Days of revelations on domestic violence

Katarzyna Figura is one of the most recognizable Polish actresses. She has appeared not only in many Polish movies but also in foreign ones, such as Robert Altman’s Pret a Porter. As a young actress, she was synonymous with the image of a super-sexy blonde. With time, she began choosing roles of more mature women, distancing herself from her sexy image, and displaying a sense of humor. When tabloids reported in September that she was divorcing her husband of 12 years, American businessman Kai Schoenhals, it seemed to be just sensational news.

Foto: Creative Commons/ lkung409


Certainly nobody thought of what it might reveal. Yet shortly afterward Figura gave a lengthy interview in which she told that she was abused by her husband, and had been beaten and humiliated in many ways. Obviously frightened, immediately after the interview was published she moved out of her Warsaw house, staying at a friend’s place, while her two little daughters went to live with relatives.

Figura’s story triggered various reactions.  Some accused her of promoting herself; others appreciated the example that she was setting for other abused women. She explained that for years she was too terrified to take any actions, and decided to do so only when she saw that the violence at home had turned against the children as well. No matter what other celebrities and commentators said, psychologists confirmed that this is exactly how the vicious circle of domestic violence works – and the fact that Figura needed years to take any action, pretending all was well, is a classic example of a victim’s behavior.

Not yet beyond traditional roles

Figura’s story hit the media months after Polish Minister of Justice Jarosław Gowin blocked ratification of the Council of Europe’s Convention on preventing and combating violence against women and domestic violence. According to Gowin, the convention states that the stereotype of women’s and men’s social roles should be fought, so he is afraid that it would affect the traditional image of the family and “promote homosexualism.”

Prime Minister Donald Tusk has promised that the convention would be signed, but so far that has not happened. And even then it has to be ratified by the parliament. Everybody, including Gowin, is aware that it will probably take years and will not be easy.  Gowin’s remarks show that it will be clash between conservative and liberal Poles.

Poland already has a law on domestic violence, but as Joanna Piotrowska, the head of Feminoteka Foundation pointed out in interview for Nowości – Dziennik Toruński, it is a law which passes enforcement to local authorities, but without any additional funds. The convention states that the government has to provide proper means for fulfilling the convention’s statements.  Piotrowska also hopes that a 24-hour emergency telephone number will be established, the victims of domestic violence will be interrogated by the police only once, and investigations into cases of rape will be started automatically.

The problem of the convention and domestic violence was also one of the issues discussed by the Fourth Congress of Women that took place in September in Warsaw. It is an event organized every year by individuals and feminist organizations. During one discussion, the Congress unveiled striking data: each year 800,000 Polish women suffer sexual and physical violence; each day, 2,000 women are terrorized and beaten at home; and 150 women die as a result of domestic violence each year.

Women who experience violence often do not believe that anybody can help. One of the main problems in Poland is that when it comes to confrontation it is usually women with children who must escape their homes with no place to go, while the man stays comfortable at home. The Congress pointed that the police should be given a right to force the attacker out of the home and forbid him from coming back for 14 days.

Another problem is the attitude of society. Twenty percent of Poles are convinced that when violence takes place at home nobody should interfere, neither police nor neighbors. Yet much has changed in this regard during the last 10 years, according to psychologist Justyna Święcicka. “I think that the change in the attitude of policemen is enormous,” she says. “Sometimes just one properly trained constable makes a difference when he knows how to approach such problems. Still, the cases in courts last too long.”

According to Święcicka, changes in the law are needed, but changing societal attitudes is key. Because the violence comes from a person the woman knows and loves, it makes it difficult to confront, as victims hope that it will never happen again. Victims are also ashamed to make the violence known to people around them, and so contacts with friends become rare. All efforts are concentrated on hiding the violence, so that children and neighbors will not know about it. “Admitting the violence and asking for help is the most difficult step for an abused woman. It means admitting that her dreams are over, that life as she planned it is finished,” Święcicka says. “However, from my experience as a psychologist, I know that in each case there is at least one person who tries to help a woman and gives her support. It may be a female friend, for example.”  In the case of Katarzyna Figura, it seems that such a person was her adult son from a previous marriage.

Her story also shows that all women are at risk of becoming victims of domestic violence, and it is always very difficult for them to escape it, regardless of their economic and social position. There is a huge gap between the 800,000 victims of domestic violence counted by the Congress and the official number of 90,000. But the official data includes only cases that were reported to the police. The difference shows how difficult it is for women to even report their abuser.

Feminists and other Poles

Each year since 2000, on March 8, the International Day of Women, feminists organize a demonstration in Warsaw. The participants present various women’s issues, from the need for more nurseries to the equal treatment of sexual minorities to the right to abortion.  That is why it is sometimes maliciously dismissed by conservatives as “a show of lesbians” who have nothing to do with ordinary Polish women.

It may seem that a well-to-do intellectual from Warsaw and a woman from a small village, with no job, a few children and an abusive husband, have no common ground. “There is this split, but these extremes are needed, because without them we would not have a center. Without radical, dynamic feminists movements, the problems of other women would be unnoticed,” says Ewa Gaj, a young feminist.  Gaj was brought up in a traditional Polish family, with strict gender roles. “I was to be a nice obedient girl,” she says. “Now I think that if not for radical feminism, it would be more difficult for me to gain a different perspective on a woman’s position.”

For Gaj, the biggest problem is lack of equality in work. “I cannot stand arguments that women are paid 20% less than men because in the future they may take a maternity leave. I have been working for 12 years now, with no maternity leave and I may never take it, so why I am expected to earn less? My profession – I work in advertising – is dominated by men. A lot changes but still women are stigmatized.”

Both  Gaj and  Święcicka point to tradition as the culprit. “Boys are permitted to behave aggressively, the girls often cannot. They are afraid to present their views and needs,” says Święcicka. “They have to be taught respect for themselves.”

“Women are taught to think about the team, the family, society,” says Ewa. “To sacrifice themselves. They think they have to put up with many things, because they themselves are least important. This is social expectation.”

The horrible word

A few years ago, A Small Book of Feminism was published in Poland by publishing house Czarna Owca, which means “black sheep.” It was a translation of a book by Swedish educationist Sassa Buregren. Polish feminist Magdalena Środa wrote in a foreword for the book that “The word ‘feminism’ sounds in Poland horrible. Why? Difficult to say. Especially that in other countries, for example, in Sweden, everybody who says ‘I’m a democrat,’ means ‘I’m a feminist.’ Why? Because feminism is an important element of democracy. We have to understand it. And this is the purpose of this book.”

Getting such books on the list of obligatory reading in Polish schools would be useful, as  education is probably the only way of changing attitudes towards women’s rights. The story of Katarzyna Figura also helps, as it showed that some problems are shared by women from all kinds of backgrounds. It may convince politicians that dealing with the situation of women may be worth their time after all.

Patrycja Bukalska

Patrycja Bukalska

is editor of the V4Revue and editor of Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny; writes for „Green Town” („Zielone Miasto”) magazine.