The nationalist government has harnessed religion to tighten its grip on power and that’s hit women’s rights and sex education.
Supermodel Anja Rubik could be a symbol of any modern, progressive European country. After joining a campaign to defend women’s rights, she started tackling school sex education and published a book for teenagers that sought to counter the teachings of the Catholic Church.
In her native Poland, it means she’s fighting against the political tide. Indeed, Rubik’s drive says less about the momentum that brought gay marriage to Spain and abortion to Ireland and more about the resurgent forces of Christian conservatism being harnessed by the nationalist government.
This is a country where Jesus Christ was appointed as the official king, Muslim refugees have been accused of spreading disease and barred, and opponents talk of a return to medieval times. The narrative is that homosexuality can be cured and condoms are bad. Human Rights Watch attacked Poland this week for its treatment of women’s rights groups.
Rubik said all that’s missing from church-based sex education classes are “dragons and witches.” “Kids are told that the period is a bloody cry of a uterus missing a fetus,” she said in an interview last week as she made plans to take her sex education program nationwide this summer.
“We’re not progressing, we’re going backwards, in a sense back to the 19th century,” said Rubik, 35, who started her modelling career two decades ago and has worked for some of the biggest fashion houses, including Yves Saint Laurent and Dolce & Gabbana. That’s “against fundamental, constitutional rights to information and education,” she said.
Since coming to power in 2015, the ruling Law & Justice Party has thrown Poland’s gravitation toward the liberalism of western Europe into reverse.
It turned the country into a protective, nativist state clashing with the European Union over everything from the independence of its courts to what people can say about the Holocaust. The government is crusading against abortion, as well as IVF treatment opposed by the church. It’s also indirectly encouraging women to stay out of the workforce by offering unprecedented family-oriented subsidies.
Law & Justice sees itself as the savior of traditional Christian values in Poland as well as across Europe, claiming that the affluent continent has lost its moral compass by embracing secular, gender and feminist ideologies.
Party leader Jaroslaw Kaczynski has called on Poles to lead a “sick Europe” to the path of “health, to fundamental values, to true freedom and to the strengthening of our civilization based on Christianity.”
Opponents say it’s gone too far. “Education for life in the family” classes taught at high schools tend to promote the traditional gender division, are openly homophobic and fail to address contraception methods, said Liliana Religa from the Federation for Women and Family Planning, a non-governmental group.
These classes are “more ideologized than ever in the past” and schools are under pressure from the Education Ministry to keep non-governmental groups out, Religa said. “Poles are just fed up with laws and decisions that take them back to medieval times,” she said.
It’s been two years since 100,000 women marched to defend their right to abortion and forced the government to slow down efforts to expand one of the most restrictive laws in Europe. Rubik addressed the march and realized she wanted to do more.
She produced 14 short videos about sex that were seen by about 10 million people online. Then she wrote #sexedpl book, which has sold 130,000 copies so far. But when she sent 1,000 copies to schools, the backslash came.
Some school directors banned them, she said. Her proposal to the education minister to discuss classes about sex with educators went unanswered and she’s been labeled as an unsuitable promoter of Poland — along with Donald Tusk, the former Polish prime minister and now European Council president — by the state-run book institute.
Late last year, the Law & Justice administration presented a draft law that sought to exclude one-time beating of a spouse from the definition of domestic violence. The proposal was withdrawn within hours amid outrage from human-rights groups.
Still, the government has slashed funding for non-government groups helping battered women amid criticism of an alleged leftist bias, including one that ran an around-the-clock hotline for abuse victims.
Human Rights Watch urged Poland’s government to “immediately cease attacks on women’s rights defenders and organizations, and investigate and condemn abusive tactics used against them,” the group said in a Feb. 6 statement.
Rubik said she’s got plans to broaden her campaign, including bringing people together to talk more openly about how to educate young Poles about sex.
“I’m dreaming about a Sexedpl bus that would bring educators and offer workshops across Poland,” Rubik said. She’s going to try to convince companies to sponsor it. “Even though it turns out sex education is a risky topic in Poland.”
— With assistance by Wojciech Moskwa