Sunday, March 8, 2015

International Women's Day. In Poland.

Guest post by Jill Boyles

Flower Seller in Poland. Photo by Jill Boyles.
Przepraszam panią,” my husband Paul says as we approach the woman dozing in a folding chair under a beach umbrella. She opens her eyes wearily, and I regret having asked my husband, a Polish national, to wake her. Too late. She’s standing, straightening her winter jacket and gesturing toward the remaining vases that still hold flowers. It’s a late afternoon on International Women’s Day in Warsaw, and most of the flowers have been picked over. Behind her, a store’s ledge serves as a shelf for spools of ribbon and a pair of scissors, and a baby carriage next to her, innards gutted, cradles a large, blue and white plaid plastic tote.
     
Paul asks her if she wouldn’t mind answering a few questions for his wife about International Women’s Day. Her blue eyes widen under blue eye shadow. She returns to her chair and sits with her back straight, saying nothing. It’s as though she’s trying to determine if she had heard correctly. She looks at me. I smile. “Tak,” she says. I exhale the breath I was unconsciously holding and thank her in Polish, “Dziękuje.” Paul translates my request if she also wouldn’t mind being recorded and having her picture taken. Recording, tak; picture, nie. She curls in on herself as her hands smooth curly, gray strands of hair peeking out from under her winter hat.
     
I begin with a few warm-up questions and ask her via Paul if she’s sold a lot of flowers and who her main customers are. She replies that she has sold many flowers, and women are her main customers. Her answer to the second question surprises me. I had assumed men would be buying the majority of flowers as my Polish friends and students have told me. When I ask her why women are the majority of flower buyers, she answers, “This is how it is today.” We both laugh.
     
In response to the question of what she expects on International Women’s Day, she says, “A good word like ‘kocham cię [I love you] and a smile.” As far as childhood memories of this day, she doesn’t recall much except that it was a “big day” during communism, but today International Women’s Day is just “another day.”  
     
Marzena’s comment echoes those of most Polish women I’ve spoken to who say that International Women’s Day is nothing more than lip service and a tradition left over from when Poland was a communist country. Then, women were given carnations and red ones at that unlike tulips, which currently is the flower of choice. When I asked these same women if they’d feel disappointed if International Women’s Day didn't exist or if they didn't receive flowers on this day, they responded, “Of course.”
     
Feminist scholars maintain that communism held more opportunities for women than in a free market economy. I ask Marzena if this was her observation as well. "Tak," she says and adds, “It was better. Everyone had jobs.” However, Marzena believes that there are different opportunities for her daughter today than when she was her daughter’s age. Her daughter owns a business. And, Marzena continues, “I own this flower business.”
     
I ask her if she’s familiar with the term “sexism” and she answers, “Nie.” Paul explains that sexism is discrimination against women. She says that she has never encountered it. When I ask if the men in her life like her father, brother, uncle encouraged her to be what she wanted to be even if it was considered a male occupation, she responded, “Tak. No boundaries whatsoever.”
     
The Polish Catholic church has been fashioning a debate on gender ideology to deflect focus away from Polish priests who have molested children. I’m curious what Marzena thinks about this one-sided debate, but first I ask her what the word “gender” means to her. She is unfamiliar with the word and also hasn’t heard about the Catholic church’s pronouncement that gender undermines Polish Catholic values.
     
Paul gives Marzena background information about the term gender as it’s being discussed in Poland (although not a clear definition has been agreed upon in Poland, the terms “gender” and “gender ideology” refer loosely to gender roles, gender orientation and for some sexual orientation), the church’s stance on gender and Piaseczno County whose city officials passed a resolution to fight gender ideology. For the first time, I see Marzena shift from shyness to anger. “It sounds like,” she says, “they [the city officials] want to restrict one’s freewill.”
     
I ask Marzena what her hope is for females in Poland. “Not good. Not good,” she shakes her head, “There’s no work for women because of their age. It’s harder for women over 25 to find jobs. Men over age 25, also, to a certain extent, but they have more job opportunities like jobs on construction sites.”
     
In closing, I ask what women and men can do together to improve this situation. “They must work together,” she says, “As separate units by themselves, they can’t fix much, but together we [women and men] can do something.”
     
Wise words, I think.
     
My mind is abuzz with more questions, but I fear I might be deterring potential customers and possibly crossing an invisible line with my questioning only she can see. I ask once more if I may take her picture. She consents but comments about how poorly she looks. I snap her picture with the flowers in the foreground to make her feel more comfortable rather than taking a head-on shot. After the picture, my husband and I walk over to the remaining flowers and buy, not tulips, but żokile (daffodils).
     
I thank her in Polish and say good-bye in English, silently kicking myself for not saying dowidzenia (good-bye) – one of the few Polish words I can say relatively accent-free. Her expression changes from kindliness to concentration as if she is mentally reaching to grab something but can only brush her fingertips against it. Her mouth then opens, and she says, “Good-bye.” She looks astonished, maybe at the ease and clarity with which she has said this foreign word.
     
To anyone buying flowers from her or passing her on their way to the store or to home, Marzena might seem inconsequential or even invisible, but she has a voice and a story and both are powerful and need not be lost in the hollowness of International Women’s Day as it’s celebrated today or in international feminist discourse or in a world where much of a woman’s worth is tied to her age.

Jill Boyles is working on a novel set in a small town. She blogs at www.jillboyles.com

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