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Lightening Bolts, Umbrellas + the Body as a Battleground—Decoding the Symbols of Protest Against Poland’s Abortion Law

Seven designs take us through their posters protesting the country’s tightening of abortion restrictions

“We’ve had enough!” “The revolution is female!” “Fuck PiS!”

These are some of the chants resounding through the streets and squares of Poland right now. Tens of thousands of protestors have been turning out every day since October 22, 2020, when a ruling by the Constitutional Court determined that abortions for fetal abnormalities violate the Constitution—a decision the ruling, right-wing PiS (Law & Justice) party claims cannot be appealed.

Prior to the shock announcement, Poland’s abortion law was already one of the most restrictive in Europe. The decision turns it into a near-total ban, in which terminations are only permitted in cases of rape or incest, or to protect the mother’s life. Critics have argued that this is a violation of human rights, and the latest example of the government and church leaders’ determination to push their ultra-conservative agenda. 

Law & Justice originally tried to pass the law through Parliament in 2016 and again in 2018, but on both occasions it was forced to back down following mass protests and strong opposition from MPs. This time, it has exerted its considerable influence in the courts to push it through the constitutional tribunal.

Poland’s design community has been part of the country’s fight for true democracy for over a century, and today’s designers are showing no signs of letting up. Political poster initiative Pogotowie Graficzne (Graphic Emergency) was originally set up in 2016 in direct response to the abortion law and resulting “Black Protests,” and has since built up an archive of designs that have engaged with the issue over the past four years.

Studying this collection of highly expressive, rich-in-metaphor, and full-of-wit protest graphics, a powerful visual language emerges. Most striking of all the recurring elements is the lightning bolt, originally created in 2016 by Ola Jasionowska as the official emblem for Black Protest organizers Ogólnopolski Strajk Kobiet (National Women’s Strike). The umbrella has also proven to be an enduring symbol of the protests, frequently incorporated into poster designs to draw people onto the streets and rally support for the cause. In yet more works, the female body is deconstructed, sliced up and repurposed in increasingly creative ways to question who really controls women’s bodies. 

In between designing posters, attending protests late into the night and striking for their rights, seven Polish designers took the time to decode their work, give us an insight into the country’s prevailing mood, and share their thoughts on the situation in their own words.

Vera King, “Niewola Boża” (God’s Captivity/Not God’s Will), 2016

“The poster shows the captivity of Polish women, who cannot decide about their life’s path or their body. It was originally created in response to events in 2016 and, sadly, it is still valid. Today we have to fight for our freedom in the streets again. Polish women do not have the right to abortion, except for a few, extreme exceptions. Tyrants with power want to tighten these restrictions, forcing women to give birth to seriously ill and even, in some cases, dead children. All this legal oppression is being justified by so-called religious virtues. Poland is a country where the Catholic Church interferes with citizens’ lives. Crosses decorate the walls of every state school and there are more religious lessons than science classes. The government and religious fanatics want to deprive women of the right and ability to decide about themselves, taking away our will, and making us prisoners of a violent system. Throughout the bible we hear that God gives man ‘free will.’ What the government and church are offering us is captivity—hence the play on words.”

Gosia Stolińska, “Dość-Wolność" (Enough-Freedom), 2016

“I created this poster during the first Black Protests in October 2016, when I was full of anger and rage. I thought, “Enough, I’ve had it. Our bodies, our business”. I am against any legal restrictions that threaten a woman’s life or health. I felt compelled to create something that clearly communicates who my body belongs to and who has the right to decide about it—that age-old debate. At the same time, the iconic “V” gesture appeared, symbolizing unity and solidarity among women. The poster is dedicated to Barbara Kruger’s Your body is a battleground.”

Michał Loba, “Mamy Dość” (We’ve Had Enough), 2017

“This poster was created in 2017 on the anniversary of the 2016 protests, when women gathered in the streets chanting, “We aren’t folding our umbrellas.” The umbrella came to symbolize the protests when on October 3, 2016, it was raining heavily, and thousands of demonstrators were photographed under umbrellas. This became a very meaningful image. The umbrella reference actually goes back to 1918, when suffragettes stood outside Chief of State Józef Piłsudski’s residence in the frost and knocked their umbrellas on the pavement. Thanks to their efforts, women earned the right to vote and stand as candidates in elections.

“My poster is very simple in its message. I try to make it easy for people to identify with the characters in my pictures, and in this case I just portrayed a furious girl under an umbrella with the caption, “We’ve had enough”—because that’s what many people felt at the time. The situation has worsened, the anger has remained, and the slogan is still valid. The poster still appears on the web, in windows and at demonstrations. It touches me very much.”

Kasia Kubacha, “Moje ciało, mój wybór” (My body, my choice), 2018

“I produced this poster in 2018 for what was, at the time, one of the loudest and largest women’s protests in Poland. Polish women protested then because the voices of non-governmental organizations and opposition leaders were taken away and the draft ban on abortion was voted in. As an illustration and poster artist, it was a natural instinct for me, and a way to express my internal opposition to what was happening in my country. I wanted to metaphorically say that only WE WOMEN can decide about our bodies. My refusal to accept the way women are treated in Poland and our basic human rights (the right to a safe abortion is a fundamental human right!) is represented by a screaming vagina. In addition, I wanted to strengthen the message with the slogan, “My body, my choice,” which was one of the many chants that were loudly heard during the protests in 2018. We are now in 2020 and nothing has improved—the situation has even got worse and I’m sorry to say my poster is still valid. This week, women took to the streets again, and the posters came with them. I hope that this time we will win this war!”

Krystyna Engelmayer-Urbańska, Untitled, 2020

“I designed the poster in April 2020, when the anti-abortion bill was voted in the Sejm. It shows three female figures throwing lightning bolts, which symbolize the Women’s Strike. My point was to show the strength of women and that it is better not to fuck with us. Even before the judgment of the constitutional tribunal on October 22 this year, abortion in Poland was illegal with only three exceptions, and I sincerely hope that what is happening now will finally pave the way for the liberalization of abortion law. Women are heartily fed up with life in the patriarchy and the fact that a group of middle-aged Catholic priests and envoys dictate the terms and make the rules. We are deprived of the right to decide about our own life, as well as a sense of security and dignity in the name of someone else’s religious beliefs. My poster is a way in which, apart from attending the protests, I express my support for the Women’s Strike.”

Joanna Gębal, “Dość!” (Enough!), 2020

“The current situation in Poland has deprived women of the right to decide for themselves in a difficult situation. I worry that this will endanger the physical and mental health of women, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds. The present authorities do not want to conduct a dialogue on this matter and are instead using religion to divide society. All this has caused enormous social frustration, fueled by the fear of further action that will take away more of our rights.

“The poster has a simple form inspired by Cubism. By rejecting the principles of perspective, Cubists showed their own, different way of looking at the world. The image shows a girl’s profile and the emotions on her face. There is a red lightning bolt under her eye, which is a symbol of the National Women’s Strike, and at the same time highlights the fury that now accompanies protesting Polish women. I put an earring with a barcode and a date on the girl’s ear, emphasizing that women are being treated as objects, deprived of the right to decide about themselves and their health.”

Ola Szmida, “Polka Walcząca” (Fighting Polish Woman), 2020

“I feel, and I think a lot of women in Poland share the feeling, that our bodies are battlegrounds and that we don’t belong to ourselves, but to the state and to the Catholic church. A lot of people protest every day and they come up with wonderful slogans and handmade posters. As a designer I wanted to express my feelings and opinions and give people a poster they can use. I think that this kind of activism can unite people and give them some sense of solidarity.

“The poster shows a strong woman on a horse with a lightning bolt in her hand, which she is about to throw. I personally think it’s a great symbol, because it represents the anger and power that a lot of Polish women are feeling right now. I like to use traditional Polish elements like floral patterns on a woman’s clothes in political posters. I also chose to show a woman on a horse as a reference to Amazon warrior women from Greek mythology. The slogan on the poster is a play on ‘Polska walcząca’ (Fighting Poland), the famous slogan adopted by the Polish resistance during World War II.”

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