Your Body Is a Battleground, Bilingual Edition
On what choice means in war, the language and art of reproductive rights and Barbara Kruger's iconic poster, again
CW/TW: mention of sexual violence
Radiolab and Rough Translation, two podcasts I adore, recently collaborated on a two-part story. It follows a young doctor in Germany who, right after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, learns there is a shortage of abortion pills in the country and feels compelled to do something. Rape and sexual violence are weapons of war, and initially, getting abortion pills to the women in Ukraine who had experienced horrific acts of sexual violence was the reason for the urgency. But transporting the pills to Ukraine, where abortion is legal, meant going through neighboring Poland, a country that has some of the strictest anti-abortion laws. The riveting first episode is all about the covert operation to get these pills across the Polish-Ukrainian border. I can’t tell you what the second episode is about without a spoiler: the pills do get there in the end, but not without many anxiety-inducing moments. The story continues with reporting from Ukraine on what happens to the pills after they cross the border: who has them, how are they distributed and used. As all great stories, the narrative ends up being about so much more than what the assignment was initially (although, that would have been enough). In the end, the overarching question is, what does choice really mean during war?
It has been two years since the government in Poland, my birth country, implemented a near-total abortion ban and I continue to be shocked and saddened beyond compare about what continues to transpire there. So many people have faced so much pain and suffering because of this law already and will continue to suffer until the government is voted out and laws change. And of course, this is also happening in so many other places in the world. Jessica Valenti does incredible research and reporting on the situation in the U.S. right now around abortion laws in each state, if you want more information from there.
When Russia invaded Ukraine nearly a year ago, amid the moving photographs of strollers, I kept thinking about the women who crossed the border from Ukraine to Poland, who had not only given up their homes, their lives, family, but also, as soon as they entered the neighbouring country, their reproductive rights. Women and pregnant people, already traumatized by war and violence were even sometimes met by anti-abortion activists at the border. I wrote about this a few months ago for another project I am working on about language and motherhood. In the end, the parts about Poland and Ukraine didn’t quite fit with the other writing so they were cut. But I want to share a version of them here as the podcast reminded me of what I wrote about borders, choice and language.
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Nearly eight years ago when my son was still a baby, we went to Warsaw to visit friends. As we walked back to the hotel, we made our way under an overpass and popped out facing a group of young people. It took me a second to realize it was an anti-abortion demonstration. Young people, who couldn’t be more than 25 years old standing around with clipboards asking people to sign an anti-abortion petition. I thought we had avoided the scene when to my left, a young man appeared, shoving the clipboard in my face. “Do you want to save children?” he asked in Polish. “You’re not saving children, you’re killing women,” I said pushing away the clipboard. My partner, who didn’t understand what was said, was beside me pushing our son in a stroller. As we walked away, the young man yelled, “So, you are OK killing your own baby!” I translated for my spouse only when we were far enough from the group I knew he wouldn’t turn around and go back. There is no reasoning with ignorant and unreasonable people.
When I had my first child, I never thought my decision to raise him bilingually would be intertwined with the eradication of reproductive rights in Poland, my birth country. Before COVID, my partner and I, our son and after a few years, our daughter, traveled to Krakow from London almost yearly, in hopes of exposing our children to as much Polish as possible and to create memories about visiting their mother’s birth country. It is a pilgrimage we made often from Canada when I was a child. In 2021, a Polish court ruled for a near-total abortion ban, permitting abortion only in cases of rape or incest or when the pregnancy threatens a mother’s health or life. But as we have seen the past two years, those “exceptions” mean nothing and there is no regard for a woman’s health or life.
Mere months after the ruling, a woman in Poland, Izabela Sajbor, died of sepsis 22 weeks into a pregnancy. According to her family, doctors would not perform a termination, out of fear of prosecution because of the new ruling, even though the woman’s life was at risk. “Baba jak inkubator,” wrote Sajbor in a text message to her mother before she died of sepsis because doctors would not perform a life-saving abortion. Translation: “A woman is (like) an incubator.” More women have died since, and as women from Poland flee abroad for abortions, a clinic near Amsterdam has, in one year, had five times as many women come for treatment. The clinic’s staff are learning Polish to comfort the patients. I often wonder what phrases and words the staff learn and hope the mere sound of a familiar language helps the Polish women in some small way.
In the United States, Roe vs. Wade, the 1973 decision to legalize abortion, was overturned by the Supreme Court on June 24th, 2022. Two days after the ruling, The New Yorker published a story about an abortion clinic in Houston, Texas, forced to stop performing abortions immediately after the Supreme Court decision. At the time of the decision, there were already women at the clinic, waiting for their appointments. One of them, a Cuban woman, did not speak any English, and it took the clinic staff a few tries to attempt to translate into Spanish why she wouldn’t be able to get an abortion that day. Even in multiple languages, I can imagine there are no adequate words and none of it makes sense to anyone. The pamphlet the Cuban woman was given with phone numbers to learn about her options in other states was only in English.
In 1989, the artist Barbara Kruger designed the iconic Your Body Is a Battleground poster for the Women’s March in Washington, DC. Two years later, a Polish edition was printed and started to appear on the streets of Warsaw, Poland. (I tried to find the poster in other languages as I believe there were some made, but so far, only the Polish one is online and as I recently learned, part of the collection at the V&A in London.) The Gentlewoman has a fantastic oral history about Kruger’s work and it includes information on the significance of “body” and “battleground”.
As iconic as Kruger’s work will always be, it is, devastatingly timely again. In 2020, nearly 30 years after the Polish version of Kruger’s poster appeared in Warsaw, it began popping up on the streets of Szczecin, another Polish city. “It is both tragic and predictable that the brutal conditions that led to my producing this image so many decades ago are still at work controlling women’s bodies and their access to reproductive care,” Kruger told Artnet News. “In Poland, the gatekeepers, that tight twinning of the right-wing church and state, fight hard and dirty to keep their power and engage their fears. We see this echoed across continents in the reactionary responses to the broader struggles around gender, race, and class.”
Warsaw-based artist Jarek Kubicki designed posters for the protests against the abortion ban inspired by the iconic 1989 campaign poster for Solidarity (Solidarność), the anti-communist movement of the 1980s. The Solidarność phrase in the original poster replaced by Wypierdalać (Get the Fuck Out). I remember learning about Solidarność as a young teen in Canada and although it was, as a child of Polish immigrants, part of my world, it also felt like a million years before my time, safely tucked away in history.
It has been more than five years since I visited Poland. I desperately want my children to meet my extended family, many of whom, although in good health now, are only getting older. The reason for the absence is partly logistical, but also emotional in response to the obliteration of Poland by the current right-wing government and our reluctance to spend time in a country so ravaged by fundamentalism. My young daughter tells me she wants to go to Poland so she can order a pastry in Polish at a café. As so many before me, I hope when she grows up, phrases like Your Body Is a Battleground, in any language, are like Solidarność was for me, never forgotten but safely tucked away in history.
Thank you for reading.
Above, two of the many other posters that were designed in 2020 for the protests against the abortion ban in Poland. The first one by Eugenia Tynna says Walcz (Fight/Battle) with the lightning bolt symbol. The bottom one is by Joanna Gębal and means Enough. Poland has a long and fascinating history of art posters, you can read more here on the Polish School of Posters. This is a great summary of what some of the symbols mean and for more writing and information on the subject, check out this, this and this.
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Thank you Malwina, thank you for sharing and also for including the posters. They are memorable. I will listen to the podcast you reference too.