the fourth workshop I went to break the board and I didn't break it.
I was the only person in this group who didn't break the board. Neither the first time nor the second time.
I realized that the board wouldn't break by itself.
Boards don't break by themselves. Agata suggested that I break my board with the foot. I didn't want to. Either I break it with my hand or I don't break it at all.
I need to concentrate on each board, which is a metaphor for an obstacle. I have to think about what I do, why I do it, where is my goal.
I decided to try for the third time. Focus on the floor behind the board, not on the board. This floor is your goal. You have to touch the floor with your hand, and the board is only an obstacle that you must overcome to reach the goal.
I have to be in this situation and not assume that this is happening by itself. This only happens with our active participation, concentration, and support from those around us.
The presence of other women. Concentration. Deep breath. Hand up. Attempt. Shout.
The point is not that one part of wood after hitting it becomes two parts of wood, it is not the point.
I broke it.
I finally broke that board.
I needed a lot of time and emotions to analyse what happened. To understand that this is how I work, sometimes I fail the first time, the second time. The point is to try a third time. A fiftieth time. Focus on what I want to achieve and try again, even if the trainer herself, the authority, advises to let it go.
It was a shock, a very important experience. We need to know what we want. Focus on our impact. Things don't happen by themselves. Change will not just happen. We need to devote attention, will and energy to it.
I met Agata on two more feminist camps. She is the only person who has been to each camp since the very beginning.
This is the sixteenth FAL. We are much better organized. We had a lot of difficult situations, conflicts, discussions about whether the camp should be vegan, whether it should be trans-inclusive and what it means, whether boys can come to the camp after the age of 11, etc. Plenty of discussions. And we learnt a lot from them. Although Ulica Siostrzana doesn't have a permanent structure, we manage to keep the memory of the group about past experiences and pass them on.
I was slowly becoming a feminist. And slowly getting closer to Agata, whom I initially saw as an authority, a guide introducing me to the world of feminism. I felt respect, which was also associated with some kind of shyness in dealing with her, despite the obvious fascination with her activities, commitment and awareness.
Picture: Poland, 2018. WenDo workshop for women and girls organized by Autonomia Foundation.
For me, the perspective that goes beyond the borders of Poland and Europe is important, it shows that although some people can say that they are a woman, we take into account the differences resulting from where we live, what education we have, the degree of disability, sexual orientation, age. It differentiates our situation and influences our possibilities or the lack of them.
Agata founded also Dziewczynskie Centrum Mocy (Girls' Power Center) in Krakow, Poland. It was there that for the first time we conducted a workshop together - a two-day Climatic camp for girls.
Dziewczynskie Centrum Mocy is a space where girls and women can regain their power, broadly speaking. It is not just about feeling stronger, more capable of implementing change, more autonomous, independent, self-steering, but also about using these resources to influence the world in such a way that it is more just, equal, giving opportunities to everyone. Dziewczynskie Centrum Mocy is an initiative started by a dozen women and girls who create this place, its program, share their skills, competences, knowledge with other girls and women. We organize any kind of classes, from theatrical, to bicycle repairs, redeem female stories in our own family, meeting with a polar explorer. We watch movies and discuss them, read books, organize camps, run self-defence and assertiveness workshops. We want to create ferment. We want it to be buzzing, a place in constant process of change that can affect social relations, making them less hierarchical, free from violence or hostility.
Agata also took part in one of my changemaker workshops at the Dziewczynskie Centrum Mocy. Stressful? Yes. Although at this point I began to think about her more in terms of friendship, an important person for me, than in the category of a trainer. We began to talk deeper and truer. I started to see how much we have in common. That's when I asked her for an interview. To try to understand what it takes to regain power.
Meet with others. Talk about the fact that you want to regain this power. And start taking the first steps, even the smallest. We have to start to specify - what does regaining power mean to me? Maybe for someone, it is refusing to do another job at work, going for a walk or reading a book instead of cooking dinner... And you have to start doing it. As simple as that. Suppose I have a twisted, very tightly sealed jar and I think it would be great if it was open. The cucumbers inside look so tasty. I can even talk to a friend - look, I feel so much like pickles. But if we do nothing, the jar won't open. We need to figure it out, check different ways, it can be done. We just have to start doing it.