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Iwona Guść
Iwona Guść ©Ania Liesting

Polish Women

Women were raised in a ‘guilt culture

Iwona Guść (43), Polish cultural historian and history teacher

As a Polish cultural historian and history teacher at the Erasmus University in Rotterdam, I have lived and worked in the Netherlands for sixteen years. I have studied European post-war cultures, migration and identities, with an emphasis on relations between Eastern Europe and the Netherlands. I was employed as a researcher at the NIOD in Amsterdam for four years. Through my years of study and research I have developed a lot of expertise and I am regularly asked by Dutch media to explain developments in and about Poland. The starting point of the media is often negative, I notice. This has to do with a generally negative image that the Netherlands, and more countries in Western Europe, have of Poland. Sometimes rightly so, sometimes unjustly, especially because the historical context is forgotten. I will give an example.

Since 2016, there have been women’s protests in Poland in response to the government’s policy of increasingly restricting women’s rights. Those protests have grown enormously in size in 2020. Especially after the ruling of the Constitutional Court on abortion. From now on, women would also have to bear dead and severely handicapped children. That evoked and evokes enormous resistance. A woman’s body is not a morgue. The anti-abortion laws in Poland are extremely strict and fierce. This has led to mass protests, which are about more than just abortion. I see more and more Polish young people, men and women, revolting against the political climate. They want a different Poland and do not identify with the current government.

Now back to the women’s protests: Poland seems to still be living in the ‘middle ages’ when it comes to women’s rights. But if I go back half a century, say the fifties or sixties, the Polish women had more rights than the women in the Netherlands. An example: Dutch women did not acquire legal capacity until 1957, while at that time in Poland every adult woman could decide independently about her choice of work and income. Later, Dolle Mina campaigned in the Netherlands for equal rights for men and women and struggled for the legalization of abortion. At that time, abortion had already been legalized in Poland in the 1950s. You should not forget that historical interpretation in order to be able to interpret the here and now. That’s how I view life myself: I live in the present, with the past as context.

The image that the Dutch have of Poland has a negative frame. The Dutch look down on Poland. This is mainly because that image is based on seasonal workers. In short: these workers are seen as unkempt people who do heavy work for a low hourly wage, live in terrible conditions, do not adapt, drink a lot and cause a nuisance. I want to say two things about that. Firstly: that stereotypical image does not do justice to the large group of seasonal workers who do behave properly and do not cause a nuisance. Who often also stay in the Netherlands and can simply become your good neighbours. Second, that stereotypical image does not do justice to the average inhabitant of Poland. What we see is that mainly lower-educated men and women leave for the Netherlands for seasonal work. For them, the Netherlands is a kind of well-organized paradise, or so it is presented in Poland. That is not true either, but they have a better chance of a better paid job here than in their own country. There is still a lot to gain in the Netherlands’ image of Poland. I am therefore happy to contribute to projects that help to promote Polish culture and history in the Netherlands and that deal with Polish-Dutch (cultural) relations.

Every woman, including Polish women, has the full right to decide her own life. That sounds very obvious, but in practice it is more unruly. This is partly due to the culture in which we as women are raised from childhood and the image that is portrayed of women. Since the spring, there is a new TV channel in Poland, subsidized by the government. How are women portrayed? They laugh, they wear high heels, they cook, they arrange flowers. At the same time, thousands of angry women are taking to the streets to protest against the curtailment of their rights. There is a growing discrepancy between the image that the media wants to create of women and practice. Girls grow up with the image of women who are portrayed as passive. I notice that in my students, also in the Netherlands. Female students feel that they have more to prove themselves and are much more doubtful about their independent choices. Male students are more likely to be satisfied and compliment themselves, while women are always looking for ways to improve. Men generally have no sense of guilt if they forget something or fail to keep their promise, while women do. Women have been brought up in a ‘guilt culture’. That guilt is on our shoulders and we carry with us for the rest of our lives. When I first moved to Germany on my own, I broke my head about whether I would be able to build a life there and take the first steps myself. And that actually made no sense, because I could manage just fine, and this was not my first move abroad. Yet apparently it’s in my DNA, because that’s how we were raised: you first have to prove that you are legally competent, only then will you be granted the rights. That we as women do have that feeling is in our head, in our culture, it is talked to us or we talk it to ourselves.

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