Don’t be a stranger among them. On phobism, Poland and the Iranian fight for women’s rights

Words can be a very dangerous weapon. They can build, or destroy, depends on how we use them and I am determined to weigh my words in this matter more than I usually do. I could speak plainly, offending the whole nation or its part, which, involuntarily, I have managed to do several times in the past causing an uproar between not only those who knew me and my family, but also the general public. However, this is probably bound to happen as the issues that I am going to touch are social and thus they are tied to national emotions.

I read an excellent article published in a widely-read Polish newspaper titled “Poles are cold people in a cold country”. Published freshly at the turn of the New Gregorian Year 2015 it stirred the Polish society. The interviewee, Shirin Naemi, a political immigrant from Teheran gave an account of a two-year battle with the Polish system, as well as the culture, her both positive as well as negative experiences with the Polish mentality and the reality that anyone who is slightly different faces there. First things first, in a larger nutshell, Shirin was born and raised in Teheran, where she lived with her family and worked for the oil company. From the article, one has an impression that her family was significantly on the well-off side, which allowed her to complete education and become a politico-social activist. The “bone” of the disagreement between her along with the others against the state has been that of socio-economic inequality between genders. Since the Islamist revolution in 1979 women’s worth halved. For example, if the traffic accident occurred on the road and the court ruled compensation in favour of a man, he would be paid double the amount that a woman would be paid in the same situation. Women can’t be judges. Mothers cannot make crucial decisions with regard to their children. Even in case of a life-threatening procedure, the mother’s consent is not enough. The father or his side of the family can withhold his. Wives cannot file for divorce. They can’t work, unless their husbands agree to it.

Frustrated with the system, she joined the Million Signature Campaign. The activists collected citizen’s signatures condemning the policies that favoured gender and explained to common women what their actual rights were. This in itself was difficult as these meetings could not be as public, in contrary to the freedom we have in the Western world. The government simply does not want women to know what their rights are and thought still-existent, they are not enforced. Women should breed and stay in the kitchen. Their meetings happened in private homes. Incessantly they feared arrest, because such voluntary meetings that have little to do with crocheting, knitting, cooking, babies and domestic abuse are not welcomed by the governing body.

What prompted Shirin to become an activist was her father having more than one wife. It puzzled her that her father was allowed to have two wives, while generally men in her vicinity only had one. Despite this phenomenon being a general trend in Iran, for a child, as she explains, these things are never normal and it is only natural to start questioning the system. She said that as a child she needed one mother and one father, not a father who would intermittently live with the other wife and her children, or Shirin’s mother and her family. The question that sprang in her mind was: why a man was allowed to have more than one wife, while women were only allowed to have one husband? Paradoxically, this is the question that I have always asked and have never received a satisfactory answer.

By the end of her university she met a young man who was an activist for the rights of women and children. He introduced Shirin to the group of other activists and she decided to become active and make a change. They became a couple, unmarried, thus subject to scrutiny and potential prison. It is illegal to have a boyfriend in Iran. One has to marry in order to be together, even if they just simply want to take a walk on the street. The police is entitled to check on everyone and one needs to be ready to prove that the woman walking by his side is legally married to him. So how did they manage to escape the scrutiny? Well, they paid bribes. She recalled an incident when the police car stopped them on the road when they were together in the car, she was smoking a cigarette and they were caught possessing alcohol. Luckily for them, money does help it, if you have it of course.

When asked if they lived together, she did not actually give an answer, but she gave an interesting piece of information that one can buy a marriage certificate or simply bribe the police regularly. She said that “alcohol is also illegal and yet everyone drinks” and drinking parties are as lavish as those she experienced in Dubai and Europe. Generally, people tried to live normally and it probably works as long as you have a willing hand looking for a bribe and enough money to feed it.

Once Shirin was at the party and they were caught by the police. She was additionally scrutinised for being an activist – and sentenced for ninety lashes. That was later brought down to 75, as if it actually made a difference. If I got hit once, my mother would hear me several countries away. Shirin refused to have a lawyer provided by the court because they could not be trusted. Anyone defending political activists would end up in prison themselves, so obviously they only ‘defended’ the defendant according to what was expected from them. She was ordered to return for the carrying out of the sentence. She described that the cell was in the basement of the court of law and from the start she could hear the screams of others. There is a regulation that the sentenced person must come wearing a very thin layer of clothes to ensure maximum ‘experience’. Her father managed to pay someone to allow her to wear something thicker. She was covered in medical elastic bandage. With two men and two women present she was ordered to lie down on the bed and given the choice: she could promise not to move, or they would have tied her down. She chose the former and the executor dipped the whip in water. According to law he needed to hold two copies of Quaran under each elbow to ensure that he would not hit too hard, but, unsurprisingly, he did not and enjoyed the process as much as he could repeatedly yelling. If she moved he would whip her stronger and faster repeating that she deserved it, because she had alcohol. She refused to cry, which only seemed to anger him more.

The turning point for Shirin was the Green Revolution of 2009 during which there was an outbreak of mass demonstrations against falsified political elections for presidency. The regime responded with mass arrests. They arrested her boyfriend and when they came for her, she was warned by her father not to come home and soon with the family’s help she left to Isfahan. With the help of fake passports she managed to cross countries and ended up in Amsterdam. As soon as she passed the security she started looking for the police and when she saw one she burst into tears. They took care of her, fed her and gave her directions who to contact with her matter. She was checked and sent to the temporary detention centre where they questioned her, took fingerprints and where she was met by the physiologist to assess the trauma and check if she was fine and was not raped. Three days later, they moved her to the centre in Wintersvijk. She met a lovely local family who took her to their own home and treated her like their own.

Three months later, the letter arrived and it read that she was to go to Poland. The oil company she worked for in Teheran managed to pull the strings and get her ‘transferred’ to Poland. They wanted to open a branch in Poland prior to the EU sanctions. She could not appeal against that. Poland had agreed to take on her case so Holland was no longer a place she could stay in.

She was told by her lawyer, interestingly, that she shouldn’t be afraid and though Poland is a ‘different country’ it was still part of the EU and she would have the same rights. From the start as she landed she was deprived on shoe laces. As she struggled to follow the escort without them, the men yelled at her in Polish, with no effort in communicating with her in English. She recalls that she only heard “kshesheshe”, which despite the general feeling of disdain for this situation, makes me smile. I know that the Polish language sounds odd to everyone else who is not Polish. I can understand how confusing that is for someone who has never heard it. The more they yelled, the more she cried. Finally she managed to pull herself together and demanded an interpreter. After spending time in the cell, she was given an interpreter in English only. Then she still struggled with English. They considered her as an illegal immigrant, not as a political asylum seeker and I think that made the major difference in how she was treated. As she collapsed and was hospitalised they moved her to Leshnovol, which according to her was also a traumatic place with prison-like conditions and treatment. When she asked for toilet paper or water she was told that they didn’t have any because ‘Poland is a poor country’. A friend from England sent her toilet paper and dried fruit since she struggled to process the food given to her at the centre.

I do have to stop here. I would agree saying that conditions in places like this are not heavenly and that the centre did what they could to take care of the people staying there. I could even accept that she could have over-reacted with the lack of toilet paper, but the fact that someone sent toilet paper from Britain so she could have some while staying in a care centre in Poland makes me not doubt her account. Why? Because it takes determination and time to do so and therefore her account must be legitimate. I don’t exactly know how much she upset, but I am fuming, while reading this. How come Poland is such a poor country that the care centre does not provide toilet paper? It’s not a problem with the country (though some may disagree with me), but with the mentality. The lack of humanity in some people is appalling and the general treatment of others different to Polish-born Poles leaves a lot to wish for.

She spent few months in that centre and upon being asked why there is such a difference in treatment of refugees in Holland and Poland, she said that, which I agree with, Holland has generally more experience with it. These things are still new in Poland. While she took part in the project “Live Library” a year prior to the interview, she heard troubling accounts of foreigners visiting Polish schools. In one of the schools in a small village in the periphery, a pupil fainted when she saw a black person. This literally makes me laugh uncontrollably, reminding me how we, as a family were looked upon when we travelled together. My mum was considered everything between our nanny and the kidnapped, while people hanged through their windows looking at us. It always amused us, we would proudly walk the walk and let them choke, but I understand how it looks for someone, who has not been brought up in Poland.

I am mixed and so are my siblings. My dad is Nigerian and I think the transition for him was much harder that it was ever for us. I have never considered myself to be anything less than other people around me and always attributed their behaviour to general jealousy in other aspects. However this sounds, when you are brought up with dogs and you are a cat, without a mirror, you actually think you are a dog.

We were born and brought up in Poland, and I have been told, especially by Israelis, that I couldn’t be more Polish. I think I am a little milder version following the life I had in Britain, but still I can understand why the Poles behave as they do.

It was certainly not easy for me to read this article either. Despite being who I am, and Jewish on top of this, over years I have learned how to work the system and deal with people. It’s embarrassing and shameful, but sadly, to get anything out of them, you do have to carry the air of authority and abuse them verbally should the need arise. If, and I am sure Shirin is, you are displaced and feel uncertain in that country, many people will not be willing to help you, because of the language barrier, the way you look or simply because they just cannot be bothered. The general trait in the Polish mentality is ‘every man for himself’ and ‘a Pole is a wolf to another Pole’. One can imagine how much more to a foreigner, unless you are American – then they love you. I really don’t know why, apart from the national gratitude to the Americans for… yes, what exactly? I certainly can’t say that everyone is like this. As I said we lived in Poland for many years and my mum is the warmest, kindest, helpful and loving person I know, though she may appear intimidating. I had a couple of friends in London, especially one, with whom we had spent countless hours, days and weeks together. She was a great help to me when I needed it. We were support to each other when going through some tragedies, drinking tea with rum at night and then schlepping to work in the morning, beating our frustrations and regrets into training pads and partying like really ‘no-one was watching’.

That’s why I am cautious to say, ‘the Poles are such and such’. There are, once you get to know them and learn how to work the system, or rather you are just born there (and even then you are not part of them), you certainly speak the language and have an imposing personality, many people, who are very hospitable, friendly, but certainly and sadly there are many words in Poland ending with ‘phobic’. There are people who are extremely xenophobic. I honestly think that the main problem the Poles have with the changing of the image is that they really struggle to open up to different people unless this is enforced on them.

As I said, I walk in anywhere not giving the slightest and I dare anyone to say something to me or challenge me in any way. But there are people who may not appear as strong and instead of a smile and a simple ‘are you ok?’ they get ‘this is Poland, speak Polish!’ Israel is the second country I live in outside Poland and apart from the fact that I was always determined to communicate with people, I moved to Britain with very good vocabulary and grammar, but a terrible accent and if people treated me with such disdain, my life would be much harder than it actually was. Since I moved in Israel, everyone can hear that I have a heavy Polish accent when I speak Hebrew, but in English you can’t hear that, why? Because while being in Britain I made a conscious choice to change my accent so I do not get identified as a Pole, unless someone actually looked into my passport.

It is unfortunate that Shirin ended up in Poland because of many reasons. Firstly, yes, Poland is not used to dealing with political refugees. Full stop. Secondly, we are not the warmest nation in the world, why? The life of a regular Pole is hardly a picnic. If anyone looks into the Polish history the land has been partitioned three times, and the ongoing wars were brought in there mostly by incapable leadership. Whoever ever came robbed them and so, perhaps, I can understand why they just don’t like anyone. They don’t want anyone that looks or is different, in general, but once you are there and they sort of have ‘no choice’ they do open up. It is not an excuse to go on and behave like the king of the world, while really Poland does not have as much importance as the Poles think.

I feel sorry for what she had to get through, not with the system, as I said, this is still immature and requires adaptation, but with people. There seems to be little empathy for people who come to Poland because of various reasons. In a large percentage Poland is not even on their list of choice, but still they end up there and to carry further the image of the xenophobic, anti-Semitic, homophobic and other possible ‘-phobic’ Pole is really not a good thing internationally. Whenever someone finds out that I am Polish, which again is not their first guess, their initial question is: ‘how did you survive there? But the Poles hate everyone!’ Is that the image that the country where I was born and raised, and where my family lives wants to have? Is this how they want to be perceived internationally? Fair enough, every nation has something. I am a bigot too, only a smaller one, but a one nonetheless and my flatmate could probably give a list of things that I have against this or that nation. But I never have anything against the people. And certainly, if someone is coming for help, they should be helped as far as the people can help them, just by being human. Poland does not experience the influx of refugees. I would understand if suddenly there landed a hundred and fifty planes with refugees with Sudan. That would be an issue, because how do you maintain so many people? How do you feed them? What do you do with them? The natural instinct of fear kicks in: let’s send them back. But an occasional person, who is a political refugee fighting for the rights of women and children, who is dehumanised and then publically shamed for speaking against it – is a shame on Poland for not educating their citizens to treat people equally.

I think this is another issue I want to address. No one takes criticism well, full stop. If however someone is saying that they were treated inappropriately while, in comparison, elsewhere they were treated with respect and care and the general response is ‘let the b*tch go where she came from’, ‘Poles are not two faced as the Danes are’ (which I guess implies, if we hate you, you will know it), ‘why do my taxes support someone here who does not like being here?’, ‘on one hand I heard about this centre, but on the other I don’t feel anything for this woman – assimilate or leave!’, ‘she has such negative attitude’ or ‘seems like the admin deleted some comments, I guess we didn’t feel sorry enough for the whipping’. There are people slightly more reasonable, who like me understand that the only issue is here that a foreigner said something unflattering about the Poles. It is not the polish taxes that support political refugees, but I guess that just paints the picture of not even misinformation, but the determination not to like someone who dares to say anything against the Polish behaviour. One person commented that ‘the level of empathy in the comments below is levelled with the Polish norm and that is zero. More importantly, written by people which produced thousands of citizens applying for different citizenships to better their lives’. The comments go on and on and on. They vary between the vulgar ones and more moderate ones, but those that actually see a human being, an activist and a woman in Shirin are overwhelmingly in the minority.

One really cannot say anything critical. Even when you put a disclaimer that ‘of course not all Poles are the same, I met some wonderful people’ they will still hate the person. I struggle to understand why, after all there is part of the society that is (de)faming everyone else, so why not just admit that, yes, there are issues, but there are also nice people.

I had my own experience, when, again using the disclaimer, I gave an interview to a local newspaper about how the Poles live in Britain. I gave an honest account of what I have seen with my own eyes and I have experienced so much hatred that I was surprised one can even produce such amount of venom. This however was not my first experience with speaking my mind publically and getting the negative response. My mother however, who does not like leaving Poland almost cried when she told me that her own workers talked badly about me at work. That I probably did all the negative things I said. She felt hurt. The people that she helped to get a job along with those that she suffers daily were willing to populate all hateful lies just to ‘feel better’. No one would say anything openly to me or her, of course, but the bravery I guess kicks in when the slandered cannot hear them. I remember telling her: ‘Mum, if what they said was true, then you could feel hurt. You know how I am and you can be proud of me, so nothing that they say should hurt you.’ I love my parents and long ago I decided to keep my opinions away from Polish newspapers, but that also shows that nothing can be said against anything within the Polish establishment. It is really saddening, because many people choose to detach themselves from that reality that seems to exclude everything and everyone that is different, boiling and rotting in their own being, unwilling to open to the world.

There are really two barriers that stop people from coming to Poland – the language barrier and the opinion about the Poles. Don’t worry Poland, you are ‘safe’. Many people that I know consider Poland a graveyard, an inhospitable and a terribly cold place with indeed very cold and miserable people. Certainly this image will not magically change overnight. It will take time and work little by little, person by person to see the Poles more open and welcoming, and in return foreigners actually wanting to visit Poland and not feeling like they are intruding. With all my heart I wish Shirin all the best, regardless of the difficulties and certainly despite the walls that she has been presented with by some of the Polish people she encountered.

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