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Dangerous women: Self-defense, gender and individuation in post-socialist Poland

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Dangerous Women: Self-Defense, Gender and Individuation in Post-Socialist
Abby L. Drwecki
Submitted to the faculty of the University Graduate School
In partial fulfillment of the requirements
For the degree
Doctor of Philosophy
In the Department of Anthropology
Indiana University
November 2010
UMI Number: 3439287
All rights reserved
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 3439287
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Accepted by the Graduate Faculty, Indiana University, in partial fulfillment of the
Requirements for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy
Doctoral Committee
Dr. Sarah D. Phillips, Ph.D.
Dr. Sara L. Friedman
Dr. L. Shane Greene
Dr. Jean C. Robinson
Dissertation Defense- May 10, 2010
Preface and Acknowledgements
The tragic events of April 10, 2010 occurred just as I was completing final revisions on the defense draft
of my dissertation. That morning I learned that Polish Air Force Flight Tu-154 from Poland to Russia had
crashed on its way to a commemoration of the Katyń massacre of 1940. The news reports stated that the
Polish President, Lech Kaczyński and his wife, along with several important government officials and
high-ranking military personnel were killed in the crash. Although it was eventually clear that political
life would continue in Poland, and the result was far from the governmental collapse, or worse, the
Russian invasion that some were predicting, it is still impossible to know what effect the death of
President Lech Kaczynski will have on the political and social climate in Poland. At present writing, July
2010, Bronisław Komorowski of the moderate Civic Platform party has been elected President in an
especially close run-off election with the former President’s twin brother, Jarosław. A win by Civic
Platform (Platform Obywatelski) would be seen as a victory for many of those who view the Kaczyński’s
Law and Justice party (Prawo I Sprawiedliwość) as a right-wing nationalist party, or as especially
unfriendly to women’s rights and interests. However, whether a political reversal will result in any
tangible changes to policy will remain to be seen.
There was another victim of the plane crash outside the Smolensk, Russia airport that has not
received the same widespread media attention as the President and First Lady of Poland. When looking
more closely at the list of passengers on the flight, I noticed the name of Anna Walentynowicz with
surprise. Anna Walentynowicz was known as one of the key figures in the Solidarity movement, whose
firing initially led to the strikes that eventually blossomed into a full-blown political movement,
eventually leading to the collapse of communism in Poland. Although Walentynowicz was a key figure
in the movement’s beginnings, when Solidarity began to grow she did not take a leading role. Later in
this dissertation I describe Walentynowicz’s positioning within Solidarity as emblematic of both the selfsacrifice and self-effacement expected of Polish women, and of Walentynowicz’s less-than-ideal status in
fulfilling a stereotypical feminine role. Later in the Solidarity movement’s history, the role of female
figurehead of the movement was filled not by Walentynowicz but by Danuta Wałęsa, Lech Wałęsa’s
wife, who was shown mainly supporting her husband and taking care of their children. I feel that the lack
of media attention given to Walentynowicz as one of the victims of the April 10 crash further exemplifies
the effacement and elision of heroic women in Polish history.
I would like to thank all the faculty members, colleagues and friends who have had a part in
helping me shape my research and write and revise this dissertation. Thanks for all the encouragement
and insight you have provided through reading my work and taking the time to share your feedback with
me. In addition, this research could not have been accomplished without the time, patience and
contribution of the women and men who participated in my study, the University of Warsaw faculty and
students who helped me with navigating the city, translating and transcribing interviews and making
professional contacts.
Sarah D. Phillips
Agnieszka Graff
Sara L. Friedman
Lauren McCarthy
Jean C. Robinson
Elizabeth Holzer
L. Shane Greene
Kimiko Osawa
Maryna Bazylevych
Alice Kang
Aili Tripp
Kristy Kelly
Myra Marx Ferree
Brooke Swafford
Marta Rogalska
Heidi Bludau
Agnieszka Koscianska
IIE Fulbright
Iwona Kurz
Dorota Rogowska
Kari Wiborg
Olivia Hall
Annamaria Orla-Bukowska
Przemyslaw Turek
Indiana University Office of Women’s Affairs
IU Russian and East European Institute
Maria Bucur
David Ransel
Dangerous Women: Self-Defense, Gender and Individuation in Post-Socialist Poland
Abby Drwecki
This dissertation uses Polish women’s participation in self-defense and martial arts courses as a
case study that illuminates many social processes related to postcommunism. Given the lack of
popularity of a feminist movement in Poland, I ask whether individual empowerment of women
such as that promoted by self-defense philosophies is a more culturally appropriate way of
addressing the problems facing women in Poland than feminism per se. At the same time, my
work acknowledges the fact that such individualized interpellation of a disadvantaged group
ignores structural inequalities and institutionalized sexism. I form my argument in a series of
chapters which focus on self-defense participation’s relationship to various aspects of Polish
society. At first glance, a hybrid identity cobbled together creatively by an individual may seem
more empowering than an unquestioning embrace of traditional, self-sacrificing roles, but ties of
self-defense courses to consumerism are problematic. The framing of self-defense participation
as a means of individualized self-improvement, and as one consumer choice among many draws
attention away from the broader social problems which make self-defense necessary for women,
and makes remedies for violence and misogyny seem irrelevant. I use evidence from interviews
and from self-defense advertising to highlight these issues. My dissertation contributes to
literatures on postcommunism, gender and European integration in Anthropology, Gender
Studies, Eastern European Studies and other social sciences. In addition the insights provided by
my study can inform the study of women’s empowerment by activists and by policy makers in
this region.
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction
-Ethnographic Outline of Women’s Self-Defense Options in Poland
-Theoretical Background
Feminist Theory and Self-Defense Participation
Theories of Embodiment and Body Work
Globalization and Hybridity as the Context of Women’s Self-Defense in Poland
-Chapter Outline
Chapter 2: Women in Poland in Historical Perspective
-Warsaw, City of Contrasts
-Pre-Communist Polish Gender Identity
-The Communist Period and Solidarity
-The Post-Socialist Political Climate and Economic Transformations
Political and Economic Transformations after 1989
Effects of the Transformation on Women
Physical Femininity and its Enforcement
Chapter 3: Ethnographic Outline of Self-Defense Courses in Poland
-WenDo Assertiveness and Self-Defense for Women
-Krav Maga, The Science of Survival
-Shotokan Karate
-UnSafe Woman and Combat: Practical Martial Arts Training for Women
-WSDP: Women’s Self-Defense Program
Chapter 4: Crafting Identities Through Consumption: Self-Defense, Capitalism and Neoliberal
-Consumption and Self-Improvement in Post-Socialist Poland
-Commercialism, Gender and Women’s Empowerment
-Self-Defense as a Self-Improvement Product
-Attention to Individual Bodies
-The Issue of Cost, “Helping Women” and the Victim Position
-UnSafe Woman: A “Socialist” Self-Defense Course??
Chapter 5: The Performance of Masculinity and Femininity in the Self-Defense Studio
-Mixed Sex Martial Arts and the Problem of Attrition
-Macho Behavior and Intimidation
-The Performance of Female Masculinity in the Self-defense Studio
Women’s-Only Courses
Mixed Sex Martial Arts
-Docile Bodies and Docile Agents
-The Feminist Politics of Self-Defense
-Conclusion: Alternative Possibilities for Empowerment
Chapter 6: Women’s Self-Defense Courses and the Uses of Gender Essentialism
-WenDo Pedagogy: For Women, By Women
-Gender Essentialism in WenDo
-Gender Essentialism in WSDP
-Conclusion: The Results of Gender-Sensitive Self-Defense Training
Chapter 7: The Silencing of Domestic Violence in Self-Defense Pedagogy and Discourse
-Domestic Violence and Polish Criminal Justice System
-Feminist Interventions Against Domestic Violence
-Cultural Factors in the Silencing of Domestic Violence
-The Violent Other
Chapter 8: Individualism, Citizenship, and the Self-Defense of the Polish Nation
-Poland and European Integration
-The Conservative Response to Women’s Empowerment
-Gender, Body and Nation
-Gender Binaries and Individualism
-Gender and the Place of Poland in Europe
-Conclusion: Individualism, Metaphor and Metonymy
Chapter 9: Conclusions and Directions of Future Research
-The Construction of the Body and Self
-The Limitations of Individualized Empowerment
Self-Defense as an Act of Consumption
The Problem of Domestic Violence
The Importance of Individualism
-Directions for Future Research
Chapter 1
Gosia had participated in Krav Maga for three years, twice a week, when I interviewed
her. She viewed the Israeli martial art, widely conceptualized as a brutal and masculine sport, as
a form of relaxation and a fitness activity. She also stated that participating in Krav Maga was a
practical way of increasing confidence and feelings of safety, because of its practicality and
effectiveness in real life self-defense situations. The only problem, she said, was that Krav Maga
required years of practice to become an effective method of self-defense, a situation that might
lead to overconfidence and risky behavior on the part of women. While she stated that feminism
was ―generally not necessary,‖ she did concede that violence against women was a significant
problem in Poland.
When Ania participated in Krav Maga as an undergraduate at Warsaw University, she
enjoyed the physical exercise and the social aspects of this martial arts course. However, she
still felt unsafe walking home at night, and related a story of how she once rode public
transportation for hours out of her way because she was afraid of being followed. She was
interested in learning ways to physically and verbally defend herself, and to stand up for herself
in social situations. Therefore, she decided to attend a women’s self-defense and assertiveness
course called WenDo, which was presented ―by women, for women.‖
Magdalena was very short and slight, and looked much younger than her 20 years. The
main obstacle she stated to her participation in a women’s self-defense course, provided by
Warsaw’s straż miejska or city police force, was her ―physical weakness.‖ However, she decided
to take the course because she felt unsafe walking to her house from the subway at night after her
classes at the Polytechnic College. When I interviewed her, she stated that she was happy that
she participated in the 10-week, cost-free course, because her physical fitness had increased, and
she had learned to use moves such as ―levers‖ and ―wrist locks‖ to defeat a larger and stronger
Most likely, if you met any of these three women, ―dangerous‖ is not the first word that
would come to mind. They are all physically relatively small, soft-spoken, and polite in their
manners. None of them would particularly stand out in a crowd of other Polish women.
However, they have all become dangerous to some degree, because of their participation in selfdefense or martial arts. In Poland, such a choice does not fit with the accepted trajectory of
feminine activity, but that does not mean that Ania, Gosia and Magdalena defy femininity.
Learning self-defense might be construed as a statement of alternative gender identity or as a
feminist political statement. However, none of these three women described here self-identified
as feminists. In a culture that values women‘s roles in the family, within an ethic of self-sacrifice,
participation in self-defense is a ―selfish‖ act focused on improving the self and creating an
atomized, bounded personal identity.
This dissertation investigates the cultural pressures experienced by Polish women who
participate in self-defense and/or martial arts; activities that are undertaken by an ever-increasing
number of Polish women. Self-defense and other self-improvement and empowerment strategies
constitute a field in which many of the contradictory elements of Polish women‘s lives are
brought together in sharp contrast. Participating in self-defense can be simultaneously a social
activity and an exploration of individualized identity; at the same time a consumer choice and an
assertion of rights; a refusal of the negative aspects of feminine norms of body culture and a
celebration of feminine strengths and intuition.
During the years of 2006 to 2008, I carried out an ethnographic research project
involving participant-observation in a variety of self-defense and martial arts methods in Poland,
over the course of a total of eleven months of field research. I also conducted in-depth,
semistructured interviews with participants, organizers and instructors of these courses. Although
men‘s perspectives on self-defense and motivations for participation are undoubtedly interesting
and theoretically important, I chose to focus on issues surrounding women‘s participation for this
project. However, some of the course organizers and instructors were men, and these
interviewees (especially those who taught mixed-sex martial-arts courses) were able to provide
some insight into these gendered differences in participation, which will be more thoroughly
explained in Chapter 5.
The women I met over the course of this study were self-assured, opinionated and
decisive about the goals of their participation, and equally opinionated about other topics ranging
from feminism to popular culture to presidential politics. In some ways they were no different
from the majority of Polish women who do not participate in self-defense or martial-arts
activities. However, at the same time, they were actively crafting individualistic identities that
deviated somewhat from the normative trajectory of Polish femininity. This exercise of agency is
conditioned by a series of social and economic factors. These factors cause Polish women‘s
participation in self-defense to serve as an effective lens through which to view larger social
processes informed by neoliberal capitalism, European integration and nationalist sentiment.
Self-defense training and martial-arts courses are commonly conceptualized in the US
context as ways for women to foster confidence and to increase personal safety while departing
from culturally expected feminine characteristics, such as helplessness and passivity, and there is
a small scholarly literature on these issues. However, self-defense as a globalized product has not
been addressed from a cross-cultural perspective. Such a cross-cultural study of self-defense can
provide important insight on the processes by which globalized women‘s empowerment strategies
are negotiated in a variety of contexts. In addition, much ethnographic work has been done on
the successes and failures of transnational feminisms. However, my own research is an
investigation of strategies that promise individualized empowerment for women without an
explicit ideological connection to organized feminism, and can provide insight on the possibilities
and dangers implied by such individuated empowerment.
Women‘s Self-Defense Options in Poland
My ethnographic research has lead to a basis for comparison among self-defense methods
in Poland, including the ways that different types of courses attract participants with different
goals, interests and attitudes. In addition to data collection in the courses, broader ethnographic
observations of Polish society have allowed me to contextualize these courses in terms of local
norms of masculinity and femininity, and concepts of the body and violence. What follows is a
brief outline and typology of the different courses I investigated, how they vary, and the basic
similarities they all share.
WenDo is the self-defense method that originally piqued my interest in women‘s selfdefense participation in Poland. It is for women only, taught only by women and its instructors
claim a commitment to feminist ideals. Originating in Canada and gaining popularity in Western
Europe during the 1980s and 1990s, this self-defense method was introduced to Poland in 2003
and is currently taught by 16 instructors residing throughout the country, mostly in urban areas.
The interviewees from WenDo ranged in age from early 20s to mid-50s, and came from a range
of backgrounds and occupations. The participants I interviewed included a feminist activist, a
legal assistant, several students, a journalist and a homemaker. Among WenDo instructors were
those who balanced WenDo with another occupation and those for whom teaching and promoting
WenDo was a full-time job. WenDo instructors taught both ―commercial‖ seminars (which cost
between 150-250 PLN per 12-hour weekend session, or about 50-100 US dollars at the time), as
well as cost-free ongoing courses for victims of rape or domestic violence.
Another very popular self-defense method in Poland is Krav Maga, although it is popular
mainly among men. This martial art is a hand-to-hand fighting method developed by the Israeli
military, and combines elements of several other martial arts. As a self-defense method, it
provides sharp contrast with WenDo. Where WenDo focuses heavily on developing confidence,
assertiveness and verbal self-defense, the Krav Maga classes I attended focused solely on
physical techniques, not just to disarm or deter an attacker, but to inflict significant physical
harm. I observed two different Krav Maga courses; one sponsored by the European Krav Maga
Association on a commercial basis, and another offered for Warsaw University students as a
physical education course. Here I will give more attention to the former of these two courses, as
it was overall better organized and taken more seriously by its instructors and participants, most
likely because of its voluntary and paid basis.
In both Krav Maga courses, women constituted a relatively low proportion of the
students, lower than in any other self-defense course I encountered (about 8-10% and 15-20%,
respectively). However, there was a core group of women who regularly attended the
commercial Krav Maga course and were committed to the sport; I interviewed seven of these
women. These participants, like those from WenDo, came from a wide range of occupations
(students, information technology, engineering, etc.) but most came from a middle-class
background, broadly speaking. I also obtained interview or questionnaire data from one Krav
Maga instructor, and from two participants from the University of Warsaw course. The costs for
the European Krav Maga Association course were 100 PLN per month, or 70 PLN per month for
I attended a course in Shotokan Karate to provide a comparison between Krav Maga and
more traditional martial arts. The composition of this course was divided between students taking
the course as a physical education credit and those attending on a commercial basis. The main
differences between Karate and Krav Maga included a greater focus on ritual and formal
interactions between the students and the ―sensei‖ in the Karate course. Also, Karate pedagogy
contained a greater emphasis on the form and quality of movements than Krav Maga, which
focused on sparring or practical combat situations. Students in the karate class in general seemed
to be less interested in the practical self-defense applications and viewed their participation more
as a sport than as a safety precaution. As in Krav Maga, the paying students had more regular
class attendance than those attending only for course credit, and were often more adherent to
traditional martial arts discipline, including wearing a karate gi. I conducted interviews with two
participants from this course, both of whom were enrolled in the class as a University credit.
A women‘s only self-defense course, ―(Un)Safe Woman‖ or (Nie)Bezpieczna Kobieta,
was similar to the self-defense approaches I have encountered in the United States. These courses
were financed by a program in which the City of Warsaw paid a number of martial-arts
instructors to teach women‘s-only courses on Saturday morning. These courses were cost-free for
the participants, and were open to all girls and women over the age of fourteen. The class met
once a week for ten weeks. Near the end of this ten-week period, the instructors invited the
students to participate in an ongoing self-defense course (known as Combat) that cost 70 PLN per
month and met twice a week at a different location from the Saturday classes. I attended both
types of classes, and the content was much the same: both contained a focus on leverage
techniques and on wrestling free from an attacker‘s holds. The course contained a minimal
discussion of the psychological aspects of self-defense, although somewhat less than I expected
for a course designed especially for women. The instructors for these courses were all men, with
the exception of one woman, a Tae Kwon Do student of one of the male instructors, who served
in an assisting capacity during some class meetings.
Despite the similarities between the free ―UnSafe Woman‖ and the paid ―Combat‖
versions of this method, there were a few significant differences between the two courses. The
first was attendance; as might be expected, the free course had much higher attendance with up to
50 students, where the ongoing course had no more than 15 women attending any given session.
Secondly, the ongoing course focused more on punching and kicking techniques, rather than just
on leverage and pressure point techniques. Thirdly, in the Combat course, participants sometimes
had the chance to practice moves with male opponents because it was held next door to a mixedsex Tae Kwon Do class and the two classes shared instructors on a rotating basis. Because of
this, occasionally the instructors would bring male students to the Combat class to act as
―punching bags‖ or to allow the women to practice leverage techniques on a bigger, stronger
opponent. From these two classes combined, I collected interview or questionnaire data from ten
participants and two instructors.
A final self-defense method available to Polish women is WSDP (Women‘s Self-Defense
Program), which I will discuss in my analysis although I unfortunately was unable to attend or
observe its courses because of time constraints. What makes WSDP unique among the selfdefense options available for Polish women is its use of a ―padded attacker.‖ A padded attacker
course is one in which students learn to fight against an opponent who is wearing heavily padded
―armor,‖ and although it is the only one of its kind in Poland, it has analogues in the United States
such as so-called ―Model Mugging‖ courses (now known commercially as ―Impact‖ training).
The rationale informing this technique is that women who have no experience of physical fighting
can learn what it is like to use their full physical strength without the danger of harming their
practice opponent.
WSDP also introduces a significant psychological element into its pedagogy. The cocreators of this course (both men) have academic backgrounds in psychology, and have also
published a book entitled Always Safe: Psychological Aspects of Self-Defense For Women (2003).
This book outlines the philosophies of self-defense that underlie the way the WSDP courses are
taught, delving especially deeply into ideas of ―victim behavior‖ and the ―psychology of the
rapist.‖ I collected data on this course through an extended interview with one of its instructors/
co-creators, as well as the text of Always Safe, and the course‘s web site. Since I was unable to
conduct participant-observation in the course or interview its participants first-hand, WSDP will
necessarily constitute a limited part of my analysis, although it illustrates some important points
related to gendered assumptions in Polish culture.
Dangerous Women
Often when describing my field research, the first question that arises is ―why Poland?‖
The answer is that post-socialist urban Poland constitutes a unique and significant field site in
which to examine the social processes indicated by women‘s participation in self-defense and
martial arts activities like the ones just described. Current events in Polish society are
characterized by rapid change, related not only to post-socialist transformation but also to
accession to the European Union. Polish economic and social policy has been especially
receptive to neoliberal ideas that ―individualize‖ and ―responsibilize‖ citizens to be accountable
for their own circumstances and that tend to absolve the state of any social responsibilities.
David Harvey defines neoliberalism as a philosophy that places faith in the free market as the best
way to assure the well-being of citizens, and that also places responsibility on individuals (rather
than collectivities) for this well-being (Harvey 2006: 2, 23). Other scholars (Dicken 2007;
Rapley 2004; Dumenil and Levy 2004) have shown how neoliberalism is an economic and
political regime characterized by the primacy of capital and the principle that the free market.
Under this regime, the pursuit of individual gain (for want of a better word, selfishness) is the
most efficient way of ensuring the greatest amount of well-being for the greatest number of
people, in a utilitarian sense. Other features of a neoliberal regime include the deregulation of
industry, and according to critics, a greater disparity between rich and poor within state
economies, and worldwide. Within anthropology, interest in investigating the consequences of
neoliberal policies has been intense throughout the last decade. Although anthropology has been
highly critical of neoliberal ideals, many scholars are interested in showing the creative ways in
which neoliberal subject negotiate the contradictions of these regimes in culturally particular
ways (e.g. Freeman 2007 Bockman and Eyal 2002; Richland 2009).
Within the social sciences the critical attitude toward neoliberal policies has been
prominent in studies of Eastern Europe especially in regards to their effects on women. For
example, Lynne Haney has shown how discourses of individuality and personal responsibility
have been used to justify the dismantling of the social safety net in Hungary (1994). Scholars
specific to Poland have shown that neoliberal policies have deepened the economic inequalities
and the gap between the haves and the have-nots, with women being especially affected (Hann
2002, Zielińska 2000, Fuszara 2000).
In this dissertation, I undertake an investigation into the ways that these neoliberal
discourses intersect with women‘s empowerment strategies. I specifically examine how a certain
burgeoning class of Polish women buys into some of these neoliberal discourses and attempt to
gain individualized empowerment through the practice of self-defense. As a part of this analysis,
I position Polish women who participate in the physical and psychological training of selfdefense or martial arts as ―dangerous‖ on a variety of levels. They are dangerous in the most
literal sense in that they become capable of inflicting physical harm. On a more abstract level,
they present a danger to the status quo of Polish gender relations, in which women are expected to
depend on the protection of men or restrict their behaviors in order to avoid gendered violence.
Polish women who learn self-defense and martial arts are also ―dangerous‖ because they
defy categorization. According to Agnieszka Graff (2008b), the anxieties surrounding changing
Polish society has led to a proliferation of gender talk, discourse which often characterizes Poland
as a land of stable gender categories. However, many self-defense participants continue to
identify with feminine personal identity while participating in masculine physical activities and
rejecting what they see as the disempowering aspects of feminine body culture. This apparently
implies that such stable and simple gender binaries are no longer useful, but the discourses of
self-defense participants, especially their association of masculinity with power and safety,
continue to reify and reproduce these binaries.
Some Polish women‘s embrace of self-defense philosophies may be indicative of the
social and economic gains that Polish women have made in recent years. Although these gains
have been small, some conservative political actors have constructed the increase in women‘s
―power‖ as a danger to the traditional family and gender order and the Polish nation itself. At the
same time, though, the self-defense participants I interviewed rarely identified with any kind of
organized feminist or women‘s rights movement and many believed that feminism was a
completely unnecessary intervention. Feminist groups do exist in Poland, but the movement has
generally not gained popularity with Polish women at large. For this reason, the women‘s power
that some conservatives fear appears to be more based on the achievements of individual women
rather than a rise in the feminist activism or political/economic status of Polish women as a
Finally, the ―dangers‖ presented by women‘s empowerment through self-defense and
self-improvement can for the most part be viewed as a form of resistance against a patriarchal
gender regime. However, the individualized, commercial nature of women‘s self-improvement
may also present dangers for the political and economic positions of Polish women as a group,
and for the development of organized feminism in Poland. The construction of empowerment as
an individual phenomenon falling under the personal responsibility of individual women, as well
as the ―techniques of the self‖ required for empowerment, are two features of self-defense
discourse that dovetail with the neoliberal ideologies that have shaped much of Poland‘s postsocialist social and economic policy. Ironically, these are the same ideologies that have often
been used to justify the removal of structural supports and social programs that benefit women.
The discourse of women‘s self-defense in Poland tends toward the interpellation of its
participants as individuals and consumers; self-defense training is, to a large extent,
conceptualized as a commercial product, and as a means of improvement of the atomized self.
The self-defense philosophies of individual choice and responsibility, bodily integrity and selfinvestment run the risk of failing to consider women as a group, or gender equality as a structural
―problem.‖ Although this atomization and destabilization of women as a category may lessen
political action and attention to structural inequality, individualized empowerment may be more
readily embraced by Polish women than conventional feminist organization, a form of political
action that can be unappealing to Polish women for a variety of reasons. Because of the tradeoffs related to the individualized empowerment offered by women‘s self-defense, as well as its
connections to the broader trends of post-socialist society, I have chosen to undertake this finegrained ethnographic study of the intersections between agency and subjectification in the selfdefense phenomenon in Poland
Feminism in Poland (of the lack thereof)
For the purposes of this dissertation, I define feminism as the organized political action of
women with the explicit goal or gaining formal and practical political, economic and social
equality with men. Feminism is a very contested category and there are probably as many
opinions and definition of this movement as there are feminists (or anti-feminists). Despite the
general connection of self-defense participation to feminist philosophy in the US context, selfdefense participants in Poland, largely do not define their participation as a feminist act, or as
relevant to any larger political agenda. Self-defense is viewed by participants and trainers as a
way for women to gain confidence, assertiveness and personal safety, but even instructors and
promoters who self-identify as feminists state that most Polish women would be unlikely to show
interest or participate in a class that was explicitly feminist in nature. Hostile attitudes toward
feminist organization in Poland have been well-documented in the social-science literature, and
are connected to the social coding of masculine and feminine expression, and anxieties about
gender stability in Polish culture.
Feminist thought in some form has existed in Poland since the 19th century. Historically,
Polish feminism addressed issues related to women‘s rights to education and property, as well as
voting rights. Early Polish feminist corresponded to ―First Wave‖ feminism in the United States,
which was concerned mainly with suffrage, but also contained strong elements of maternalism as
the basis for women‘s rights. Other important debates in Polish feminism include the balance
between formal equality between men and women versus ―protective legislation‖ for women and
mothers (which might for example exclude women from certain dangerous jobs); and women‘s
natural rights to child custody and caring roles versus their rights and abilities to work outside the
home. During the state socialist era women were not only allowed but required to have
employment outside the home, and were supposed to be ―emancipated‖ by socialized food
preparation, housework and child care. These interventions meant to lighten women‘s workload
in the home were not realized, so women were faced with a mounting pile of responsibilities
(during this time, men still did not really expect to help with household duties). For this reason,
today many Polish women associate feminism only with women‘s employment outside the home,
which they in turn unpleasantly associate with this double or even triple burden of work.
Scholars often place the current state of Polish feminism as a ―seventh wave‖ which is
trying to rehabilitate the reputation of the movement from its associations with communist-era
policies and the double burden of compulsory employment for women. Thriving feminist groups
currently working in Poland include EfKa (Krakow), Centrum Praw Kobiet (Women‘s Rights
Center, Warsaw), Feminoteka (Warsaw) and Network of East-West Women (an international
European feminist group). There are emerging Gender Studies programs at Warsaw University
and the Polish Academy of Sciences, and a few feminist periodicals are sold at major bookstore
chains (Zadra is the most well-known, glossy publication).
Despite this scattered organized feminist activity, the only main issue around which large
groups of Polish women have organized is abortion and reproductive rights, because of the severe
restrictions on these rights implemented after 1989. For this reason, many Poles equate women‘s
rights with abortion rights, and many of those who object to abortion on religious grounds see any
women‘s movement as completely objectionable.
Every few years, a large demonstration of feminists from all over Poland takes place in
Warsaw, sometimes around International Women‘s Day (March 8), and is called the Manifa
(Manifestation). This demonstration focuses on a different issue each time it is held; in the past it
has been concerned with reproductive rights, women‘s unemployment and sexual harassment. In
the minds of the Polish public, however, participation in the Manifa is strongly associated with
lesbianism, or radical and ―militant‖ feminism. Press articles have constructed this demonstration
as frightening and threatening, although the issues they have addressed have been relatively noncontroversial in reality.
Several authors, such as Barbara Einhorn, Susan Gal, Gail Kligman, and many others,
have explained in detail the reasons that organized feminism has not become more popular, and is
often conceptualized as a threatening phenomenon in Eastern Europe. They explain that the term
―feminism‖ is regarded with suspicion even by many otherwise politically liberal and progressive
women in the region. The most commonly stated reasons for this rejection of feminism are
varied and are based on certain deeply-entrenched misconceptions about the movement. First,
many Polish women associate feminism with the communist regime, even though the Communist
Party declared the emancipation of women completed around 1956, and any further feminist
activity was then considered a ―bourgeois project‖ (e.g. Einhorn 1993, Robinson 1995). Second,
there has been a supposed return to traditional gender roles after the fall of communism, and this
has caused many Poles to view feminism as ―unnecessary.‖ After the transition, since women
were no longer required to work outside the home, many took this opportunity to spend more
time with their families; this does not mean that they accepted patriarchal women‘s roles or
rejected the idea of employment categorically (e.g. Lyon 2005). According to feminist activists
and scholars working elsewhere in Eastern Europe, many Polish (and East European) women
misunderstand the goals of feminism: they associate feminism with a rejection of femininity,
heterosexual relationships, and the family, in a culture in which lesbians, single or ―masculine‖
women bear a heavy social stigma (e.g. Sperling 1996). Fourth and finally, there is a belief
among many Eastern European women that feminism deals with selfish or petty issues in
comparison with economic survival during the harsh climate of the post-socialist transformations,
and with the well-being of the Polish nation as a whole (e.g. Ńiklova 1994; Drakulić 1994).
Some of the self-defense courses I investigated as a part of this research receive funding
from Polish or transnational feminist organizations, and several of the instructors self-identified
as feminists. For these reasons, at the beginning of this study I expected that the course content
might be guided by (what I conceptualized as) feminist philosophy, and I also expected that many
of the participants would view their participation as a feminist practice. However, very few of the
participants I interviewed professed any affinity with feminism, and several of them possessed
some of the misconceptions about feminists and feminism that I just described. They saw no
connection between learning physical or psychological self-defense and the feminist movement
as they defined it. This raises the question: Can individualized empowerment strategies like selfdefense achieve some of the benefits for women that organized feminism has failed to attain in
Poland? I hope to contribute to the literature on feminist intervention in post-socialist contexts by
(at least tentatively) answering this question in the upcoming chapters.
Self-Defense Philosophies and Feminist Responses
In the U.S. context, self-defense courses for women, as well as women‘s participation in
martial arts are somewhat more commonplace. In addition, popular culture images of women
who use physical force in self-defense, revenge or other ―legitimate‖ aims (such as law
enforcement or war) are more or less taken for granted by the general public. For this reason,
several feminist authors have addressed the connections between women‘s empowerment and
their use of violence either in real situations of danger, or in pop-culture imagery. In this section
I will outline some of the main arguments in the Western feminist response to ―dangerous‖
women. These arguments include the connections some feminists have made between selfdefense practice and feminist political engagement, as well as feminist criticisms of self-defense
philosophy. Finally, I will discuss how these different strands relate to the self-defense
phenomenon in Poland.
The association of women‘s self-defense with feminist philosophy and practice might
seem like the most obvious thing in the world to some feminists, but to others, the connection
between self-defense and feminism is much more tenuous. Feminist scholars who specialize in
the study of self-defense (McCaughey 1997, Brecklin 2004, Hollander 2004, 2009) tend to
believe that widespread participation in self-defense training for women will logically lead to a
rise in women‘s status on the whole. While some self-defense courses encourage participants to
―let go‖ of the strictures of feminine body culture, feminists who write about women in the
martial arts (Hoppe 1996, Wiley 1994) see defending oneself and participating in the selfimprovement offered by martial arts and self-defense training as inherently ―womanly‖ acts. They
see these acts as allowing women to be self-sufficient and to avoid violence without giving up a
womanly or feminine way of being in the world. Despite the slight differences in philosophy,
these authors all make the assertion that self-defense training is beneficial to women in all parts of
life, and can be part of a feminist philosophy, simply because it teaches women that they are
―strong.‖ In addition to making women less vulnerable to rape and interpersonal violence, self-
defense training can help women to gain assertiveness and self-confidence, traits that are usually
associated with men in contexts like the business world. By learning this skills (or tapping into
these ―inherent‖ traits), women can raise their own status as well as gaining the courage to get
involved in women‘s organizations and help others.
This is the narrative presented by self-defense instructors as well as other feminist
proponents of women‘s self-defense, never really considering acts of self-defense to be
categorized as ―violence‖. However, some other writers look at self-defense as an act of
violence, however well-justified, making its exercise more problematic.
Some feminists, writing from the legal perspective, find the legal construction of
women‘s self-defense problematic, because they are concerned with breaking down binaries that
associate men with reason and rationality, and women with emotion and irrationality. According
to this set of authors (e.g. Walker 1984; Ogle and Jacobs 2002; Lentz 1993) the news media and
the legal system in the US constructs women, specifically those who harness violence in selfdefense, as mentally unsound. This is because in order to absolve these women from legal
culpability, defense attorneys must show how women in a situation of danger were not thinking
rationally, or were victims of ―battered woman syndrome‖, in effect a mental illness. Women in
this position must accept their diagnosis in order to avoid a long prison sentence.
Walker, one of the foremost experts on battered women‘s syndrome, describes the mental
state of women who kill in self-defense in explicitly psychologizing and pathologizing terms:
―her mental defenses against her anger are unraveling: but the women do not have any conscious
awareness of these feelings. Their descriptions of the final event indicate…the psychological
process of a dissociative state‖ (Walker 1984:40).
Walker acknowledges that the setup of the justice system in these cases can disadvantage
women, and so this is why many women who kill in self-defense must claim insanity (1984: 143).
Nonetheless, the legal system continues to ignore the systematic oppression of women, and relies
on gender-essentialist assumptions that construct women as irrational, emotionally unstable, and
mentally and physically weak. Sherry Ortner has written one of the most well-known articles on
this association of women with irrationality, stating ―Woman is not "in reality" any closer to (nor
farther from) nature than man….But there are certainly reasons why she appears to be that way.
The result is a vicious circle: various aspects of woman's situation (physical, social,
psychological) lead to her being seen as "closer to nature," while the view of her as closer to
nature is embodied‖ (1978: 28). However, this devaluation of women as ―closer to nature‖ has
been in some terms reclaimed and recast as a positive trait by cultural feminists, and a connection
of women with embodiment, emotion and intuition arises in several of the Polish self-defense
courses I studied.
Despite the instrumentalization of women‘s ―natural‖ intuition and embodiment in some
self defense courses, some other cultural feminist authors construct women as inherently less
violent and coercive than men and therefore reject self-defense as a solution for gendered
violence. They argue that both fictional and real-life women who use violence have succumbed
to masculine ways of responding to inequality (e.g. Bromley 1993, Clarke 1993). In addition,
they often argue that media images of ―dangerous women‖ are often no more than sexualized
objects created by men, in the interest of the male gaze (e.g. Höpfl 2004). According to these
feminists, although ―dangerous‖ women resist oppression on an individual basis, they do so only
by playing by the rules of the patriarchy‘s game. For this, reason, they believe that teaching
women self-defense provides no practical solution to masculine patterns of oppression. They
contend that self-defense, used to physically repel a single attacker, is a ―band-aid‖ solution,
which is useless without the structural changes needed to do away with a ―rape culture‖ (see
Brownmiller 1975; Sanday 2007; Buchwald 1993).
The very fact that these authors talk about a ―rape culture‖ indicates that they do not
believe it is an individual problem and that it cannot be resisted individually. Buchwald, editor of
the volume Transforming a Rape Culture, states that ―the transformation of a rape culture
demands a revolution of values. Our violence-producing and violence-accepting attitudes must
change, because our acquired taste for violence only fosters our adaptation to the culture‘s terror
and dehumanization‖ (Buchwald 1993: 3). Several of the contributors to this volume believe that
the embrace of violence by women as an answer to gendered violence is a ―phallocentric‖
solution and only breeds more violence. Sanday believes that as a product of group initiation and
enculturation men (in US fraternities) these men undergo psychological changes akin to
―brainwashing‖ and therefore view women as subhuman and are predisposed to rape. Only by
overhauling the system of male socialization will the threat of rape on college campuses be
reduced. (Sanday 2007:205).
According to Jocelyn Hollander (2009), a staunch advocate for women‘s self-defense, the
most common feminist arguments against women‘s self-defense include that it is impossible, it is
too dangerous, and it constitutes victim-blaming. These resistant arguments are presented by
many writers who promote a more radical feminist approach to ending violence against women.
These include K.A. Lonsway (1996) who argues that the only way to stop violence against
women is to address the systemic oppression of women and men‘s motivation to commit violence
(Hollander 2009:583). In addition she addresses the opinions of Madden and Sokol (1994) and
Corcoran (1992) who contend that self-defense rhetoric denigrates women who have failed to
defend themselves in a violent situation (Hollander 2009: 582).
Although learning physical self-defense as an empowerment strategy for women is still
not without controversy, some feminist writers in the United States have recently taken a more
positive view of self-defense philosophies and their effects on women‘s lives, including
Hollander, quoted above. Kristine De Welde (1999) and Martha McCaughey (1997), in
particular, have written most extensively about the benefits gained by self-defense participants.
In addition, Stephanie Hoppe (1998) and Andrea Siegel (1995) have edited collections of
women‘s narratives about participation in traditional martial arts which highlight martial-arts
participation as an empowering practice. Many of the North American described by these
authors, and those who shared their narratives first-hand, identify with feminism as a political
movement. In her 1997 ethnography Real Knockouts, McCaughey coined the term ―physical
feminism‖ to describe the embodied way in which self-defense participants experience
empowerment. They achieve this empowerment by making their bodies more powerful and
gaining the capabilities to resist gendered violence without external protection or restriction of
their behavior.
McCaughey views physical feminism as a shift away from mainstream feminist thinking,
because of the ways that some feminists have tried to counteract patriarchal definitions of women
as grounded in the body and tied to reproductive bodily functions (see Bartky 1990; Martin
1992). However, in trying to work against the body as the definitive feature of ―woman‖,
McCaughey (along with others) is concerned that authors like Bartky and Martin have
constructed the body as primarily a locus of oppression, and therefore decentered bodily
experience as a realm of empowerment for women. A possible way to counteract this
decentering, according to McCaughey, Carole Vance (1984) and Lesa Lockford (2004) is for
women to rediscover their bodies as powerful and useful tools rather than as burdensome, a goal
that can be accomplished through body projects like self-defense training.
Kristine DeWelde has also added to the literature on physical feminism by questioning
the assumption that self-defense training reduces femininity as it is defined as an oppressive
construct. As a result of her ethnographic study on feminist self-defense participants in the United
States, De Welde has shown that the body project of self-defense training can bring a new
appreciation of femininity and ―womanhood‖ as a positive trait, despite some self-defense
discourses‘ discouragement of culturally constructed ―feminine‖ traits. She describes a process
of negotiation between femininity and the forms of bodily strength that are socially coded as
masculine. As one of the self-defense participants she interviewed states, ―‘…your softness can
come out BECAUSE now you have the strength to BE more feminine because you don‘t have to
protect it anymore.‘‖ (DeWelde 2003: 270, emphasis in the original.)
In addition to these ethnographic investigations, statistical and longitudinal data collected
by other scholars such as Brecklin (2004) and Hollander (2004) have quantified how self-defense
has measurable, concrete and long-term benefits for its participants. Although more quantitative
research is needed on the Polish context to compare to these results, the findings of these studies
are encouraging. Hollander‘s study of the results of ―feminist‖ self-defense in the United States
shows that these courses had a deep positive effect on the lives of participants.
―These effects include changes in the way women deal with potentially
dangerous situations, but they also extend far beyond such situations to
influence many different aspects of women‘s daily lives, including their
interactions with a range of known and unknown others, their self-confidence
and feelings about their bodies, and their ideas about gender (Hollander 2004:
Brecklin‘s more quantitative study of self-defense participants uses statistics to show that women
who have taken such a class have a more positive self-concept and are more likely to report
resisting violation of their personal boundaries (Brecklin 2004: 493).
Although the Polish legal and cultural context is very different from that addressed by
these authors, some of the effects of self-defense training and arguments against the practice are
quite similar. In conversations with Poles about my research, I often heard the statement that
learning self-defense was not a useful way of preventing violence. ―If there are five guys, and it‘s
just you and your Krav Maga, what can you do?‖ was a statement from a Polish skeptic. I also
heard many concerns that learning martial arts or self-defense would make some women
overconfident or aggressive, opening them up to legal liability if they harmed someone.
Interviewees that participated in self-defense reported hearing similar arguments from classmates,
family members and significant others when they learned of their participation. However, I did
not encounter the feminist argument that self-defense philosophy blames women for their own
victimization. All the Polish feminists with whom I talked about my research believed that selfdefense training was a positive and beneficial intervention against gendered violence.
Although there have been no formal studies of the benefits of self-defense training in
Poland, participants in self-defense reported similar benefits to those Brecklin, Hollander and
McCaughey found in the United States context. The most commonly reported benefits were
increased confidence, assertiveness and (perception of) safety. However, the explicit negotiation
of assertiveness with femininity was even more marked in the Polish context because of the high
value placed on outward femininity, heterosexuality and women‘s ―softness‖ and passivity in the
Polish cultural context. In sum, it is possible that the self-defense participants I interviewed and
observed experience a form of empowerment akin to McCaughey‘s ―physical feminism,‖ albeit
without the feminist label. Perhaps the most important question is not whether these activities fit
some definition of feminism, but whether self-defense training has significant and tangible
benefits for Polish women.
The Limitations of Self-Defense
The bulk of the ethnographic evidence I collected shows how self-defense discourses in
Poland are tied to neoliberal conceptualizations of personhood, responsibility and identity
formation through commercial consumption. At the same time, some self-defense courses utilize
certain gender-essentialist concepts in order to connect to the gender ideologies espoused by their
participants. In so doing, the rhetoric of these maintains a gender dichotomy that privileges
masculine ways of being and constructs womanhood as a marginalized victim position. All of
these factors may potentially limit the practical and political benefits that self-defense training
can hold for women in Poland. However, the cultural appropriateness of the rhetoric used in
these classes may make them more appealing to Polish women, mitigating the fact that such
gender-essentialism is troubling from a Western feminist perspective.
First, self-defense participation is often viewed by its participants as a fitness activity and
a beauty regimen rather than a way to resist violence and gain empowerment. In some cases, the
advertising for self-defense courses plays upon women‘s body insecurities and their desire to
become more appealing to the male gaze. Although many self-defense and fitness enthusiasts
would argue that there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about this kind of body work, some
self-defense advertising, with its exhortations to ―keep your figure‖ may unintentionally
perpetuate women‘s body insecurity rather than raising confidence and assertiveness. For
example, a self-defense participant who does not have a conventionally attractive ―figure‖ may
assume that she is unable to effectively defend herself, or may be discouraged by her ―failure‖ to
transform her body through self-defense activities.
Many self-defense courses are constructed as a means of self-improvement and as a
commercial product by their organizers and participants. Therefore, we must address the related
issue of cost. Most of the self-defense courses in which I participated required a monthly or onetime fee, making them only available to women who can afford to pay this fee.1 The differential
availability of these courses based on disposable income threatens to put them into the category
of luxury, a consumer product promising self-improvement, much like a spa treatment, diet
program, or a self-help book.
Some self-defense courses are offered on a cost-free basis, although many of these
courses are offered through hospitals, therapy centers and crisis centers, specifically designed for
women who are previous victims of rape or domestic violence. Therefore, they are only available
to women who have been afforded a special ―victim‖ position. Although they certainly are
beneficial and have therapeutic value, they do nothing to prevent women‘s victimization before it
happens. I encountered one course (UnSafe Woman) that was offered cost-free to all women, but
as I discovered, this 10-week course had a series of problems that made it a less than ideal
environment for learning effective self-defense, as I will discuss later.
In addition to the economic barriers for women wishing to learn self-defense, there is the
issue of the ―responsibilization‖ of women who participate in self-defense. In all the self-defense
courses I observed, the participants learned positive, potentially empowering lessons, such as
confident posture, asserting their rights to bodily integrity, and reacting to a threatening situation
without hesitation. However, these courses address women as atomized subjects, wholly
responsible for their own destinies. This is part of the reason that self-defense classes alone are
not enough to eliminate violence against women in the Polish context. Placing the locus of
change and responsibility on women in this way ignores deeper social factors and structural
inequalities. Indeed, if such rhetoric of agency and responsibility is taken to a logical extreme, it
is in danger of positioning women as being responsible for their own victimization and
experiences of violence.
In an argument I flagged earlier, Hollander (2009) refutes some feminists‘ contentions
that self-defense philosophies are ―victim-blaming.‖ Hollander maintains that such an argument
ignores women‘s agency and ―constructs women as childlike and incapable [and] facilitates
violence by contributing to beliefs about women‘s vulnerability and discouraging resistance‖
(Hollander 2009: 588). Although I tend to agree with these statements, I wish to complicate
Hollander‘s formulation by tying self-defense discourses to trends of individuation currently in
fashion in Polish politics and society. Neoliberal ideologies such as individual responsibility and
entrepreneurialism have contributed to the undermining of support systems for women in Poland
(especially economically marginalized women and those who have experienced violence), and in
some cases inhibited their formation. Therefore, an unequivocal embrace of the individuated
empowerment presented by self-defense pedagogy may in reality lead to the dismantling of
further feminist political progress and indeed perpetuate a culture of victim-blaming.
This study developed over the course of library and preliminary field research as a way to
answer the following two research questions: 1) Is Polish women‘s participation in self-defense
courses an effective path to empowerment? And 2) What are the subjective experiences of selfdefense training that lead to (or fail to lead to) this empowerment? During and after my time in
the field, a third and more theoretical question emerged: What can the increasing popularity of
self-defense activities among Polish women tell us about broader social trends in Poland, related
to consumerism, gender expression and individuation? Below is a brief account of how the
present study emerged, followed by a discussion of the methods utilized as a part of this study,
and the rationales for using them to help answer these three research questions.
My first encounter with research in Poland came in the summer of 2005, when I was
attending a summer language institute at Jagiellonian University in Kraków. While doing a
preliminary internet search of local feminist organizations, I happened to see an advertisement for
a course in ―self-defense and assertiveness training for women‖ called WenDo. I proceeded to
make contact with one of the instructors of this self-defense method, who was patient enough to
have a conversation with me about the philosophies behind WenDo and her motivations for
involvement. This conversation confirmed my initial interest in WenDo as a research topic, and
allowed me to formulate a preliminary research question about self-defense participation and the
involvement of Polish women in feminism. I hypothesized that Polish women‘s increasing
interest in self-defense was indicative of their increasing acceptance of feminist ideas, a
hypothesis that seemed to contradict much of the literature proclaiming the ―failure‖ of feminism
in Eastern Europe.
The next summer I returned to Poland (this time visiting a range of Polish cities,
including Warsaw, Kraków, Lublin, Częstochowa and Katowice) for a feasibility study on a
possible dissertation research project on WenDo. During this 2-month study, I attended one
WenDo seminar and interviewed several WenDo instructors, collecting some very interesting
narratives about their opinions on women‘s self-defense and feminism in Poland. However, some
of the information I gained, especially that regarding WenDo participants‘ non-interest in
organized feminism, led me to revise the original hypothesis. In addition, I determined that for a
dissertation-length project, I needed to expand the scope of my study to include 1) investigations
of other self-defense options available to women in Poland, and 2) the perspectives of selfdefense participants of varying methods.
These preliminary research trips began my orientation to the challenges of urban
anthropology, which I continued to negotiate when I returned to Poland for a 9-month research
trip from September 2007 to June 2008. Doing anthropological research in an urban setting can
make some of the classic methodological approaches of ethnography such as intensive
community involvement, genealogies and mapping inconvenient at best, and impossible at worst.
When living and working in a city with a population of over a million people, the ideal of
becoming an ―accepted member of the community‖ is difficult, as the sense of anonymity and
isolation an urban ethnographer may feel can become paralyzing. However, there are other ways
of defining community than simply all the people living within a given location.
Although it is arguable that I became an ―accepted member‖ of the self-defense
communities in which I participated, observed, and conducted interviews, it was still difficult to
treat the self-defense studio as the equivalent of the ―village‖ that is so ubiquitous in classic
anthropological texts. Self-defense classes generally only met for a few hours a week, and while
some of the students and instructors socialized outside of class, most of the participants limited
their membership in this community to the official functions and events of the course. They spent
most of their time in their already-established social circles and family groups. In addition,
because of the relatively low amount of contact hours spent with participants, access to the
intimate lives of these research participants was rarely granted to the ethnographer. Background
information about family life, religious and political views and cultural attitudes were gained
more frequently through interviews, which will be discussed below.
In addition to interviews with self-defense participants, and casual conversations over
coffee or at the self-defense studio, I developed close acquaintances with a few Polish friends I
made through informal social networks.2 These friends were not research subjects strictly
speaking, and often had limited familiarity with self-defense, but they were nonetheless able to
provide insight into the political and social landscape of Poland through conversations, family
dinners and other informal activities. These friends were also able to point me in the direction of
text sources, media programs and other events that provided invaluable to the observation of
Polish society in a general sense.
During my most recent and extended period of research (2007-2008), I conducted the
bulk of my dissertation research using two key ethnographic methods of participant observation
and in-depth semi-structured interviews. As I described in the ethnographic outline earlier in this
chapter, I attended and participated in three beginning-level (weekend-long) WenDo seminars in
the cities of Warsaw and Kraków; two ongoing mixed-sex courses in Krav Maga; one mixed-sex
Karate course offered by the physical education department of Warsaw University; a 10-week
long series of cost-free self-defense classes subsidized by the City of Warsaw for women only
(UnSafe Woman) and an ongoing paid self-defense course for women taught by the same
instructors as UnSafe Woman (Combat).3 I found these courses through a variety of channels. I
located WenDo and commercial Krav Maga courses through internet and print advertisements; I
located an additional Krav Maga course and the Karate course as a result of my access to Warsaw
University physical education courses because of my status as a Fulbright scholar, and the
existence of the Warsaw Straż Miejska sponsored course (UnSafe Woman) was pointed out to me
by self-defense instructors of other methods (usually comparing their own courses favorably with
these so-called ―police‖ courses)
Most of the time, I participated in the self-defense courses alongside the other students
while doing my best to keep up with the sometimes grueling physical activities. I wrote up
detailed field notes on each class in the evening after I returned to my apartment or sometimes the
next day. Because some of the courses tended to be physically demanding and it was difficult to
observe the total space of the studio while participating, during one or two sessions of an ongoing
course, I would ask permission to sit out of the class and take notes while more closely observing
the behavior and interactions of the instructors and participants. Also, the first or second day I
attended an ongoing course I always made an announcement (or asked the instructor to make an
announcement) regarding the purpose of my presence as a researcher in the course and inform the
participants that I would be taking anonymous notes on the class. During these announcements I
would also mention that I would like to conduct interviews with any of the women in the class
who were interested. In this way, I found the instructors and students to be very receptive to my
presence and willing to help or provide any needed explanations.
I completed interviews with one or more participants or instructors from each of these
courses, as well as one instructor of WSDP, the padded-attacker self-defense course which I did
not attend (see Table 1). Through my interviews with self-defense participants, I learned about
the motivations of the women who took part in self-defense training, their past experiences their
opinions on the techniques they learned and the pedagogy of the courses, and the expected shortand long-term effects of their participation.
Table 1
Instructors Interviewed
Participants Interviewed
Krav Maga
UnSafe Woman/ Combat
By conducting interviews with course instructors I gained yet another perspective on the
philosophies behind a given self-defense method, the intentions of various pedagogical
techniques, and sometimes a rather detailed history of how each type of course was developed.
Most interviews were conducted in-person and were digitally recorded after written consent was
obtained. These interviews, which normally lasted between 30 and 90 minutes, were later
transcribed and translated, then manually coded for important themes. The interviews were
conducted at a location of the respondent‘s choosing, most often a public location like a coffee or
tea shop near the course location, and occasionally at the martial-arts studio. Very occasionally,
interviews were conducted at the respondent‘s place of employment or home. The interviews
were almost always conducted in Polish except in the case of one WenDo instructor whose
English was much more fluent than my Polish. When quotes from the interviews are relayed
from the Polish, the translations are my own. The first few interviews I conducted were a bit
rocky, with quite a bit of switching from Polish to English to struggle for a word or concept or to
reach a mutual understanding; however, the more time I spent in Poland the language barrier
decreased and the interviews went progressively more smoothly.
A number of research participants, during recruitment, stated that they would like to
participate in the study but were too busy for an in-person interview, or lived outside of Warsaw,
making a face-to-face meeting unfeasible. Because of this, I decided to develop a questionnaire
based on the verbal interview questions, to which participants could respond via e-mail.
Recorded verbal consent (usually over the telephone) was obtained for the participants who chose
this option. Although the responses to this questionnaire were not as in-depth as those obtained
through interviews, this technique helped me to broaden the range of individuals who responded
to my study and to learn the perspectives of those who would not otherwise be able to participate,
and those who wished not to have their voices recorded for an interview.
The in-person interviews consisted of a flexible ―core‖ set of questions, which would
often be appended and adapted to each interviewee. The list of questions can be divided into two
main categories: those directly related to the topic of self-defense, and those on more general
social and political topics, especially on the role of feminism, the European Union, elections in
Poland and in the United States, as well as other topics that were in the news at the time of the
interview. Generally, I asked questions in the first category early in the interview, along with
preliminary questions about ―vital statistics‖ (age, occupation, education, hometown, and basic
family background). After breaking the ice by engaging in some two-way conversation about our
common experiences of the course, and asking questions about the interviewees‘ motivations for
participating in self-defense and their opinions of the particular course, I would broaden the scope
of the questions to include opinions on social and political matters. By asking questions about
potentially polarizing topics (like feminism) I was able to connect the social and political
orientations of the research participants to their attitudes about self-defense participation.
A final component of my research methodology is a broad-based observation of Polish
society. This method, which differs significantly from focused participant-observation and
interviewing, has its basis in classic anthropological studies, in which the ethnographer is
essentially conducting research every waking moment. In the same way, all of the time I spent in
Poland, including preliminary research trips in addition to the longer 9-month stay, have been
periods of cultural observation. The everyday struggles, annoyances and moments of insight I
experienced (too many to enumerate here) were components of an overall, impressionistic
observation of Polish culture. By keeping a daily diary of my experiences, in addition to the
focused fieldnotes I collected on the self-defense courses, I was able to learn about patterns and
trends related to the images, pressures and gender regimes that surround a woman immersed in
Polish society. I also made an effort to read and collect text sources, such as Polish newspapers,
magazines, and advertisements that may shed light on my research questions. I will refer to such
―cultural texts‖ from time to time throughout this work, in order to illustrate the cultural context
within which my research takes place.
Theoretical Background
The descriptive aspects of this dissertation include that data I collected during fieldwork
using the methods discussed above. In addition to the insights I gained due to general
observation in Polish society and collecting Polish-language primary textual sources, the evidence
I have collected is informed by a variety of theoretical literatures. I engage with three main
bodies of anthropological and social-science literature: gender and feminist theory, embodiment
theory, and globalization theory. I use these literatures in conjunction with information about the
specific Polish historical context, which will be discussed in more detail in the following chapter.
This theoretical background helps me to build an argument that women‘s self-defense in
Poland is tied to processes of individuation and class differentiation in Polish society. In turn, I
tie these processes of individuation and differentiation to a broader context of post-socialism,
Polish nationalism and Poland‘s increasing integration into the European Union. Supporting
strands in the argument (each represented by a substantive chapter) include: 1) the interpellation
of Polish women as consumers in a capitalist economy; 2) the formation of new and complex
ways of expressing masculinity and femininity in Polish culture; 3) The utilization of essentialist
gender discourses in self-defense contexts; 4) The construction of Polish women as endangered,
not from Polish men (intimate partners or acquaintances) but from a shadowy economic or ethnic
Other; and 5) The intersections of women‘s empowerment strategies with the construction of the
Polish nation as an endangered and dangerous figure in the European context.
As I mentioned above, analysis of women‘s self-defense in Poland requires dialogue with
multiple facets of anthropological, gender studies, and other social-science literature. In order to
consider all the factors important to an ethnographic study of this phenomenon, the behaviors,
attitudes and experiences of the research participants must be examined along a number of axes.
These women live in an East-Central European culture that has a history of state socialism, and
they negotiate the dominant gender norms of that culture. They can also be members of a
universalized category, women, that regardless of geography has a history of subordination. In
addition, these particular women are students of a bodily practice, self-defense and martial arts,
that comes with its own culture, its own gender regimes and its own microtechniques for
disciplining the body. For this reason, the study of embodiment theory has given me a
background against which to interpret the body projects undertaken by the women I interviewed
and observed. Finally, Polish women who participate in martial arts are positioned as consumers
of local and transnational products, capitalist discourses and globalized media; and they are
neoliberal subjects interpellated by individualizing discourses and members of an increasingly
integrated European community. The use of globalization theory that defines these neoliberal
discourses and gauges the effects of consumption patterns and European integration is also
crucial to my study. In the next three sections, I will outline how these literatures, broadly
defined, contribute to my analysis and how they are important for understanding women‘s selfdefense phenomenon in Poland.
Feminist Theory and Women‘s Self-Defense
―…from the philosophical side…I have never read a good feminist text, and I have been a
translator for many feminist texts and I always regret that these texts… they have such potential.
But feminism is theoretically very interesting, it has a lot of potential for interesting ideas, but it
is always reduced to something banal, they always disappoint me. I don’t know why this is…but
even with these famous ones, well, like [Judith] Butler…they are all banal, really, in the end.
Even if they are very complicated, they are only complicated on the level of language, there are
an awful lot of ideas, like these ―isms‖ and ―ness-es‖, but none of them has any results‖ –
Marta, Krav Maga participant.
Earlier in this chapter I detailed some of the reactions of feminist writers to the selfdefense ―movement‖ as it has been called in the United States. Now I will go deeper into the
feminist theory that underlies some self-defense philosophy and the gender theory that is relevant
to the gendered performances occurring in self-defense contexts. First, note that I consider the
gendered body culture determining norms of Polish femininity to be similar enough to that
described in classic feminist theory to warrant much of that literature‘s inclusion here. However,
I also keep in mind that we must be wary of transferring Western feminist theories wholesale to
the Polish cultural context. The historical and cultural specificities that inform the subjectivities
of Polish participants in women‘s self-defense are very important, and will be addressed in
Chapter 2.
A large part of feminist theory, broadly speaking, addresses the female body as a locus of
gendered meanings, desires and anxieties. Much of ―second-wave‖ feminist work questions
dominant and accepted discourses about women‘s bodies, in both behavioral and medical fields,
as well as in popular discourse. Susan Brownmiller (1984), Susan Bordo (1992) Sandra Lee
Bartky (1990) and Iris Marion Young (1990) have shown that Western ideas of feminine
appearance and behavior are based on restrictive norms of body size and movement, and are
socialized in young girls in Western cultures from a very young age. Iris Marion Young‘s essay
―Throwing Like a Girl‖ (1990) is one of the most evocative descriptions of how girls are taught to
approach physical movement with a certain amount of restriction, in order to appear ―graceful‖ or
―ladylike.‖ The resultant reductions in muscular strength, efficiency and coordination of
movement in addition to an ideal of bodily diminution as norms of femininity have become
essentialized in popular, educational and social discourses as innate differences between the
Participant observation and interview data show that similar processes are at work in the
Polish context. For example, self-defense instructors who have led classes with wide age ranges
of girls and women state that often the youngest self-defense students shout, punch, and wrestle
with abandon, but among participants around adolescence and older, they must often work hard to
defy norms of femininity and to relearn the body culture of self-defense. Ela, a WenDo instructor,
stated, ―We had some trainings for teenagers, and there were some groups who were 13 to 16
years old, and then some girls who were 10 to 12 years old, and that shows that there is
something really connected with socialization. The girls from 10 to 12 are really not afraid of
shouting, of doing things. The girls who were 12 were hitting you so hard that I was having
problems with my shoulder from holding the pad! And then the adult women, they never do this.
They are probably told that to be women, to be female, they have to do something like *that*
[making a weak punching gesture]‖
In addition to norms of femininity affecting bodily movement and ornamentation,
feminist scholars have conventionally framed discussions of the body in terms of
disempowerment connected with sex and reproduction. For example, Emily Martin has sought to
redefine assumptions about women‘s bodies, especially from the point of view of reproductive
science. The Woman in the Body (1992) is a work investigating hegemonic discourses of
reproduction, women‘s biology and health as defined by the medical establishment and by
popular patriarchal ideas about sex. Other feminist scholars have attempted to deconstruct
dominant accounts of sexual intercourse (Dworkin 1988; MacKinnon 1991), medical discourses
positioning female bodies as inherently weak, lacking or diseased and the attendant removal of
the agency of pregnant women by medical and legal establishments (e.g. Bordo 1992; Faludi
1996). Although these works to not relate directly to the study of self-defense, many of the trends
described here, especially Bordo‘s investigation of the fetus as a ―supersubject‖ have appeared
prominently in public discourses in Poland (Graff 2008; Zielinska 2000) and therefore constitute
an important part of the cultural background for this study. These discourses will also come to
the forefront later in the dissertation, when I discuss gender-essentialist ideas in Poland and their
presence in self-defense courses.
While all the feminist authors I mention in the few preceding paragraphs (i.e. Bordo,
Faludi, Martin, Brownmiller, Bartky, Young) question dominant discourses and assumptions
leading to the subordination of women in everyday life and in political contexts, for their
purposes, they still more or less assume ―women‖ as an unproblematic, coherent and universal
category. Another group of feminist scholars seek to deconstruct the category of ―woman‖ or
―female‖ entirely. Many of these authors, like Julia Kristeva, Luce Iragaray and Monique Wittig
come from European traditions of social theory and psychoanalysis and seek to read the human
body as ―text‖ in terms of Freudian and Lacanian categories. They use these analytic tools to
deconstruct the categories of male and female that are taken for granted by most people. They
also question common-sense ways of thinking about biological sex, development and desire.
However, the highly theoretical approach of these writers, with its focus on discourses and on
literary sources, tends to largely remove women‘s directly lived experiences of their bodies from
the equation.
For example, Judith Butler, who was characterized as ―all talk‖ by one Polish
interviewee, writes on the ways that gender is performed rather than innate. Despite Marta‘s
skepticism, I believe that Butler‘s writings are very important for the study of self-defense
because of the performance of different forms of gendered body culture that occur in self-defense
settings. Another aspect of Butler‘s work questions the primacy of the body as the ultimate
source of sex or gender differentiation. In Butler‘s view, classic feminism assumes the coherence
of ―women‖ as a category based in biology, a formulation that alienates (among others)
transgender and intersex persons who identify as women. In addition, she indicts Western
feminism for creating false divisions between women of different sexual orientations. According
to Butler, dominant categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality are arbitrary and limiting,
and there exist as many ―sexual orientations‖ as there are individuals. Likewise, Judith
Halberstam uses Butler‘s theoretical base to analyze real-life examples of women who perform
certain aspects of the masculine gender role in Female Masculinity (1998). In this work,
Halberstam investigates the experiences of persons who are biologically female attempting to
―pass‖ as men, or who adopt masculine personas selectively. Halberstam‘s work effectively
shows how female biology can be disengaged from individualized identities in practice.
Although none of the Polish women I interviewed would identify with the categories of
masculinity and sexuality explained by Butler and Halberstam, these authors‘ ideas of gender
performance are very important to the analysis of women‘s self-defense participation in Poland,
especially since many of the women in this study took part in activities that were socially coded
as masculine in Polish culture.
There are some limitations to the utility of this classic feminist theory and of later
performativity theory, first because of their focus on US and Western European contexts, and
second because of their decentering of the female body as a realm of experience. Part of the
ideological reason for these theorists‘ decentering of the body a tendency in Western culture to
define women solely in terms of their bodies, as bearers of children, and as creatures of nature
and impulse in dominant patriarchal discourses; along with the association of masculinity with
transcendence of the body, and with logic, culture, and reason. These assumed dichotomies,
existing in a wide range of cultures (see Bourdieu 1978; Collier and Yanagisako 1987; Ortner
1978) are often used in patriarchal societies to justify the subordination of women. The aim of
much feminist theory has been to liberate women from such limiting definitions that tie them to
biological processes and position their ―lack‖ as the most important characteristic of women as a
Despite the usefulness of analyses like Bartky‘s, which posits norms of feminine
behavior as a source of oppression, and Butler‘s, which destabilizes categories of masculinity and
femininity, they can limit the possibilities of women‘s embodied empowerment and for their
political engagement in cross-cultural contexts. First, a position that views the female body
primarily as a source of oppression narrows possibilities for empowerment through bodily
practices, and for the subversion of patriarchal culture through embodied experience or
performance. Analyses similar to Bartky‘s seem to leave no room for women‘s empowerment
outside of a radical reconfiguration of gender relations. Such a reconfiguration lies outside the
realm of possibility (or desire) for women in many cultural contexts. Secondly, positions like
Butler‘s which reject grouping ―women‖ as a category (despite overwhelming acceptance of a
male/female dichotomy in the wider society) make any organized political action on the part of
women difficult. For example, a prerequisite condition for women‘s political action in the Polish
context is the recognition that all or most women have a common experience of subordination
around which to organize.
In the later chapters of the dissertation I will engage with these concepts in relation to the
enforcement of feminine body culture in Poland, the performance of alternative femininities or
female masculinities by self-defense participants, and the possibilities for women‘s empowerment
offered by self-defense in Poland. However, in applying these concepts it is important to
remember that many of the Polish women I interviewed tended to have a paradoxical orientation
toward gender ideologies, including feminism. They were not inclined to organize politically
around feminist issues, simply because they did not really see ―women‘s problems‖ as an
important category. This effacement of the category of women as a basis for political action has
historical and cultural roots in Poland, and is also connected to the neoliberal philosophy of
individuality, entrepreneurship and personal responsibility that many of these respondents
embraced. However, they also tended to hold essentialist opinions about the differences between
men and women, and to have a strong belief in the complementarity of the sexes. To reconcile
these contradictions, I will show how these women embrace the individualized empowerment of
self-defense courses, while preferring forms of empowerment that addressed them as women and
took into account differences between men and women. I also propose that these individualized
empowerment strategies can be more appealing than the ―feminism-by-design‖ often introduced
into post-socialist societies (Ghodsee 2004).
Theories of Embodiment and Body Work
―I have never been able to do pushups. And here, in this course, I had to force myself,
and I had to do these pushups, one, two… So I think this is kind of achievement, a very little, tiny
one, but still… More than that, more than fitness and exercise, I am trying to do something in my
own life, I am trying to learn something, and this has been some kind of inspiration.
And…overall these classes relax me, because I go to class, and I forget about everything else. I
forget about work, all my problems, and I just go away tired, but relaxed.‖ –Combat Participant
―After you practice these moves over and over, it is not enough just to know how to do it,
they have to come automatically. After some time, the change happens in your psyche. You are
prepared for any situation.‖ –Krav Maga Participant
In order to thoroughly understand the empowerment strategies of Polish self-defense
participants, it is important to look into the theoretical literature on the body, especially on ways
of transforming and disciplining the body, and how this ―body work‖ relates to identity
formation. The limited anthropological literature on the martial arts continues to elucidate the
processes of agency and subjectification among women who participate in these practices. Green
and Svinth (2005) as well as Hoppe (2002) are especially helpful in this regard.
Green and Svinth‘s edited volume brings together the historical accounts of the
development of many different martial arts schools, tying these martial arts methods to processes
of folklore, globalizing popular culture, and nationalism. In addition, they trace the development
and bifurcation of various ―traditional‖ martial arts historically. However, only one chapter
(Hargreaves 2002) addresses the specifically gendered aspects of ―masculine‖ fighting systems.
Hargreaves concludes that women‘s martial arts participation (specifically boxing) does have
radical and subversive potential for women‘s empowerment, but in the current construction of the
sport in Western cultures this potential is ―contradicted by the ever-present expression of
compulsory heterosexuality and the attempt to justify female boxing because it has an authentic
feminine element‖ and the use of sexualized images of women in boxing gear to sell commercial
products (225). She views much of the promotion of women‘s martial arts as a form of
―commodity feminism‖ that is achieved by consuming products, and working on the external
body to affect internal states (219-220), arguments that can equally apply to Polish women‘s
participation in masculinized martial arts like Krav Maga.
Hoppe‘s Sharp Spear, Crystal Mirror is less a scholarly analysis of women‘s martial arts
participation than a collection of interviews with participants. In this way, it is almost like an
ethnographic primary source. Many of Hoppe‘s interviewees construct their martial arts
participation as an essentially feminine activity, and their narratives focus on the balanced,
flowing, soft and gentle aspects of their martial arts (prominently featuring Asian martial arts like
Tai Chi, Aikido, and Judo). Many of the participants choose not to participate in martial arts that
they construct as too hard, masculine or brutal, and in this way the participants can reconcile the
pleasure taken in physical fighting and the unlearning of feminine socialization with what they
view as a nonviolent, essentially cultural-feminist personal philosophy.
My study adds to this body of research by producing an extensive, theoretical, and
ethnographically detailed case study of the development of the gendered aspects of martial arts in
a cultural context that is not normally associated with such practice. Rather than simply tracing
the development of self-defense courses for women in Poland, I conduct a more detailed
ethnographic study of Polish participants‘ motivations for participating, their connections to
feminist or other philosophies, and the effects that participation has had on their lives.
I also conceptualize martial arts and self-defense more as a capitalist consumer product in
this context, rather than an art or a philosophy with roots in an authentic or ancient tradition, as
some anthropologists have traditionally addressed (especially Asian) martial arts (Henning 2003;
Madis 2003; Shoji 2003). This does not mean that practitioners of traditional martial arts in
Poland do not identify as members of a venerable tradition or show deep commitment to the
values and philosophies of these traditions. However, the women involved with this study tended
to view martial-arts based self-defense activities as a leisure pursuit or a self-improvement
Theoretically speaking, I have found that a phenomenological approach is a useful way to
address the body culture of self-defense experience. For example, as in the work of MerleauPonty, the later chapters of my dissertation will show how the body can be a canvas expressing
social norms, political states and cultural anxieties. In addition, though my own experiences of
participating in self-defense in this context, I undertake what Paul Stoller (1997) would call
―sensuous scholarship,‖ echoing the work of Wacquant (2006), Lockford (2004) and Crossley
(2004), other authors who utilize phenomenology to analyze bodily experience, incorporating
their own experiences through undertaking a bodily discipline as a part of research. The most
important aspect of this scholarship is its focus on ―corporeity‖ or the lived experience of the
body, and a study of consciousness from a first person, non-objective and non-positivist
perspective, rejecting the Cartesian dualism between mind and body.
Aside from corporeity, another aspect of body culture informing this study (according to
some scholars, in direct tension with a phenomenological perspective) is Pierre Bourdieu‘s
concept of habitus. Bourdieu describes habitus as a set of behavioral patterns, residing in the
body and manifesting internalized cultural values. Habitus results from enculturation and
training that takes place throughout life, and manifests in ways of thinking, speaking, moving and
utilizing the body. Crossley (2001) further describes the ways that phenomenologists have taken
issue with Bourdieu‘s characterizations of habitus and proposes a compromise in the concept of
―phenomenological habitus,‖ defined as a flexible and ―moving equilibrium‖ that allows for
agency while acknowledging the important role of enculturation and habit (2001: 112). In my
dissertation I employ Crossley‘s compromise approach, merging Bourdieu‘s ―structured
structures‖ and ―structuring structures‖ (1977: 82) of Polish body culture with a more
personalized, experiential view of self-defense participants‘ corporeity.
Building upon this background, I also find the theories of Michel Foucault to be useful
for the study of Polish women‘s empowerment through the bodily practices of self-defense.
Foucault is well-known for his descriptions of ―microtechniques of the body‖ and his use of the
concept of ―docile bodies‖ to describe the minute training of bodily movements and comportment
taking place in modern social institutions. According to Foucault, these bodily disciplines are
ways of perpetuating social control and power relations; a somewhat sinister but inevitable aspect
of modernity. Foucault‘s ideas are apt for studying the ways that docile bodies are created in the
context of my study, both by the dominant gender regimes of Polish society, and also by the
formalized training of martial arts and self-defense.
My argument departs from Foucault‘s, however, by considering possibilities for
empowerment through bodily discipline. Foucault indeed states that ―power‖ (as he defines it)
can be productive as well as repressive, but he does not necessarily provide concrete examples of
how the creation of docile bodies can have emancipatory potential. A scholar who does a clearer
job of this is Saba Mahmood, who argues that some bodily disciplines can be a source of social
power and self-realization, even if to those outside a particular discipline, it can seem oppressive.
Mahmood‘s 2005 study concerns Egyptian women who are members of Islamic piety
movements. These women practice veiling, fasting and daily rituals such as prayer, in order to
gain social power and moral authority as pious women. Although Islamic practices are
commonly considered to be disempowering to women, Mahmood shows how some women gain a
form of empowerment within this religious context. An illustrative example used by Mahmood is
that of a virtuoso pianist who goes through rigorous and often unpleasant training in order to play
difficult compositions, thereby gaining prestige (Mahmood 2005:29). Other scholars who have
built on Mahmood‘s approach include Fong (2008) and Jones (2010), who successfully show how
women in China and Indonesia strategically use cultural gender expectations to exercise agency
without transgressing social norms.
Additionally, Susan Brownell (1995) has shown how the same principles apply in athletic
contexts in China. Elite athletes in China are given a strictly controlled schedule of training and
are held to exacting standards of behavior. However, through training their bodies and
succeeding in athletic contests they gain social power and privilege that they would not enjoy
The research participants in my study often constructed their participation in self-defense
participation or martial arts as a similarly empowering form of bodily discipline. The feminist
authors cited above who advocate for self-defense would most likely say that this empowerment
comes from shedding restrictive norms of femininity and gaining a more confident, self-assured
body culture. However, that does not mean that they completely trade in the repressive, powerladen body culture of Polish femininity for a new, less feminine, liberated body culture associated
with self-defense. Instead participants exercise agency by negotiating these two (often
overlapping) forms of bodily discipline to varying degrees. Also, it would be overly simplistic to
assume that the norms of feminine comportment (such as wearing high-heeled shoes) are never
experienced by these women as empowering, or that the disciplines of self-defense are never
experienced as oppressive or disempowering.
The questions of individual agency and the flexibility or mutability of body culture in the
context of globalization are key to my study. By investigating women‘s self-defense courses in
Poland, I hope to gain insight about how explicit and implicit discourses about bodily movement,
posture and ornamentation are filtered through cultural expectations and manifested in practice,
all within a context of mass mediation of images and cross-cultural exchange. Sociologist
Anthony Giddens has described the importance of ―body projects‖ as a distinctive feature of
identity formation in late modernity (1990). The importance of these body projects is tied to the
current ―post-traditional‖ order within which individuals are expected to form their own identities
by picking and choosing elements of appearance, activity and belief in order to form identities in
the manner of a collage (1990:41).
The picking and choosing of identity elements is closely related to capitalist modes of
consumption, specifically the aspirational images found in much advertising. The processes as
described by Giddens are similar to those currently ongoing in Poland and in other post-socialist
societies, especially the essential tension between conformity and individuality, or in the case of
Polish women, ―self-sacrifice versus self-investment‖ (Marody and Giza-Połeszczuk 2000; see
also Phillips 2008, Haney 2008).
For the purposes of this study, I view Polish women who participate in self-defense or
martial arts on a commercial basis as undertaking a body project which is based on the
consumption of a particular product: self-improvement. This consumer product is purchased,
utilized and enjoyed much like an entertainment product, but also requires adherence and
conformity to a particular bodily discipline. Although this discipline requires a degree of
compliance and obedience for participants to gain the desired results, they still construct these
activities as aspects of an identity grounded in individuality, uniqueness and independence,
because of the low proportion of women who participate in such pursuits.
Scholars such as Michael Messner (2000), Nick Crossley (2006, 2004), St. Martin and
Gavey (1995) and Leslea Haravon Collins (2000) have written ethnographic accounts of the
moralities and the individual/social pressures accompanying embodied self-improvement regimes
such as aerobics, fitness training and dieting, as well as women‘s participation in traditionally
masculine sports like bullfighting and bodybuilding. In all of these studies, the morality of body
projects is rooted in individualistic discourses of personal responsibility, control, and selfdiscipline. In addition, authors who have studied similar phenomena in post-socialist or other
nonwestern contexts (Mindrut 2002, Edwards 2002, Ginsberg 2000, Kalacheva 2002) place
emphasis on aspirational images of glamour and media representations of the Western body as
beautiful, but also on ethical discourses of individualized hard work and discipline as the reasons
why these pursuits have become popular (or failed to become popular) in a variety of cultural
In addition to all of these aspects of the anthropology of the body, the arguments of my
dissertation are in dialogue with Margaret Lock and Nancy Scheper-Hughes‘ article ―The
Mindful Body (1987) which discusses the ways that the human body can be construed variously
as the expression of the personal, the social and the body politic. According to this influential
article, the human body (in physical as well as in symbolic terms) is implicated in 1) the ways
that individuals express themselves; 2) the ways that social phenomena are expressed in corporeal
terms, and vice versa, and 3) the ways that political and social institutions attempt to regulate
persons through control of bodies. The corporeal expressions and disciplines relating to selfdefense and gender among the women in my study can be discussed in terms of all three of these
frameworks of the body, which can also relate to the other important theorists mentioned above.
For example, Bourdieu and Foucault show how the state or the society can be a mechanism for
disciplining the body, while Mahmood brings in the importance of individual agency, and
Giddens shows how these disciplines interface with a late modern society.
First, Polish women who participate in self-defense undertake an individualizing body
project, often with the aim of expressing a distinctive identity while improving the self.
Secondly, the body of a self-defense participant becomes a tool with which to negotiate the
symbolisms implied by various types of movement, speech and posture, and their social coding as
masculine or feminine, assertive or passive. In addition, Polish women‘s participation in selfdefense as a form of resistance against gendered violence can also be potentially symbolic of
dominant Polish conceptions of sovereignty, especially in light of its increasing integration into
the European Union. Third and finally, self-defense training represents an attempt to create
―docile bodies‖ through regulation and discipline with the aim of making those bodies resistant to
physical violence and coercion. Women who undertake self-defense training are often
encouraged to first rethink (if not reject) the socialization and regulation of their bodies by the
dominant Polish gender regime, which encourages women to be small, weak, and passive.
Globalization and Hybridity as the Context of Women‘s Self-Defense in Poland
―Overall, I don’t really feel ―Polish‖ in any special way, just… I don’t feel attached to
this country, I just… don’t really feel the need to travel, to move around. I have always lived
individually, and that means I have done everything my own way.‖ –Marta, Krav Maga
―Right now, at work, there are lots of people from outside Poland, and it’s very
interesting. There are Venezuelans, there are people from Belarus, from Turkey, from Egypt so
whether I want to or not, I have to speak English. You know some of these people come to Poland
not knowing a word of Polish. They get work here…obviously if someone intends to come to
Poland, they will slowly start to learn a little bit of Polish, but let’s say the standard is such that
all the firm’s correspondence is in English, so I have learned a little bit of English whether I want
to or not.‖ - Gosia, Krav Maga Participant
The affinity toward individuated forms of empowerment among women who participate
in martial arts and self-defense in Poland can be connected to the promotion of neoliberal forms
of personhood in Polish society. As arch-neoliberal Margaret Thatcher stated ―there is no such
thing as society, only individual men and women‖ (quoted in Harvey 2006: 23). Such an
approach to personhood flattens out structural inequality and allows for a fiction of a level
playing field in economics, politics and in interpersonal relationships. It also can lead to the
assumption that individuals are completely agentic and therefore wholly responsible for their own
life circumstances. As I have mentioned before, ideas like this have become entrenched in Polish
society since the transition period around 1989, as a result of globalizing capitalist and
development discourses. Because of the immediacy of these conceptualizations in the lives of
Polish women, it is important to address dominant theories on globalizing processes and how they
articulate with Polish political, cultural and gender regimes. Later in the dissertation, I will show
how these broader processes in Polish society affect women who participate in self-defense
activities, and how this participation is informed by the forces of globalization.
Early analyses of globalization showed concern about the homogenization of cultures, the
overwhelming dominance of mass (read: Western) culture, control by large multinational
corporations and the predicted end of the nation-state‘s relevance (Baudrillard 1988; Schiller
1976; Mattelart 1979). Later revisions of these theories have shown that globalization has been
multidirectional, though still fraught with inequalities, and that cultures have resisted assimilation
into any kind of homogeneous global system (Axford 1995; Friedman 1995; Hannerz 1991). The
same principles of flexibility and multidirectionality can be expanded to apply to the ways that
international development concepts and programs, as well as on-the-ground operations of NGOs
have been adapted (successfully or unsuccessfully) to local cultural contexts.
Building upon the baseline assumptions of multidirectional globalization, the background
theories most important to my study have been those of Appadurai (1996), David Harvey (1989,
2006, 2009) and Garcia-Canclini. First, Appadurai‘s Modernity at Large has been one of the
most influential works in the anthropological study of globalization. In this work, Appadurai
especially sought to complicate the oversimplified discourses of development and world-systems
theories, by describing the processes of globalization as a series of ―flows‖ and ―scapes‖ which
are multidirectional and constantly changing. Appadurai‘s ―mediascapes‖ and ―ideoscapes‖ are
the most directly relevant to my study. This is because I investigate the flows of mediascapes
portraying images of class aspiration and ideal femininity, as well as popular images of martial
arts disseminated through the media. In addition, I attempt to make sense of the ideoscapes that
inform self-defense participation, including feminism, neoliberalism and Polish nationalism.
Another useful idea related to the globalization of martial arts and self-defense for
women is Garcia-Canclini‘s concept of ―hybrid cultures‖ (1995). Garcia-Canclini defines hybrid
cultures as localized systems of meaning that emerge when cultural features from various sources
are selectively adopted, consciously or unconsciously, to form a completely new cultural identity.
Garcia-Canclini‘s examples are drawn from Latin America, but the processes he describes are
certainly at work in the Polish context. Women in Poland who participate in self-defense and
martial arts are, intentionally or unconsciously, cobbling together identities that incorporate
culturally disparate elements. In the same way, the localized cultures of different self-defense
programs and martial arts studios in Poland can certainly be described as ―hybrid.‖ My work
contributes to the concept of hybrid cultures by incorporating debates on individualized agency
and showing how the creation of hybrid cultures can occur on the micro- as well as the macrolevel.
Already I have flagged the relevance of prominent theories of neoliberalism and
cosmopolitanism to this study. The current trajectories of ideas in Polish society, especially those
regarding gender, employment and personal empowerment, are directly related to neoliberalism
as it has been discussed by Harvey, Rapley, and others. The volume A Brief History of
Neoliberalism looks at these phenomena primarily from a global economic perspective, tracing
their development from the 1970s to the 21st century. The assertions Harvey makes about the
nature of neoliberal policies and philosophies justify my association of women‘s self-defense in
Poland as a distinctly neoliberal form of empowerment. For example, Harvey states that
neoliberalism ―proposes that human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual
entrepreneurial freedoms and skills….(2)‖ and that neoliberal ideas ―presume…a level playing
field for competition‖ (68). Carla Freeman (2007) and other scholars in anthropology further the
concept of an ―entrepreneurial self‖ that is creatively fashioned as a means of economic success
and empowerment. These features of neoliberalism correspond to women‘s self-defense
philosophies in the Polish context; they are aimed at empowering individual women rather than
all women. In addition, such a philosophy of individualized empowerment assumes that all
women have equal opportunity and capability to effectively learn self-defense skills.
However, scholars like John Rapley (2004) and Hardt and Negri (2000) have cautioned
that the widespread acceptance of neoliberal ideas about a level playing field and individual
opportunity have led to a ―downward spiral‖ of economic inequality and that the deregulation of
capital has led to an ―Empire‖ of multinational corporations that have usurped the nation-state as
the source of this inequality. These writers argue that the individuation and responsiblization that
takes place under such regimes fragment social networks and diminish the capacities for group
solidarity and political action among subordinated groups. Angela Coyle (2002) shows that in the
aftermath of neoliberal reform in Poland a multitude of women‘s groups and non-governmental
organizations were started through international aid and funding agencies. The support of such
groups was predicated on the assumption that given a little funding and a lot of individual
ingenuity, these small grass-roots groups would be able to challenge the patriarchal structures of
Polish culture and politics. Coyle shows the extent to which these groups have been unsuccessful
and the ways that this lack of success is caused by a lack of training and coordination among
groups. In the same way, women‘s self-defense organizations have been supported by
international funding agencies on the assumption that empowering individual women will lead to
a gain in status for women as a group.
These theoretical approaches form a basis for my discussions of self-defense as a
phenomenon closely related to globalization. In the later chapters of my dissertation, self-defense
will be discussed in three major ways which incorporate these basic understandings of
globalization and neoliberalism. Throughout those chapters, I will discuss self-defense as a type
of ―body project‖ related to a dominant tendency toward identity formation through
ornamentation, transformation, and discipline of the body in late modernity (Giddens 1990). In
the remainder of this section I will briefly outline the literature associated with this axis of
analysis and explain its relevance to my study, as well as tying globalization theory to
international development discourses and debates surrounding European integration in Poland.
Nick Crossley (2006), Mike Featherstone (2000) and others have drawn on Giddens‘
theories addressing the attention to individual bodies that is characteristic of late modernity.
These authors provide ethnographic accounts of a wide variety of body projects undertaken in
historical and contemporary contexts, often in the name of health, success, distinction or
rebellion. Other authors have also shown the ways that modern states have long linked the health
of individual bodies to the health of the nation or society (e.g. Brownell 1999), as well as body
projects undertaken as requirements of belonging to a specific social or religious group.
However, the types of cases Crossley and Featherstone discuss have become more prominent
during late modernity because they are often disconnected from a coherent national, state or
ethnic identification. These body projects are viewed by their practitioners as individualized
means of expression, often disaggregated from national identity or other webs of social
obligation. Based on the ethnographic data I have collected I find that women who participate in
self-defense in Poland view their participation, a way of forming an identity of independence,
freedom and uniqueness.
Closely related to the idea of self-defense as an individualizing body project is its
position as a consumer product promising self-improvement or empowerment. This positioning
of self-defense is closely tied to neoliberal policies associated with the regional integration of the
European Union, an international process with direct effects on the lives of Polish women. Cris
Shore in Building Europe (2002) has addressed the ways that ―European citizenship‖ has been
conceptualized at various levels of EU organization, and one of his conclusions is that EU
citizenship is based on the primacy of the market system, evidence by the interpellation of EU
citizens primarily as consumers. According to Shore, European integration has given a ―glimpse
of what ‗post-national European citizenship‘ might mean in practice; namely, an identity forged
around and through an ideal of the European consumer.‖ He also quotes Terry Turner as saying
that ―‘Consumption of commodities has… supplanted the exercise of the traditional political
functions of citizenship as the main mode of construction—and thus control—of personal
identity‘‖ (Shore 2002: 85). Shore even describes the ways that ―Europe‖ has been constructed
by EU officials as a branded product, and has been marketed and advertised to the citizens of
member states and potential members (Shore 2002: 55). Although the EU has been
conceptualized by many scholars as beneficial for women because of required gender
mainstreaming policies, such neoliberal tendencies can also have the effect of further
marginalizing poor women and weakening social support systems.
Although Poland has benefited in some ways from its accession to the European Union,
in the eyes of many Poles EU integration implies a loss of sovereignty, homogenization and
extinction of Poland‘s unique culture and the imposition of ―immoral‖ social policies5 (e.g.
Galbraith 2004). Controversies over such EU policies and anxieties about Poland‘s place in
Europe have led to the mobilization of conservative political elements that have mobilized
discourses of Polish nationalism, often in close conjunction with the Catholic Church. As I will
detail later, in Chapter 8, very often nationalist discourses are used to justify or rationalize
essentialist or patriarchal ideas about women‘s roles. Therefore, the analysis of this rhetoric
provides unexpected insight into the ways that self-defense courses have emerged in Poland, as
well as the motivations of the women I interviewed.
Yet another effect of globalization directly relevant to the self-defense phenomenon is the
widespread export of nongovernmental organizations and other forms of social programs,
specifically those initiatives promoting ―women‘s empowerment ―and those created to remedy
violence against women. As Keck and Sikkink (1998) have shown, the frame of violence against
women has proven to be very effective in raising support in the form of local and international
awareness, as well as funding from international aid agencies. These strategies for providing
resources and support for women who have experienced violence, under the auspices of women‘s
rights as human rights have been successful, popular, and very difficult to criticize.
However, the universal application of this women‘s rights framework, regardless of
culture context, can be problematic, and has been indicted by some anthropologists and feminist
scholars for its elision of cultural differences, and also for its denial of significant agency on the
part of women. Some authors have warned that violence against women programs walk a narrow
path between the ―revictimization‖ or infantilization of survivors of gendered violence, and the
assignation of too much agency, which runs the risk of placing the responsibility for violence
upon the shoulders of victims.
Other criticisms, specific to the post-socialist Eastern European context, include the fear
that an inordinate focus on ―violence against women‖ frames for NGO activities may gloss over
other issues affecting women that deserve equal support (Hemment 2007). In addition, even
NGOs that successfully provide support for women who have experienced certain types of
violence, for example domestic violence, often find themselves losing funds due to the supporting
agencies‘ shift in focus to newer or more attractive issues or forms of violence, such as trafficking
(Johnson 2005). Finally, some critics of NGO activity in Eastern Europe have questioned the
focus on gender as the most important determining factor for economic and social opportunity in
the region. According to Ghodsee (2005), gender is less important than class in determining how
post-socialist citizens have fared in the economic transformations. Since women in Bulgaria (her
fieldsite) have gained certain economic benefits in relation to men, she argues that an
intersectional approach to studying gender in the region (i.e. taking class and race into
consideration as social divisions on par with gender) may be more suitable than assuming that all
Eastern European women are downtrodden victims of ruthless economies and patriarchal
―traditional‖ cultures. For this reason, she suggests, a heavy focus by international NGOs and
funding agencies on programs that seek to help or ―rescue‖ women is misguided.
I do not suggest that Polish women are in any way in need of ―rescue‖ but I do maintain
that structural inequalities exist that continue to disadvantage women as a group. Therefore, the
continuation of social support programs specifically targeting women is necessary, as well as
support for struggling initiatives against gendered violence. Much research by Polish feminist
organizations has indicated that existing programs to help remedy violence against women (such
as crisis hotlines and shelters) have experienced only limited success but would benefit from
more government support (Nowakowska 2009; NEWW 2001). On the other hand, some scholars
have suggested that these kinds of interventions are only sufficient to ―clean up‖ after the
consequences of violence, but not to prevent it before it occurs (e.g. Johnson 2002). In Poland,
conventional solutions to violence that propose structural change in society have met with
popular and political resistance, so some self-defense proponents see their courses as an
alternative way to lessen violence against women. Self-defense courses are not designed to
―help‖ women, one instructor told me. Instead, self-defense teaches women to ―help
In sum, all the theoretical perspectives I have described address tensions between social
identity and individuality from varying points of view (i.e. gender, the body, globalization).
Using the analytical framework provided by these theories, I read and processed the ethnographic
data from my field study to produce the ethnography and analysis contained in the following
Chapter Outline
This chapter has provided a background to the ethnographic and theoretical approaches
employed in my dissertation research, and in the interpretation of my data. In the next two
chapters, I will continue to define the historical and ethnographic contexts of the phenomena
examined here, as well as introducing the shape and general trends of the data I collected.
Chapter 2 will locate the phenomenon of women‘s self-defense in Poland in its historical and
cultural context. This introductory chapter locates the study in relation to some broad
anthropological theoretical approaches; Chapter 2 shows how these theories have been applied
more specifically in the context of Eastern European and Poland, and explains the historical
events and cultural trends in Poland that cause women‘s self-defense to be such a particularly
illustrative phenomenon. Chapter 3 provides a more detailed orientation to the different courses I
observed, and general demographic information about the women who attended these courses and
who I interviewed over the course of the study. It will also give a more detailed description of the
differences and similarities among the different courses and their advantages and disadvantages
as perceived by the participants and instructors. I will periodically refer back to the information
and tables included in Chapter 3 in order to illustrate points in the later chapters.
In the second part of the dissertation, I will show the ways in which Polish women who
participate in self-defense assimilate these activities into their cultural, gender and individual
identities and show how these identities are indicative of wider social trends. Chapter 4, entitled
―Self-Defense and the Intersections of Consumption and Class Aspiration‖ will address the
formation of consumption-related identities linked to participation in self-defense courses. It will
discuss how self-defense can be defined as a commercial product or as a form of consumer
behavior even though it is often framed by its organizers as an altruistic effort to help empower
women. In this chapter I will also frame self-defense courses in terms of their positioning within
international development and human rights discourses, which are often based on neoliberal ideas
of personhood and capitalistic models of social change. At first glance, the hybrid identities
practiced creatively by self-defense participants may seem more empowering than an embrace of
traditionally-defined gender roles, the identities negotiated by self-defense practitioners are still
closely tied to the disempowering structures of capitalism and consumerism. The framing of selfdefense courses as a consumer choice and as a means of individualized self-improvement draws
attention away from broader social inequalities that lead to gendered violence, and makes social
remedies for misogyny and violence against women seem irrelevant. In Chapter 4, I use evidence
from interviews and from self-defense advertising (and Polish advertisements more generally) to
highlight these issues.
Chapter 5, titled ―Performances of Masculinity and Femininity in the Self-Defense
Studio‖ will outline the ways that self-defense courses and women‘s fitness activities in Poland
bring into focus the definitions of masculine and feminine conduct in this cultural context. In this
chapter I show that although a wide variety of new forms of ―body work‖ are available in Polish
society, the social coding of physical activities is still strongly influenced by conservative ideas of
masculinity and femininity. I also further explore the performance of female masculinity or
alternative femininity in martial arts based courses that are usually dominated by men, especially
in Poland. I argue that in mixed-sex martial arts settings in Poland, women who successfully
participate in these sports must adopt a form of female masculinity because the pedagogy and
student-instructor interactions in these courses are based on a gender binary that privileges
masculine ways of being. Chapter 5 analyzes interview data as well as participant-observation in
self-defense courses and fitness clubs to show how gender norms define acceptable physical
activity for women, and the implication these limitations have for women‘s self-defense
The sixth chapter, titled ―Gender-Sensitive Self-Defense Training and the Uses of Gender
Essentialism‖ shifts the focus from the masculinized world of martial-arts courses to forms of
self-defense that are designed specifically for women and that sometimes attempt to address
violence and self-defense from a self-described ―feminist‖ perspective. However, in the Polish
context the feminist content of such courses is downplayed, and attention is focused more on
women‘s purportedly unique strengths and abilities, rather than on subverting accepted gender
norms and roles. In this chapter I will argue that rather than being anti-feminist or contradictory
to the purpose of self-defense classes, such a limited utilization of gender essentialist or cultural
feminist ideas (such as women‘s intuition and maternal instinct) can constitute a way of tapping
into cultural notions of ―strong women.‖ Many Polish women value more or less traditional roles
as wives, mothers and caretakers, and perceive feminism as a foreign ideology that seeks to
devalue these identities. The use of essentialist assumptions about gender is commonplace in
Polish popular discourses, to the point that a narrowly defined feminine role is seen by many as
innate or even biologically based for all women. For this reason, and because of most Polish
women‘s lack of engagement with organized Western feminism, this use of gender essentialism is
a way of invoking ideas of women‘s strength without devaluing accepted feminine roles.
Chapter 7, entitled ―The Silencing of Domestic Violence in Self-Defense Pedagogy and
Discourse‖ addresses the problem of domestic violence in Poland and shows how even though it
is the most common form of violence experienced by Polish women, it is often silenced in
discussions of violence against women. This is also true in self-defense courses. Although some
self-defense methods offer courses designed especially for women who have experienced
domestic violence, these courses are only available to women who have successfully claimed the
―victim‖ position through state channels such as hospitals or crisis centers. In other self-defense
contexts, domestic violence is glossed over or ignored entirely, while violence is often projected
onto a shadowy and sometimes ethnicized Other. Finally, in this chapter I show how in the
Polish context, the Other is constructed often not in ethnic terms but in economic terms, with the
image of the street person or the alcoholic as the face of violence against women.
Chapter 8, entitled ―Gender, Individuation and the Self-Defense of the Polish Nation‖ is
the final empirical chapter of this dissertation. In it, I tie together the issues of gender,
consumption and identity formation discussed in the previous chapters, showing the ways that
women‘s self-defense participation is an individualized phenomenon but also symbolizes national
myths of citizenship and Poland‘s place in Europe. Processes of individuation and class
differentiation have been documented by scholars both in Poland and elsewhere in Eastern
Europe as an important feature of post-socialist societies. Individuation can refer both to the
formation of ―unique‖ individual identities through consumption, or a conception of neoliberal
citizenship espoused by government policies and international development discourses.
Differentiation is also important, both in terms of increasingly inequalities in material wealth in
post-socialist countries, and the negotiation of gender, ethnic and cultural differences and new
forms of belonging in post-socialist Poland as it is increasingly integrated as part of the European
Union. In this chapter I will discuss the ways that the idea of self-defense for women is
symptomatic of the current individualizing discourses in Polish society, and is also connected to
(very non-individualistic) discourses of Polish nationalism.
The ninth and concluding chapter serves as a summary, and I draw conclusions about
how women‘s self-defense in Poland can be seen as an example of individual bodies‘
symbolization of the body politic. This conclusion will show how Polish women‘s attempts to
protect and empower themselves through self-defense are symbolic of the changing logics
surrounding personhood, citizenship and agency in Poland. In addition, I will discuss the
possibilities for women‘s empowerment and self-defense in Poland from a practical point of
view, and outline the possibilities for future research on this and related topics.
Chapter 2
Women in Poland in Historical Perspective
Warsaw, City of Contrasts
The first time I visited Warsaw, in July 2006, I was surprised by its cosmopolitan feel. In
contrast with other Polish cities I had seen up until that point, Warsaw’s city center contained
American-style shopping malls, large supermarkets and restaurants offering everything from
tapas to sushi. Warsaw, Poland’s largest and capital city, experienced extreme damage and
devastation as a result of bombing during World War II. Rebuilt under Stalinist rule during the
1950s, Warsaw gained a reputation as a gray, sprawling and featureless city full of
indistinguishable apartment blocks built in utilitarian ―communist‖ styles of architecture.
The city I visited in 2006 and 2007, at least in the city center, seemed to be a far cry from
the stereotypes held by many Westerners of Poland’s bleak poverty, shortages and a lack of
quality consumer goods. Warsaw’s two biggest shopping centers, Złote Tarasy (Golden
Terraces, next to the central train station) and Arkadia (on the city’s north side, Central Europe’s
largest shopping mall) confront visitors with a staggering array of consumer choices.
Yet, Warsaw remains a city of disturbing contrasts, as the economic prosperity I
originally observed is not so evenly distributed. A stone’s throw away from Złote Tarasy’s highend boutiques and cutting-edge architecture, the subterranean vending booths adjacent to the
central station sell alcohol, used clothing, and pornography at dirt-cheap prices. Near Arkadia’s
massive multiplex cinema and food court sit unrenovated communist-era apartment blocks and
rows of run-down shacks used by city-dwellers as gardening plots and summer retreats, two
features that are reminiscent of the hardships of past years.
Although it may be more hidden behind the gloss of commerce and consumerism than in
past decades, a great deal of poverty still exists in Warsaw. The beggars and homeless can be
readily seen on the main commercial streets of Krakowskie Przedmieście and Jezorolomskie, but
less visible to outsiders are the thousands upon thousands of families who still struggle to live
with dignity, often in undersized communist-era apartments. In such families, both parents must
often work more than one job because many job salaries fall well below the level of survival.
Those who are able to work multiple jobs are the lucky ones; unemployment has continued to be
a significant problem in Poland, even during periods of economic growth. For example, during
2007 (my period of research) the unemployment rate was at its highest (13%) since 2002, when it
hit a record high of 18% (Index Mundi, 2010). These economic struggles can be seen more
vividly in the region of Warsaw known as Praga, on the east side of the River Wisła. This area is
regarded by many affluent Warsaw residents as a dangerous area with a high rate of violent
crime, where it is not safe for respectable people, especially women, to travel.
Poland has often been characterized as one of the few ―success stories‖ of the Eastern
European transition to a capitalist economy. The country has achieved social, political and
economic benchmarks which have allowed it to join the European Union in 2004; in 2007 and
2008 the złoty (the Polish unit of currency, also known as PLN) was undergoing a spike in value
in relation to both the US dollar and the Euro. Poland has been spared the highly publicized
levels of nationalistic and civil violence that have plagued some other Eastern European countries
during the past 20 years. However, these objective economic measures and lack of international
bad press may mask some of the less progressive aspects of the Polish social and political
climate, which I will discuss later in this chapter.
Many of the complex processes at play in Polish society have roots in various aspects of
20th century Polish history. Therefore, in the remainder of this chapter, I will explain some of the
historical factors that have led to this current climate, and the ways that these trends have shaped
women‘s opportunities for empowerment, as well as the ways empowerment itself is defined.
Although I will explain some of the general events in Polish history, I will focus mainly on those
processes which have had an effect on how gender ideas have entered the popular imagination
and how economic and political currents have had specific effects on the lives of women.
As in any culture, a complex series of factors and historical forces have contributed to the
formation of specific ideas about gender and the social enforcement of these ideas. For the
purposes of this dissertation, most of the historical account I will tell begins with World War II,
although obviously there is no starting point that constitutes a blank slate.6
Pre-Communist Polish Gender Identity
Prior to World War II, Poland was a more or less Western-oriented European country,
although during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, its status as a nation-state was constantly
threatened by its geographical location between the powers of Germany and Russia/the USSR.
For this reason, Poland made alliances with powerful Western European nations such as France
and the United Kingdom. The conception of Poland by many Poles, and by many foreign
observers as the ―heart of Europe‖ has roots that go back far into the 17th century and beyond,
because of the Polish army‘s defeat of the Turks in 1683 and their repulsion of various foreign
invaders. Poland‘s national and cultural identity has also always been bound up with the (Roman
Catholic) Christian religion. In fact, most histories of Poland begin with the baptism of Polish
King Mieszko I in 966. This conflation between religious and national identity has led to epithets
for Poland like the ―Christ of Nations.‖ This name for Poland is also evocative of national
In World War II Polish cities and rural areas suffered widespread devastation at the hands
of both the Nazis and the Soviets. At the end of the war, the Soviet control of Poland, which was
the result of negotiations at the Tehran and Yalta conferences, was seen as a betrayal on the part
of England and the United States, and further contributed to the image of Poland as a martyred
In terms of gender, traditional roles in Poland took forms that were consonant with
Western European cultures. According to these gender regimes, women‘s connections to family
and private spheres were very strong. These connections existed alongside a widespread
expectation for women to remain modest, sexually chaste, and demure. Both men and women
were expected to make personal sacrifices in the name of the nation, especially during times of
war and partition, but while men‘s sacrifices were conceptualized in terms of military service,
women‘s acceptable sacrifices were discursively limited to reproductive and caring roles.7 Jolluck
(2006) explains how the suffering of Polish women during World War II was constructed by
these women as a noble sacrifice for the ―fatherland‖ as long as these privations did not draw
attention to their femaleness (i.e. hunger, cold, physical violence such as beatings). However,
when these women experienced a loss of modesty or privacy, or sexual exploitation in the same
contexts, they viewed their suffering not as honorable but as shameful. The responsibility for this
violence was placed on the victim, not on the perpetrator, and these women sometimes expressed
enormous guilt over their ―loss of virtue,‖ and more often referred to these unspeakable acts only
in oblique terms (Jolluck 2006: 214). This evidence shows that the assignation of responsibility
to women for their own sexual victimization is nothing new in Polish history, a trope to which I
will return in a discussion of more recent history.
Jolluck also states that the qualities of modesty, delicacy and virtue are constructed as
―natural‖ or ―innate‖ to Polish women, characteristics that are used to draw distinctions between
themselves and ―immodest,‖ ―coarse‖ and impure Russian women (Jolluck 2006: 202). This is
interesting because of frequent references to Poland by nationalist historians in female terms
(Poland is always referred to as ―her‖ or ―she‖), as well as the assignation of innate, natural
qualities of the ―Polish Spirit‖ (See Stachura 1999).
The Communist Period and Solidarity
As I mention briefly above, the communist regime in Poland was popularly conceived as
a foreign imposition, and Communist Party members and leaders was often seen as traitors, as
somehow unnatural or ―not really Polish‖ because they contradicted the innate qualities of Polish
national identity. During the communist period, throughout the various changes in Party policy
and leadership, Polish national identity continued to revolve around a strong opposition between
state and society, between ―us‖ and ―them,‖ in which the Catholic Church and the domestic
sphere were cast as havens of refuge from the all-encompassing socialist state. This led to a
further idealization of women who fulfilled domestic and caring roles, and adhered to the
religious model of femininity epitomized by the Virgin Mary. This occurred during a time when
women were required by the planned economy to work outside the home and religious expression
was restricted, so these roles were more difficult than ever for real-life women to fulfill.
During the 1970s and 1980s, a series of strikes and riots occurred throughout Poland over
labor conditions, workers‘ benefits and food shortages. Near the end of this period, a number of
trade unions joined together to form the organization Solidarity (Solidarność). This organization
came to the forefront of the Polish opposition with the charismatic Lech Wałęsa as its leader.
However, the direct antecedent of the 1980 strike at the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk, which is most
commonly through to have precipitated the crisis in Poland that led to the collapse of state
socialism, was the firing of a woman. Anna Walentynowicz was a crane operator in the shipyard,
who was fired unjustly in the eyes of the other workers. The shipyard‘s trade union demanded
her reinstatement as one of their strike demands. This defense of Walentynowicz was not framed
in gendered terms, but as the support of a competent and reliable fellow worker whose skills were
necessary for the smooth functioning of the shipyard.
Once Solidarity became well-known as a legitimate social movement on the national
level, Walentynowicz faded into the background of the movement and rarely appeared at public
rallies or took a leadership role in the union. Lech Wałęsa and his wife Danuta became the
recognizable symbols of the movement. Lech Wałęsa was known to be a devout Catholic and
conservative on many social issues. He was known for wearing a lapel pin with an image of the
famous icon known as the ―Black Madonna‖ of Częstochowa (allegedly responsible for a number
of miracles). Often the Virgin Mary is called the ―Queen of Poland‖ and is considered to be the
ideal of Polish femininity. In Chapter 8, I will further explore the bearing of the imagery of the
Virgin Mary and the ―Black Madonna‖ on Polish gender ideologies.
Wałęsa also signed the treaty agreement with the communist government in 1989 with a
large souvenir pen bearing the image of Pope John Paul II. Because of these ways that these
images were appropriated and deployed by Solidarity, along with its overwhelming popularity,
the union seemed to foster an assumption that the collapse of the communist system was ―God‘s
will‖ or that it represented a mandate to reinstate traditional Christian values, as opposed to the
atheistic values of state socialism. In addition, the election of Karol Wojtyła, a Polish bishop, as
Pope John Paul II in 1979 (as well as his subsequent visits to Poland during the politically
tumultuous climate of the next few years) played a large role in galvanizing the resolve of
Solidarity members by playing on this national-religious identity.
Wałęsa‘s wife, Danuta, was cast in the role of the feminine supporter, and was often
shown as a part of groups of women bringing sandwiches to the striking workers (Long 1996).
Although this was never made explicit by the Solidarity movement, it appears that Danuta was
considered to more accurately fulfill the ―proper‖ feminine role than Walentyowicz.
Walentynowicz was a tough, proletarian crane operator who played a crucial role in the
functioning of the masculine public sphere of the shipyard, while Danuta was primarily identified
(at least in public appearances) as a mother, wife and nurturer.
During the crisis of 1980-81, Solidarity and its strikes became so widely popular that the
functioning of Polish industries became practically paralyzed, causing the then-leader of the
Communist party, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, to institute martial law on December 13, 1981.
The imposition of martial law (justified as ―protecting‖ Poland from Soviet invasion) and the
imprisonment of most of Solidarity‘s leaders severely undermined any legitimacy the party may
have still possessed.
After almost 8 years of a political stalemate, and facing a total lack of relevance, the
communist party leadership allowed Solidarity to stand as a major competitor in the 1989 election
of the country‘s first (semi) free elections in decades, in which the PZPR (The Communist Party,
or the Polish United Workers‘ Party) was guaranteed over half of the seats in the Senate and the
Sejm (the legislature‘s lower house.) Solidarity won all the seats it was allowed, and this election
is considered to be the first major step in the fall of the communist system in Poland and
elsewhere in Eastern Europe (Lukowski and Zawadzki 2006). Eventually, in 1991, Lech Wałęsa
was elected president of Poland.
The gendered aspects of the Solidarity period, both during the strikes of the 1980s and
martial law, and in the aftermath of Solidarity‘s victory, are informed by national mythologies of
feminine virtue as well as ethics of self-sacrifice. Shana Penn‘s study of the women involved
with the underground Solidarity movement during marital law contends that these women
effectively ―saved‖ the movement and made Solidarity‘s later victories possible. The reaction to
this book in Poland is an interesting example of how a Polish culture of feminine self-effacement
is deeply ingrained even in extraordinary circumstances. In Penn‘s 2005 book, entitled
Solidarity’s Secret: How Women Defeated Communism in Poland, the author describes the
activities of women who kept the underground Solidarity movement functioning when most of
the movement‘s male leaders were imprisoned during marital law. Her rationale for writing the
book was that these women had not received sufficient attention from the Polish press and from
historians for their role in Solidarity‘s success. The book admittedly portrays the events in a
rather sensationalist and triumphalist manner, but the women portrayed in this volume are cast in
overwhelmingly positive, even heroic terms.
After Solidarity’s Secret was released, the reaction to the book from Penn‘s interviewees
and other Polish women, whether or not they were involved with Solidarity, was surprising to
Penn and to some other observers. The response of these women can best be described as a
feeling of betrayal and embarrassment at the claims Penn made in the book. In the first place,
some of the participants in the study asked not to be named because they did not believe that their
actions deserved praise or attention. Although Penn uses anonymous quotes from those who
requested not to be identified, several of Penn‘s interviewees were uncomfortable with Penn‘s
characterization of their heroism, accusing her of assigning them an aggrandized role which they
did not really fulfill and never asked for. In addition, they accused Penn of creating false
divisions along gender lines among Solidarity members. They stated that within Solidarity,
gender was not a relevant axis of analysis; that it ―belonged to everyone,‖ and that highlighting
women‘s specific contribution implies that they were somehow unequal within the movement, or
that such praise diminished men‘s contributions leading to the collapse of the communist system.
Among these other comments were multiple assertions that ―Western feminists just can‘t
understand Polish women,‖ or the specific cultural context of the Solidarity period. The
Solidarity women interviewed by Penn repeated that they were ―only doing what they had to‖ and
that they never wanted a leadership role. There are echoes here of Jolluck‘s analysis of women‘s
suffering during World War II, in which women only felt that their suffering was noble when it
was not gendered in nature. There may be debate as to whether Solidarity women were
instrumentally kept out of leadership roles by men, or whether they self-selected out of these
roles, but either reason can be seen as the result of a cultural tradition that discourages women
from feeling comfortable as the center of attention, especially in contexts where their gender is
brought to the fore.
As I mention in the preface, Anna Walentynowicz‘s death in the April 10th, 2010 plane
crash was all but ignored in the mainstream media in the US, and in Poland, her legacy was
somewhat overshadowed by the political crisis caused by the President‘s death. Lech Wałęsa was
quoted in many media outlets as saying ―I feel responsible for the death of Walentynowicz,‖
chivalrously implying that he ―should have‖ been on the plane instead of her. Without
immediately consulting Polish-language news sources about the crash, I only learned that
Walentynowicz was on the plane by closely examining the list of passengers. The selfeffacement that was part of Walentynowicz‘s contribution to Polish history was also part of her
death and legacy, but perhaps she would have wanted it that way.
The Post-Socialist Political Climate and Economic Transformations
In this section I refer to Poland as a ―post-socialist‖ or ―post-communist‖ society, and for
all intents and purposes, I consider these terms to be interchangeable. However, thinking in terms
of post-socialism (or post-communism) at all has been the topic of much debate within the
disciplines of anthropology, history and other social sciences. A large proportion of scholarly
debate surrounding the history and culture of Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union has to
do with the continued relevance of the terms post-socialist and post-communist to describe and
interpret cultural processes in the region. Some scholars, (see Gilbert 2007) have suggested that
these terms have not only been overused or used too loosely, but also that they should only be
used to describe specific situations. The rationales for this are various: 1) that these terms imply a
―clean break‖ with the communist government and society, when in reality the processes leading
to the ―fall of communism‖ have been ongoing since long before 1989 or any other arbitrary date
of transition; 2) that a directional communist or socialist to liberal capitalist ―transition‖ is too
teleological and implies that this transition will someday be completed; and 3) that the events of
the ―fall of communism‖ occurred sufficiently long ago that they should no longer be the primary
lens through which to view cultural processes in the region.
There is some validity to all of these arguments. Certainly, many of the early predictions
of a smooth transition to capitalist ―democracy‖ (as well as the automatic assumption that this
would be an improvement or desirable in the long term) were proven to be naïve. Because of
this, scholars such as Katherine Verdery (1996) have eschewed the term ―transition‖ in favor of
the more multidirectional term ―transformation(s)‖. Another factor which came to light during
my fieldwork is that younger Poles (under the age of 30) barely remember the communist era or
the initial years of the ―transition,‖ if at all. Today, for many of the most active shapers of Polish
cultural and social life, communism is history rather than memory.
Rather than throwing out the concept of post-socialism entirely, however, I will employ
an approach closer to that used by Verdery, Svasek (2006), Kideckel (2008) and others, who view
post-socialism as one of a broader range of analytical frameworks, which differ according to the
context of the specific Eastern European nation-state in question. In the case of Poland, it is
important to keep in mind processes related to European integration, increasing labor migration
out of Poland, immigration into Poland from non-European countries, and the rapid globalization
of pop culture, media and consumer products.
Political and Economic Transformations after 1989
The Solidarity time period (roughly 1980-1989) is often viewed in heroic, triumphalist
terms by many Poles, but Solidarity as a political party underwent changes in form and ideology.
Its membership eventually broke off into a series of center-right and moderate parties, which
focused on economic issues of privatization and marketization while overall espousing a
distinctively Polish national-religious morality. These post-Solidarity parties were often opposed
by ―post-socialist‖ and center-left parties composed largely of former communist party members.
Somewhat surprisingly, these post-socialist parties enjoyed a resurgence in the mid-1990s with
the election of former communist Aleksandr Kwaśniewski to the presidency in 1993. Overall, in
the aftermath of the fall of communism there was a proliferation of political parties, with over
100 parties taking part in the 1993 election.
All the aspects of the political scene in Poland in the post-communist time period are too
complex to describe in detail here. However, a few trends that emerged during this time are
relevant to the analysis of cultural trends I will refer to in the ethnographic chapters. First, the
transition to a liberal capitalist economy has been characterized by privatization and economic
deregulation, and the ―shock therapy‖ strategy of economist Leszek Balcerowicz. This strategy
entailed the rollback of many social programs and services previously provided by the state. In
addition, dissatisfaction with the lack of a ―clean break‖ with the communist past, as well as
anxieties about other social problems have led to the rise of populism in Poland. Right-wing
parties like the League of Polish Families and Self-Defense (unrelated to women‘s self-defense,
more on this later) have tapped into socially conservative, religious and nationalist sentiment in
certain segments of the Polish population.
Anthropologists such as C.M. Hann (2002), Katherine Verdery (1996, 1998), Caroline
Humphrey and Ruth Mandel (2002) have all written ethnographic accounts of the social
processes in Eastern Europe brought on by the economic marketization and privatization that took
place with post-socialist market reforms. One of the most important of these processes is the
reconfiguration of ―private‖ and ―public‖ that came with these changes. In Poland, while the
public spheres of the economy and social services became privatized, following neoliberal
principles of economic reforms, morality and ethics also underwent a form of ―privatization‖—
the focus of social programs shifted to personal responsibility, self-discipline and
entrepreneurship. Private life also became ―economized‖ and in many ways made public;
conceptualized in terms of economic exchange. Poles had to learn to ―sell themselves‖ in a
competitive employment market, and economic forces have also encouraged them to define their
individual identities through consuming products in order to convey status, improve appearance
and health, and to increase success and wealth. The advent of Western corporations, advertising
and consumer products have all encouraged Poles to live by the principle ―you are what you
In adherence to these principles, products like ―image‖ courses, assertiveness training and
even self-defense courses are often marketed in Poland as body projects leading to personal and
economic success. Around the time of the transition, individual distinction through consumption
was perceived by many Poles as a universal good after what was seen as the drab monotony and
lack of choice that characterized the communist era. Therefore, some inequitable neoliberal
ideologies were often accepted uncritically because they were associated with idealized images of
the West, specifically the United States, an idealization which eventually led to disillusionment.
Another key process discussed by anthropologists of post-socialism is class
differentiation or reorganization (Phillips 2008, Galbraith 2003, 2004; Dunn 2002). Although
distinct social groups certainly existed under state socialism, wide variations in economic status
became more visible, as the rich got richer, and the poor got poorer, although there were
anecdotal examples of wild reversals of economic status. A few businesspeople made fortunes
during the period of transformation, while many more individuals struggled against a brutally
competitive economic climate.
The effects of these trends on women have led to a widespread conclusion in the social
science disciplines that post-communist transitions have been especially hard on women. In
addition to the dismantling of social programs and protections which were advantageous to
women, the influence of conservative Christian moralities has led to greater state control over
women‘s bodies. During the years following the transition in Poland, women‘s rights to abortion
were considerably restricted because of the influence of the Church on legislation.8 Even though
birth control methods like contraceptive pills and condoms are still legal, they are expensive and
sometimes quite hard to obtain because their sale can be blocked due to ―conscience‖ laws
allowing pharmacists to refuse to sell them (similar laws are sometimes invoked in the US, but
mostly in the case of emergency contraception). In addition, under the most recent administration
led by the post-Solidarity [Law and Justice] Party, lawmakers attempted to restrict the use of
technologies such as stem cell collection, in-vitro fertilization, surrogacy and even certain fertility
treatments and prenatal testing for genetic anomalies. This is because of the disapproval of such
technologies by the Church, and the possibilities that such technologies might lead to abortions or
the destruction of frozen embryos.
Poland is one of the few post-socialist countries where the availability of abortion and
birth control has become more restricted in recent years, since under state socialism the Polish
government did not adopt the extreme pro-natalist policies of some other countries in the region.
In addition, conservative Catholic influences over Polish policy have brought about the restriction
of sex education, birth control and reproductive technologies in the name of protecting the
―traditional‖ family. Similar incentives for women to embrace motherhood have taken the form
of deregulation of employment practices, where laws previously required employers to hire a
certain number of women, and to provide childcare, paid maternity leave and a given number of
personal days (Goven, 2000; Dölling et. al. 2000; Drakulić 1994). Currently, many employers
and policy makers consider such measures to constitute special treatment for women and
therefore against the neoliberal principles of individuation and a ―level playing field.‖
In addition to these reproductive issues, a much-heralded ―return to the family‖ or ―return
to traditional values‖ throughout Eastern European countries has reinforced the association of
women with domestic and caring roles. Although most Polish women work outside the home
because of their own desire or because of economic necessity, public rhetoric about the ―return to
tradition‖ has led to an impression, propagated by conservative media that the majority of Polish
women have returned, willingly and happily, to their ―natural‖ or ―God-given roles.‖ Some work
shows how many Polish women perceive this as the ideal, although it is unrealistic for most
women. A high proportion of Polish women work outside the home, provided they are able to
find employment. According to the Central Statistical Office of Poland, out of a about 7 million
―economically active‖ women, over 6 million of them were employed outside the home, and 45%
of Polish women are ―economically active,‖ meaning that they economically contribute to the
household‘s finances (Central Statistical Office 2005: 40, 211).
While economic struggles affected Polish men and women of all social levels, some
ethnographic accounts seem to suggest that a disproportionate number of those struggling were
working-class women. In an edited volume by Nanette Funk and Magda Mueller (1994) authors
from all over Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union detail the common features of
women‘s experiences in these countries. One common factor repeatedly noted was that women
did not benefit from the new ―freedoms‖ of the economic reforms. They suffered
disproportionately from poverty and were in many ways economically ―left behind‖ in the
whirlwind changes of the transformation. Although many women left the labor force at least
temporarily around the time of the changes, even those who wished to work outside the home had
difficulty finding jobs, and those who chose to return to the work force after voluntarily leaving
work or taking maternity leave found themselves unexpectedly excluded. Women who wished to
succeed in the world of employment found their womanhood, especially if they had children, to
be a liability. Working women had to contend with a high level of sexism, including pay
disparities, discrimination in hiring, and sexual harassment in the workplace (e.g. Dölling 1994;
Eisenstein 1994). Women‘s labor was marginalized as social support such as maternity leave and
subsidized day care has been rolled back to due to the privatization of companies. Women‘s
employment and labor have been two of the most studied issues in the ethnography of Eastern
European women (Dunn 2002; Heitlinger 1994; Goven 2000; Szalai 2000).
According to social policy expert Miroslav Ksiezopolski, during the transition in Poland,
state responsibility for social services was mostly perceived as a communist strategy, so policy
makers focused mostly on economic growth and removed much state responsibility for the wellbeing of Polish citizens. These shifts in policy have affected women in a variety of ways:
educational programs and kindergartens were closed and parents‘ responsibilities for tuition were
raised, placing a greater financial and childcare burden on families (Ksiezopolski 1993: 184);
health care facilities for the sick and elderly were also reduced, placing many of these caring roles
onto individual women in families (Szelewa and Polakowski 2008). In addition, housing prices
went up and unemployment assistance went down, making it much more difficult for women to
be economically independent. In more recent years, European Union policies have been put in
place to increase employment and women‘s equality, but these social supports are viewed by
many Poles as unnecessary special treatment for women (see also Haney 1999 for a comparison
to these processes in the Hungarian case). Angela Coyle (2003) describes Poland as an ―antifeminist state, where ―Not only does discrimination against women in the labour market continue
to flourish, but inequality and the reinstatement of men as family breadwinners is the official
policy solution for high levels of male unemployment, escalating family poverty, and domestic
violence‖ (58).
While government actors and corporations continue to enact policies that often control
and disrupt women‘s lives, women themselves have been largely excluded from policy making at
the highest levels. During the communist era, women were required to fill a certain number of
spots within the legislature and within the Communist Party. However, many people saw this
representation of women as meaningless because the legislature merely provided a ―rubber
stamp‖ for the Party‘s decisions (Siemieńska 2004: 3). In the 1990s and early 2000s, this number
hovered between 8 and 13 percent, although the representation of women at the local level was
more robust (Siemieńska 2004: 6). Because of European Union mainstreaming policies, certain
parties such as the Democratic Left Alliance and the Labor Union reintroduced quotas of women
around 2004, bringing the numbers of women up in these parties, and thus in the government in
In the Polish government, when women are appointed or elected to high-ranking policymaking positions, they have often been relegated to positions in ―feminized‖ sectors such as
health care, education and family, all viewed as ―soft‖ or less-important fields. For example, as
of February 2010, the Polish cabinet contained two women, in the areas of Labor and Social
Policy; and Science and Higher Education, respectively. In addition, some women politicians in
Eastern Europe, either out of a true belief in conservative and neoliberal politics, or from a desire
to fit in with the masculinized world of politics, appear tough and be taken seriously, have taken
political stances and supported legislation which have been harmful to women. For example,
Barbara Einhorn (1993) shows how women in some Eastern European parliaments have voted for
limitations on reproductive rights, as well as on social rights like childcare and maternity leave. In
addition, The Office of the Plenipotentiary for Women in Poland has been changed to the
Plenipotentiary for the Family, and any mandate on the part of this minister to advance women‘s
rights or gender equality has been removed. Also, ―A national project for combating domestic
violence has been replaced with a new programme for providing family support to deal with
'interpersonal aggression'. Domestic violence is presented as 'a gender-neutral phenomenon'‖
(Coyle 2003: 59)
These trends may be a result of what Peggy Watson (1993) would call the rise of
―masculinism.‖ Watson defines masculinism as expression of the patriarchal ideal that men
should be in charge of political and public affairs, while women should be concerned with
domestic pursuits and traditionally feminine activities. In more general terms, it is not just the
association of men with the public sphere and women with the private sphere, but the explicit
statement of this association and the attempt to encode it in policy. According to Watson, a
tendency toward masculinism is an inherent feature of the formative stages of ―capitalist civil
society,‖ hence the presence of masculinist tropes in many cultural and political contexts.
However, in many of these other contexts, a feminist movement has arisen to counteract these
tendencies, and in the early 1990s Watson predicted the emergence of feminism in post-socialist
Eastern Europe. The phenomenon of masculinism has been documented in several other Eastern
European nation-states by scholars such as Maria Todorova (Bulgaria), Susan Gal (Romania) and
Hana Havelkova (the former Czechoslovakia). However, the relative unpopularity of feminist
movements in Poland and elsewhere in the region has caused Watson, in a 1997 article, to revise
her statements. She posits that masculinist tendencies are not just inherent to the formative stages
of capitalist civil society and that they can be exacerbated by material conditions, such as
economic hardship and structural inequality. She goes on to state that these economic factors are
also partly to account for the lack of appeal held by feminist movements in this region.
Earlier, I explained the cultural and historical reasons why feminism is still a ―dirty
word‖ in Poland and in other post-socialist contexts in Eastern Europe. The conclusions of the
literature addressing the sluggish pace of feminist organization in Poland, to which I should add
Titków (1994), Matynia (1998) and Hauser (1994) show that the universalizing and
individualizing neoliberal paradigms guiding economic and social transformation in Poland have
not allowed for the gender norms and cultural meanings informing the values and desires of
Polish social actors, especially women. This oversight has left a large proportion of Polish
women in a socially and economically disadvantaged position.
In addition, the more recent European Union mainstreaming policies implemented in
Poland have targeted only a single aspect of gender inequality: women‘s labor participation. This
calls to mind the communist women‘s emancipation regimes of the past, perhaps further
damaging the reputation of what are perceived as Western-imposed strategies for gender equality
(Fodor 2006). One flaw in such programs is that their goal is to ―include women into the
existing, global capitalist labor market without changing the main principles of this labor market,
therefore without redefining our understanding of what it means to work or to have a career.
These concepts are defined in a way that fits the life course of people who can devote their full
time and energy to their careers, typically men‖ (Fodor 2006: 11). In this way, gender
mainstreaming as well as other Western feminist-based interventions have devalued the feminine
roles most highly esteemed by Polish women.
Several experts on the region (Ghodsee 2006, Hemment 2007, Johnson 2009) have
argued that the universalizing assumptions informing much Western feminist practice (for
example, that the answer to women‘s liberation is paid employment) can partially explain the lack
of appeal of feminism for Eastern European women. Some international activists view the
relative scarcity of feminist organizations in the region as an exacerbating factor in the
inequalities faced by women in the region (see Keck and Sikkink 1998). However, the specific
historical background of post-socialism contains reasons for Polish women to ignore Western
feminists‘ insistence that Polish women are oppressed and disempowered.
For example, one main reason for Polish women‘s distaste for feminism is the
misconception that feminist ideology requires the rejection of femininity. As any casual observer
in Poland or other Eastern European countries can see, images praising a narrowly defined ideal
of femininity, usually in a sexualized or objectified manner, are ubiquitous in advertising, print,
and other media. Photos of nude or nearly nude women are used to advertise everything from
hosiery to electronic equipment to plastic siding. In addition television programs and other mass
media consistently show such sexualized imagery, not to mention the outright pornography
displayed in plain sight in many of Warsaw‘s kiosks. A sharp increase in these sorts of images
occurred almost immediately upon the liberalization of the economy and the relaxation of
censorship laws in the early 1990s.
Broadly speaking, this display of femininity and the sexualization of women in Polish
public spaces can be construed as a form of backlash against censorship and the norms of the
communist period in which depictions of sexuality were prohibited. Sexualized images of
women are also assumed by many observers to emanate from United States styles of advertising,
although the level of nudity displayed and the ubiquity of such images seem exaggerated even in
comparison to analogous displays in US contexts. In other words, Eastern European media seem
to have taken the display of the sexualized feminine body to the next level. (see Holmgren 1996;
Borenstein 2008).
This trend is relevant to my study because as participants in a self-improvement based
body project, the imaginations and aspirations of self-defense students in Poland are informed by
such imagery, despite self-defense‘s association in the US context with feminism, an ideology
that has conventionally been critical of images of sexualized femininity. The prevalence of
sexualized and objectified images of women‘s bodies is also an important factor because the
average age of self-defense participants tends to be in the early to late 20s, and most of the
women I interviewed are of a generation that has been exposed to such imagery their whole lives.
Both a trend toward masculinism (manifested in the alleged ―return to tradition‖) and the
trend toward sexualized imagery of women‘s bodies reflect or construct the high valuation of
femininity among women in Polish culture. The images to which Polish women aspire present a
multi-faceted and often conflicting and contradictory ideal of feminine behavior, appearance and
comportment. For example, Magdalena, an UnSafe Woman participant, stated that ―when I
think of a typical Polish woman, I imagine a woman taking care of children and working at the
same time…‖ emphasizing the caring role emphasized by many masculinist discourses. Julia,
another participant in the same course, idealized a woman who can be simultaneously sexy and in
control ―[self-defense] helps with learning to gain control over yourself, over your body, a
woman should learn and know that even she is a sexy woman she can stand up to a bigger man.‖
These negotiations show the attempts of many young Polish women to create a hybrid identity,
Women in Poland are on the one hand encouraged by conservative, religious and
―traditional ―discourses to be fertile but at the same time chaste and virtuous. According to this
masculinist rhetoric, this can be accomplished by close ties to familial roles as they have been
defined by the Catholic Church. On the other hand, women are pressured by commercial imagery
and popular culture representations to focus on a feminine appearance. This idealized femininity
is narrowly defined as thinness and diminution rather than confidence and strength, and
ornamentation rather than functionality in dress. Commercial advertising creates the impression
that Polish women are expected to obtain and maintain this feminine appearance through the
purchase of consumer products like clothing, makeup, and diet and exercise products.
Many Polish women argue that there is nothing inherently disempowering about aspiring
to these conventional norms of femininity, and also find satisfaction and fulfillment in life
through cultivating a feminine identity through familial relationships. However, ideals of
femininity become problematic when women are defined by their physical appearance rather than
abilities, and are expected to put the needs and desires of others before their own; and when those
who do not measure up or choose to ignore these norms are alienated or socially stigmatized. For
example, women in Poland who are unmarried, childless, lesbians, or who just prefer a lessfeminine appearance are often discriminated against and thought of as ―unnatural.‖ However,
even adhering faithfully to norms of femininity can be a double-edged sword: as I mentioned
above, women with children are often considered a liability by employers, and women who dress
in a ―sexy‖ fashion are often considered targets for sexual harassment or assault.
Feminine Body Culture and its Enforcement
Negotiating two contradictory aspects of ideal femininity (reminiscent of the classic
―Madonna-whore‖ dichotomy) often results in a double-bind for Polish women whose selfidentity is more complex than the traditional trajectories of femininity presented by the dominant
The social expectation in Poland that ―normal‖ women should behave and appear in a
particular manner is conditioned by factors with roots in both post-and pre-communist feminine
archetypes. Contemporary ideals of women‘s appearance have antecedents in the images of
women found in advertising and other commercial media, which promote a norm of artifice and
ornamentation, as well as an appearance of weakness. The idea that women can gain social power
through softness, passivity and self-sacrifice has its roots in the pre-communist era. This ideal of
feminine power is based in the tradition of adoration of the Virgin Mary and of self-sacrificing
mothers more generally. Although these historical constructions may seem archaic in an age
when the majority of Polish women are employed outside the home and enjoy formal political
equality with men, their effects are still felt. Several self-defense participants made direct
statements about the expectations, both physical and social, that place pressure on women in
Poland. Some of these statements included:
―I have always heard that Polish women are prettier, much more feminine than
women elsewhere… but really when you think about it, that might be a stereotype.‖
Elżbieta, Krav Maga participant.
―It seems that women here are always trying to look pretty, even if they don‘t
really have a reason. No matter what else they are doing, they have to look
pretty….‖ –Asia, Krav Maga participant.
―As an engineer, I work mostly with men, there is a lot of sex-segregation in
this regard, even if you have women working outside the home. A majority of
my colleagues graciously cook, clean, and all that. I guess I got divorced, you see,
because I did not fit into this schema, because martial arts do not fit into this
schema.‖ -Jolanta, Krav Maga participant.
―There is this idea in Poland that men are supposed to protect women, that they
are supposed to be strong and women are tiny delicate creatures. It is sort of a
chivalrous ideal, to put women on a pedestal. That is why, when women become
stronger and learn to protect themselves, some men feel threatened.‖ -Aleksandra,
WenDo participant.
In addition, the relative absence of images of tough or violent women in Polish media and
the lack of access to ―masculine‖ activities for most women show the perceived irrelevance of
such role models and identities for Polish women. Indeed, even women who enthusiastically
participate in martial arts and other masculine activities do not always take such images seriously.
Jolanta, who is quoted above, was dismissive of popular media images of violent women, usually
associated with the United States. She states that in media in Poland, images of female martial
arts practitioners are overly sexualized and are created mostly for the benefit of men, showing the
disconnect between such imagery and the reality of women who participate in martial arts.
―I always get the impression that these sorts of things are a very nice combination
of sex and violence… They are always very pretty, they are always dressed in
high heels, they are always dressed in tight things, in order to look better. An in
reality this has absolutely nothing to do with martial arts. [laughs] And I have to
admit that they look really good, and maybe it would even cause someone to want
to look like that… and so they will take martial arts and be more likely to succeed
in a violent situation. Well anyway, these films are more for men, rather than
In short, images of strong women in Poland are nonetheless highly associated with
feminine appearance. According to women I interviewed, Polish women are still taught to be
―nice girls‖ and to restrict their bodily movement to adhere to norms of femininity. Girls learn to
cross their legs, to stand with their feet together, to fold their hands, not raise their voices or talk
back to authority figures. All of these aspects of body culture are construed by self-defense
philosophies as contributing to women‘s subordination and therefore a large part of self-defense
pedagogy is focused on unlearning such behaviors.
The empirical chapters of this dissertation show how self-defense and martial arts are a
way for Polish women to reject these false dichotomies without rejecting the highly-valued
aspects of their feminine identities, such as an outwardly feminine appearance or traditional
family relationships. It is self-defense‘s largely non-ideological nature that makes this
negotiation possible. It is also self-defense‘s promise of individualized empowerment that holds
special appeal for women in post-socialist Poland. In Chapter 1, I explained the importance of
neoliberal ideologies of individuation and personal responsibility; and as I will show in later
chapters, the discourse of self-defense is consistent with these ideologies. In interviews, selfdefense participants often set up an opposition between ―new‖ individualist and ―old‖ collectivist
ways of thinking. Also, self-defense was constructed both as a way of expressing individuality
(because it was a rather unusual activity for Polish women) and as evidence that ―women can do
anything‖ as one interviewee put it.
Urban Polish Women and Violent Crime
According to Polish police statistics, the incidence of violent crime in Poland is relatively
low, and even for gendered violence like rape conviction rates are relatively high. According to
the Police organization‘s official statistical web site, in 2009 there were fewer than 2000 reported
rapes in Poland, and approximately 70% of those cases ended in conviction
rady_prewencyjne.html). So why is there such a high level of concern about gendered violence
by strangers among Polish women, not to mention among feminist activists in that country? I
believe that the answer to this question is twofold: first, there has been a perception of a dramatic
increase in violent crime in Poland since the transition to a capitalist economy. This perception is
evidenced by my ethnographic interviews and some of the CBOS statistics cited elsewhere in this
dissertation. In addition, Polish women tend to believe (perhaps correctly) that the low numbers
of rapes and domestic violence incidents shown in police statistics do not reflect the true extent of
this phenomenon. Women in Poland often do not report violence committed against them
because they do not trust the police and legal authorities.
The perception of an increase in crime, as well as a perception of corruption or apathy
among law-enforcement agencies has been documented not just in post-socialist but more
generally in post-colonial nations as a general condition of a transition to a capitalist economy
and a ―modernizing‖ or ―liberalizing‖ society. Comaroff and Comaroff (1995, 2004, 2008) have
shown how economic privatization and marketization in post-socialist or post-colonial society is
often perceived as a prelude to chaos and corruption. These authors often treat ―corruption‖ and
―crime‖ the same way that Peggy Watson treated ―masculinism‖ in the early 1990s – as a
necessary condition of the early stages of a capitalist economy.
Related to a general distrust of law enforcement, many Polish women, whether or not
they are activists, perceive that the police response to crimes against Polish women has been
woefully inadequate. Several self-defense participants and instructors referred to ‗police-run‘
self-defense courses and the shortcomings of these courses. Although during my fieldwork
period a women‘s self-defense course run directly by the police was not in operation, the general
police attitude toward women‘s safety is found on the same police statistical web site mentioned
above. Reading the ―Advice for safety against rape‖ located on this page, it becomes clear that
preventing rape is largely the responsibility of individual women. The ―safety tips‖ contained on
this site include ―Do not ride in an elevator with strangers,‖ ―Avoid going to the club or disco
alone or with people that you do not know well,‖ and ―When riding on public transport, always
sit in a group of several people, close to the driver. Do not ride by train in an empty carriage. Do
not start a conversation with people you do not know, do not tell them where you are going and
do not invite them to your party‖
The attitude implied in these tips is that a woman is basically always in danger, and that
she should avoid anyone she does not know when outside of her own home. She should treat all
of these people as potential attackers, and perhaps even suspect individuals she does know. The
advice contained in these tips assumes that the average woman, the target audience for these
pieces of advice, does not have the intelligence or intuition to judge when she is safe or unsafe.
They also tend to assume that she is incapable of defending herself in any significant way. That
is why the safety advice by the Polish police insists that women modify their social behavior or
their everyday travel routine to avoid violent crime. The inadequacies in this approach were
noticed by many of the organizers of self-defense courses in Poland. These instructors and
organizers sought to devise practical systems of self-defense that could be learned by typical
women, within a limited time frame, with a focus on proactive safety strategies that do not require
such behavior modification.
In the next chapter, I will begin to outline the ethnographic details about what I learned in
this study of self-defense. The purpose of Chapter 3 is to review the differences and similarities
in the setup of the courses and their pedagogies, and to begin to elucidate the disadvantages and
advantages of each respective course. I will also share some of the evaluations of each course
from its participants and instructors. This chapter will serve as a reference point for the further
analysis of participant observation and interview data in relation to the historical and theoretical
framework I have laid out.
Chapter 3
Ethnographic Outline of Self-Defense Courses in Poland
Feeling a little unsure of myself, I took a deep breath and opened the door to the
gymnasium where my first training session in the martial art known as Krav Maga was to take
place. The gray, unassuming building that housed a middle school during the day was dark and
quiet from the outside, but inside the school’s gym, the atmosphere was bustling with activity. It
was difficult to understand what anyone was saying, because of the low roar of conversation in
Polish, amplified by echoes off the high ceiling. The room was full, with over 50 Krav Maga
students in attendance, almost all of them male. Many of these male students dressed in a similar
manner with camouflage trousers, black t-shirts and very short haircuts, giving them a military
appearance. A few weeks before, I had contacted the course’s organizers as a part of my
exploration of the various self-defense training options available to Polish women. At that time I
had been assured by the course organizer, a man, that this course was a beginning-level class
and was ―for women,‖ and that I was welcome to attend.
When I walked into the room where the course was to be held, however, I felt anything
but welcome, and I assumed that I must have made a mistake. I noticed that there were women in
the gym, but only three of them (comprising less than 7% of the total attendees), and that they
were sitting at a back corner of the room, all speaking to each other. Doubtful of the utility for
my study of a course attended by only three women, I approached the instructor to ask if there
was another course available for ―women only.‖ The instructor seemed rather surprised at my
question, and stated that if I ―had a problem exercising with men,‖ I could exercise with the three
―girls‖ who were attending the class that day9. Then rather laboriously, I took the time to again
explain my research project and my purpose for attending the class. I was shortly informed that
the European Krav Maga Association did not host ―women’s only‖ classes because such classes
were useless. According to this instructor, the only way for a woman to learn how to defend
herself was to practice fighting against men.
Although I was glad I made the decision to continue this particular course in spite of the
small proportion of women, this incident was one of the more perplexing moments of my
introduction to women‘s self-defense in Poland. Different versions of this encounter occurred
most times I initially walked into a self-defense class. While usually less confusing for everyone
involved, the first introduction to each self-defense class always highlighted my status as an
outsider. In addition, the demanding physical exercises presented a learning curve in themselves.
At first, because of the language barrier, it was also difficult for me to understand what was
expected of the students. Gradually, though, as I attended more and more self-defense and
martial arts classes, I became more familiar with their vocabularies and therefore more able to
discern important differences among the various courses.
In this chapter I will provide an ethnographic orientation to different self-defense options
open to Polish women. Because these courses were based on various underlying philosophies
and ascribed to different pedagogical techniques, it is important to differentiate between them as
far as the messages they send regarding gender, violence and rights. The structure of this chapter
differs from that of the other empirically based chapters in the dissertation, in that it does not
make a straightforward theoretical argument, but rather sets the ethnographic scene for the
arguments made in the following chapters.
For each self-defense method, I will provide a brief ethnographic sketch, including the
following elements: 1) the origins of the method, 2) the basic structure and pedagogy of the
courses, 3) the demographic and ethnographic outline of its participants and instructors, 4) the
codes of conduct and the philosophy behind the method, and 5) evaluations of the course from its
participants. These basic sketches of information about each course will provide a reference to
the ethnographic and theoretical discussions in the following chapters and serve as a background
to help the reader remember the important differences and similarities between these courses.
The self-defense courses I studied can be divided into two rough categories, which I have
termed ―gender-sensitive‖ and ―gender-blind‖. Those courses that I call gender-blind are those
that at least on the surface claim to ignore gender as a category: they use the same techniques for
both men and women. Gender-sensitive self-defense courses are based on a recognition of
gender difference and are designed especially for what are perceived as women‘s special abilities
and weaknesses. There is some slippage between these two categories, because there are
women‘s only self-defense courses that are martial-arts based and teach techniques tailored to
women‘s abilities, but do not address gender in any other way. There are also courses that
include both gendered analysis of violence and martial arts principles and techniques. The basic
difference between these two categories is the presence of ―gender talk‖ in the classroom setting.
For example, to classify a course as gender-sensitive, the course must contain at least some
discussion of the sociological or psychological reasons for gendered violence in conjunction with
gender-specific rationales for the techniques included in the course. Gender-sensitive courses
also sometimes have roots in feminist thought, although they may only rarely, if ever, advertise
the course that way or use the term ―feminist‖ in their pedagogy.
WeDo: Assertiveness and Self-Defense for Women
As mentioned in Chapter 1, WenDo was the first self-defense course I attended in Poland.
WenDo‘s Polish web site and its official Polish brochure refer to it as a form of ―self-defense and
assertiveness training for women and girls.‖ Its participants and trainers have characterized
WenDo as ―mental self-defense,‖ ―the study of communication‖ or ―a feminist form of selfdefense‖ in interviews I conducted for this project. WenDo as a form of self-defense originated
in Canada, where it is widely popular and is the oldest and most attended self-defense seminar in
that country. According to the WenDo Canada web site, (, the self-defense
method offers courses in most major Canadian cities, including Toronto, Winnipeg, Ottawa,
Calgary and Vancouver on a more or less monthly basis, with less-frequent basic courses held in
smaller towns in Ontario. WenDo in Canada also offers intermediate, advanced and refresher
courses for women who have already learned the method; as well as specific seminars on
gendered violence. According to this web site, thousands of new participants learn the method
every year.
WenDo was established in Western European countries like Germany and Denmark in
the 1980s and 90s, and was introduced in Poland by German WenDo trainers and a Polish
feminist organization in 2003. In Poland, WenDo seminars are less popular than in these other
countries,10 but according to the estimates of the Polish instructors, between 100 and 200 Polish
women take part in these seminars each year.
In most contexts, WenDo seminars take place over a weekend, with six hours of
instruction on each of two days. As such, it is the only time-intensive course I attended, but also
has the lowest number of total contact hours of any method I studied. It also contains a heavy
emphasis on creating a sense of community among its participants, with the inclusion of several
―ice-breaker‖ activities, and segments in which participants share personal stories about their
lives. Another way in which WenDo seminars are unique among the Polish courses I attended is
their exclusive use of female instructors or trainers (these two terms are interchangeable). The
WenDo instructors I interviewed assured me that a women-only environment is the best way to
teach self-defense for women, especially because of WenDo‘s focus on psychological aspects of
self-defense. The most important lessons taught in a WenDo seminar, according to the trainers,
are those that involve learning to assert oneself, take up space and say ―no‖ to unwanted requests.
These techniques can be useful in situations that may potentially result in violence, but also in
situations arising in everyday life.
WenDo trainers critiqued some of the other, more martial-arts based courses, stating that
such physical self-defense techniques are useless without awareness of gender inequality and an
understanding of the psychology of self-defense, and that the presence of men in the class can be
intimidating for many women. They also cautioned that the challenging physical regimes of
many martial arts can be inaccessible to women who do not already possess a certain degree of
physical ability or fitness.11
The exercises comprising a WenDo seminar are of four basic types: physical selfdefense, verbal self-defense, comportment or confidence training, and exercises not directly
related to self-defense which often serve as ice-breakers or relaxation techniques. These various
categories of exercises are presented in an alternating fashion throughout the two days of training.
The physical self-defense activities are the most well-known and visible part of a WenDo
seminar, although I would argue they are not the most important to the participants or instructors.
Making a fist and learning to punch a punching bag or pad are the two most basic physical
lessons in WenDo, and a significant portion of time (at least one hour on the first day) is spent
perfecting these techniques. WenDo‘s signature activity is one in which each woman in the class
has a chance to break a 2-centimeter-thick pine board with her fist. This activity is designed both
as a confidence-building maneuver and as a way for the participants to experience what it is like
to strike something with maximum force. Other exercises include punching and kicking pads
held by other participants, and escaping from various holds an attacker might use. Participants
learn how to strike sensitive parts of an attacker‘s body from various positions. All of these
techniques emphasize practicality, ease, and efficiency of movement. The rationale is that all of
the physical self-defense moves must be easy to remember in a moment of fear and panic, and
therefore not complex or requiring much practice. Overall, these physical methods comprised
about 40% of the time spent in a WenDo seminar.
Verbal self-defense techniques are given a proportionally large amount of emphasis in
WenDo, because according to the instructors, these strategies are adaptable to a greater number of
situations than physical techniques. In this way, a WenDo participant learns to stand up to a bully
at work as much as she learns to deter a possibly violent attacker. Most of the verbal self-defense
activities in WenDo are essentially role-playing scenarios, in which one individual in a pair or a
group wears a cap to signify that she represents the ―attacker.‖ These role playing scenarios can
be as simple as learning to say ―no‖ to the antagonist loudly and making eye contact without
smiling, or they can be more elaborate role-playing scenarios determined by the instructors.
Participants were also asked to share personal stories of being verbally assaulted, bullied or
harassed to show a further variety of situations and discuss how to deal with them. Verbal selfdefense techniques comprised a further 30% of the seminar.
For my analysis, some of the most interesting parts of the WenDo seminar were the
exercises that focused on subtle ways of holding and moving one‘s body, with the aim of
conveying confidence, strength and assertiveness. The instructors explained to the participants
that women are socially encouraged to behave in a ―ladylike‖ way, which in practice means
taking up as little space as possible, allowing others to violate one‘s own personal space, and
conveying passivity, physical weakness and instability through posture. To help women unlearn
these habits of comportment, WenDo employs visualizations, stability exercises and activities
designed to hone intuition about personal boundaries, all of which take up about 20% of the
seminar. These segments of the seminar also included a discussion of the ―philosophy of selfdefense,‖ encapsulated in a series of fourteen principles. This philosophy did not include any
explicit references to feminism or gender inequality, but was rooted in a discourse of individual
bodily integrity as a human right.
Finally, the remaining 10% of the seminar was devoted to ice-breaking and relaxation
activities with the goals of creating a sense of community among the participants, encouraging
them to talk about their personal lives with relative strangers, and creating almost a spa-like
atmosphere of self-nurturance. These included lighthearted games, as well as activities intended
to boost self-esteem, like one in which participants create a ―personal profile‖ by using the letters
of their first names as an acronym of their positive characteristics. Also included was a short
period of meditation and guided visualization. At the end of some seminars, the participants
would give each other back massages, with the lights dimmed and soothing music playing.
Although these activities were not directly related to self-defense per se, they were designed to
create an atmosphere of support and acceptance among the group of women, as well as improving
self-esteem and a sense of calm for individual participants.
Evaluations of WenDo
To preface this section and the others about evaluations of the courses, I should state that
no participants I interviewed from any method of self-defense gave a very negative evaluation of
the course in which they participated. This is to be expected, because students who had a
negative opinion of a particular self-defense course (especially the ongoing courses) would
probably not continue to participate in the course, and therefore be unlikely to be recruited for
this study. That being said, on the whole it seemed that the participants in WenDo had the
highest evaluations of their participation and of the course in general.
WenDo participants stated that the benefits to self-confidence and assertiveness in
everyday interactions were the most helpful parts of the course. Ania, a legal consultant in her
mid-twenties, said that the course was ―really helpful…at work, because now I have a different
approach to people who stress me out. I react differently to, like… these kinds of insults, I am
not so distressed by these things, I just approach them in a totally relaxed way.‖ Aleksandra, a
39-year-old journalist, had a similar evaluation: ―The psychological part, that was more important
for me…I learned that I don‘t have to agree to everything. And that I have to communicate this
clearly.‖ Janina, a 23-year-old college student, said ―it is not just about these physical
capabilities…like at work, if someone treats us inappropriately, even among colleagues,
acquaintances, and in the family.‖
However, when I asked if something about the class could be improved, some of the
participants said that they regretted the lack of training in physical self-defense techniques, as
well as the brevity of the courses. Aneta, a 38 year-old human resources specialist from Kraków,
said that she had expected a much more ―physical‖ type of course. ―I wish there wasn‘t all this
talking about women… their inner world, and assertiveness, that sort of thing doesn‘t really
appeal to me. I really like the physical side [of self-defense]. It also struck me that I needed
some kind of regular exercise, jogging, or some kind of competitive sport, like volleyball.‖
Janina, who had participated in martial arts courses in the past, also stated the need for ongoing
physical conditioning to make WenDo more effective, even though she highlighted the
psychological benefits of the course. ―It would be good if they have some kind of
training…regularly, if there is some kind of martial arts or even going to the gym, I think
something like this would be best.‖ These opinions most likely reflect a difference between the
participants‘ expectations and Wendo‘s pedagogical focus on psychology, reflecting a common
conception of self-defense courses as a form of exercise of physical self-improvement. As shown
in the previous quotes, participants saw the psychological elements of WenDo as beneficial, but
at the end of the course, some participants still felt unsure of their physical abilities.
Krav Maga, The Science of Survival
Krav Maga was the second self-defense method I encountered in Poland, and this martial
art shows a marked contrast with the self-defense techniques of WenDo. Krav Maga was,
according to its instructors, originated in Israel in the 1950s as a means for an unarmed person to
defend her or himself against a possibly armed or much stronger attacker. For this reason, it is
viewed by some of its proponents as an ideal way for a woman to learn self-defense. The Israeli
tradition of a mixed-sex military may have led to the development of this effective fighting
system, but the perception of this martial art as appropriate self-defense for women also may be
due to the specific techniques employed. Because Krav Maga has an emphasis on what
practitioners of more formal martial arts would call ―dirty fighting‖ and relies more on leverage
and targeting sensitive areas of the body than form or muscular strength, it has been marketed
toward women as a practical safety precaution. Krav Maga borrows techniques from various
Asian martial arts, but does not require its practitioners to ascribe to a detailed honor code or to
the principles of nonviolence contained in the codes of conduct of some traditional martial arts.
The motto of a Krav Maga practitioner is to survive by any means necessary, and its techniques
include breaking fingers, gouging eyes, and kicking in the genitals.
In Poland, despite the fact that it is marketed toward women as a means of self-defense,
attendance by women at the Krav Maga sessions I observed was quite low. As mentioned above,
the fact that there were very few women in the first Krav Maga class I attended led me to believe
that I had made some kind of mistake. Eventually, though, I became acquainted with a core
group of women Krav Maga participants, who were committed to the sport, even though they
admitted that other people think of it as a masculine practice. They said that a stereotype existed
that women who participated in Krav Maga were ―mean,‖ ―tough‖ or ―manly.‖ However, the
women I interviewed from Krav Maga did not see themselves as adhering to this stereotype, but
rather as strong women who still identified with an essentially feminine identity.
Because of the very masculinized environment of Krav Maga, the types of men who
participate in this martial art are also stereotyped. As I mentioned above, during class I observed
the distinctive style of dress among some of the men who attended. It was not until later that I
became aware of the perception of outsiders to the Krav Maga discipline that men who participate
in Krav Maga as ―thugs‖ or ―hooligans.‖ In Poland, many perceive Krav Maga as an
unnecessarily brutal sport/martial art, and consider many who practice it to have intentions other
than self-defense, for example, using these skills in street brawls or altercations at soccer
matches. Many of the women I interviewed from Krav Maga expressed contempt for this
association with the sport, and tried to show that the men they knew in Krav Maga were ―very
nice‖ or ―very modern guys.‖ Overall, they felt that a few violent incidents by soccer hooligans
who dressed in a somewhat similar military style had given this martial art a bad reputation
among the general public.
The European Krav Maga Association operates on a monthly-membership basis, and the
Warsaw chapter I attended hosts ―Youth,‖ ―Beginning,‖ and ―Advanced‖ courses, in addition to
professional sessions for the training of private security firms. I only attended the ―Beginning‖
courses, but I learned from interviewees that the structure and the discipline in the courses was
similar at all levels. The structure of the class is similar many other martial-arts courses I
attended but there was less emphasis on ritual and formalized interactions, although the students
were expected to show respect for the instructor and not to question his instructions. Each
session started with a warm-up consisting of calisthenics (jumping jacks, sit-ups, push-ups,
jogging around the gym and other cardiovascular exercises) and stretching; followed by partner
exercises. These partner exercises might be a continuation of the stretching or strength exercises,
or they might be sparring exercises. Sparring was included as a part of every Krav Maga session,
and at the beginning level, consisted of tagging the sparring partner on a specific part of the body
(head, back, knee, or stomach, or a combination of these). Sparring exercises could be more or
less aggressive, depending on one‘s partner, and according to one interviewee who occasionally
attended the advanced level class, sometimes looked like a realistic, life-threatening fight when
both sparring partners were experts. Because of the tendency for the sparring to get aggressive at
times some participants, even at the beginning level, wore protective equipment like faceguards,
mouth guards or groin protectors during sparring.
The content of the second half of the class was variable. Along one long side of the room
there hung punching bags, and at one end of the room was an area lined with gymnastics mats.
The class would practice punching and kicking techniques on the punching bags, or with a partner
holding a pad. Because the class size was so large, most punching and kicking exercises took
place in a partnered format, or in groups of three. During the last segment of the class (usually
the last 30 minutes of a 90-minute class), the group would split in two, with half the class moving
to the mat-lined part of the room to practice tumbling techniques and falls. There was a good
deal of emphasis on forward rolls, backward rolls, and shoulder rolls, though at the beginning
level the practical self-defense applications for these moves was never clearly explained. When
practicing such falls, students would form pairs again and practice techniques for knocking the
other person down, and for falling without injury, respectively.
While half the class was engaged in this mat practice, the remaining half would continue
practicing punching and kicking techniques, do conditioning exercises (often abdominal
exercises) or play a sparring game that involved the skills learned in previous classes. One
example of this type of sparring game involved three participants. One student filled the role of
―attacker‖ and a second would stand a few feet away. The third participant would stand between
the other two holding a pad, and her task was to protect or block the second person from the
attacker. This activity often devolved into a wrestling match between the attacker and the
protector, but the length of these confrontations was limited. After 30 seconds or a minute the
instructor or his assistant would blow a whistle, and all three participants would switch positions,
so each person would experience both active roles, in addition to a rest period when he or she was
waiting to be tagged.
I have provided these descriptions of some of the activities in Krav Maga to begin to
show their intensity as well as their variety. The exercises at each Krav Maga session were
always varied, so that the challenges were always new and interesting. From a subjective
standpoint these classes were never boring, and were quite enjoyable, despite the intimidation
factor and the competitive approach of some participants to sparring exercises, as noted by the
ethnographer and some interviewees.
Male and female participants often self-segregated during the Krav Maga classes. At an
average class between four and eight female students were in attendance, several pairs of whom
seemed to be well-acquainted with one another. Often these pairs of friends would automatically
partner up for exercises, and if there happened to be an odd number of women, sometimes a
group of three would be formed. Occasionally, men and women would partner together. One
interviewee, Marta, was an experienced Krav Maga student and said that she often preferred to
spar with a male partner because it was ―more of a challenge.‖ In order to prevent the students
from always partnering with a friend, however, the instructor would often signal to change
partners during sparring exercises. This way, participants had a chance to spar with others of
different sizes, strengths and speeds, throwing novice participants together with experts and
female students with males, despite any feelings of fear or intimidation.
Even though informal gender segregation existed, the instructors of the class overall took
a ―gender-blind‖ approach to teaching Krav Maga: men and women in the class were held to the
same physical standards, and were taught in exactly the same way, at least in theory. In an
interview with a course instructor I asked him about this approach. He replied, ―We treat men
and women the same, because to treat women differently would be a sexist approach.‖
The disciplinary code was never explicitly stated in the Krav Maga course I attended, but
there were a number of unspoken or unwritten rules. Students were expected to show respect for
the instructor and for other students. If a student arrived late, or was caught answering a mobile
phone the instructor would often shout a reprimand and assign the student to do a certain number
of jumping jacks, sit ups or push-ups while the other participants went on as usual. However, if a
student or a group of students was deliberately disrespectful, for example if they were talking or
roughhousing while the instructor was talking, or if a student repeatedly broke the rules, the
instructor would stop the class to chastise the offending student. Very occasionally, the entire
class would be required to exercise longer than normal while the instructor dealt with a student
who had broken the rules. While discipline was fairly strict in this course, it was generally meted
out on an individual basis and there was not generally a sense of collective responsibility or
punishment of all for one student‘s infraction.
Student Evaluations of Krav Maga
Although most of the Krav Maga participants I interviewed did not initially start taking
the courses for their practical self-defense applications, most of them reported an increase in
feelings of confidence and physical competence, which in turn caused them to feel more able to
handle dangerous situations. However, some said that the physical training of Krav Maga did not
fully prepare them for the psychological strain of a real-life assault. Marta, a member of the core
group of Krav Maga women, said that she thought she would feel ―scared and helpless‖ in a real
situation of danger because of the unpredictability of such situations. She stated that ―often
people in such a situation do exactly the opposite of what they have learned….‖ She went on to
express her desire to continue training in Krav Maga (she already had one year of Krav Maga
experience) so that self-defense behaviors would become more fully ingrained.
Several of the other Krav Maga participants expressed frustration with the long-term
learning curve of the class, but some said that focusing on the activity as a hobby or sport rather
than a results-oriented self-defense course lessened this frustration. Gosia, another member of the
core group, stated that ―at the beginning it was really easy to be discouraged… but it is necessary
to practice a little.‖ Elżbieta, a student who had only recently begun the Krav Maga course,
expressed some of these frustrations but was optimistic about the prospects for learning practical
self-defense through her Krav Maga participation. ―You can‘t defend yourself immediately…but
it seems to me that it can definitely help though, and aside from that it adds a certain selfconfidence, this is the big difference.‖
Asia and Joanna, two core members of the Krav Maga group who were friends before
they began attending the courses, both emphasized the element of ―mental toughness‖ inculcated
by Krav Maga training. Asia stated, ―It often emphasizes that you must above all avoid a fight,
but it lets you see how you can fight with a real person, not just with the air… the better you are
set up psychologically and prepared for a situation, it is possible for you to do something in a
given situation.‖ Joanna, who described herself as a ―martial arts enthusiast,‖ participated in two
martial arts in addition to Krav Maga. She compared Krav Maga favorably against the other
martial arts she practiced. ―Krav Maga is the purest, in a moment of danger on the street I see
that it has the most applications, although I am not really advanced enough for it to have those
kinds of advantages. [Joanna had been practicing Krav Maga for 18 months]. It adds confidence,
but if you are not physically developed, you cannot really do too much with it; it can be
Some Krav Maga participants were somewhat put off by competitiveness or
aggressiveness among other (male) students in the course. Marta, one of the most involved Krav
Maga participants, stated that early on in her participation she had suffered a concussion during a
sparring session. This injury had increased her level of fear, but as a setback it had only made her
want to try harder. However, not many new participants who get injured in Krav Maga are so
persistent. Gosia stated that the aggression of male Krav Maga participants can be a deterrent to
women who are novices to the sport. These issues are related to the performance of masculinity
in the martial arts, and will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 5.
Shotokan Karate
Karate (specifically, Shotokan style Karate) is one the most popular martial arts
disciplines worldwide. It is a common example of what most people associate with ―traditional‖
Asian form of self-defense. The course I attended was offered through the University of
Warsaw‘s physical education department, but it was also available on a commercial basis, and
operated out of a martial arts studio near the University‘s campus. The feature of this course that
was the most striking in comparison to the other self-defense courses I attended was its focus on
formalized ritual and hierarchical interactions between the students and the sensei or instructor.
For example, during the class, the instructor would say specialized signal words in Japanese to
signify when the students should sit, stand, bow, kneel in the seiza position (sitting on top of the
shins and feet), and there were formalized interactions for the beginning and end of class, during
which the students would sit in ranked order. Students were required to remove their shoes and
bow when entering and exiting the room. All the counting off of the exercises was done in
Japanese. About two-thirds of the participants in the course wore the traditional karate gi,
although the participants who were taking the course as a physical education credit rarely wore
one. Although it was part of the official code of conduct, the instructor for this particular course
did not require all the students to wear one because of the high cost of these uniforms. The
participants in this course were of varying skill levels; some had been participating in Karate for
many years, and held green, brown, or black belts; others, like myself, were complete newcomers
to the discipline of Karate.
Similarly to Krav Maga, the instructor of the Karate course I attended tried to employ a
gender-blind approach, providing the same instruction to male and female students. There was
somewhat less gender segregation in Karate than in Krav Maga, due to two main factors: first
there was a higher proportion of women participating in the course (usually between 10 and
25%); and second, the exercises in Karate were somewhat less focused on sparring than on the
form and speed of the movements, so it was easy for students of different sizes, strengths and
skill levels to practice together. Also, the instructor encouraged more advanced students to
partner with newer students to teach them techniques.12
The structure of the course was similar to Krav Maga; a warm-up segment of calisthenics
and stretching, followed by various combinations of punching and kicking, sparring, ―games‖ and
drills. The movements in the Karate course seemed less focused on practical self-defense than
Krav Maga, although the sparring exercises could have some real-life applications. When
students were studying punches, kicks and blocks, The Karate instructor gave more attention to
the alignment, posture and flow of a movement (or a series of movements), than to their
application in a real-life situation. Although the techniques of Karate could conceivably be used
in self-defense, the course moved sufficiently slowly, with the instructor and advanced students
giving attention to the details of each movement that one would have to study the martial art for
years before becoming confident in one‘s abilities. According to the participants I interviewed
from Karate, as well as casual conversations with ex-participants in other traditional martial arts,
this long learning curve contributes to the high dropout rate of such classes and a lack of longterm participation, especially among women.
Unlike Krav Maga, Karate students were required to abide by a code of conduct that was
explicitly stated, and was based on a universal set of rules that are common to most Karate
courses. If a student arrived late to the session, he or she was expected to ask permission of the
instructor to enter. Often, these late students would start doing exercises in the front corner of the
room (such as push-ups) but the instructor would usually signal to them after a few seconds and
they would take their place in the class, lining up in order of rank. In this particular course,
although there was an explicit code of conduct, the instructor addressed discipline in a fairly
relaxed way, and did not subject participants to harsh penalties for breaking rules or imply
collective responsibility.
Student Evaluations of Karate
The two Karate participants I interviewed, Iwona and Basia, were both college students
and were acquainted with each other before enrolling in the course. Both of them were doubtful
about the ability of Karate to have practical self-defense applications without long-term or
intensive training. Iwona said, ―I don‘t know, maybe if I was in a dangerous situation, I would
manage, but I don‘t know if I would use the movements of Karate, or simply some kind of
random different movements.‖ Basia had a similar evaluation: ―It seems to me that unfortunately,
it doesn‘t matter. Certainly these skills are important, but you would probably have to study
Karate for ten years before it would have the purpose of self-defense.‖ They constructed their
participation in Karate primarily as a recreational and fitness activity, but did not rule out the
possibility of continuing Karate to the point that it would have practical benefits for self-defense.
As far as criticisms of the Karate course, Iwona and Basia did not have much to say.
They could not point out any specific aspects of the course that they did not like, but joked that
they did not always understand the instructor when he gave traditional karate commands in
Japanese. This sometimes led them to be unable to follow the instructions and to misunderstand
the etiquette of Karate.13 However this kind of misunderstanding seemed more funny to these two
students than anything else, and they seemed to have a joking relationship with the instructor.
UnSafe Woman and Combat: Practical Martial-Arts Training for Women
The final type of self-defense course I attended, which was designed especially for
women, had two slightly different components. The first was called (Un)Safe Woman, a free, 10week self-defense course, and the second was called Combat. Combat was basically the same
self-defense method, offered on an ongoing, paid basis. The name of the free course, (Un)Safe
Woman, was a clever play on words, and the inspiration for the title of this dissertation. In Polish
the name of the course is (Nie)Bezpieczna Kobieta, which has various layers of implied meaning.
It implies first that a woman (kobieta) is innately not safe and in danger (niebezpieczna) from
male violence, but that they can become safe (bezpieczna) through the training offered by the
course. However, the word niebezpieczna can also mean ―dangerous‖ in the sense that these
women are capable of causing harm. In taking the course, women become ―safe‖ but they
simultaneously become ―dangerous.‖
The free self-defense course ran twice per year, beginning in September and January,
with each session lasting ten weeks. This course was offered cost-free to the participants because
it was funded by Warsaw‘s municipal government, specifically through the Straż Miejska
(roughly the equivalent of a city police force). Members of the Straż Miejska did not directly
teach the course, however; they hired local martial-arts instructors who used methods taken from
their own areas of expertise as well as some ―practical‖ self-defense techniques designed
specifically for women. I interviewed two of the instructors; one of them was a Tae Kwon Do
expert, and the other was instructor for a martial art related to Tae Kwon Do, called Ho Sin Sul.
These instructors would teach the course on alternating weeks and each had a different style of
teaching and different areas of emphasis, allowing the participants to see diverse perspectives on
self-defense techniques.
Although UnSafe Woman was essentially a martial-arts based class, its structure differed
in some ways from the other martial-arts based courses I attended. After a warm up, several drills
were always completed. These drills could be as simple as punching and kicking in the air, or
reviewing techniques learned in previous classes, although sometimes the instructors interjected
various ―games‖ in between the drills. For example, some of these games included dragging a
partner across the floor without, and then with, her active resistance, and activities reminiscent of
children‘s games such as tag, a ―duck walk‖ and a ―wheelbarrow race.‖ After these drills, the
course focused mainly on a variety of wrist locks that could be used if one is grabbed by an
attacker from the front, the side, or behind. These wrist locks were progressively combined with
other moves to force an opponent to the ground by striking various pressure points. Later I
learned that such wrist locks are an integral part of Ho Sin Sul, the martial-arts background of one
of UnSafe Woman‘s main instructors.
In addition to the wrist locks, which were the main ways participants learned to inflict
harm on attackers, the participants learned to escape from a variety of holds. These included a
head lock, a bear hug from front or behind, being pinned to the floor on one‘s back, or being
pinned up against a wall from behind. The latter two positions were described by the instructors
as ―rape‖ positions, so it was obvious that many of the moves were designed to help women
escape from specifically gendered and sexual violence. However, at the same time, it also
became apparent that many of the wrist-lock moves and other combinations were quite
complicated, often requiring between seven and ten steps, which had to be carried out in the
correct order. Several steps in these combinations usually involved twisting or rotating one‘s
body or the opponent‘s wrist in a particular direction in relation to one‘s own position, and thus
necessitated a high level of physical agility, spatial visualization ability and left-right
coordination. The trainers and other participants stressed that they needed to practice these
moves every week in order to help them become ―automatic‖ and accessible even in situations of
danger or stress.
The last segment of an UnSafe Woman class session usually included more calisthenics
or abdominal exercises, and stretching. Sometimes the instructors gave the class a few
announcements or exhortations about the philosophy of self-defense. Near the end of the tenweek period of UnSafe Woman, the instructors announced that there would be an ongoing course,
known as ―Combat‖ available after the free course ended. A few women decided to continue
with the ongoing course, joining an already established group in Combat, composed of recruits
from previous sessions of UnSafe Woman. These ongoing courses were held twice per week in
the evening, at a school building that also housed lessons in Tae Kwon Do and Ho Sin Sul, taught
by the same instructors. The Combat course was offered at a cost of 70 PLN per month. The most
obvious difference between the two types of courses offered was class size, with far fewer
students attending the Combat sessions (no more than 15 in any given class period). In addition,
Combat introduced a broader range of self-defense techniques, placing more emphasis on
punching and kicking techniques, because of the availability of pads and mats. There was also
more structure to the ongoing Combat courses. The course had a set list of techniques that
participants received, as well as a checklist of items to be completed for a certification in selfdefense that students could receive.
Student Evaluations of UnSafe Woman and Combat
Among interviewees who had attended both types of courses, a preference was usually
expressed for the ongoing course. The most commonly repeated reasons for this were the more
frequent review of techniques and more attention and help from the instructors. In addition, one
of the most common criticisms from students of the UnSafe Woman course was that the large
class size made it difficult for all the students to accurately see when an instructor was
demonstrating a move, and for the instructor to individually evaluate each participant‘s
performance of these moves. For this reason the participants in UnSafe woman often were unsure
if they were doing these techniques correctly.
Marya, a student in the ongoing course, was a college student who initially saw herself as
very physically weak and unskilled, but who believed her participation in the self-defense course
was having a positive effect on her physical fitness and her self-confidence. ―I really like this
course because it allows you to feel more free and confident,‖ she said. ―Free, because there are
all these techniques which are very precise, they allow you to gain control over your own
weakness at any moment.‖ Here she is referring to the wrist-locks and other moves she learned in
the course. Such moves do not require much muscular strength, but they utilize precise
movements and pressure points to disable an attacker who may be much larger. She went on to
say that she had previously taken an Aikido course, but that she preferred the combat course. ―I
didn‘t go to Aikido too many times; I feel more confident now when I walk down the street at
Beata, another Combat participant, said that the skill she learned in the course were
useful in everyday situations, because they did not fit the stereotyped idea of martial-arts moves.
―It has to do with how you deal with these situations you see at work, in the club, when someone
accosts you or touches you. There is not all this punching, kicking, jumping around. If someone
grabs you in a way you do not like, you can just do like *this* with their wrist, and they will stop
[pantomiming one of the wrist lock moves].‖ She also described certain psychological benefits:
―after some time, these changes start to happen in our psyche, in our thoughts. For me this is the
most important, because we do not have to just work on carrying out these…moves, they start to
come automatically.‖ Several of the other participants I interviewed had similar positive
evaluations of the course, citing their practical utility and benefits to self-confidence.
When discussing the disadvantages of the UnSafe Woman and Combat courses, several
students mentioned the presence of language and disciplinary techniques implying ―collective
responsibility,‖ to adopt the phrasing of one interviewee. Most participants framed this
implication of responsibility as a negative aspect of the course. At the first class session the
instructor explicitly laid out the rules of the course in a verbal lecture. These rules were relatively
simple: ―don‘t come to class intoxicated; if you are late, you have to run laps and to pushups;
show up ready to work; show respect for the trainer and the other students.‖ Most of the time,
discipline was very lax, and most participants approached the classes with a light-hearted attitude.
However, sometimes a student or a group of students broke these rules during the Saturday
morning UnSafe Woman class, typically by talking and giggling in the back of the room or
refusing to do the assigned exercises. When this happened, sometimes the instructor would
ignore it or assign exercises to the offending student, but occasionally he would require the entire
class to stop what they were doing, and to do push-ups, sit-ups or some other kind of calisthenics
until the instructor told them to stop. Sometimes, the physically intense and demanding warm-up
section of the class was lengthened because some students were being ―lazy.‖
During the Combat class (which met on Wednesday and Friday nights) the small class
size meant that there was less chance for students to hang back and not participate, and not be
noticed doing so. However, if one or more students was not trying hard enough in the opinion of
the instructor, it was not unheard-of for the class to be temporarily stopped for the purpose of a
combination of chastisement and motivational talk.
Participants‘ opinions of these kinds of disciplinary and pedagogical techniques were
divided. Many disliked this concept of collective responsibility, because they found it
unnecessarily humiliating to the rule-breaking student(s) and believed that it did not further the
practical aims of the course. At least one interviewee disagreed, saying that it helped her to
remember to take the course seriously, and that she did not like to see other students treating the
course ―like a joke.‖ In addition, this student felt that disciplinary tactics were necessary, because
she believed that many girls and women coming into a self-defense course were arrogant and
over-confident. These varying ideals of responsibility say a great deal about a preference for
individuality among young Polish women who participate in self-defense. The evidence for this
argument and a discussion of the differing conception of responsibility across self-defense
methods will be discussed in greater detail in Chapter 6.14
WSDP: Women‘s Self-Defense Program
The final course I will discuss is a ―padded attacker‖ course—one that was designed by
two Polish psychologists, who have also published a book on the ―psychological aspects of selfdefense.‖ Although I was unable to observe this course firsthand, I completed an extended
interview with one of the co-creators and analyzed the text of the book co-written by him, entitled
Always Safe: The Psychological Aspects of Self-Defense (2003). Also, in general, the paddedattacker method of self-defense training has been the subject of ethnographies and studies by
several authors in anthropology, sociology and gender studies. The most famous analogue in the
United States is called ―Model Mugging‖ (now called Impact) and has been analyzed by authors
like DeWelde (2003), Brecklin (2004) and Hollander (2004), but there are other individual selfdefense seminars available in the US that use the padded attacker method.
WSDP differs in its handling of the ―model mugging‖ scenario in two basic ways. First,
in the classic Model Mugging course discussed by McCaughey, Brecklin and DeWelde, the
padded attackers who help with the class are men who are not known to the participants and
whom they never meet outside of the mock assault scenario. In WSDP, the padded attackers are
played by the instructors themselves (In the US, Model Mugging instructors are usually women).
Secondly, the padded attackers in Model Mugging attempt to make the experience more realistic
and more visceral by shouting at and insulting the women during the mock attack. In WSDP
since the men who lead the class in discussions and therapeutic insights are also the attackers,
these instructors feel that it would be inappropriate to use the kinds of language present in Model
Mugging‘s mock attacks.
Piotr, the WSDP instructor I interviewed, believes it does not present a problem for the
instructors to also pose as attackers. He said that even if the women in the course have previously
experienced real-life attacks, he does not see any danger that these interactions will be triggering
to survivors of violence. According to Piotr, the participants will not conflate the ―real‖
instructor with his fictional role as a padded attacker. ―We make it very clear that this is not real.
Sometimes women have emotional reactions, but we always have a debriefing session where they
talk about the experience with us and with the other students. If they have had bad experiences
with men in the past, to know that we are nice men, friendly men, it can help them I think.‖
In the WSDP case, according to Piotr, the participants do not confront a padded attacker
until at least the end of the third class session. The first two sessions are devoted to practicing
basic punches, kicks, blocks, and other moves used to disarm an attacker, along with ―talking‖
sessions about the psychology of self-defense. According to my interview with Piotr, part of the
importance of these discussions on psychology is to ―get women in touch with their violent
side…and also to let them understand the violence of men. Violent men are not like aliens from
another planet.‖ Another important reason that understanding the ―psychology of the rapist‖ is
crucial for self-defense is that it provides women with strategies to make themselves unattractive
to an attacker. According to Piotr, women can deter and dissuade attackers from targeting them
by performing confidence rather than ―victim behavior.‖
The most detailed information I gained about the content of the psychological segment of
the WSDP course comes from the book Always Safe (2003). On one level, the recommendations
given in this book for avoiding ―victim behavior‖ are interesting interpretations of feminist ideas.
For example: ―Women in Western culture are taught to have a completely flat stomach, so
wherever you go, you stand there holding your stomach in. But the stomach is the center of your
strength, and it grounds you to the earth. By unnaturally constricting these muscles you put
yourself off balance and you are put out of touch with your own strength‖ (2003:70). However,
some of the safety tips included in this volume are similar to those contained in explicitly
patriarchal self-defense discourses of decades past. These include ―avoid clothing that makes you
appear as a victim,‖ ―watch out for clothing that can be used as a weapon against you, like a scarf
or a hood,‖ (29) and ―avoid getting into an elevator with a strange man‖ (44). This book even
relates a story from a former participant who was raped after getting into a car after a party with a
male coworker (138). Although this advice is presented as encouragement for women to trust
their instincts, stand up for themselves, and let go of restrictive norms of feminine dress and
comportment, the content of the advice is very similar to some old familiar discourses of selfdefense, which place the responsibility for violence onto the behavior of individual women.
Further research is needed on the WSDP method, specifically in the form of participant
interviews and participant-observation in the course. Although I use examples from the interview
conducted with Piotr and from the text of Always Safe in the empirical chapters of the
dissertation, the conclusions I can draw from this evidence without corroborating participant
observation or participant interviews will be limited. Nonetheless the data I collected from this
interview and text analysis on the psychological aspects of self-defense provide interesting
contrast and comparison to the other self-defense methods I observed.
This chapter has been mostly descriptive in nature, in order to give the reader a sense of
the ethnographic specificities of the courses in which I carried out research. In the next chapter I
will begin a theoretical discussion of the social processes, rhetoric and gender regimes implied in
these self-defense courses; how they may have a significant impact on the gender order in Poland,
and how they may imply a shift in ways of thinking about gender. These three ways of
discussing self-defense tie my ethnographic data to broader social processes ongoing in Polish
society and politics.
Figure 1
UnSafe Woman and Combat:
Do not fit either of these
assumes universal
male participant
Martial arts-based,
techniques for women’s
abilities- Women’s Only
Usually contains a
component or basis in
These tended to be
mixed-sex, martial
arts based courses
Uses disciplinary and
pedagogical techniques
from martial arts
Women’s Only
No Psychological
Krav Maga
Table 2.1 contains a quick reference explaining the differences and similarities between the
different self-defense courses and methods I researched. Please refer back to this table to help
clarify the explanations of discourses and practices in these courses, as contained in later
empirical chapters.
Table 2.1
Type of
of Women
Women only
1-2 ,women
12 hours
Martial Arts
2, men
Martial Arts
1, man
Women Only
3 men, 1
martial arts
woman (asst.)
once per
Women Only
2 men
70/ month
martial arts
2x per
Women Only
1, man
weeks, 2
per week
Chapter 4
Crafting Identities Through Consumption: Self-Defense, Capitalism and
Neoliberal Personhood
Michał, a self-defense instructor, did not want me to use his name or record his voice.
When I said he could answer questions via e-mail rather than in person, he stated that he did not
want any trail of e-mails to identify him. In addition, he was reluctant to sign a written consent
form because he did not want any document to tie his name to his participation in martial arts.
Why so much secrecy, I wondered? Michał told me that he was afraid his ―other boss‖ would
find out about his side job teaching self-defense and martial arts classes, and his contract for his
first job stipulated that he could not obtain other employment. Although Michał’s insistence on
complete anonymity seemed excessive at the time, and prevented me from interviewing him as a
part of my research, his story is illustrative of the principles of entrepreneurship as well as a
bending of the official rules of the economy. The principles of profit and seeking individual
advantage are a way for many Poles to negotiate the competitive environment of the free market.
In an informal conversation Michał stated that teaching self-defense and martial arts was
his ―passion‖ because it ―saved people’s lives.‖ It seemed that his motives were altruistic but
also that his participation as a women’s self-defense instructor was profit-motivated.
Several of the self-defense instructors and organizers I interviewed saw their activities as
entrepreneurial and business-oriented, although they also professed that their motives were noble
and altruistic. They conceived their respective self-defense methods as unique products that were
suited for improving women‘s confidence and physical capabilities that could be utilized by
women who desired a particular result. In this case, the result that many women desired was
safety and self-confidence. My data also shows that some participants in self-defense view their
activity as a consumer choice, and a way to occupy their leisure time and disposable income. The
status of self-defense courses as consumer products creates a questionable relationship between
the feminist aims of stopping violence against women and the profit-motivated position of
market-based discourses of women‘s empowerment.
For example, many body projects undertaken by women are positioned as empowerment
strategies through advertisements and marketing, but these interventions (such as diet plans,
dating services, job coaching, etc.) are motivated by profit. Participation in these selfimprovement strategies requires the purchase of special products or memberships. Self-defense
courses can often be construed as a similar type of product because they require such purchases
and sometimes employ glossy advertising strategies to attract participants.
Consumption and Self-Improvement in Post-Socialist Poland
As outlined in the introductory chapters, one of the most prominent changes that took
place in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the state socialist system was a transition to a
capitalist, market-based economy. Two processes most commonly associated with this transition
are marketization of economic exchanges and the privatization of the ownership of firms, services
and industry. In contrast to the centrally planned economy of the communist era,
entrepreneurship was heavily encouraged and economic experts placed much faith in the
construct of the free market in the years of this transition. Early scholars of ―transitology‖
predicted that an embrace of neoliberal policies would lead to economic prosperity and greater
freedom, at least in theory.
However, these trends have resulted in the transfer of many of the responsibilities for
welfare and social support to private employment and charitable organizations (NGOs). This
transfer of responsibilities has led to a worsened economic and social situation for disadvantaged
groups in Poland, and especially for women with families. For these reasons, some consumers in
the region have actually been rather skeptical of the free market (Caldwell 2004; Patico 2008).
For example, in a 2008 CBOS (Centrum Badanie Opinii Społecznej, The Center for Public
Opinion Research) poll, 57% of poles said that the government was not paying enough for
welfare benefits (CBOS 2008:1), and in 2009, CBOS published a survey stating that 59% of
Poles believed that ―A free market economy based on private entrepreneurship is the best
economic system for the country‖ (2009:1). This latter number represents an increase over the
last ten years, but still leaves a substantial segment of Poles who are dissatisfied with the
economic system.
An increase in consumer choice has been a simultaneous process occurring alongside
marketization and privatization, and the growth of the economy. This increase in choice has
resulted in (or has been caused by) an attendant boom in advertising. Warsaw‘s streets, buses and
basically any exposed flat surfaces seem to be covered in advertising of some kind. These
ubiquitous advertisements address the people who pass them as consumers, and are designed to
give an aspirational image to any given product. They are designed to help consumers construct
an individuated self-identity through consuming a variety of products, which fit their aspirations
for the kind of life they wish to have.
A specific class of consumer products that includes self-defense courses is what I will
call self-improvement products. The popularity of products and practices like these is evidence
that Polish consumers are attempting to form unique, individuated identities through practices of
consumption. As these self-improvement projects are one part of the post-socialist processes of
individuation and differentiation, special attention is afforded within these practices to the ways
that individual bodies and behavior can be modified or improved through intensive personal
effort. Shelves in Polish bookstore chains are filled with books promising ―Success in Business‖
and instructing readers on ―How to Be a Millionaire,‖ along with manuals teaching ―Negotiation
Skills‖ and Smart Investing.‖
March 8-12, 2010 was dubbed the ―Week of Women‘s Success‖ by the city of Warsaw,
and during this time a series of workshops were held in order to teach women interviewing skills,
salary negotiation, ―dressing for success‖ and assertive body language, interspersed with yoga
and dance classes. The web site for this Women‘s Success Week features a picture of a gorgeous
woman with long, flowing hair, wearing glasses and a low-cut black dress.
Although the specific consumer products listed above are aimed at economic success,
many other products, programs and therapies are available that focus on other aspects of selfimprovement, especially the shaping and manipulating of bodily appearance and comportment.
The ways in which Poles (especially women) are encouraged to reshape or remake their bodies by
consumer culture are myriad, and their techniques are often explicitly or implicitly connected to
economic success by their advertising. The most popular forms of self-improvement that utilize
the medium of the body include physical fitness, supplements, dieting and beauty treatments.
These types of products have been marketed predominantly toward women in Poland, and
sometimes advertising ties beautifying regimes and techniques not just to good looks, but also to
success in business, in love and in life overall. For example, one article featured in the spring of
2010 on (, features the headline ―The circumference of
your belt and the circumference of your wallet,‖ and another is titled ―Obesity and Sexuality.‖
Another category of self-improvement interventions are meant to improve the personality
and relationships of individuals. These include therapy, assertiveness and confidence training,
dating services and consulting, and ―image consulting,‖ and they are all becoming more popular
among Poles in general, and specifically among women. Some evidence suggests that the content
of many of these self-improvement regimes are explicitly gendered in nature. For example,
online consulting services for women are numerous, offering advice for women who are having
trouble in the world of dating, for example ―A Feminine Heart‖ (Kobiece Serce,,
116 is designed to help women who are ―unhappy because of men, because
they love too much.‖ In addition, some English-language books such as ―The Assertive Woman‖
have been translated and are available in Polish bookstores. ―Brave Throughout Life‖ (Śmiało
Przez Życie) is a Polish book that is supposed to teach women how to ―protect their rights in
social and personal situations.‖ (2008). Finally, a current online campaign is being sponsored by
a variety of foundations, the city of Krakow and the Polish Ministry of Labor in order to train
teenage girls in assertiveness to prevent school bullying (
All these interventions are marketed explicitly toward women, and a large part of their
appeal is that they are for women only. Women may frequent such programs of selfimprovement because of their higher rates of unemployment, but because of the cost of many of
these self-improvement products, they may be out of reach for the Polish women who are most in
need of, for example, employment counseling or negotiation training.
Figure 3.1: Typology of self-improvement practices
Embodied Practices:
Beauty, Fitness,
Business SelfImprovement:
Job Hunting,
Resume Building
Dating Help,
Studies also show that Poles in general (not only women) have begun to engage in selfinvestment strategies, both literal and figurative, in ever-increasing numbers during the past two
decades, a trend that can be tied to the ―shrinking of the state‖ and to neoliberal principles of
empowerment through market mechanisms. Two of the most common examples of selfinvestment through participation in markets are entrepreneurship and investment in stock markets
through purchasing mutual funds and market shares. Both of these strategies involve some level
of risk, but the results of success are economic independence and a lack of reliance on a fickle
labor market or the state for security. Many of the respondents in Zapalska‘s (1997) and
Galbraith‘s (2008) studies on women who participate in professional work or entrepreneurship
express the need to ―look out for themselves‖ because they sensed a lack of support from
employers and from state programs. In addition, economist Dariusz Stańko (2003) wrote about
the unstable nature about Poland‘s national pension system, and states that increasing numbers of
Polish citizens are turning to private retirement accounts, depending on the fluctuations of the
Warsaw Stock Exchange, one of the most active stock exchanges in the post-socialist countries of
Eastern Europe. The purchase of life and health insurance policies, administered by private
companies, has also begun to gain popularity in Poland.
Self-improvement and self-investment strategies, both those relying on directly pursuing
economic security through participating in markets, and those based on indirectly assuring
economic improvement through purchasing consumer products that promise improvement of the
internal and external self share a common factor of self-reliance. A dialectic exists here between
the shrinking of the state (i.e. removal of social services, job security and even personal security
and safety) and increased reliance on these neoliberal strategies.
One gendered distinction here is that while most commercial self-improvement products
are marketed toward women, and aimed at improving ―feminine‖ attributes like beauty and
charm; however, the attributes associated with successfully participating in markets, such as selfreliance and risk-taking, are coded as masculine.
for effective performance as entrepreneurs‖ (1997: 76). The women she interviews for
this study Alina Zapalska‘s 1997 article ―Profiles of Woman Entrepreneurs and Enterprises in
Poland‖ shows this contradiction while aiming to reassure readers that ―Polish women possess the
characteristics required seem to be invested in proving themselves as businesspeople, and
Zapalska‘s analysis shows that there is no significant difference between male and female
entrepreneurs in Poland. However, at the same time, the women responding to Zapalska‘s
questions also seemed eager to prove their essential femininity. For example, they often described
themselves as being ―warm, understanding, and emotional‖ along with more ―masculine‖ traits
like ―independent, self-confident and independent‖ (Zapalska 1997: 77). I will discuss these
nuances of the gendered nature of self-improvement strategies in more detail Chapter 5.
All these emerging forms of self-improvement are related to the ―economization of
everyday life (Nealon 2003; Voss and Pongratz 1998). While ownership of economic resources
became privatized, many aspects of private life took on characteristics of economic transactions.
In the current neoliberal capitalist economy in Poland, identity formation is increasingly framed
in individual and public discourse in terms of buying and selling. Identity is constructed as
wholly achieved rather than ascribed, and individuals are thought to have agency and
responsibility over their own identities and how they are perceived by others. Success in forming
such an identity depends on constructing a self, or ―product‖ that is attractive to ―investors,‖ i.e.
potential employers or mates. In short, to be successful in this economized private sphere, an
individual must learn to ―self-commodify‖, that is to sell her or himself.
Formation of Individualized Identities Through Self-Defense and Martial Arts
The self-defense courses I studied are marketed as forms of self-improvement, and are
often conceptualized this way by their participants. These courses are a means by which Polish
women can construct a self-concept characterized by confidence, toughness, physical prowess
and responsibility, by shaping their bodies and training their minds. Self-defense courses bridge
several of the different categories of self-improvement outlined above, because my research
shows that Polish women participate in these courses for a wide variety of reasons. They may
wish to increase their personal safety, improve physical fitness, achieve distinction or belonging
in a social group, to increase their success at work by gaining assertiveness, or to pursue a
combination of all these goals.
Some participants I interviewed stated that they were interested in martial arts or selfdefense simply because they wanted to do something ―cool,‖ ―different,‖ or to feel ―tough‖ by
entering a predominantly masculine field of activity. Ania, a WenDo participant, stated: ―My
friend recommended [WenDo] to me, it was really one of those decisions where I said to myself,
‗Ok, I‘ll do something for myself, something different.‖ Gosia, a Krav Maga participant, also
said that her friend recommended this course to her. ―I kind of discovered it by accident, a
colleague recommended it to me, and so we decided to go together. And I really liked it and I
said that it was cool, especially since I was sitting down all day at work… so it is honestly for me
a form of movement activity, like physical education.‖ Marta, another Krav Maga participant,
stated that it was not the social aspect of the sport that was appealing, but the fact that her
participation made her different from most other women she knew. ―I needed some kind of sport
that moves your whole body, something complex and new….I also wanted to do it because it was
something a lot stronger, with the punches and kicks, it was aggressive.‖ She stated that she had
invited some female friends to participate with her, but she said that ―it seemed that they were
interested in general, but many of them were afraid… so they would rather do something like
aerobox, with kicking in the air, with music…‖
In addition to Marta, other Krav Maga participants and participants in other martial-arts
based courses often highlighted the feeling of distinction and toughness they gained from
participating in this ―masculine‖ activity. Asia, a student in Krav Maga, stated that she was
pleased to be ―unusual‖ among women because of her participation.15 She said, ―In general in
Poland, the traditions for women are swimming and aerobics… these fighting sports are not too
popular because there is a lot of discipline and effort involved.‖ Jolanta, another Krav Maga
participant, spoke proudly about how her participation in Krav Maga and other martial arts were a
result of her own innate ―masculine‖ personality and saw mixed-sex martial arts as the only
―real‖ way for women to successfully learn to defend themselves. ―I have this kind of personality
which pseudo-scientists might say is caused by a high quantity of testosterone…‖ she said. She
went on to describe her preference for masculinized forms of martial arts rather than ―women‘s
self-defense‖ courses. ―If you exercise only with women this is not adequate to a real-life
situation… And if you do not manage to break these psychological barriers to sparring with men
when you are in a situation on the street, you will be scared and you will not do what is
necessary.‖ Both Asia and Jolanta seem to enjoy selectively performing a rather ―masculinized‖
identity in the context of Krav Maga. Although the performance of gendered identity will be
discussed more thoroughly in Chapter 5, these examples provide one illustration of the ways that
Polish women actively create self-identity through consuming the ―product‖ of self-defense.
In martial arts-based courses that contained a strong element of physical conditioning
(including UnSafe Woman and Combat) participants tended to view the activity as a playful
attempt at self-improvement through bodily training and physical conditioning; others were
excited by the prospect of participating in a predominantly male sport, as I outlined in the
narratives of Asia and Joanna above. Typical responses to interview questions about the physical
conditioning of martial arts included ―I have a sedentary job, so this is my exercise,‖ ―It helps me
stay fit,‖ and ―it is a place I can go to concentrate, not think about anything else,‖ and ―this really
relaxes me.‖
Although physical fitness was a goal of a large segment of the interviewees, there was a
divide between newer and more experienced participants regarding their experiences of the
physical aspects of the courses. Many of the participants who were new to training commented
on the difficulty of the exercises. Those in the beginning phases of training often described
themselves as ―not particularly sporty,‖ or even ―In poor physical shape,‖ or ―really weak.‖
Those who I interviewed after they had attended training for some time (6 months or more) were
generally happy with the increases in their physical capability. These improvements were usually
phrased in terms of strength, endurance and ability to spar with other participants, rather than
physical appearance or weight loss. However, an increase in physical fitness did not necessarily
translate to a greater feeling of safety or a perceived ability to apply the skills from the course in a
real-life self-defense situation.
―It seems to me that, in a real situation of danger, it would be so unpredictable, I
would just be so… scared, I would be like a helpless child. I don‘t think I will be
in a state to apply all this…. It seems to me that in such a situation people often
do something exactly the opposite of what they have learned…they do not scream,
they do not run away, they just do something completely senseless. It seems to me
that…I just don‘t believe that I would manage to do it. Although maybe some time,
after three years of training, maybe I could.‖
Participants in WenDo, which has a much lighter physical conditioning component, were
also motivated by self-improvement, but framed their participation in terms of learning
assertiveness and interpersonal skills to help them in their personal and economic lives. Although
these skills were designed by the originators of WenDo to help women avoid violence, the
benefits reported by interviewees mostly involved everyday interactions with coworkers, family
members, and acquaintances. What was surprising was that despite WenDo‘s focus on
cooperation between women and the empowerment of women as a group, the participants saw
any empowerment they achieved as a very individual benefit. They often denied any interest in
women‘s groups, and said that WenDo was a way to learn skills that are useful to everyone, not
just women, and saw nothing particularly feminine or feminist about WenDo‘s pedagogy. This
way, WenDo participants effectively disconnected their participation from solidarity among
women or discourses of women‘s subordination.
In all self-defense contexts, regardless of the participants‘ specific stated motivations,
these women often felt that they were personally taking charge of their lives, relying only on
themselves to achieve their goals by consuming self-defense. The sense of individual
responsibility and personal initiative produced through self-defense discourse dovetails with both
the logic of consumerism and the neoliberal conception of citizenship and personhood. This
association is borne out in the narratives of self-defense participants, as I will show below.
According to scholars of postsocialism like Verdery (1996), Burawoy (1999), Mandel
and Humphrey (2000) and Haney (2008), as well as globalization theorists such as Harvey
(2006), Nealon (2003) and Hardt and Negri (2000), two of the most prominent features of this
neoliberal conceptualization of citizenship are participation in the free market, and investment in
and responsibility for one‘s own well-being. As I state above, Harvey defines ― ‖ as the belief
that ―human well-being can best be advanced by liberating individual entrepreneurial freedoms
and skills within the international framework characterized by strong private property rights, free
markets, and free trade‖ (Harvey 2006:2). Economist Peter Dicken, likewise, defines ―neo-liberal
market capitalism‖ as a system in which ―market mechanisms are used to regulate all, or most
aspects of the economy; individualism is a dominant characteristic…. And the dominant
philosophy facilitates maximum returns to the owners of capital‖ (2007: 178).
Coming from a strictly economic standpoint, Dicken does not classify the post-socialist
countries as Eastern Europe as ―neo-liberal‖ but as ―social market capitalist‖ because of their
greater reliance on socialized medicine and government regulation of industry. However, I would
argue that at least in Poland neoliberal ideas are increasingly becoming assimilated by
businesspeople, job seekers and government agencies. Culturally, more and more Poles are
espousing the idea that the economy is powered not only by the nebulous invisible hand of the
market, but individual motivations and self-interest. Individuals must take up responsibility for
their own well-being, entrepreneurially constructing an identity that will contribute to (but not
guarantee) market success. However, this ―trend of ideologizing individual success and personal
performance,‖ which is meant to allow for greater innovation and creativity in the business world,
as well as in social and personal lives, also means that ―all [professional or economic] failures
and setbacks, although often inevitable for structural reasons, are to be interpreted as individual
failure, and thus perhaps even a legitimation of social inequality‖ (Voss and Pongratz 2003:249).
These strategies and motivations of identity creation are based on consumption and selfimprovement, what Anthony Giddens would call ―post-traditional‖ identity (1990: 14). Some
have constructed these neoliberal identities as an empowering alternative for women within
patriarchal societies. Miraftab (2008) shows how neoliberal governance utilizes processes of
―symbolic inclusion‖ by claiming that a ―level playing field‖ is more inclusive to women than the
patriarchal ―traditional‖ regime that, according to them, unequivocally excludes them.
However, the paradox is that the same governance is based on personal greed and
privilege, therefore materially excluding the women it claims to have empowered. The
―freedoms‖ of neoliberal economies are often set up in a dichotomy with models of traditional
identity formation, charging that in such societies women‘s social identities are limited to the sum
of their familial relationships, and market participation will give them greater freedom (albeit the
freedom to consume) (Coyle 2003).
To relate this concept specifically to the Polish case, Polish culture is often described as
dominated by a Roman Catholic patriarchal tradition. It is true that such a tradition often
constructs feminine virtue in terms of self-effacement and self-sacrifice. However, some
evidence shows that many Polish women are no longer willing to efface their own identities in
favor of traditional roles (Marody and Giza-Połeszczuk 2000), although they may still value the
social power conferred upon these roles. According to Marody and Giza-Połeszczuk, the crafting
of women‘s identities in Poland now relies of self-investment and personal achievement. In the
case of Polish women, ―personal achievement‖ often centers on the development of beauty and
personal charm. Because these standards are largely conditioned by the male gaze, the cultivation
of beauty is implicated in a gender regime which is still largely sexist and patriarchal, and has led
to Poland‘s reputation for gender discrimination and sexual harassment. Because beauty and
many other forms of women‘s self-improvement are based on the consumption of products, they
are also tied to a classist economic system, structurally disadvantaging women who cannot afford
to buy such products. This construction of self-investment and liberated identity, can actually
―undermine Polish women‘s efforts toward self-recognition‖ (Marody and Giza-Połeszczuk 2000:
Since self-defense is constructed so explicitly as a self-improvement product for Polish
women, we must question the extent to which it is implicated in these same systems, and whether
self-defense courses can effectively empower women without dismantling these power structures.
When self-defense and martial arts are viewed by their participants as a way of forming a unique
identity, a leisure activity or as part of a beauty regime, they certainly seem to be implicated in
the inequalities of Polish capitalism.
However, self-defense courses are not always constructed this way by participants,
instructors and organizers. What about those courses funded by feminist and human rights
organizations, offered as a social service to help alleviate violence against women? Self-defense
courses with roots in feminist theory and those directly or indirectly funded by Western
development agencies like USAID or the Global Fund for Women, despite their nonprofit status,
are nonetheless tied to development discourses that privilege certain subjectivities for women.
This association continues to place such courses in a problematic position in regards to their
feminist philosophy as well as their stated goals of stopping violence against women on a
structural level.
In the remainder of this chapter, I will show through ethnographic and theoretical
evidence how both commercial and non-profit self-defense courses, because of the ways that they
are organized, funded and marketed, are rooted in the economic structures of capitalism and
neoliberalism. Commercial self-defense courses can become devoid of political significance
because of the ways that they privilege affluent women, in addition to their status as a luxury and
a consumer product. On the other hand, nonprofit self-defense courses are nominally tied to
liberatory philosophies, but this type of course often requires women to qualify as ―victims‖ in
order to receive such self-defense training because of the structures of international aid and
development funding. These courses also embrace a discourse that privileges narratives of selfhelp and personal entrepreneurship above solutions based on structural support.
Commercialism, Gender and Women‘s Empowerment
In Poland, the combination of rapid economic change and growth, the adoption of
Western consumption patterns and neoliberal capitalist business strategies have come into contact
and conflict with a conservative, religious and patriarchal ―traditional‖ Polish culture. All of
these factors combined with a large cultural generation gap and a widening economic gap
between haves and have-nots have created a polarized configuration of images, tropes and
stereotypes surrounding women‘s roles, rights and empowerment.
Peggy Watson (1993, 1997) and Susan Gal (1997) have shown a connection between
these economic transformations in Eastern Europe and the tendency toward anti-feminism, a
―return to tradition,‖ as well as the objectification and sexualization of women through media
images. Despite the fact that this dichotomous conceptualization of women‘s roles does not
really address women‘s agency, women in Poland, as the country‘s greatest purchasers of
consumer goods) have been increasingly addressed as consumer-agents by advertising. Although
advertising in Poland addresses women in a variety of ways, advertisements for self-improvement
products often address women as agents over their own lives. As I show above, selfimprovement products for Polish women reflect pressures affecting women who aspire to middleclass status in Poland. In addition, self-improvement products tend to be dominated by various
forms of body work and body projects, many of which play on women‘s insecurities by
displaying an unattainable ideal of beauty or success. Often these interventions imply that
women must conform to dominant norms of femininity and attractiveness to succeed in all realms
of life.16
Self-defense and martial-arts training in Poland can be conceptualized as a consumer
product with a desired result of self-improvement. This product is marketed heavily toward
middle-class women, and the majority of the self-defense participants I interviewed were
educated women with gainful employment and disposable income. Self-defense courses can be a
way of shaping and improving the physical body through exercise, but they also promise to help
women gain assertiveness and self-confidence, and thereby to improve professional and personal
relationships. Some proponents of self-defense construct these courses as a way for Polish
women to improve all aspects of their lives, and earlier I have hypothesized that the
individualized empowerment offered through such training can lend Polish women personal
confidence and a sense of self-worth that can lead to greater political and social organization. It
may also be more appealing to Polish women than what is perceived as the ―group-think‖ or
party-line decision making of organized feminism. However, the ways that self-defense courses
are intertwined with neoliberal capitalism, and their status as consumer products may limit this
Before I continue, I would like to stress that my data suggest that self-defense courses do
have perceived benefits for the women who participate in them. The narratives of participants in
various self-defense training methods overwhelmingly suggest that such courses increase feelings
of confidence and physical competence, as well as a social environment and cooperation among
women (in mixed-sex as well as in women‘s-only courses). In addition, I in no way wish to
criticize the on-the-ground operations of self-defense organizations or the actions of the
organizers. The self-defense organizations and firms I encountered were often teetering on the
edge of existence in the competitive Polish economy, and their instructors must charge for
classes, even if they receive grants from nongovernmental organizations, in order to continue
offering services at all. All the self-defense instructors and organizers I encountered seemed to
have a genuine passion for their work and a desire to help women become more empowered.
Therefore, it would be sanctimonious to imply that they are scheming capitalists or naïve pawns
of the ―system‖ simply because they exchange services for money.
My interest in tracing the power relationships and the workings of capitalism within the
self-defense phenomenon is not to impugn the effectiveness or the principles of self-defense
training but to see ways it can be better adapted to the Polish cultural context and to the needs of
Polish women. In addition to this practical goal, my theoretical interests are related to Foucault‘s
(1990) statement that ―where there is power, there is resistance‖ and its reverse, ―where there is
resistance, there is power.‖ Throughout this dissertation I utilize the ethnographic evidence I
have collected to follow Abu-Lughod‘s (1990) advice to anthropologists to follow this power
rather than to unquestioningly celebrate instances of resistance. In following these power
relationships, this chapter serves my dissertation‘s larger goal of investigating negotiations of
identity among Polish women who embrace self-defense as a form of body work with the goal of
self-improvement. By investing time and money in a self-defense course these women are
symbolically investing in themselves, with the goals of becoming more physically strong, more
confident and more powerful on an individual level.
Through investigating these power dynamics I have found that despite their benefits, selfdefense courses promote a neoliberal ideal of atomized personhood and individual responsibility,
a sort of ―every woman for herself‖ mentality. Since many of these courses rely on their status as
a commercial product to exist, they exclude women who cannot afford them from these benefits.
Assuming we take the claims and principles of self-defense at face value, this means that poorer
women will not learn the keys to assertiveness, comportment, verbal and physical self-defense
strategies, and therefore will become the ―easy targets‖ singled out by rapists and other attackers.
For this reason, it is possible to argue that the existence of self-defense courses and their
increasing popularity among Polish women, by itself, does little to eradicate the root causes of
gendered violence.
Self-defense courses as a phenomenon in Poland are quickly gaining popularity, but
predominantly among a certain subset of Polish women who identify with neoliberal narratives of
self-investment and personal responsibility. Based on the non-scientific sample of Polish women
I observed in the self-defense classes and interviewed, the typical self-defense participant is fairly
young, well-educated, and financially secure. According to Matynia (1998) Łobodzińska (1995)
and more recent statistics (International Labour Organization 2000), Polish women, and
especially younger women are very susceptible to experiencing unemployment and/or poverty.
According to Łobodinska, due to restructuring of the economy, polarization of the social class
structure, unemployment, coerced retirement, and inflation, a decrease in real income between
1989 and 1993 of an average household amounted to about 30% (2000: 60). Although the Polish
economy has recovered more recently, Polish women still represent about 60% of the
unemployed and make about 66% of men‘s income for the same work. In addition, many Poles
still have ambivalent attitudes toward women in the workplace (CBOS 2003; Fuszara 2000).
For this reason, it is possible that the women I interviewed and self-defense participants
in general fall somewhat outside of ―average‖ or ―typical‖ Polish women‘s experience. For
example, all of these interviewees described themselves as having steady employment, or as
students. They tended to view themselves as successful, and certainly did not see themselves as
members of a disadvantaged or victimized group. Commercial self-defense courses seem to
attract women from their particular social group because the pedagogy and rhetoric of these
courses are rooted in cultural factors informing the anxieties and desires of young, relatively
affluent Polish women.
When I use the term ―affluent‖ here, I mean that the women participating in the study had
relatively stable jobs or promising job prospects, comfortable lifestyles and prospects for class
advancement. Since most of them were relatively young, some were still in college and were not
―settled‖ in the sense of owning an apartment and having a stable career. However, most of these
students rented an apartment or lived with their parents. They were comfortable enough to pay
for a self-defense course, shop at the Western-style shopping malls in Warsaw, go out for
occasional meals or nights at the clubs, and attend cultural events like concerts, movies and social
events. I got the impression that they were not poverty-stricken, but they had to be careful with
their money because the cost of living in central Warsaw was relatively expensive. For example,
the average monthly income for a Polish woman has been listed as about 3000 PLN, or about
1500 US dollars a month. A decent one-person apartment or a room in a shared flat in the city
center (where most of the self-defense classes were held) was at least 1000PLN per month, or
more. A week‘s worth of groceries cost about an additional 150 PLN, or an additional 600 PLN
per month. Add to this transportation costs within the city (which were rising during the time I
spent in Warsaw) and utilities, I would estimate that an ―average‖ self-defense participant in
Warsaw (assuming she is single and has no children) has about 600 or 700 PLN per month for
recreation and other emergency costs.
One of the anxieties particular to this group of Polish women, which had a main role in
motivating them to enroll in self-defense courses, was personal safety. Feeling safer was listed as
a reason for taking self-defense courses, even among interviewees who primarily conceptualized
their participation as a fitness or recreational activity. The concern for personal safety from
sexual assault is related to the perceived increase of violent crimes against women, specifically in
the form of random street crimes.
Much of the language surrounding self-defense courses for women responds to anxieties
among Polish women about the likelihood of assault, and fear for their own personal safety. The
assumption behind the introduction of self-defense courses in Poland was originally that violence
against women had dramatically increased since the economic transformation. This increase has
been variously explained as a result of the objectification of women in pornography and other
media, decreased government control over daily life, or a kind of generalized ―moral decline.‖
However, according to statistics from the United Nations, random violent crimes against women
occur less frequently in Poland than in many other industrialized European countries, and much
less frequently than in the United States. For example, according to these statistics, 0.06 per 1000
persons are raped in Poland per years, as compared to 0.3 per 1000 in the United States (United
Nations 2000: 1).
Although the reported incidence of assaults on women by strangers in Poland and in
Warsaw specifically is relatively low in comparison to Western European and the United States
(see Regan and Kelly 2003), there was a perception among interviewees that Polish cities,
especially certain districts and neighborhoods of Warsaw, had become extremely dangerous in
the past 20 years. Because of the lack of good crime statistics from before the economic
transition, it is difficult to gauge the reality of this perceived increase in crime. What is very
likely is that a variety of social factors, including the repression of information about gendered
violence under communism, in combination with today‘s greater prevalence of ubiquitous news
media and endless reports of random street crimes, have led to this perception of greater violence,
regardless of any real statistical increase. Also, women‘s rights groups in Poland unanimously
agree that violence against women still goes unreported a large proportion of the time, adding
another level of difficulty to the measurement of levels of gendered violence. What matters,
though, is that the perception of danger has increased, and therefore women‘s fears of crime have
become more pronounced. By all accounts, acquaintance rape goes widely underreported in
Poland (and in many other countries), as well as marital rape, which is technically illegal but
almost never prosecuted in Poland. The problems surrounding self-defense discourse and the
prevalence of acquaintance violence and domestic violence will be discussed in more detail in
Secondly, another anxiety affecting young, relatively affluent Polish women is related to
the increased display of the sexualized female body in Polish media. This trend has led to the
desire of many younger Polish women to have fit, attractive bodies, a desire that is certainly the
cause of dissatisfaction and even extreme measures for some Polish women and girls (although
issues such as body image and eating disorders have not yet been the subject of scholarly
investigation in Poland). To even a casual observer in urban Poland, it is easy to see the
connection between the capitalist economy and the sexualized imagery found in advertising and
entertainment media. The truism that ―sex sells‖ is applicable here in the most obvious way.
When discussing the sexualized images of women in Polish advertising, my discomfort with such
imagery was met with an assertion that Americans tend to be more puritanical about sexuality and
the human form.
I will give three examples of advertisements I encountered in Poland, all in print or
billboard form in relatively urban areas. The first was a placard in an underground subway
station near the Arkadia shopping complex, advertising hosiery. It featured a woman wearing
only a pair of stockings, lying in a prone position. Her face was not visible because her head was
not in the photo. It seems obvious to use an image of a woman‘s legs to sell stockings, but the
products featured in such advertisements were not always even remotely connected to the
products being sold. Another example was a billboard along a main thoroughfare in north-west
Warsaw for a large electronics store. It included an image of a de-humanized woman who
appeared to be a robot. Her body was angular, but obviously female, and she did not appear to
have eyes, nose or mouth. Her metallic hair was shaped into a Mohawk-style cut, and lasers
appeared to be shooting out of the breasts toward the electronic device being advertised. Finally,
a billboard near Zakopane seemed to use the female form in a way that had no connection
whatsoever to the product. This was an ad for window frames, which used an image of an
(apparently) completely nude woman leaning through the window and staring at the camera. She
was wearing very strange make up and her hair was green, giving her almost an alien appearance.
These advertisements did not contain particularly egregious sexual imagery, but they all
seemed to rely on disembodied body parts or dehumanized female bodies to sell products. Also,
they did not contain any text other than the name of the product, its price and contact information
on where to buy the product. In all three of these cases, the message was simply the image. The
sexualized female form is shown as a medium to catch the viewer‘s attention and to sell the
product. The women are silenced and de-humanized in this imagery, effacing women‘s voices or
points of view, and implying that women‘s only value is in their bodies.
The reasons behind such trends of objectification have been the subject of much debate in
popular and scholarly literature in the region, as have been the consequences of such imagery (see
Dölling 1994, Occhipinti 1997, Watson 1993). This debate has created strange bedfellows among
advocates of feminism and religious conservatism in their opposition to such ―pornographic‖
imagery. Many Poles, however, even those who are politically progressive and otherwise in
favor of gender equality have no qualms about these kinds of images, seeing them as a rejection
of censorship, an effective mechanism of the free market, or a celebration of individual freedoms.
Feminist opposition to this kind of imagery within Poland has led to the common misconception
in that country that feminists ―don‘t like‖ or are ―afraid of sex.‖ Although such images may have
deleterious effects on women‘s and girls‘ self-esteem, what is more important is that this imagery
exemplifies the attention to individual bodies so characteristic of post-socialist and neoliberal
In sum, because of these cultural background factors related to women‘s fears of being
attacked, as well as the desire to have a healthy and attractive body, self-defense participants may
choose to enroll in a course with a variety of different and even contradictory motivations related
to these anxieties. Concurrently, marketers of such courses advertise and construct their product
in ways that may inspire these motivations. For many of the participants, the courses were a
product or a service, a means to an end. Although the reasons for participation varied, none of
the interviewees described their motivation as stemming from a feminist political orientation, or
as a statement against patriarchal domination.
Attention to Individual Bodies
The tendency among self-defense participants to think of these courses as ways of
creating unique identities, improving their individual bodies and personalities, or increasing
individual safety may come from disparate motivations, but these motivations all share the
common factor of individuation. Such a way of thinking about self-defense adheres to a
conceptualization of personhood that constructs persons as unique, atomized agents, with a
special focus on the person as a physical body. In this kind of schema, persons allegedly make
decisions on the principle of free will, with equal rights and equal opportunities to succeed or fail
on a ―level playing field.‖ Such a paradigm, which I associate with neoliberal ideas of
individualism, entrepreneurialism and the primacy of market mechanisms throughout this
dissertation, allows for a fiction of meritocracy, and is crucial to the status of self-defense courses
as a consumer product.
The same paradigm used to create this fiction of merit-based economic citizenship leads
to a focus on individual bodies as indicators of well-being, affluence or health (or the lack
thereof) of a person (Giddens 1990, Foucault 1983) and by extension the health of a nation or
society (Brownell 1995, Lock and Scheper-Hughes 1993). In this schema, the individual is
responsible for his or her physical and economic well-being, and his or her ability to do so
reflects his or her worthiness as a citizen. A dialectic exists between physical and economic wellbeing, however. Those already-privileged citizens who have more economic capital are more
able to purchase self-improvement products to improve the body. In addition, in the neoliberal
economy and labor market, those with healthier (and more attractive) bodies often make more
money and are more able to work and produce capital. The assumption of individual personal
responsibility presumes to flatten out structural inequality and create a level playing field.
However, this dialectic preserves inequalities and determines who will be the ―winners‖ and
―losers‖ in broader social processes of post-communism and European integration in Poland.
The importance placed on the well-being of individual bodies is also reflected in
Poland in the prevalence of sexualized imagery of women, and some self-defense and
martial arts programs exploit women‘s bodily anxieties in their advertising. Martial arts
courses like Krav Maga do not use images that fit into the same category as the
sexualized advertisements mentioned above but they do use fitness and body rhetoric and
images of women‘s bodies that conform to a narrow, commercially defined standard of
feminine attractiveness.
These images, which show women who are very thin, tanned and made up, while at the
same time having very defined muscles, represent what many women in Poland think a Krav
Maga or self-defense participant will look like. These manufactured images show a woman who
is strong and tough, often wearing boxing gloves or kicking a punching bag, but who still
manages to maintain the feminine ideals of ―perfect‖ hair and facial attractiveness, and seems to
possess an ineffable quality of feminine grace even during masculine-coded actions like punching
and shouting.
In addition to these kinds of images surrounding women‘s Krav Maga participation,
many diet web sites and even some Krav Maga association sites promote participation as a good
way to ―keep your figure.‖ Some Polish celebrities have specifically stated in the media that they
do krav maga as a fitness routine. The appropriation of feminine beauty ideals by some Krav
Maga and self-defense advertising can cement the status of these courses as consumer products,
and although these practices can result in a feeling of power and control for many participants,
these gains in self-confidence may be related to a perceived improvement in physical appearance.
Unfortunately, not enough comparative work has been done in post-socialist Eastern Europe to
definitively conclude whether such images have negative effects on Polish women who
participate in self-defense. However, a few articles (Mindrut 20002, Kalchevya 2000) suggest
that many women in Eastern Europe both accept Western beauty images as the ideal, and seek
empowerment through body projects designed to help them approach these ideals.
It is true that in Poland, fitness imagery in general is especially full of images depicting
―beautiful‖ (or unattainable) female bodies, and this has to some extent spilled over into the ways
self-defense and martial arts are imagined. These images can be found mainly in advertising for
large corporations selling fitness and beauty products, such as Sephora and Reebok. However, it
seems that the organizers of some self-defense and martial arts classes have adopted this imagery
on their web sites as an aspirational model and as a motivator to join the classes. They often
include information about the weight-loss and fitness benefits of their particular martial arts
In some advertisements, an image of a ―tough woman‖ who is powerful, in control, and
presumably physically strong has been appropriated by mainstream corporations as well as by
self-defense and martial-arts marketers. Although these images address women as agents, and
may seem like a counterhegemonic and empowering alternative to hyper-feminized and passive
women portrayed in many advertisements, they still conform to dominant ideals of feminine
beauty, simply containing different details and props. Agnieszka Graff‘s article on the ―Land of
Real Men and Real Women‖ show how images of powerful women, often constructed as
threatening by Polish conservatives, nonetheless are highly sexualized in nature (2008: 192). One
example she uses is the advertisement of the Party of Women, which ran for Polish political
offices in 2007. In this advertisement, seven of the women who belonged to the Party of Woman
(Partia Kobiet) in 2007 posed apparently nude, holding a sign that read ―Everything for the
future, and nothing to hide‖. Most of these women were young, and most were what would be
considered conventionally attractive. This image was parodied endlessly in the Polish media,
most famously by pasting the heads of actual female MPs (many of whom were not
conventionally attractive) onto the bodies featured in the advertisement. The popularity of this
image is an excellent of the conflation between female power and sexuality that occurs all too
often in contemporary Polish politics.
Such images of women who are both unattainably strong and tough and conventionally
beautiful, when used in connection with self-defense, can paradoxically act as a discouragement
to women who may be interested in participating in a course, and therefore prevent them from
learning skills that may lead to greater empowerment. For example, a large advertising poster
hanging in the window of a higher-end beauty products chain store in the spring of 2008 depicted
a model, heavily made up and obviously very thin and conventionally beautiful, wearing boxing
gloves and looking slightly sweaty and disheveled. The caption read ―How to knock out extra
kilos!‖ Upon further investigation, I discovered that the advertisement actually had very little to
do with martial arts or boxing, but was for a diet and exercise program that prominently featured
the store‘s products and dietary supplements. In Warsaw‘s fitness centers and gyms, a
multinational fitness equipment company promoted workout clothes and shoes with poster-size
advertisements with slogans like ―I can be both strong and beautiful‖ and ―I am a girl who dances
to her own music,‖ depicting an ideal of individuality and strength, encouraging women to buy
these products in the name of self-improvement. However, these images of ―tough women‖ are
portrayed by models and not actual athletes or martial artists, who would most likely have a
different body type and appearance. This imagery can create unrealistic expectations about the
type of body that can be produced through participating in martial arts or self-defense.
Although the bodies of these models might be ―ideal‖ in terms of society‘s dominant
beauty standards, this kind of body is certainly not necessary ideal for, or even achievable by,
practicing self-defense or martial arts. Comparing their own bodies to these idealized images
might discourage women from participating at all, or if they do participate, cause them to be
disappointed by their ―failure‖ to achieve the desired changes in their bodies. An ethnographic
episode from Martha McCaughey‘s monograph Real Knockouts shows a vivid example of the
difference between the expectation and reality of self-defense. McCaughey describes one
participant at a graduation from ―Model Mugging,‖ a padded attacker course similar to WSDP,
who ―began to cry while watching the video tape of her powerful fight against the padded
attacker, explaining that she knew she‘d had a good fight, but all she could focus on was how fat
she looked. Her painful struggle illustrates the enormous power of women‘s sense of themselves
as objects, and the difficulty of struggling to transform that into an experience of themselves as
actors‖ (McCaughey 1997:120).
Rather than enjoying her achievement and the transformation of her bodily capabilities,
this participant focused negatively on the fact that her body still did not fit the ―appropriate‖ size
and shape she assumed was necessary to be an effective self-defender. This research from the US
context shows that although part of self-defense pedagogy focuses on ―re-programming‖ a
cultural obsession with thinness, simple participation in self-defense or martial arts cannot undo
the bodily insecurities experienced by many women. It also shows that even if a self-defense
course does not use fitness and beauty imagery or language in its advertising, a broader cultural
expectation about the female body can still connect self-defense with fitness and beauty in the
minds of participants, sometimes to negative effect.
The Issue of Cost, ―Helping Women,‖ and the Victim Position
Another feature of self-defense courses for women in Poland that often causes them to be
conceptualized as consumer products by their participants, and which caused frustration among
Polish feminists, is the fact that the majority of self-defense courses are available only to women
who have access to disposable income. The self-defense and martial-arts courses operating on a
commercial basis in Poland vary widely in their cost and availability. Most of the courses I
encountered operated somewhat like clubs, and provided various kinds of accoutrements as a part
of the membership.18 WenDo and WSDP had a slightly different payment program in which
students paid for the entire course at once, because of their limited term of instruction. These
courses did not provide the same social-club functions as some of the martial-arts courses. This
could be because the sponsorship provided by NGOs and other organizations gave them a more
legitimate status as an intervention for violence against women and therefore were conceptualized
less as a commercial venture by funders and organizers.
The limitations related to the issue of cost have not been entirely ignored by the providers
of self-defense courses in Poland. Many of them realize that if women in Poland were offered the
opportunity to learn self-defense techniques in a context that was cost-free and non-ideological,
that might go a long way toward remedying the consumerist implications of current self-defense
courses. Some public funds and NGO grants have been allocated for preventing violence against
women, in line with recent development and aid trends, but the courses funded by these agencies
(with one notable exception I encountered, UnSafe Woman), are only available to women who
have previously experienced rape, sexual assault or domestic violence. Such courses will be the
topic of this section, in which I will explain how they are connected to human rights and
international development discourses.
Despite the fact that most self-defense courses in Poland are of a commercial or semicommercial nature, some courses are now being offered through hospitals and rape crisis centers,
funded by government initiatives and NGOs. They are usually offered cost-free for women who
have experienced domestic violence and/or rape. These courses may avoid some of the problems
resulting from the commercialization of other courses, but because they rely on funding from
international development agencies and NGOs, they are limited and conditioned by neoliberal
discourses of human rights and international development. The ways that women‘s
empowerment is conceptualized by these agencies contains assumptions about atomized
individual responsibility, the subjectivity of the ―deserving victim‖ and the location of gendered
violence within the socioeconomic contours of Polish society, often displacing the reality of
domestic violence in favor of violence perpetrated by a shadowy Other.
One major difference that separates these courses from their commercial counterparts is
the lack of an advertising or marketing program with the aim of ―selling‖ the courses. These
courses are discreetly (even secretly?) offered to women who seek help at a hospital or crisis
center after an assault. The way that potential participants are informed of these courses causes
them to lose the connotation of recreation, voluntary self-improvement and even playfulness
cultivated by some commercial self-defense courses. For the women who are interpellated as
possible beneficiaries of these free courses, self-defense training is conceptualized more as a
matter of survival than of self-improvement, although this conceptualization may in some ways
continue to perpetuate the stigma applied to women who experience gendered violence. The
secretive nature of these courses is intended to protect these women from retribution by angry
abusers, but it can be also be seen as evidence of the stigma of domestic violence. In addition, the
pedagogies of these courses may in themselves be pathologizing, as I will discuss further in
Chapter 7.
These courses for victims of violence reflect growing interest in violence against women
among NGOs and other funders in post-socialist Eastern Europe (See Keck and Sikkink 2002,
Chapter 5). This is perhaps because the goal of ending such violence appears more achievable
through empowering women on an individual level rather than through addressing seemingly
insoluble structural issues affecting women as a social group. Funding agencies provide grants to
programs limited to ―victims‖ while maintaining an insistence on individual empowerment and
responsibility. Much of the language of self-defense courses constructs men as impulsively
predisposed to violence (either by nature or by nurture), and therefore it constructs women as
responsible for control and prevention of this violence.
Although these interventions to decrease violence against women are difficult to criticize,
some scholars in the region are concerned about a disproportionate emphasis on this violenceagainst-women framework to the exclusion of other issues affecting women and men in the
region. Specifically, Hemment‘s 2004 article on women‘s crisis centers in Russian and in her
book Empowering Women in Russia (2007) describe a situation similar to that which I
encountered in Poland. Hemment discusses the ways that Western feminists and other aid
workers in the region make sometimes faulty assumptions about the types of violence (physical
versus structural) that women experience in Russia and Eastern Europe. According to Hemment,
―the framing of violence against women not only screens out local constructions of events, but it
deflects attention from other issues of social justice, notably in the material forces that oppress
women‖ (Hemment 2004: 816).
Another way in which the connection of Polish women‘s self-defense courses to
international aid discourses is problematic in its allocation of a privileged (but perhaps still
stigmatized) status to women in the position of ―victim.‖ Limiting funding to women who have
already experienced violence precludes the idea of preventing violence and shows that the main
concern is remedying the consequences of damage already done to the most-victimized women in
a society. Janet Elise Johnson, an expert on women‘s rights intervention in Russia, might classify
self-defense courses for victims of violence in the same category as women‘s shelters, crisis
hotlines and therapy sessions. Johnson contends that in Russia, feminist organizations have
succeeded in raising awareness of violence against women through such interventions. Because
of awareness campaigns, domestic violence has gone from being a completely unknown category
to being recognized as a real social problem in the region (2002). However, according to
Johnson, a focus solely on victimized women is limited because constructions of victimization
change over time. For example, interventions for domestic violence have recently lost funding,
because funding agencies have recently shifted their focus to trendier issues like human
trafficking. The discursive construction of trafficking creates a new category of women who are
even more victimized than those who are battered by domestic partners or assaulted by strangers,
and therefore demotes the women in this latter group as ―less deserving‖ of available funds.
A third issue related to the construction of violence against women, not just by
international aid agencies but by self-defense courses in general, is their construction of the
perpetrator of gendered violence. This issue of the Other as a violator of women will be
discussed in more detail in Chapter 7 but I will include a brief description of the issue here. The
techniques taught in any martial-arts or physical self-defense training class are necessarily limited
to addressing the danger presented by random attacks, or at the very most, unwanted advances by
an acquaintance. This feature of the pedagogy of martial-arts based self-defense courses ignores
the well-known statistics that in Poland, as in the United States, the vast majority of violence
against women occurs in domestic contexts, or in already-established relationships. The
perpetrator of violence most of the time is not a shadowy Other, but a woman‘s own spouse or
domestic partner.
Thus, a problem common to the pedagogy of most self-defense courses in Poland
involves ignoring the high incidence of violence against women by their partners or other family
members, and very few (with the possible exceptions of WenDo and WSDP) give women the
tools to deal with this type of violence. What often happens is the displacing of domestic
violence in self-defense rhetoric from the fathers, husbands and partners of Polish women, onto a
convenient Other who can take on the reputation of being dangerous and violent. Some authors
(for example, Woodcock 2005) have shown how this Other is often constructed in terms of
ethnicity but in many interviews I conducted the violent Other was constructed in an economic
manner. The person that the Polish women I interviewed expected to attack them was not a
person of a given ethnicity, but instead a ―drunk,‖ a ―street person,‖ or a ―hooligan‖ from Praga,
the district of Warsaw on the east side of the river.
All of these limitations of current self-defense pedagogies (the use of idealized or
sexualized advertising imagery, the limiting construction of the victim position, and the elision of
domestic violence) are the results of capitalistic and neoliberal ways of conceptualizing the
problem of violence against women. However, is there a possibility for non-capitalistic, nonneoliberal intervention against this problem? And if so, what would such an intervention look
like? In response to criticisms related to the previously-mentioned limitations, and also to the
issue of cost limiting self-defense training in Poland to relatively affluent women, some
innovations have been made to make self-defense courses available to all women. One of these
innovations has been UnSafe Women, a course offered free to all women residing in Warsaw,
funded by the city government. Because of its lower cost, greater availability, and lack of
capitalistic marketing strategies, UnSafe Woman provides a contrast to some of the other selfdefense courses I attended, but in some ways it is still motivated by profit and capital, and is also
somewhat less appealing to Polish women than some other courses.
UnSafe Woman: A ―Socialist‖ Self-Defense Course?
The Warsaw Straż Miejska, or municipal police force, began sponsoring UnSafe Woman,
a free self-defense course, in 2005. These courses are advertised as open to women above the age
of 14, of all fitness levels, although class size is somewhat limited, and because of their
popularity they required registration and sometimes had a waiting list. Both offerings of UnSafe
woman that were available during my time in Poland were located in relatively affluent suburbs
of Warsaw, Nowe Bemowo and Żoliborz, but they were designed to be available to working
women—easily accessible by trams and subway, and taking place on Saturday mornings. These
courses were not very heavily advertised, and information on the course (in my experience) was
quite hard to find on the internet, unless one already knew where to seek it out. Nonetheless, I
was surprised by the number of women who attended the first session of the course in January
2008, almost fifty. Although many of the original attendants dropped out over the 10-week
period of the course, those I interviewed during or after this period had a moderately high level of
satisfaction with it. As I mentioned in Chapter 3 the main negative aspects the participants
pointed out were the physical demands of the course and the large class size. A few expressed
discomfort with some of the interactions between students and instructors, which occasionally
took on an authoritarian character.
According to UnSafe Woman instructors and participants, these courses are appealing to
women (in opposition to commercial courses or ―therapeutic‖ courses like WSDP and WenDo)
because they represent a way to prevent violence from occurring, without a financial burden of a
membership fee. Participants and other women in Warsaw who knew about the courses viewed
these free, preventative courses as an excellent opportunity. However, by the end of the course,
some participants doubted the extent and the utility of the skills they had learned, mostly because
of the large class size and what they viewed as some less-than-effective teaching techniques. The
cost-free nature of this course allowed its greater availability to a larger number of women than
paid self-defense courses. On the other hand, in a single room with up to fifty participants and
only two instructors, individual attention to the students was limited. One participant, Julia,
stated: ―instructors cannot just show everyone individually, so you know, you can see it from the
side and you will perceive it differently, right? I don‘t have the skills of just picking everything
up quickly. I went to some of these classes and I didn‘t understand everything, I didn‘t have this
kind of, coordination of movement, so it is sometimes not too pleasant for me.‖
More than one participant, including Beata, noted some inconsistency in teaching
techniques across the different instructors: ―The different instructors show things differently, so
that everyone understands things differently. It is simply hard to figure out here just because each
one explains things to us differently, because each of them has learned everything differently.‖
From my own experience of this course, if a student or group of students did not understand a
technique, or was not sure if they were performing it correctly, it could take several minutes for
an instructor to circulate to their area of the room and show the technique close up. This high
student-to-teacher ratio led to a large amount of down-time during the class, and since many
moves taught in the course required several steps, some of the participants referred to them as
Unlike other women‘s only courses I attended, UnSafe Woman provided little to no
discussion of the psychological aspects of self-defense or of gendered violence; nor was any
reference made to the underlying social causes of violence against women. If there was any
philosophy associated with this course, it was that ―violence breeds violence‖ (a phrase often
repeated by this instructors), and was focused on a principle of non-escalation. This principle
was not so different from the philosophy found in some other courses, like WenDo for example,
but in this case the instructors insistence on women‘s careful and judicious use of self-defense
techniques may have been actually connected to a concern for women‘s legal responsibility and
possible misuse of self-defense. This was also part of the reason for the specific techniques on
which UnSafe Woman focused, especially leverage and pressure-point- based techniques like
wrist-locks. In addition to being effective with less muscular strength, these techniques are
thought to deter an attacker and allow escape without causing him permanent damage. Grzegorz,
a trainer of UnSafe Woman, states ―This is about how to defend yourself, about saving your life,
and not about how to kill someone. In other self-defense courses, maybe they do not think about
unintentionally causing death. However, here we do not have a feminist philosophy, there is no
self-defense philosophy, here we are simply learning how to defend ourselves, while not doing
harm to someone else.‖
Although the UnSafe Woman courses were for women only, the pedagogy used in the
course was essentially unchanged from the normal teaching strategies of mixed-sex martial arts,
the erstwhile occupation of UnSafe Woman‘s instructors. This led to a certain level of
dissatisfaction among some of the participants. The course included intense physical activity,
which was above the ability level of some of the participants; i.e. the instructors assumed that the
students had at least some prior conditioning. In addition, the pedagogical and disciplinary tactics
used were identical to those used in the instructors‘ mixed-sex martial arts courses. These tactics
included using participants as subjects for demonstrating certain moves, as well as employing a
principle of collective responsibility for discipline. Both of these strategies proved off-putting to
many participants. One participant, Marya, stated ―It seems that [instructor‘s name] sometimes
does not respect the capabilities of women. When he does these moves on a girl and wrestles her
to the ground, just to show he can do it, and that she can‘t do anything to stop him… I don‘t like
In addition, an approach to discipline that implies collective responsibility was often used
in UnSafe Woman. In this approach a student who breaks the rules or refuses to exercise is not
punished as an individual; rather, the entire class is made to run laps or do pushups. Thereby, the
actions of one member affect the entire class. This tactic is sometimes used in contexts like team
sports or military training to foster a sense of camaraderie and group cohesiveness. However, this
principle of collective responsibility may not be as appropriate in UnSafe Woman as it is in other
contexts, since the participants in this course do not otherwise form a cohesive unit or team. For
example, Zosia stated, ―If one girl doesn‘t want to exercise, she should be able to leave, and that‘s
that. We don‘t all have to be punished for it. Personal responsibility is enough, I feel that this
technique can turn the girls against each other.‖ It might be possible that this resistance to such
disciplinary techniques stems from the fact that Zosia and the other participants in UnSafe
Woman were not paying for the course; but later I learned that in Combat, the paid version of the
method, the instructors used similar disciplinary strategies, which encountered similar resistance
among participants.
The advantageous status of UnSafe woman as a cost-free public social service is
countered by its disadvantages of overcrowding, understaffing, inadequate facilities and limited
time. Also, an authoritarian approach by some of the instructors and a discipline structure that
sometimes implied a principle of collective responsibility were characteristics that were all
unique to UnSafe Woman (and to some extent its counterpart, Combat). All these features call to
mind a ―socialist‖ approach to teaching self-defense. This is because during the socialist era in
Poland, social services intended to make life easier in theory, like socialized day care, health care
and housing were often plagued by problems like overcrowding, understaffing and inadequate
facilities. Therefore, participants in the UnSafe Woman courses, in comparison to commercial
martial arts courses or empowerment seminars, found these ―socialist‖ features of the course to be
least appealing.
Elizabeth Dunn (1999) in a study of factory workers in Poland, shows how the discourses
of the factory and the corporation implicitly drew a dichotomy between ―new‖ capitalist and
―old‖ socialist ways of being, associating socialism with ―inadaptability, drabness, deprivation
obedience and collectivism…‖ and capitalism with ―flexibility, colorfulness, satisfaction of
wants, critical self-reflection and individualism….‖ (Dunn 1999: 128-129). In the same way,
because of certain ―socialist‖ features of UnSafe Woman, participants tended to associate it with
the former group of characteristics, and ―glossy‖ commercial martial arts and self defense courses
with the latter, regardless of whether or not they had ever attended such a course. However, the
age range of participants in this course indicates that many of them were too young to have really
dealt with the difficulties of living under state socialism so they may be operating from a
stereotype of what these kinds of social services were like. In addition, they did not frame the
opposition between UnSafe woman and commercial courses in terms of an explicit
socialist/capitalist, or a collective/ individual dichotomy. Another possibility is that these
participants are young enough that they are simply accustomed to the glossy images of selfdefense courses in the media and found the reality of UnSafe Woman did not live up to their
Upon this closer examination, the analogy of UnSafe Woman as a sort of socialist
holdover or relic does not completely hold up, despite these superficial indicators. First, UnSafe
Woman, despite some of its ―collectivist‖ pedagogical techniques, nonetheless attempts to
prevent violence against women by providing empowerment to individual women. Outside the
incidents of course discipline that implied collective responsibility, the course addressed the
participants solely as individuals, and did not tie its rhetoric to any kind of structural or
sociological framework.
Finally, it became apparent that the instructors of UnSafe Woman saw their work for the
city of Warsaw as an opportunity for expanding their own commercial self-defense and martial
arts venture. Grzegorz stated that the city government gives them ―a little bit of money, but we
do this for non-profit, so we really don‘t get anything out of it.‖ However, as in the opening
anecdote to this chapter about Michał, it was clear that profit and entrepreneurship was at least a
secondary goal for these instructors, especially since they used UnSafe Woman as a venue to
recruit participants for Combat, their ongoing commercial course.
Based on the above, I draw two conclusions about the paradoxical relationship of selfdefense courses in Poland and current trends toward consumerism and neoliberal social and
economic ideals and policies. The first conclusion has to do with the entrepreneurial formation of
identities through consumerism. The second is related to international aid discourses that focus
on responsibility and individual empowerment.
First, the way that self-defense courses have been constructed as a consumer product in
Poland, equally by their organizers, instructors and participants, implicates them in a system of
capitalist advertising, consumerism and media culture. The objectification of women in this
market system has been constructed by feminist scholars as part of the root cause of violence
against women, and therefore antithetical to the mission of self-defense courses and women‘s
empowerment. Nonetheless, self-defense courses are commercial products and the organizations
that sponsor them must raise money to exist. Therefore, they must use advertising and marketing.
The advertising and marketing strategies used by some martial-arts and self-defense courses may
exploit women‘s insecurities about assertiveness, appearance, or personal safety. In addition,
some of these attempts to sell self-defense, and even media images loosely connected with
powerful or tough women, may perpetuate dominant beauty ideals, leading back to issues of low
self-esteem and self-effacement, both of which are the basis of restrictive norms of the dominant
feminine body culture. As a separate issue, the cost of commercial self-defense leaves out a large
proportion of women in Poland, the working-class and those struggling with poverty, who do not
have the time or money to attend one of the regular commercial self-defense courses as a form of
Likewise, women who participate in self-defense on a cost-free basis because of their
status as victims of violence are implicated in these individualizing processes. The discourse of
the NGOs and other organizations that facilitate self-defense for this group of women locates
them within structures of neoliberalism, which place the responsibility for empowerment and
violence prevention on individual women. This is because the solution offered by self-defense
courses as a social intervention is based on empowerment on an individual level, although these
women are interpellated as members of a victimized group. These courses attempt to empower
individual women, rather than trying to change the structural factors of the underlying gender
regime that leads to sexual assault and violence.
This individualization of women as victims of violence, according to authors like
Hemment and Johnson, does women as a group a disservice. If the construction of women as a
victimized group by NGOs and international aid organizations could instead focus on structural
issues, in their formulation, funds could be utilized in ways that allow women to become
economically independent and that try to raise women‘s status across the board, rather than
placing a ―band-aid‖ on the problems of domestic violence and sexual assault. These authors,
along with Ghodsee (2004) view the relative lack of these structural interventions as stemming
from a feminist agenda that is unfamiliar and irrelevant in many post-socialist contexts, despite
the ties of these programs to broader capitalist and neoliberal trends. Overall, these writers
propose the reformulation of programs, policies and discourses that uncritically position
individual women as the victims of violence. Instead, interventions like self-defense, just like
other programs for women, should take into account women‘s position along lines of class and
ethnicity, as individuals but also as members of webs of social obligation.
Even UnSafe Woman, the course that could potentially be construed as a non-capitalist,
non-neoliberal form of self-defense instruction, does not constitute a significant exception to the
neoliberal paradigm of empowerment. Although some features of this course are reminiscent of
stereotypes of socialist state services, and there is some implication of a collectivist approach to
discipline, it still constitutes a neoliberal way of constructing the problem of violence against
women and its solution by its interpellation of women as individuals, as well as a profit-making
venture for its instructors.
Although I, along with many other scholars of post-socialism, (e.g. Boyer 2002; Matza
2009; Bloch 2005) am critical and suspicious of both neoliberal economics and the political
atmosphere that characterizes the process of individualization, I wish to problematize and resist
an uncritical formulation stating that self-defense‘s ties to consumerism and neoliberal ideals
negate the phenomenon‘s potential benefits. The fact that most self-defense courses are
conceptualized as consumer products ties them to the free market and to the necessities of
advertising and marketing does not necessarily mean that they are just another form of
domination and subjugation of women. Drawing on Foucault‘s theories of productive power, I
argue that self-defense participants‘ power-laden relationships to this product, and to the
consumer market more generally, may be constraining in some ways, but also presents Polish
women with new forms of knowledge and greater options for the performance of gender identity.
For example, WenDo participants Ania and Aleksandra stated that their course
participation changed their perception of womanhood: ―You can finally see that women do not
have to be passive, and that they don‘t have to…agree to everything. This is how it is good,
because you can apply this in every activity of your life: in your home and at work, and on the
street, everywhere.‖ Aleksandra used very similar wording: ―Other martial arts like Judo
certainly taught me to discipline my body… but WenDo, that is more the psychological part, that
was the most important to me…Even in my relationships with friends, and at work, it will be
easier to say no.‖
Marta from Krav Maga had a slightly different formulation of the way her martial arts
participation had affected her life, but she still viewed it as a positive aspect of her gendered
identity. ―When I first went into sparring [after an injury], I was afraid, but then I know that
everyone is afraid, so I am sure this is normal. I like the challenge of sparring with a big guy; it is
a way of feeling strong. I really like these classes, because I can dig my heels in, really getting
down and fighting with a lot of physical contact, with the whole body… I guess I would say it
gives me a kind of primitive pleasure…‖
Marya, from Combat, stated that self-defense has helped her to ―gain control over her
own fears, I get to learn how to control my own weakness and use it as an advantage, this is the
kind of self-defense that breaks down your fears and anxieties.‖ Marya went on to tell how she
had used her self-defense skills against a man who was harassing her on the street, only a week
before. ―That made me learn that I am in control, you quickly absorb this kind of confidence,
where if you are walking on the street or in a dark park, you know what you have to do, you have
these precise movements, and these are techniques that can really succeed at any moment,
whenever you need them.‖
As I have shown through these expressions of confidence by self-defense participants,
from different course contexts, the concrete benefits that can be gained by self-defense
participation include greater self-esteem, greater assertiveness in personal relationships and less
reliance on a traditionally-defined feminine body culture requiring diminution and passivity.
These benefits to women are sufficient, in these eyes of the participants and instructors, to
outweigh any problematic aspects of the courses‘ connection to commercialism or to neoliberal
interventions aimed at victims of violence, a connection many of them do not see as problematic
in the first place.
Consumption of self-defense as a commercial product forms only one facet of the ways
that Polish women negotiate their identities through self-defense participation. The adoption of
an identity as a ―tough woman‖ requires negotiations of the performance of masculinity and
femininity, as these have been traditionally defined in Poland. The next chapter will closely
examine how these negotiations can be a way of pursuing individualized empowerment, while
leaving gender binaries and values assigned to masculinity and femininity intact. Returning to
Foucault and to the work of Saba Mahmood (2005), I will describe the ways in which Polish
women in self-defense courses have become ―docile agents‖ by training their bodies in adherence
with conventional gender norms, and in the alternative body culture inculcated through selfdefense training.
Chapter 5
The Performance of Masculinity and Femininity in the Self-Defense
The first fitness club that I visited, in the interest of my own personal exercise regime,
was a women’s-only fitness club. It was located in a high-rise office building and catered mainly
to the business women who worked there. It was marketed through very glossy and
professionally-done advertisements on the internet and on billboards throughout Warsaw. When
I toured the facility, I found that there were no weight machines, treadmills or other cardio
equipment. The fitness club consisted only of two large rooms in which group fitness classes were
held, along with mats, exercise balls and yoga equipment. Upon looking at the schedule of
classes offered, I saw that the selection of classes was very limited. The entire offering consisted
of Yoga, Yoga for Pregnant Women, Pilates, something called ―Sexy Dance‖ and a class called
―Fit Mommies’ Club.‖ The managers of the club deemed it more economical to limit the selection
for this women’s only gym, because they believed that not enough women would use the other
When I finally joined a mixed-sex fitness club, I also signed up for a Toning class that
came free with the membership. Attending the Toning class for the first time, I was again
confronted with an instance of Polish cultural assumptions regarding women and physical
activity. In the room where the class was held, there was a rack holding three sizes of weights:
1.5 kilo, 1 kilo and 0.5 kilo. Walking into the class, I automatically picked up the 1.5 kilo weights
(3.3 pounds), which looked similar in size to the weights I had previously used in the United
States. I started doing the exercises along with the rest of the class, and after a few moments I
was approached by the instructor, a petite woman with cropped hair. She asked me if it was my
first time in class, and I replied ―yes.‖ Taking the weights away from me, the instructor said
indulgently ―No, no, no, those are too big,‖ and exchanged them for weights of the smallest size,
which were half a kilo (just over one pound), pink in color and roughly the size of a can of soda.
When I looked around in the room I realized that almost all the other participants were using
these tiny weighs.
Elsewhere in the gym, there was a marked gendered division of space. The majority of
participants outside the group exercise rooms were men, although some women used the
cardiovascular equipment. It was rare for women to extensively use the weight machines or free
weights, which started at three kilos (6.6 pounds). This area was dominated by small groups of
two to four men who would alternate in the use of a given machine or spot each other on the free
weights, so that a less-assertive participant often had to wait a long time to do a particular
exercise. The cardio equipment (treadmills, stationary bikes, elliptical trainers and stairclimbing machines) was a mixed sex area, but there was a difference in the way this equipment
was used by men and women. Women tended to walk slowly on the treadmills with a steep
incline, or use the elliptical or stair-climbing trainers at a high level with much of their body
weight supported by the arm rests. The Polish women working out in this area rarely seemed to
break a sweat. The men, on the other hand, tended to run or jog on the treadmills, but rarely
used the elliptical or stair-climbing machines.
These impressions from outside the self-defense context vividly show the gendered
expectations surrounding physical exercise in Poland. In a typical mixed-sex fitness setting,
women tended to choose activities focused on slimming, grace, flexibility and agility, while men
gravitated toward strength activities, competition, and bodily enlargement. These norms are in
agreement with conventional gender roles which encourage women toward diminution, passivity
and self-effacement, and men toward dominance, assertiveness and self-promotion. Authors like
DeWelde, McCaughey and Brecklin have explained, in the US context, how women‘s selfdefense participation can be a way of subverting these gender norms and unlearning femininity,
or alternatively, subverting the very meaning of femininity by constructing it to connote strength
and assertiveness. Polish women who participate in self-defense or martial arts negotiate their
own gendered identities through the bodily training of self-defense and martial-arts classes,
selectively adopting elements of masculine and feminine behavior within the context of the
This negotiation of gender is at its most noticeable in mixed-sex martial arts courses that
employ a ―gender-blind‖ strategy of teaching. As I have outlined in Chapter 3, some self-defense
classes are constructed by their organizers as emphasizing women‘s unique strengths, often
invoking women‘s perceived ―natural‖ differences from men. I have termed these courses
―gender-sensitive‖ self-defense training, and this category includes WSDP and WenDo. Other
courses (especially martial-arts based courses) seem to ignore gender entirely, at least in theory.
In practice, they tended to assume a universal male participant. By this, I mean that the practices,
disciplines and pedagogies of the course were developed for an overwhelmingly male group of
students, and the presence of women in the courses did not change any of these practices (in the
formal rhetoric of the class). This approach characterized all the mixed-sex martial arts courses I
attended and to some extent the women‘s-only UnSafe Woman and Combat courses.
Despite popular conceptions of participation in martial arts and other masculine-coded
activities as a way for women to seek empowerment and subvert gender norms, the rhetoric of
most self-defense courses (in both categories) implicitly leaves the conventional gender binary
intact, These courses continue to place a higher value on masculine ways of being, while
devaluing feminine traits. Female participants who excel in mixed-sex martial arts are valorized
for rejecting femininity within the martial-arts context and are discursively constructed as
―atypical‖ women.
Gender-sensitive self-defense training is designed to address more ―typical‖ women, and
therefore does not challenge women to adopt masculine body culture to the same extent. Such
gender-sensitive courses may even valorize feminine characteristics as morally superior. For
example, the pedagogy of WSDP and WenDo often utilize language that appeals to a sense of
nurturing or motherhood to attract women to see these traits as an important part of these
Mixed-Sex Martial Arts and the Problem of Attrition
In my experience, martial-arts based courses such as Krav Maga attracted a small but
devoted core group of women. In interviews, many of the members of this group said they
tended to enjoy participating in masculine-coded activities that gave them a sense of distinction
among women. At the same time, these women had the tendency to erase or elide gender
difference as an important social category, holding the opinion that ―women can do anything, it‘s
not a big deal,‖ as one participant put it. All the participants and instructors I interviewed from
gender-blind martial arts courses agreed that these kinds of courses generally have a high dropout
rate among women (many quit after two to three months), and women most often form a very
small proportion of the classes compared to men.
During the three-month period in which I attended Krav Maga, I noticed that several
women attended the class once, and then never attended again. A Krav Maga trainer informed
me that such a pattern was quite common, and for that reason his organization did not charge a
membership fee for the first class period, in effect making it a free trial. In all the martial-arts
based courses I encountered, trainers and participants spoke of the problem of attrition as
especially prevalent among female participants. ―Most women only attend for about two months,
then they get tired of it, they do not improve enough so they get tired of it. I am kind of guilty of
this; I tried to take Aikido, and it seemed like it was one thing after another, I liked it but it just
couldn‘t work out,‖ said Basia, a participant in the Karate course. Gosia, a Krav Maga
participant, shared her experience of frustration during her first months participating in the sport.
―In the beginning it was really easy to get discouraged, as you have seen,
because everybody is better than you. This is discouraging, but at a certain
point you really start to get it, things start to go well. But it is necessary to
practice a little. You can‘t say, after three classes, or even after ten, that you
are bad at everything, that this isn‘t for you.‖
Several possible explanations can account for the relative lack of women‘s participation
in mixed-sex gender-blind courses, the two most important of which I will discuss at length
below. The first and most visible reason is the factor of intimidation and discomfort many
women experience within the ―macho‖ atmosphere of many of these courses, a concern
mentioned by several interviewees. A second reason is a desire among women to participate in
what they consider to be more aesthetically pleasing forms of physical activity, and an aversion to
using their bodies in an ugly, brutal or masculine fashion. A more speculative possible
explanation, which will be addressed in chapter 8, involves gender anxieties manifested in Polish
public discourse about the maintenance of stable gender roles in response to current trends in
globalization and European integration.
In the remainder of this chapter I will make four main points. First, I will
ethnographically detail the cultural sources of the discomfort many Polish women feel in mixedsex martial arts and self-defense courses, and other activities coded as masculine. In addition, I
will show how women who are successful in these courses negotiate the performance of a hybrid
gendered identity. I will problematize this formulation by showing how the performances
required for success in gender-blind martial arts classes are not tenable for the majority of Polish
women because of rhetoric that continues to value masculine over feminine ways of being.
Finally, I will tie this ethnographic data to theory by showing how these participants create docile
bodies (Foucault 1979; Mahmood 2005) in order to perform a limited form of female masculinity
(Butler 1999; Halberstam 1998) within the martial arts context. The cultivation of docility in one
sector of their body culture paradoxically leads to their becoming less docile in terms of
patriarchal norms and conventional wisdom of gendered violence that often positions women as
helpless victims and men as violent predators.
―Macho‖ Behavior and Intimidation in Mixed-Sex Martial Arts
As I mention above, the mixed sex courses I observed did take a gender-blind approach
in theory. Arguably, to teach them in any other way (i.e. treating women in a mixed-sex course
differently from men) would be blatantly sexist.19 However, by flattening out gender difference,
these courses assume that their universal, supposedly de-gendered student is male. In other
words, these courses do not acknowledge the cultural constructions of masculinity and femininity
that influence attitudes and behavior on the ground. Just because differences in masculine and
feminine body culture are culturally constructed does not make them any less tangible in the
context of martial-arts studio, or in everyday situations. The assumption of a universal male
participant often results in frustration and lowered confidence among women who are new to
martial-arts practice, because it ignores the disadvantages women may face in a mostly-male
In the mixed-sex martial arts courses I studied, women made up between 5% and 15% of
the total participants at any given meeting (on average), depending on the type of course (see
Table 2.1, p. 119). The proportion of women was considered to be higher in traditional martial
arts that are considered more graceful and dance-like (the most popular traditional martial arts for
Polish women were Aikido and Judo, two methods I did not observe) and lowest in Krav Maga.
In such a martial-arts setting with very few women, the instructors may just assume a
male participant as the universal or default because of a sense that the needs of the majority
should define the agenda of the course. However, by creating an environment in which women
are treated as if they were men, the courses exclude from full participation women who cannot
successfully perform a masculine body culture within the context of the course. Despite the
discomfort such an environment might cause for a novice female participant, martial arts
instructors and core group members maintained that learning to negotiate a masculinized martial
arts culture ultimately works to women‘s benefit. Marek, a Krav Maga instructor, was adamant
on this point:
―We do not teach women to be safe, because this is false, it is a fraud, but we just
try to show what all the dangers are and how to manage yourself with them….
It is best to train together, for both men and women. That is because everyone
can learn something from everyone else, everyone is different. It is not true that
big guys should only exercise with big guys, and small people with small ones,
they have to get together. And a closed group of women causes a lack of skill in
freeing oneself, without stress and without fear. Training has to be very close to
what is happening every day. If during training you exercise with a big guy, later
it is not such a stress to fight with this kind of guy in a real situation.‖
Later in the interview, Marek continued to state that some women could excel as fighters in Krav
Maga just as much as men if not more so, despite cultural expectations to the contrary. He stated
that this was partly because of Krav Maga‘s less-than-stringent rules of engagement.
―It all depends on the psyche… if we describe the fight in terms of boxing or
wrestling, probably women do not have much chance. But if we open it up to the
principles of Krav Maga, and say that every kick to the groin will count… I think
there is a large chance. In Brazil a month ago there was a cage match in Krav
Maga between a man and a woman, and the woman won.‖
Elżbieta, another Krav Maga participant who was rather new to the sport, asserted that
she enjoyed the challenge of negotiating Krav Maga‘s masculinized terrain:
―I prefer to exercise with men, because I am not afraid that I will hurt them.
If you go to a class that is only for women, it seems there is a little bit of denial
going on there, because as a rule, the person attacking you will be a man, so as a
woman, you should be able to get past a guy. If you can do that, you will definitely
be able to manage yourself.‖
Despite these preferences, some of the participants in Krav Maga felt annoyed by the
frequent posturing and competitiveness that came up among the male participants. Gosia stated
that there were certain men in the course who she had learned to avoid choosing as sparring
―When they hear the word ‗sparring‘ their testosterone rises immediately,
and some of them are really competitive and they even treat simple exercises
this way. And what perhaps bothers me the most, is that this makes it hard
to learn, because they want to hit you so hard, because they have to win. In
sparring it just comes out that some guys are too ambitious.‖
Gosia, along with some of the other participants, recognized the tension between an effective
martial-arts based self-defense approach that allows them to test their strength against a larger and
stronger opponent, and cultural milieu that encourages macho behavior and competitiveness
among men. These participants also acknowledged that such an environment can undermine
some women‘s benefits from the course. However, they did not say that this atmosphere
decreased their own benefits in that they described themselves largely as atypical women, who
enjoyed the rough-and-tumble environment of the martial-arts studio. They constructed
themselves as less ―fragile‖ than other women and therefore able to succeed in Krav Maga.
―I really like Krav Maga because I generally wouldn‘t like such a feminine
environment….I also was looking for a sport that moves your whole body,
and that is complex and new. I wanted to do it because it was something a
lot stronger, with punches and kicks. It is aggressive. I don‘t have time
for all these feminine activities.‖ – Marta
―I am in a field where there is a lot of sex segregation. I am in this environment
in the hard sciences, and I am a manager so there are not very many women in
my line of work…. And I have noticed that the aggressiveness of Krav Maga has
helped me in my work as a manager.‖ –Jolanta
The Performance of Female Masculinity in the Context of Self-Defense
Despite, or even because of the discomfort many Polish women feel regarding the intense
physicality, exertion, and masculine social environment associated with gender-blind martial arts
training, members of the core group in martial-arts based self-defense courses enjoyed subverting
the norms of femininity, even if in a limited context. According to Marek, women who
participate in Krav Maga have a ―desire to pick up their physical fitness, trying something that
seems masculine at first, an entrance into a male world. And often, as I said, there is a certain
mental valor in Krav Maga, raising your self-worth, feeling more powerful.‖ In this section, I
argue that the success of these core group members in negotiating the gender regime of martial
arts is contingent upon their performance of masculine behaviors with the context of the class.
This type of performance can be categorized as a form of ―female masculinity.‖
In the literature on female masculinity in the United States context, the term has mainly
been used in discussions of sexual identity and often connotes homosexual desire and therefore
has been appropriated by scholars of lesbian and transgender identities. However, I will be using
the term ―female masculinity‖ in a slightly different way, because based on my acquaintance and
interviews with women who participate in Krav Maga or other martial arts, most of these women
generally do not view their subversion of feminine norms as a part of a lesbian identity or as part
of a masculine gender orientation.20
Judith Halberstam‘s volume Female Masculinity (1998), which is the most in-depth
scholarly discussion of the topic, acknowledges that female masculinity is polymorphous and
does not necessarily imply same-sex desire. Halberstam cites the example of the archetype
evoked by the image of the American cowgirl, as a woman who values health, natural beauty and
physical capability rather than feminine artifice, but who still participates in traditional female
roles to a certain extent, including heterosexual relationships with men, and sees no contradiction
in these gendered performances (1998: 58).
The preceding example seems fairly consonant with the attitudes of the martial arts
participants I interviewed, but unfortunately Halberstam only mentions such examples of
heterosexual female masculinity in passing, noting that they are outside of the purview of her
volume. Citing examples of heterosexual, but masculine, female characters in Hollywood films,
she states,
―…it is not hard to see that what renders their performance of female masculinity
quite tame is their resolute heterosexuality… In other words, when and where
female masculinity conjoins with possibly queer identities, it is far less likely to
meet with approval. Because female masculinity seems to be at its most threatening
when coupled with lesbian desire, in this book I concentrate on queer female
masculinity almost to the exclusion of heterosexual female masculinity. I have no
doubt that heterosexual female masculinity menaces gender conformity in its own
way, but all too often it represents an acceptable degree of female masculinity….
It is important…not simply to create another binary in which masculinity always
signifies power‖ (Halberstam 1998: 28-29).
I argue that although Polish women who participate in martial arts based self-defense do
not describe themselves as masculine and overwhelmingly identify with heterosexual femininity
they nonetheless adopt certain aspects of masculine body culture within the context of their selfdefense courses.21 If Polish feminine body culture is characterized by diminution, restriction and
passivity (Young 1990, Brownmiller 1987, Bartky 1992), then masculine body culture is
constructed as its diametric opposite; enlargement, expansiveness and aggression. Because of the
enforcement of these norms of body culture in Poland, the heterosexual female masculinity
performed by Polish women in the martial arts may be more radical than Halberstam claims for
the US context.
A shift toward the masculine is encouraged in the different courses I encountered in
varying ways, with the largest division in approach between the women‘s only and the mixed-sex
courses. In WenDo, for example, this shift is the most subtle: although the course‘s language
revolves around ―womanly strength‖ and concepts like maternal instinct and women‘s intuition,
participants nonetheless were encouraged to reject certain aspects of feminine body culture. The
pedagogy encouraged them to take up more space in public spaces, act without hesitation, and to
vocalize in self-defense situations in a loud, low, assertive voice instead of a high-pitched scream.
WSDP encourages many of the same techniques, and in the padded-attacker segments of the
course women learn to ―unlock‖ their physical capabilities by moving in an unrestricted, even
wild fashion to better defend against a potential attacker.
In the women‘s only martial-arts based courses I observed, UnSafe Woman and Combat,
participants learned to adopt certain aspects of masculine body culture through the movements
associated with a specific martial art. Although the gendered nature of these movements is not
explicitly discussed in the class, the physical movements themselves were emphasized and drilled
to a greater extent than in WSDP or WenDo. For example, these courses borrowed movements
from a variety of martial arts, but they mostly included movements that required leverage, speed
and finesse, and were constructed by the instructors as a system uniquely suited for women‘s
However, these courses also included punching and kicking movements that required a
larger degree of muscular strength and force in order to be effective. Therefore the courses
needed to include a relatively high proportion of conditioning exercises not directly related to
self-defense (i.e. running laps, calisthenics, strengthening exercises), which required a large
amount of physical exertion. Because this level of exertion is generally not familiar or acceptable
in the dominant forms of body culture and comportment for most Polish women, such exercises
required a degree of effort higher than some participants were able or willing to put forth. The
discrepancy between the level of exertion expected by the instructors and that expected by the
participants was the source of conflict between these two groups on more than one occasion, as I
described in Chapter 3.
Karate and Krav Maga, the mixed-sex courses I attended, required a greater adoption of
masculine body culture for participation, since their pedagogy assumed a universal male
participant. For this reason, the women who participated in these courses may have been those
who were already willing to adopt masculine-coded behaviors and those who enjoyed physical
exertion, a self-selecting group. However, there was still a learning curve involved for many
female participants in mixed-sex martial arts courses, as I will detail in the following examples.
For Karate, I will provide two examples, based on participant-observation, that illustrate
the enforcement of a significant masculine-coded body culture within the confines of the course.
First, one of the basic, introductory movements participants learn in a Karate course is a straighton, forward punch. While students at many levels of expertise were present in the class, I
observed that the beginning-level female students seemed to have the most difficulty performing
this move correctly out of any of the participants. In this exercise, which was repeated in several
class sessions, students would start punching in the air slowly, with the instructor or a senior
student keeping time by counting to ten in Japanese. Several sets of ten were completed, while
the pace increased with each set. On a number of occasions, the course instructor walked to the
back of the studio to correct these newcomers‘ punches, showing them how to keep their wrists
straight. As the pace of the punches sped up, the instructor pointed out to the novice female
students how they held their wrists at a downward angle, making their fists ineffectual for
punching. ―If you punch someone like that, you will do yourself harm…‖ this instructor
repeated. The male students in the course, as well as the more advanced women, received no
such correction of their punching technique during my period of participant-observation.
A second example concerns the general demeanor of the Karate course‘s students rather
than their bodily movements per se. I will preface this example by stating that across all selfdefense methods, female students often displayed a joking, lighthearted attitude during the
exercises, while male students tended to be more serious and even competitive. Often, women in
the Karate and other self-defense courses would laugh or talk to each other while trying out a
move, even though they were otherwise serious about learning the skills of the course. This
laughter served to release tension between participants (especially when two women were
exercising or sparring together) and to show that they were not treating the exercises too
competitively and thus violating the normative ideals of feminine comportment. In the specific
Karate course I observed that several of the women who were newcomers to the course simply
could not stop laughing at themselves during any exercises, but especially during the ones that
were new and uncomfortable for them. These participants quickly learned that such raucous
behavior was not appropriate for the course‘s relatively serious martial arts atmosphere, and on a
few occasions they were assigned exercises as a consequence of their disruption of the class.
Krav Maga, out of all the courses I observed, contained the most striking instances of
participants‘ performance of female masculinity. I will provide two main examples of how
women in the core group of Krav Maga participants adopted masculine-coded behaviors in order
to fully and successfully participate in the sport, and to show their status as insiders in Krav
Maga‘s masculinized environment.
The first example from Krav Maga involves posture: Krav Maga is a martial art that
places more importance on effectiveness than on form, borrowing techniques from several Asian
as well as Western fighting systems. In addition to punches, kicks and submission moves
borrowed from Tae Kwon Do, Muay Thai and kickboxing, the basic posture used in sparring is
taken from Western boxing. In this posture, the shoulders are kept close to the ears and the hands
are loosely held in a guard position in front of the face. This results in a rather hunched stance
which, according to the instructor of these classes, is the most effective posture for self-defense.
During class sessions, the instructors often provided directions like ―It is not meant to be pretty, it
is meant to be threatening and effective,‖ and ―you can throw a punch more quickly this way,
than when your shoulders are held down and back. You can rotate your whole body.‖ In various
Krav Maga sessions the instructors repeatedly corrected the posture of the female participants
(including the author‘s) in this way, much more often than the male participants. The exception
to this pattern was within the more experienced core group of female participants who tended to
have fewer difficulties holding this stance while sparring. This hunched posture differed from the
straight, squared stance of Karate or other traditional martial arts. According to some
interviewees, the posture was difficult for them to hold when they first began training in Krav
Maga, at least partly because it contradicted their ideas of martial arts as graceful and dance-like.
Marta stated how the Krav Maga stance signifies the masculinity of the sport, an attribute that
was simultaneously overwhelming and appealing:
―I don‘t really have time for ―feminine‖ activities. And I also don‘t have
women in my environment. In the sense of feminine beauty, as I‘ve said. In
Krav Maga it‘s a different figure…and in Krav Maga you just always have to
bend down, hunch over, in a kind of threatening posture. And in classical dance,
or any kind of dance… you just have this straight silhouette, it has this kind of
femininity, you have a different kind of brisk movement. It is just…a presentation
that is more suitable for women. And I feel like I kind of don‘t have that. But at the
same time I feel overwhelmed by this male style, hitting, kicking, just this kind of
Another way that the women who successfully participated in this class enacted
masculinity was by wearing what was called an ochraniacz in Polish, or ―protector.‖ An
ochraniacz is a padded hard plastic cup worn outside the trousers with the purpose of protecting
the groin area. To my surprise, I discovered that such a piece of equipment was standard for
women participating in Krav Maga as well as the men. At first, I was reluctant to don a protector
during the class, first because I thought it looked ridiculous and uncomfortable, and second since
I did not own one and would have had to choose one out of the common bin. However, I quickly
had to overcome this discomfort, because during some of the sparring sessions kicks to the groin
often came at full speed, and other participants did not give preferential treatment to a sparring
partner not wearing a protector. In addition I noticed that most of the members of the core group
of female participants brought their own protectors from home (requiring an investment of about
100 PLN or 30-40 US dollars). Many of these participants wore protectors throughout the class,
not just during the sparring drills that involved kicks.
Made of hard plastic and covered with a thin layer of padding, these protectors were
designed for use by men in kickboxing and other martial arts that involve kicking. They are
roughly shaped like an inverted triangle, but are also convex and therefore protruded one or two
inches out from the front of the body. This gave the visual impression that the wearer was in
possession of male genitalia. I interpret the wearing of this piece of equipment by female
participants not just as a practical measure to prevent injury, but also as a kind of protective
veneer of masculinity, protecting them from the appearance or feeling of overt femininity, a
difference that would not be welcome or effective in the masculine context of Krav Maga.
The wearing of a protector by a female participant in Krav Maga might give her the
outward appearance of possessing male genitalia, and also will affect the way she moves and
walks. The way the protector is constructed causes the wearer to walk with her legs spread far
apart, almost a swagger. Wearing the protector also makes it nearly impossible to stand in a
feminine way, with the feet and knees close together or with most of the weight on one leg.
Some female participants in the class would remove the protector during exercises that did not
involve possible injury to the groin area. Others, however, would leave theirs in place for the
entire class session, regardless of the type of exercise. This continuous use of the protector had
advantages and disadvantages: it resulted in less time spent putting on and removing the device,
but also made certain exercises much more uncomfortable and difficult, especially sit-ups, pushups and certain stretches that required sitting on the floor. Members of the core group of women
in the course were more likely to wear the protector continuously than casual participants, an
action that signifies a more thorough performance of female masculinity and a greater personal
investment in the sport.
In short, the women who most enjoyed the physical exertion and masculine social
environment associated with Krav Maga and other martial arts based self-defense classes were
those who could successfully mask their usual feminine coded behaviors within the context of the
class, and perform a limited form of female masculinity. This performance allowed the
instructors to treat them as ―honorary men,‖ that is, as equals. However, many Polish women are
not willing to adopt such masculine-coded behaviors in order to successfully integrate into the
martial arts environment.
Feminine Body Culture in Poland
In the Polish cultural context, the enforcement of physical femininity is explicit, and
many women seem to be openly uncomfortable with physical exertion, competition and other
masculine-coded behaviors associated with sports. According to some sources, girls in Poland
rarely participate in sports or physical education after they reach puberty (Dominiczak and
Dominiczak 2000). Ela, a WenDo instructor, stated that in her experience, young girls often
know ―instinctively‖ how to run, fight and scream in self-defense, and only after puberty do girls
and women have to unlearn the physical restrictions of feminine comportment. The discomfort
the general public feels with masculine physical activities among adult women in Poland, whether
they are athletes or other ―tough women,‖ can be linked to several cultural factors that are
detailed in Chapter 2 and that I will revisit these in the next section.
In advertising and media images of women in Poland, the female body is almost always
shown as slender, vulnerable and weak, and is often associated with feminized natural imagery
such as flowers and fruit, lacy or delicate backgrounds and pastel colors. Women in
advertisements are often shown in various states of undress and are posed in vulnerable supine,
prone or constricted positions. Although physical weakness and diminution is still the ideal,
especially in the ideal of very thin bodies, sometimes these attributes are disguised in advertising
and in beauty regimes by rhetoric of women‘s strength, discipline and power (see Bordo 1992).
The idea that women can gain social power through the cultivation of softness and passivity
through self-denial and self-sacrifice (often found in dieting and exercise rhetoric) has its roots in
pre-communist ideals of Polish femininity, as discussed in Chapter 2. However, the effects of
these ideals are still salient in Polish society, and often take the form of a distaste for women in
powerful roles, especially as depicted in the media.
For example, Ela, a WenDo instructor, stated that this cultural discomfort associated with
physically strong women extends to popular entertainment such as movies and television:
―There are not so many strong women, I mean fighting women in movies and
TV which are popular here. Quentin Tarantino is really popular here but like
Kill Bill, with this female figure, that was not really popular. And I remember
when G.I. Jane came out the whole movie was criticized, and they didn‘t like the
idea of this women having these difficulties and overcoming them in a masculine
context. Really, I thought it was good…. Another one was in the Silence of the
Lambs. She was also a very strong, capable woman, and she was described in the
Polish newspapers, they made fun of her because she was such a mannish woman…
you know it‘s just kind of ridiculous.‖
Ela also described her frustration with her search for boxing classes for women in Warsaw.
Although there are mixed-sex boxing clubs available, she was searching for a boxing class for
women only. Even when she took the initiative to gather a group of five women who had interest
in such a course, the manager of the fitness club she attended (which did offer a mixed-sex
boxing class attended overwhelmingly by men), seemed unable to comprehend that women
would want to attend a boxing course that was not ―something like aerobox, or dance boxing.‖
She went on to describe her subsequent experiences learning boxing from a colleague from
Berlin, and to discuss the way that masculine-coded activity like boxing is ―something women
need‖ for self-confidence and empowerment.
Regardless of the opinions of these proponents of martial arts participation for women,
some of the women I interviewed were apprehensive about participating in such masculine
activity. Some interviewees who participated in women‘s only self-defense expressed their fears
about taking mixed-sex martial arts classes, thinking they would be too intimidating or too
physically difficult. For example, an UnSafe Woman participant stated that she would be too
apprehensive to take Krav Maga, because it was too brutal. ―I have a friend who took Krav Maga
once, and the first day she went she came home with a broken nose. So I would not participate in
such a course, because, well, the idea of a broken nose does not really appeal to me.‖
In short, the lack of options for participating in masculine-coded activity for Polish
women is the result of a dialectic between cultural gender expectations and a lack of consumer
demand. The majority of Polish women do not consider themselves capable of participating in
such intense physical activity so they do not seek it out, and therefore the classroom setting of
physically intense martial arts or sports like boxing becomes highly masculinized. The result of
this lack of options is that women who wish to learn what are perceived as masculine sports must
learn to negotiate the masculinized environment of mixed sex courses.
I have described the ways that women who participate successfully in mixed-sex martial
arts negotiate the masculine environments of these courses through what Michel Foucault would
call ―microtechniques of the body.‖ In the next section I will theorize these negotiations of
gendered behaviors in terms of Foucault and other theorists who grapple with issues of
performativity, docility and agency.
Docile Bodies
Michel Foucault‘s Discipline and Punish shows historically the ways in which
institutions like schools, prisons and the military use disciplinary techniques to shape human
behavior. According to Foucault, these techniques predominantly function through the creation
of ―docile bodies.‖ Through enforcing certain physical behaviors and comportments on a
microscopic level, these institutions can create a certain desired form of bodily habitus (this is
Bourdieu‘s term, not Foucault‘s) that in turn affects or even creates a desired mental attitude.
Through such discipline, which occurs in the society at large as well as in closed institutions, the
gaze of authority becomes internalized so that individuals begin policing their own behavior.
These results are accomplished through the use of ―time-tables,‖ through the ―temporal
elaboration of actions‖ and the ―correlation of the body and the gesture,‖ in which bodily actions
are minutely described, controlled and repeatedly practiced, much as they are in a martial-arts
In the courses I observed, the bodily movements of martial arts and self-defense are
practiced over and over, in order to imprint them into what instructors often called the ―muscle
memory.‖ The rationale for such repetition is that in a real situation of danger when a fight-orflight reaction is inevitable, an individual must be able to complete the movements of self-defense
automatically without hesitation. As in a military training situation, the routines and disciplines
of training serve a function of survival; however Foucault seems to focus mainly on the ways that
docility and discipline are used in the context of maximizing profit (i.e. workplace training) or
maintaining social control (i.e. school discipline).
It is true that Foucault‘s concept of discipline revolves around individualizing discourses.
However, the individualization that occurs in self-defense contexts does not require participants
to function as part of a larger group: it is certainly not the case that ―the individual body becomes
part of a multi-segmentary machine‖ (Foucault 1977:164) or ―meticulously subordinated cogs of
a machine‖ (169). On the contrary, individual bodies are trained in self-defense so that they can
individually resist violations of the boundaries of the body, sense of selfhood, or property.
Nonetheless, docility is an interesting way of discussing the changes brought about by selfdefense training because of its gendered associations. Foucault wrote mainly of universalized
masculine subjects, but other scholars have utilized his theoretical approach in feminist analyses
of bodily discipline and changes in bodily habitus.
Docility, or an ability to submit to discipline, is usually conceptualized in Western
cultures and in Poland specifically as a feminine characteristic. In the construction of a feminine
identity in Polish culture, principles of docility and self-effacement often guide women‘s social
behavior and bodily comportment. As I explained earlier, Polish women often learn that their
worth and social power are derived from self-sacrifice and from putting the needs of others before
their own. Self-effacement is expressed in feminine body culture as a tendency for women to
make their own bodies smaller, both by reducing body size through weight-loss strategies and
through their constriction of stance and gesture in public spaces. The ways women in Western
cultures create docile bodies have most often been discussed in terms of beauty regimes;
submitting to painful beauty treatments, diets or slimming regimes (Bordo 1992; Goscilo 1996;
Wolf 2002). When women‘s physical exercise has been discussed as a way of creating docile
bodies cross culturally, it has most often been construed as a means of more closely
approximating an ideal of feminine diminution and grace (see Mindrut 2002, Edwards 2002,
Collins 1998).
Self-defense training departs from the schema of a docile feminine body culture for a few
reasons. First, although women who take self-defense courses physically train their bodies
through repetition of moves, practicing certain postures and sometimes by learning to negotiate a
masculine social environment, the behaviors they learn do not fit conventional definitions of
docility. A large part of self-defense training involves unlearning the aspects of docility that are
part of conventional feminine body culture, especially norms of politeness and inoffensiveness
that can make women vulnerable to violence. In addition, it could be argued that through gaining
physical strength as well as norms of comportment like taking up space, speaking loudly, and
assertiveness; these women are learning the opposite of docility: resistance.
In Foucault‘s discussion of discipline and docile bodies, the focus is on the ways that
discipline can lead to disempowerment; Foucault seems to enjoy pointing out the ways that in
modernity, persons are not nearly as free as they would like to believe. By describing how bodies
and spirits are shaped within the confines of a prison, Foucault shows the extent to which all
modern subjects are to some degree imprisoned. Although Foucault does describe the
multidirectionality of power and states that this power can be productive as well as repressive, his
writings do not provide concrete examples of the ways that this power can be subversive or
opposed to the status quo.
Other scholars, especially Saba Mahmood in her Politics of Piety, as well as Vanessa
Fong‘s 2005 article, describe how the cultivation of docility can provide social power and status
for women in patriarchal societies. By training the body in a given discipline and gaining
expertise, an individual can become respected for his or her skill or discipline. Mahmood‘s
research is on Egyptian women who take part in Islamic piety movements, subjecting themselves
to a religious discipline that many feminist scholars would consider repressive toward women.
However, Mahmood shows how their practice is a way of forming an agency-centered identity
and how these women gain social power in a society where women are expected to refrain from
participation in public life. The participants in Mahmood‘s study embrace a form of piety that
from the outside appears to be symptomatic of an ―attachment to patriarchal forms of life‖
(Mahmood 2005: 154).
The outward appearance of some of these women‘s practices (such as veiling) may cause
some feminists to decry these women‘s participation in their own subordination. However,
Mahmood attempts to show how these women use their participation in Islamic revival
movements as a method of subject formation and a use of agency. Their actions can be construed
as an expression of agency by ―uncoupling the notion of agency from the politically prescriptive
project of feminism‖ (Mahmood 2005: 153; see also Fong 2005).
In the context of women‘s self-defense courses, the discipline undertaken by participants
can be conceptualized in terms of breaking out of the docility of feminine self-effacing behavior.
For self-defense participants, the object of discipline is not to strive toward socially accepted
norms of femininity, as do Mahmood‘s Islamic revivalists. Rather, they challenge norms of
feminine comportment by adopting aspects of masculinity within the context of self-defense
courses. Although they may not maintain these explicitly masculine behaviors outside the martial
arts studio they believe their participation gives them a sense of mental toughness and confidence
that makes them less susceptible to violence. The complex interplay between physical training
and psychological results in self-defense contexts certainly represents a case of external postures
and body culture affecting internal states of confidence.
Some feminists might claim that women in mixed-sex martial arts courses, especially
those in which very few women participate, submit to a regime of training that is authoritarian or
that has patriarchal approaches to discipline (Schine 1995; Hoppe 1997; Wiley 1995). However,
in my view the Polish women I met who participate in masculine-coded martial arts do so in
order to seek equality with men, while at the same time maintaining a feminine personal identity
in other realms of their lives. In negotiating these different gender performances, they construct a
complex and hybrid identity that does not fit easily into conventionally defined dichotomies.
Therefore, we should think of their agency ―not simply as a synonym for resistance to social
norms, but as a modality of action… which raises some interesting questions about the kind of
relationship that is formed between the subject and the norm, and between performative behavior
and inward disposition…. Action does not issue from inward feelings but creates them‖
(Mahmood 2005: 157).
According to the interview data I collected, martial arts and self-defense training allows
Polish women not so much to reject but to transcend the negative aspects of a feminine role,
while retaining those aspects of femininity they view as positive. This negotiation of gender
identity affects bodily comportment and posture, as well as assertiveness and confidence in social
interactions. The self-defense participants in this study explained how some behaviors learned in
martial arts spilled over into their everyday family and work lives, improving their social
interactions because they became less passive and more self-confident. In this way, by
submitting to the discipline of the martial-arts or self-defense courses, these women create a
hybrid identity, combining an ethic of toughness and assertiveness with other, highly valued
feminine attributes.
The Feminine/ Feminist Politics of Self-Defense
Dominant gender norms in Poland seem to maintain the idea that women are inherently
more docile than men. In this context, docility is constructed as a positive trait, endowing women
with greater self-control over their behavior, greater calm and less impulsiveness: traits that
according to the dominant gender logic should not lead to subordination but also social power and
strength, under an idea of complementarity of the sexes. For this reason, however, responsibility
is often placed upon women for preventing violence. This tendency is also based on the
dominant idea that ―boys will be boys,‖ and that there is no good way to prevent some men from
attempting violent acts given the opportunity.
The responsibility of women for preventing their own victimization has traditionally led
to safety advice based on preventing opportunities for violence. Women are most often expected
to achieve such prevention through restricting their own behavior and mobility. Learning
physical self-defense is a different way for women to take responsibility for their own safety, but
instead of preventing opportunities for violence, self-defense students seek to lessen the chance
that an attempt at violence will succeed or to deter violent attackers from targeting them. In
addition, entering a purportedly gender-blind but actually masculinized sphere of martial arts
allows women access to a space within which gender ceases to be an important category of
analysis, at least on the surface. Many women in mixed-sex martial arts enjoyed the way their
performance of masculinity allowed them a space within which they could be treated as complete
equals with men.
The gender dynamics of women‘s self-defense and martial arts, both in practice and in
media depictions, have been discussed at length by scholars in a variety of academic fields, which
provide both critical and positive evaluations of the possibilities for women‘s empowerment held
by women‘s use of physical violence. For example, in cultural studies and media studies, some
feminist authors have written about how media representations of female martial arts practitioners
and action heroines, as well as the use of legitimate violence by policewomen and soldiers are all
implicated in the same patriarchal gender order responsible for the oppression of the majority of
women (i.e. Cock 1990; Hopfl 2004; hooks 1993; Bromley 1990).
However, it is unwise to lump a woman‘s use of physical force against an individual
assault into the same category as legitimized state violence, media fantasies of violence or even
revenge and vigilante violence (see Clarke 1993). Other feminist authors, including Martha
McCaughey, have questioned the assumption that women learning to harness physical force is
inherently suspect as an attempt at using the ―master‘s tools‖ (Lorde 1980).
Writers like McCaughey have posited a more constructive framework for self-defense as
a feminist philosophy while allowing room for popular-cultural representations of violent women
to provide inspiration and motivation for real-life potential self-defenders. In Real Knockouts,
McCaughey criticizes the ―power averse‖ approach of some feminists, in an argument
reminiscent of Naomi Wolf‘s Fire with Fire (1995). McCaughey states that ―we have been so
busy analyzing women‘s victimization by men‘s aggression that we have almost reified men‘s
power to coerce women physically, failing to highlight women‘s potential for fighting back‖ (12).
She goes on to write: ―[M]any feminists have suspected that women‘s cultivation of aggressive
personalities and bodies, especially when pleasurable, amounts to getting duped by male
domination…. From this vantage point, women‘s embrace of violence smacks of getting in the
pigsty with the pigs‖ (14).
McCaughey and Neal King, who edited a volume on the implications of violent women
in popular culture (rather confusingly) titled Reel Knockouts, 2002), extend this argument to the
pleasure and motivation many women derive from watching violent women in entertainment
―[W]e reject arguments for women‘s pacifism in light of both the relative license
to use violence given men and the obvious political uses of it for women…. we like
the threat that women‘s movie violence presents to the all-important divide between
men and women….We wonder what effects such images could have on men who
assault women partly because they are so confident that they will win the fights.
We also wonder what effect they could have on women who so often regard
themselves as helpless victims and men as unstoppable predators‖ (5).
As yet, it is unclear whether or not these arguments about the political potential of violent
women in popular culture can be extended to include the Polish cultural context. The women I
interviewed, for the most part, seemed to perceive such images as mere fantasy, as a source of
meaningless entertainment, rather than as a source of inspiration or motivation for their own
martial arts practice. Only one interviewee, Ela, quoted above, expressed frustration with the lack
of images of strong women in Polish popular culture, or with the critiques of such imagery from
conservative sources. Other participants I interviewed constructed their idea of a strong woman
as a woman who exemplifies qualities of endurance and confidence but also self-sacrifice, while
fulfilling socially accepted feminine roles, often citing examples from their own families like
mothers, sisters and grandmothers.
Despite their high valuation of some social qualities associated with femininity,
participants from martial-arts based self-defense classes certainly did not view themselves (or
women in general) as ―helpless victims‖ or in any way lacking in confidence. In fact, several
interviewees described Polish women in general as being ―overconfident‖ or ―aggressive‖ instead
of assertive. These interviewees sometimes located the usefulness of self-defense courses for
women in their ability to break down a naïve feeling of overconfidence and showing women that
they are not as capable or as safe as they think. For example, Zosia from UnSafe Woman stated
that when an instructor overpowers a self-defense student as a demonstration for the class,
―sometimes these things are embarrassing, but good, because it teaches you that you can‘t
manage yourself in such a situation, that you still have more to learn.‖
Jolanta from Krav Maga stressed the damaging effects of a halfhearted attempt at
learning martial arts, because many women take Krav Maga or another martial art for a few
months, and therefore gain too much confidence. ―This can be damaging… because it seems like
you can do something, you can defend yourself, but this is really artificial confidence and it can
betray you.‖ In the same vein, Gosia shared this opinion: ―a lot of women are in denial about
their kind of physical weakness, that they don‘t have the kind of strength that guys have, they
create this kind of fantasy that they will be able to defend themselves.‖
A problematic aspect of martial-arts based self-defense courses, especially when they are
promoted a way for women to gain assertiveness, empowerment and success in the realms of
career and public life is their placement of the onus of change on individual women. For
example, career-based assertiveness training and career advice for women in Poland often focuses
on women demanding more raises and better working conditions: in other words, behaving in a
way socially coded as masculine. These kinds of advice and recommendations for performing
masculinity are useful in revealing the restrictions of feminine propriety. However, they do not
address the hostility to feminine-coded behavior that is present in male-dominated social
environments like the workplace or the martial-arts classroom. Such an approach elides any
responsibility on the part of institutions, whether the state, the workplace or the martial-arts
studio, to create environments that are more hospitable toward women. In this way, the rhetoric
of many mixed-sex martial-arts based self-defense courses continues to valorize personal or
behavioral characteristics associated with masculinity, while devaluing characteristics associated
with femininity. In other words, they have maintained the dichotomy Halberstam cautioned
against, ―that always equates masculinity with power.‖
Conclusion: Alternative Possibilities for Empowerment
Many Western feminist writers (such as Brownmiller, Bartky, and Young) argue that
subversion of conventional femininity is to some extent necessary for women‘s empowerment.
However, in a cultural context where gender subversion is threatening or undesirable, the ways
that women can undertake this subversion are relatively limited. Self-defense constitutes a field
in which to subvert gender norms that can be palatable to Polish women because it does not
require radical change in everyday behaviors (sometimes to be considered a requirement of
―feminist‖ politics by these women). At the same time, it allows participants to work against
norms of Polish femininity that they consider to be unnecessarily restrictive.
The importance of performing female masculinity in mixed-sex martial arts courses in
Poland has been shown by the discomfort many novice practitioners feel when beginning such a
course, the high dropout rate among women, and the changes in bodily habitus adopted by their
more experienced female members. Regardless of the perceived empowerment the core group
members may experience as a result of their participation and the concrete benefits they may
gain, these types of courses are not for everyone. Instructors and participants in these mixed-sex
courses unanimously asserted that the best way for women to learn self-defense is by exercising
―mental valor,‖ learning a difficult physical discipline, and negotiating a masculinized social
environment. These measures undoubtedly impart a sense of toughness for women who are able
to persevere in the course‘s demanding physical regime and to perform aspects of masculinecoded behavior that allow them to fit in as course members. However, these restrictions exclude
those who either find themselves unable or who have no desire to succeed in these challenges of
martial-arts participation. Their approach also maintains a dichotomy that equates masculinity
with empowerment and success, and femininity with weakness and victimization, as well as
posing a simplistic solution to violence against women.
―Gender-sensitive‖ courses such as WenDo and WSDP claim to provide a solution for
women who are too uncomfortable or apprehensive to jump into the masculine sphere of mixed-
sex martial arts. They use a basis in feminist ideas of gender oppression to help women
overcome their feminine socialization and unlock their potential for self-defense without
devaluing feminine ways of being. Rather than creating docile bodies by discouraging feminine
comportment and replacing it with ―tough‖ behaviors, such women‘s only courses attempt to use
what are perceived as women‘s natural inclinations to their advantage. In the next chapter, I will
address the ways in which self-defense courses designed especially for women employ a
pedagogy that emphasizes women‘s strengths and limitations. In so doing, they inevitably
construct ―women‖ as a universalized and essentialized category. These courses, which employ
what I have termed gender-sensitive training methods, provide an opportunity for women
uncomfortable with the masculinized atmosphere for the mixed-sex martial arts courses to learn
Chapter 6
Gender-Sensitive Self-Defense Training and the Uses of Gender
A group of seven women sat in a circle on the floor, in a room on the second story of a
community center in a quiet neighborhood in Warsaw. One by one, they introduced themselves
and shared their reasons for participating in the self-defense seminar. Katya, a woman in her
late fifties, tearfully told the story of her victimization through domestic violence and how she had
chosen to attend this course in order to become more assertive within this abusive relationship.
Later, when all the participants were carrying out an exercise that involved shouting the
word ―No!‖ in a loud, strong voice, Katya was reluctant to raise her voice because ―the people
downstairs will think we’re crazy.‖ My first impression of Katya was that she embodied many
stereotypical Polish gender norms, sacrificing her own happiness for the sake of her duties to
family and home. However, over the course of this self-defense seminar, when her emotions and
actions were validated by the course instructor and the other participants, she underwent a
visible change in demeanor. She went from timid and tearful to gregarious and full of laughter.
The turning point was an exercise, fairly early in the course, in which participants
attempted to break a two-centimeter thick board with their bare hands. Katya surprised herself
(and perhaps others) when she sat at the front of the room, and with a loud shout, struck the
board with her fist and it immediately broke in two. All the other participants burst into
applause, and Katya once again burst into tears, but this time they were tears of triumph. ―I
never thought I could do that,‖ she said.
This surprising and inspiring transformation took place over just a two-day period,
during a beginning seminar for WenDo. As I have discussed earlier, WenDo is a self-defense
method that focuses on building women’s self-esteem and emotional strength. Its instructors
often refer to WenDo as a feminist form of self-defense, although in the Polish context, they are
careful not to include feminist ―dogma‖ in their pedagogy.
―Imagine now, that you are walking down the street, holding the hand of a
small child, to whom you feel an emotional connection. It could be your child,
the child of your relative, your friend, your little brother or sister. It can be any
child who you love or simply like very much. Let‘s say that it is a sunny Sunday
afternoon and you have decided to go for an ice cream. Imagine that across the
way there is a suspicious-looking man, getting closer to you. At least, he is not
smiling. When you pass him, the man gazes intently at the child you are holding
by the hand, and when he gets several meters behind you, you hear him stop. He
runs in your direction, grabs the child and starts to run away with him.
What would you do? The majority of women in such a situation are ready to fight
to the death (their death, or the death of the attacker). If you have this type of
motivation, you can run after the abductor much faster and farther than you would
expect at any other time. You can hit much harder and shout much louder. You
really become formidable. You don‘t take pain into consideration, you don‘t worry
about being unsafe, what you are risking, and really there is no end to the fierceness
of your attacks. There are really very few men who, in such a situation, would be
able to stop you‖ (Kruczyński and Drożdziak 2003: 5).
This is an extended quotation I have translated from the Polish-language self-defense
manual Always Safe (2003) published by the co-creators of the WSDP self-defense method. This
is just one of the many examples from WenDo and WSDP of attempts to access women’s ‖inner
strength‖ and ferocity by tapping into maternal instinct. The passage above goes on to describe
how a woman should access feelings of self-worth by mentally equating themselves with a child
or loved one.
WenDo and WSDP were the two self-defense methods I encountered that addressed what
are perceived as the special strengths, abilities and emotional needs of women, not just the
techniques included in the method, but also in their pedagogical approach and philosophy. These
courses are designed (or adapted) to suit the needs of women as they are constructed by the
dominant Polish culture. While mixed-sex courses like Krav Maga implicitly exclude women
who are not able to successfully perform the requisite postures of female masculinity, these
gender-sensitive courses attempt to address the ―average‖ Polish woman who does not see herself
as particularly tough or athletic, but who does value feminine strength. This kind of strength is
often constructed within a frame of values like family, emotion and conventional feminine roles.
It is arguable that some of the techniques used by courses like WenDo and WSDP are alienating
to women who do not identify with traditionally feminine characteristics like women‘s intuition
and maternal instinct.
The philosophies of gender-sensitive self-defense courses are closely related to cultural
feminism, a form of feminist thought that recognizes gender differences rather than ignoring or
trying to erase them. Cultural feminists tend to emphasize the different psychologies and
moralities of men and women. In its most extreme form, the philosophy of cultural feminism
suggests that women are inherently predisposed to be nurturing, caring and nonviolent, while men
are inherently more individualistic, selfish and coercive. The work most commonly associated
with cultural feminism is Carol Gilligan‘s In A Different Voice, which details the ways that
women and girls interpret morality in a relational manner, whereas men and boys interpret moral
situations according to more rigid, legalistic moral standards. In addition, Sara Ruddick‘s writing
on Maternal Thinking proposes that politics, economies, and cultures can be positively
transformed by incorporating a politics of caring based on motherhood.
Ruddick writes: ―I
believe that there is, within maternal work, a basis for pacifist commitment….[mothers] can make
an important contribution to framing a realistic, humane, pacifist commitment.‖ (Ruddick 1983b:
6). These two works were groundbreaking in feminist circles because they clearly showed how
women‘s ways of being in the world have been traditionally devalued in modern Western
societies, and also within some forms of feminism that tend to focus on women‘s individual
achievements and formal equality between men and women.
However, this cultural feminist work has not been accepted by all feminist thinkers.
Gilligan‘s work has been criticized more recently for advocating an overly essentialist approach
to gender, and Gilligan herself has often expressed fears that her writings have been
misrepresented by other feminists and critics (see Faludi 1996). Specifically in post-socialist
contexts, Kristen Ghodsee (2004) has critiqued the application of cultural feminist ideas in
Bulgaria, where international aid discourses position women as universally victimized in a
situation that actually privileges them economically.
However, WenDo and WSDP do not adhere completely to cultural feminist theories,
especially those that construct women as inherently nonviolent. As I will show, both WenDo and
WSDP attempt to unlock women‘s potential for violence, but they also imply that women are
only capable of ―righteous‖ violence, undertaken in their own protection or in the defense of
others. This idea is certainly consonant with cultural feminist philosophies that imply the moral
superiority of women, although it might not be accepted uncritically by all participants in these
self-defense methods.
Another reason for the selective application of cultural-feminist ideas in courses like
WenDo has to do with the elision of the term ―feminist‖ in the course‘s language. This language
is often taken out of WenDo‘s pedagogy because of the common misconception among Polish
women that feminism ―wants to make men and women exactly the same‖ or to diminish men‘s
value to society. The creators and instructors of WSDP and WenDo ground their pedagogies in
feminist principles, but they often package their instruction in a way that is palatable for Polish
women who would be put off by what they would perceive as hard-line or ―radical‖ feminism.
Feminism is often perceived by Polish women who are not familiar with debates within
Western or Polish feminist circles as a unitary phenomenon. However, there are discrepancies
within these insider groups about what kind of feminism is ―best‖ for Polish women. After the
fall of communism many of the emerging feminist organizations focused on formal equality, a
tactic that to some seemed too similar to the communist emancipation projects of the past. Later,
it became clear that the issues around which Polish women were more likely to organize were
those that recognized women‘s difference, specifically reproductive rights, maternity leave and
child care. This implies that ―difference feminism‖ (or what I above called cultural feminism)
might be a more effective strategy for Polish women‘s empowerment than ―equality feminism.‖
However at the same time Polish feminists do not need to choose between recognizing difference
and equality. According to Ruth Lister, ―the very concept of equality implies differences to be
discounted, or taken into account so that despite them, people are treated as equals for specific
purposes‖ (Lister 1997: 96).
In the remainder of this chapter, I will detail the ways that WenDo and WSDP utilize
cultural feminist ideas about women‘s strengths, abilities and weakness, while keeping explicit
feminist language and terminology to a minimum. Although these courses take a somewhat
essentialist view of gender, they attempt to help women incorporate confidence and assertiveness
into a framework of socially accepted women‘s roles. While it can be argued that some rhetoric
in these courses demonizes men by constructing ―the rapist‖ as a product of masculine
socialization, the course instructors maintain a fine balance in emphasizing both the deleterious
effects of socialization and the complementarity of the sexes.
After explaining some ethnographic details of these courses, and the contradictions often
contained in gender-sensitive self-defense pedagogy, I will show how the approach of these
courses elides the importance of certain kinds of violence against women. This discussion will
lead into the following chapter, which consists of a sustained discussion of domestic and intimate
partner violence in Poland and the thorny issues surrounding the role of women‘s self-defense
courses in preventing this kind of violence.
WenDo Pedagogy: For Women, By Women
WenDo was the only course I encountered in Poland that was comprised solely of women
and also taught only by women. WenDo instructors claim that this ―for women, by women‖
philosophy enhances their connection with their participants and increases the relatability of their
teaching techniques. The main lessons that women take away from a WenDo seminar emphasize
individual rights and personal bodily integrity. The most commonly repeated speeches from
WenDo instructors were: ―No one has the right to make you a victim; you need to trust your
feelings and intuition, and to be sure of yourself.‖ and ―don‘t let anyone cross your personal
boundaries without your permission.‖ According to the WenDo trainers, one of the most decided
advantages of their method is that it is accessible to all women, including very young girls and
elderly women, as well as women of all shapes and sizes. WenDo trainers also offer speciallydesigned courses for women who are vision- and hearing- impaired, and for women who use
wheel chairs.
As I mentioned in Chapter 3, the WenDo method of self-defense originated in Canada,
although the exact path the method has taken from the ―Paige family of Toronto‖ in 1972
(WenDo Winnipeg 2010) to the sixteen members of the WenDo organization in Poland has been
relatively difficult to piece together. According to the WenDo Winnipeg web site, the ―Paige
family‖ was inspired to develop a method of self-defense for women by the story of Kitty
Genovese. Kitty Genovese was a woman who lived in New York City who was raped and
murdered in full view of a large group of people in 1972, and her story was well-covered in the
media across North America.22 According to this official Canadian WenDo web site, the first
course, held in 1973, was so popular that the Paiges decided to train more WenDo instructors and
the method spread ―throughout Canada, the United States, and even some places in Europe‖
(WenDo Winnipeg 2010). Although the Canadian spokeswomen for WenDo claim no
connection with the Polish organization, they are familiar with some of the instructors who teach
the course in Germany (Handlarski 2009, personal communication). It is these German
instructors (or others who were officially trained by the Canadian organization) who were
brought to Poland in 2003 through a Kraków feminist organization and a grant from the European
Union, in order to train and certify a number of Polish instructors in the method.
Based on correspondence with Canadian WenDo instructors and analysis of Canadian
promotional materials, the self-defense method‘s official web sites and Facebook page, it seems
that the basic principles underlying Canadian WenDo are very similar, at least on the surface, to
those that inform Polish WenDo. The WenDo Canada official web site states, ―We believe that,
in a male-dominated society, women‘s experience of violence and the fear of violence is typically
different from men‘s and it is therefore vital for women and girls to have access to self-defense
courses taught by women, for women and girls only‖ (Wen-Do 2010). Here, the politics of
difference are clearly highlighted, but the opening assertion about a ―male-dominated society‖ is
stated matter-of-factly as one of the course‘s main principles. Such a reference to a maledominated society, patriarchy or gender oppression of any kind was never mentioned in the
PolishWenDo courses. In fact, based on my experience and interviews, most Poles would deny
that Polish society is male-dominated. In addition, the Polish media are full of references to an
increase in women‘s traditional and contemporary power.
However, other parts of the Canadian WenDo website‘s basic description of the
pedagogy sound very similar to the WenDo pedagogies I found in Poland:
―Physical techniques are designed to be effective against larger, physically
stronger attackers. They include blocks, strikes, releases from holds (arm
holds, body holds, chokes, hair grabs, and situations where one is pinned to the
ground), defences against weapons and defences against more than one attacker.
Women do not need to be physically fit to learn WenDo; we teach women to use
their bodies as they are, and our instructors are trained to offer alternative techniques
and strategies to women with physical limitations or disabilities.
Verbal self-defence strategies examined in the class include calming, reasoning,
negotiating, distracting, surprising or confronting an attacker, depending on the
situation. We also look at the most effective ways of calling on bystanders, if any,
for help (WenDo 2010).
Compare this to the example given by Marysia, a WenDo trainer from Lublin, of how a
woman can foil an unwanted advance by a stranger, by using social rules and norms against the
Let‘s say that a young, pretty woman is riding the tram and there are a lot of
people standing around her….and she feels somebody grope her, she is just going
to assume that it‘s an accident and ignore it. Then if it happens again, she‘ll feel
ashamed and she doesn‘t want to stay on the tram…. But what we teach women
in WenDo is how to psychologically defend themselves so they don‘t feel ashamed.
When that happens… they are not the ones who should feel ashamed…. We teach
that a woman should point at the man who is bothering her and yell ―Stop it! Leave
me alone!‖ Then all these people will look at the man and make him feel ashamed,
instead of the girl, who did not do anything wrong.‖
Despite teaching several strategies like this one, which are meant to work against norms of
politeness and passivity among women (including shouting and making direct eye contact,
behaviors thought to signal confidence and equality), in some ways, the discourse of WenDo in
Poland limits its engagement with ―equality‖ feminism. The most important way WenDo
accomplishes this is through its appropriation of culturally defined essential gender characteristics
as a positive means to help women become more confident and aware, and therefore better able to
defend themselves.
At this juncture I cannot definitively state how the Polish WenDo instructors have
adapted the method to fit their own cultural context, although there have been undoubtedly been
changes, and the Polish WenDo instructors I interviewed stated that they had adapted some of the
methods they were taught by the German WenDo instructors who directly trained them.23
In addition, the Canadian WenDo materials contain several references to ―maledominated society,‖ ―feminism,‖ and ―analysis of oppression,‖ (WenDo Winnipeg 2010), all of
which were missing from the Polish WenDo materials and pedagogy. The main difference here is
that Canadian WenDo seems to speak the language of feminism, while Polish WenDo removes
such language from its pedagogy.24 In addition, individual differences among the teaching styles
of Polish WenDo instructors are likely at play here, because these instructors work in various
cities, sometimes with only one instructor residing in a city. Therefore these instructors operate
very independently with little to no supervision or regulation, sometimes only coming into
contact with other instructors when they decide to teach a course collaboratively.25
From my direct experience of Polish WenDo pedagogy, I observed that instructors tended
to advocate communication and negotiation above confrontation or physical self-defense, and
often warned against ―escalation‖ of a conflict. However, they also stressed that personal safety
was more important and a higher priority than politeness or social propriety. During the WenDo
courses I attended, the students were told, ―if you feel unsafe, don‘t be ashamed to shout, don‘t
worry about what others think.‖ In addition, more than any specific safety rules, Polish WenDo
focused on knowing one‘s personal boundaries and developing instincts about states of danger or
For example, one of the techniques included in every WenDo seminar was how to escape
from a grip on one‘s hand, as in a handshake. When participants learned this technique in one
seminar I attended, some of the participants did not see why they should need to escape from such
a benign gesture as a handshake. Leticja, the instructor, justified the importance of this technique
in the following way: ―if a man‘s handshake makes you feel unsafe, you should be able to get
away from it. You will know if a person means you harm or is just shaking your hand.‖26 She
also demonstrated how a hard grip on the hand can be sued by an attacker to pull a potential
victim into a more vulnerable position or location, such as into a car.
Another feature that was unique to WenDo among Polish self-defense courses was the
inclusion of several activities that served as ice-breakers. These activities had little to do with
self-defense techniques, but were designed to foster an atmosphere of emotional support,
openness and friendliness with the other women in the class. Sometimes, the instructors
explained that women are often taught to implicitly view other women as competitors for
romantic partners, for jobs and for attention. Although I stated previously that open
competitiveness is considered unseemly for women, often subtle undercurrents of competitive
behavior or ―cattiness‖ were commonly cited features of femininity in Poland in participants‘
interviews. For this reason, the purpose of such ice-breaking exercises was to help the
participants to view each other as allies rather than rivals. Another purpose was for women to
think about their own strengths in order to build self-esteem.
Among the questions posed in ice-breaking exercises during the four WenDo seminars I
attended were ―What is something I do well?‖ ―What was the last thing I did just for myself?‖
and ―What is the most important thing in the world to me?‖ To the latter question, the vast
majority of the participants gave a typically feminine response, such as ―love,‖ ―family,‖ or
―friendship.‖ Not one answered ―my career,‖ ―success‖ or some other answer that might be
considered selfish. Of course, a good deal of peer pressure was probably at work here, since the
first response seemed to set the tone for the rest of the activity. Other ice-breaking activities
were more on the silly side; some incorporated children‘s games like tag and musical chairs, and
others required participants to imitate animals and household appliances. These types of games
were usually placed during a break in the self-defense activities, or after lunch, as an entertaining
way to begin focusing again on the course content.
A third aspect of the WenDo courses that differed from the other courses I observed was
that they contained a high proportion of ―talking‖ exercises. Some of these activities were
explicitly connected to self-defense, and were designed to improve women‘s handling of
confrontation and assertiveness in verbal harassment situations. Some other talking exercises
served a more therapeutic function, and included discussing experiences of violence, bullying or
harassment with the other participants; as well as boundary-setting, visualization and relaxation
Although most of these talking exercises did not involve physical activity, their
vocabulary and rhetoric were always couched in the body. For example, while discussing
experiences of fear, participants often described their emotions as being accompanied by physical
symptoms, such as ―my heart was pounding,‖ ―my hands shook,‖ or ―I felt sick to my stomach.‖
This explicit association of physical symptoms with internal psychological states implies a
phenomenological integration between mind and body. The self-reporting of this integration by
the Polish WenDo participants implies that these women view themselves as ―in touch‖ with their
emotions, bodies and natural processes. This is theoretically interesting considering how women
tend to be associated cross-culturally with embodiment and ―nature,‖ an association that has
historically been a condition of women‘s subordination (Ortner 1978; Martin 1992). I will return
to the implications of this connection between women and embodiment later in the chapter.
Several of the exercises in WenDo were designed make participants more aware of their
bodies in a positive way, allowing them to feel stable, bounded and secure. The language of one
of the guided visualizations highlights this. Participants were asked to stand with their feet
shoulder-width apart, eyes closed. The instructor started to speak in a low, calm voice: ―You are
a tree. Your branches can sway in the wind, but your roots are deep…you have the right to stand
in this space, no one can move you….‖ And so on. As the exercise went on, the instructor
walked around the circle, and gave each participant a gentle push to test her stability. At the end
of the exercise, the instructor told the participants the rationale behind the exercise: she said that
women often stand with their weight on one leg, because this is a ―sexy posture,‖ or with their
feet close together, in order to take up less space. Both of these postures tend to make an
individual‘s stance less stable and therefore more vulnerable. The trainer then stated that if
women confidently take up more space in their posture, they are less likely to be singled out as
victims. By invoking this imagery of a tree, the guided visualization creates a connection for
these participants among the characteristics of naturalness, strength, and grace, creating a
complex associating femininity and nature with rootedness and stability.
Another descriptive example of a conversation-based exercise aimed at helping women
relearn norms of comportment that govern both verbal and nonverbal communication. In this a
role-playing exercise, one participant in a pair would wear a cap designating her as the ―attacker.‖
She would then confront her partner with a verbal insult or some sort of harassment. The partner
was required to handle this situation as she would in real life, spontaneously. The other
participants and the instructor would then evaluate her handling of the situation, and give
suggestions on how to perform assertive gestures and posture without escalating or acting
aggressively by using insults or foul language.
Gender Essentialism and WenDo Pedagogy
Although couched in language of bodily integrity and individual rights that constructs
women as individuals in an atomized, neoliberal sense, the discourse employed by WenDo
trainers takes into account cultural notions about the ―nature‖ of women. However, rather than
accepting these gender ideas uncritically, WenDo trainers utilize them in instrumental ways,
drawing on Polish women‘s relational and social values. They seek to provide these women with
ways to defend themselves while only minimally breaking out of accepted gender norms.
Along with the association of women with embodiment in WenDo pedagogy, there is an
implicit assumption that women‘s physical bodies are characterized by weakness. One of the
most basic features of WenDo pedagogy rested on its depiction of women‘s bodies, and what are
perceived as the special abilities and limitations of these bodies. One manifestation of this is the
limited emphasis on the physical aspects of training. The instructors implicitly acknowledge that
most women cannot match an attacker in brute strength, although this is never explicitly stated in
the course, so as not to perpetuate some women‘s self-conceptions as weak or incapable.
Participants learn to first rely on psychological prevention and safety techniques, and secondly on
tricks like pinching, biting or gouging in sensitive areas in order to escape an offender.
Although some physical fighting techniques were practiced and sensitive pressure points
on an attacker‘s body were discussed, the WenDo course contained relatively little explicit
training in techniques that might seriously physically harm an attacker. Most of the physical
training in WenDo focused on escaping from various holds and grips. The reason for the focus
on psychological training over physical training was that WenDo instructors believed that the
implicit physical weakness was not the main obstacle keeping women from successfully fending
off violence.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, several of the exercises placed a heavy
emphasis on women‘s supposed communication skills, maternal instincts, and intuition. For
example, the prevalence of role-playing exercises in WenDo‘s pedagogy shows how much the
method relies on women‘s communication and negotiation skills. These exercises were meant to
be useful in everyday situations that are not necessarily physically violent. However, the
instructors frequently stated that such ―verbal self-defense‖ could also be used when a woman is
accosted by a potentially violent stranger.
One of the verbal exercises is an illustration of WenDo‘s focus on women‘s
communication and negotiation skills. In this exercise, each pair of participants drew slips of
paper out of a hat: one was assigned to play the ―attacker‖ and the other was to be the ―defender.
The attacker would then don a baseball cap to designate her role; she would proceed by
presenting a pre-assigned verbal insult, bullying remark, or sexual harassment. This remark was
written on her slip of paper, but was unknown to the defender. Then, the defender was required
to respond to the insult or harassment as she would in real life. This exercise was designed to
allow women to have a response in mind for future situations, to prevent them from freezing up
when presented with a similar situation at work or on the street.
However, the first response concocted by the defender in this exercise sometimes needed
improvement. After their first run through the scenario, instructors and other participants often
gave suggestions to improve the response. Common mistakes by defenders in this exercise
included offering excuses, prolonging a conversation, and escalation of the conflict. The women
playing the defender roles were encouraged not to raise their voices, use excessive foul language
or to insult the attacker‘s mother, for example, lest they add to the level of violence. The trainers
often employed language such as ―you must read the situation,‖ or ―you must calculate your
response to persuade him to leave you alone, as simply as possible.‖
In the scenarios set up in this particular exercise, the line between assertive behavior and
escalation or aggression was very fine, almost arbitrary in some cases. WenDo‘s pedagogy did
not speak of women‘s behavior as ―provoking‖ an attack, and they often reiterated the
disadvantages of being a ―polite girl‖ (grzeczna dziewczyna), even advocating the use of bad
language at times. However, simultaneously, women learning WenDo were still assigned the
responsibility of defusing a potentially violent encounter, or at the very least not worsening an
unpleasant social interaction. Their fulfillment of this responsibility depended on their ―reading‖
and negotiating with an attacker, two social interactions that are culturally coded as feminine.27
Similar interactions are set up in exercises that require one partner to stand inside a circle
made of yarn while a second (wearing the attacker‘s baseball cap) attempts to persuade her to let
the stranger or unwanted acquaintance into the circle. This exercise involves the negotiation of
boundaries, and it encourages women to defend their personal space without compromise, but it
nonetheless makes protection the responsibility of the individual woman, and relies on her
persuasiveness and communication skills as the core of her self-defense.
A second essentialized feminine attribute that WenDo‘s pedagogy utilizes to help women
unlock potential for self-defense is the idea of a maternal instinct, which connects the pedagogy
to Sara Ruddick‘s ideas about maternalism as the basis of a transformative, pacifist politics. An
example of this utilization of maternal instinct occurred in the initial segment of one of the
courses I attended, after the women had introduced themselves to the instructors and other
participants, the instructor asked how many of the participants had children, at which point about
half of them raised their hands. Then the instructor said, ―What would you do, if someone was
trying to harm your child? Or for those of you who don‘t have children, a child who is close to
you; a younger brother or sister, a niece or nephew, or even a friend‘s child? You would go wild,
you would be like a mother bear, right? Grrr!‖ At this point she made a growling, fierce face, and
while I was inclined to smile at this, several of the other participants nodded solemnly. The
instructor went on to say: ―So that is how you know you are able to fight. But as women, we
learn that we should not fight for ourselves, only for someone else. Well, you are worth fighting
for, and so you should learn to fight for yourself.‖
This discussion was meant to get women into the right mindset for self-defense, and it
relies on the assumption that women have a more protective and defensive feeling toward young
children than they do toward themselves. Even childless women were assumed to have protective
instincts, even toward children who had little relation to them. This assumption is indicative of
Polish cultural focus on women as mothers, and the view of childrearing and child care as
women‘s ―natural‖ function. Similar language is found in the text materials associated with
WSDP, as I show the introduction to this chapter. I will return to similar instances of references
to maternal instinct in WSDP below.
A third naturalized feminine characteristic that WenDo utilizes is women‘s intuition,
another quality that associates femininity with embodiment and being in touch with nature. This
construct is a key factor in many of the prevention-based strategies of WenDo. Intuition was
considered by the trainers and participants as a tool for establishing and enforcing one‘s personal
boundaries, as well as a guide to decision making in dangerous situations. In one exercise, one
group of participants closed their eyes and stood in line against the wall, while a second group of
participants slowly walked toward them. The participants with their eyes closed were instructed
to put their hands up in a ―stop‖ gesture at the moment felt a sense of unease (niepokój) or fear
(strach), stopping the approaching partner. The participants were instructed that the location of
this feeling of fear is different for everyone, although it was often described in the discussion
afterwards as a physical sensation. Again, women‘s experience and abilities are constructed in an
embodied but distinctively feminine manner. ―I feel it in my stomach,‖ or ―I get goosebumps‖
are among the most common ways of describing this intuitive sense of unease. After gesturing
―stop,‖ the participants opened her eyes to see the proximity of her partner. This line or radius
was supposed to correspond to the participant‘s comfort zone or personal boundary.
My own experience with this exercise provides an example of assumptions about gender
and intuition in WenDo pedagogy, and may indicate that this particular exercise reveals
specifically Polish constructions of gender, intuition and personal boundaries. The first time I
attempted this exercise, I waited until I felt this intuitive sense of unease, and when I finally
signaled ―stop‖ and opened my eyes, my partner‘s face was less than eight inches from my own.
As I looked around the room I saw that the other participants had signaled when their partners
were about four to ten feet away.
In a discussion of this exercise, the participants and instructors tried to explain my
difficulty by saying that: 1) as a non-native speaker of Polish, I might not have understood the
instructions for the exercise, or 2) as an American, my personal boundary is much closer than
theirs. In my own opinion, I believe that neither of these was the case because I did understand
what I was intended to do, and I was certainly not comfortable with the proximity of my partner
when I opened my eyes at the end of the exercise. On my second attempt at this exercise, over a
year later, I kept my eyes closed by tried to rely on sensory information, such as listening for
footsteps and gauging the passage of time. This way, I was able to more accurately estimate the
approach of my partner, signaling for her to stop when she was about four feet away. However, I
still did not feel an ―intuitive‖ sense of my personal boundaries being violated at any point.
When discussing this exercise with the participants from various seminars, during both
class and interviews, most described this exercise as one of the most interesting and helpful of the
seminar. They did not view the assumption that women have an innate, intuition-based
knowledge of their boundaries, best accessed by blocking their sensory inputs, as problematic.
This construction of women‘s intuition as an embodied, natural phenomenon is one ways that
WenDo pedagogy constructs women as possessing a unique form of power that is inaccessible to
men. Although this construction may seem essentialist, it seemed to resonate with the Polish
participants. Hailing its participants as essentially intuitive beings is one way that WenDo sought
to increase self-confidence and self-esteem among women, and to combat feelings of helplessness
in the face of gendered violence.
A final way that WenDo pedagogy relies on culturally accepted notions of womanhood
and privileges feminine ways of being is its rhetoric of nonviolence and de-escalation. Most of
the physical training in WenDo was focused on escaping from various holds and grips.
According to WenDo instructors, the reason for this focus was that women in self-defense
situations should focus on escape, although they should not be afraid of doing harm to an attacker
through their actions. Some simple punches and kicks were taught, but they were constructed by
the trainers as a means of escape rather than a way to seriously harm or disable an attacker,
providing a marked contrast with Krav Maga, the techniques of which are designed to inflict
grievous bodily harm.
Ela and other WenDo trainers I interviewed located the importance of self-defense
training in the fact that most women in Poland see themselves as inherently nonviolent. These
trainers believe that because of the culture, women are not inclined to defend themselves as a first
instinct, so it is important to unlock their potential for self-defense. Several WenDo instructors
and participants told me that some people in Poland are worried that women will become
aggressive offenders if they learn how to use physical violence in self-defense. They often went
on to state that this concern is ridiculous because women ―have more sense than that,‖ as one
trainer, Urszula, put it. ―Women‘s greatest weapons are not their fists but their voices,‖ Urszula
also stated while teaching a seminar. She explained that for this reason, women who learn selfdefense are unlikely to rely on their physical skills to harm anyone or to ―get into a fight that
looks really cool.‖ Fighting prowess as it is conceived by most people was constructed by
WenDo trainers as a ―macho‖ or masculine characteristic, which should not be emulated by
women who desired practical self-defense skills. In addition, WenDo participants often
expressed distaste for masculine forms of martial arts such as Krav Maga that they described as
―too brutal.‖ In contrast, they described the physical self-defense techniques they learned in
WenDo as easy and efficient but not too brutal.
Gender Essentialism in WSDP
Unfortunately, my analysis of WSDP must be limited because of my lack of participant
observation in the course and of interviews with WSDP participants. However, from a reading of
the self-defense manual Always Safe and from extended interview with Piotr, one of the cocreators of the course, I have learned about the philosophies behind the class and the way the
instructors view the content as tailored specifically for women.
WSDP takes a psychology-based approach to teaching women self-defense while
incorporating the physical fighting of a padded attacker method. Although it is a ―home-grown‖
self-defense method in Poland, unlike the imported WenDo method, Piotr stated that when he was
formulating the course, he was very influenced by WenDo and got many of his ideas from
working with WenDo instructors. The course starts with a psychological basis, in addition to
practice in punches, kicks and other techniques, and at the third class session the students advance
to physically fighting with a padded attacker, who is actually the instructor dressed in a full body
suit of padded armor. Piotr described the progression of techniques taught in the first few class
sessions and the rationale behind their ordering.
―At first, women expect that they cannot be aggressive; they expect aggression from
men, but they need to remind themselves of their own aggressive reactions. Also,
they need to understand why exactly a man is aggressive, what is his particular way
of thinking. We do role playing, they try to impersonate men in these roles so that it
allows them to see later how this is not some kind of extraterrestrial, their impulses are
not entirely unknowable, so in this way it becomes possible to predict somehow the
behavior, and this reduces the level of fear…. Then, in the beginning women just learn
to punch here, to kick this pad, and these are very simple techniques, and in the first
class they are just these bits of psychology, not so much movement, this has to come
first before we can begin to train…. There are psychological things like they have
already practiced, like ‗leave me alone‘ or ‗don‘t come any closer‘ and so on. They
learn to fight with the instructor and apply these moves later on.‖
According to Piotr, women have the capacity for aggression and violence but they have
simply forgotten how to use these natural instincts because of enculturation. His statement seems
to imply that gendered behavior is culturally constructed and not innate, and that this assumption
is reflected in WSDP pedagogy. On the other hand, in Always Safe, the authors invoke several
examples of feminine traits that women can use to their advantage in self-defense situations. As I
mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, one of the very first visualizations mentioned in the
book involves tapping into the maternal instinct: it assumes that a woman is instinctually able to
defend a child, and therefore with training she can learn to defend herself.
Secondly, as in WenDo, women are encouraged to use their communication and
negotiation skills to assess potentially dangerous situations. Many of the thought exercises listed
in the book depend on women‘s perceived strengths in perspective-taking and understanding the
motivations of others, even in that ―other‖ is a rapist or another potentially violent offender. For
Exercise: First of all choose for yourself a type of crime against which you
don‘t know how to guard yourself….Now imagine that you are the criminal
who has the intention of committing just such an act. Imagining yourself is not
especially hard, you can convince yourself. Next, now that you have become the
villain, carefully plan out the course of the whole event. Place, time, the method of
carrying it out. Try to do it so that the victim is cut off from every possibility of
rescue or escape. Attempt to anticipate the moves of the victim and plan out in
advance your reactions to every possibility. Remember that you are working like a
one-person company: you are going for the maximum benefit from the minimum cost.
In particular, answer for yourself these questions:
-How do I choose my victim?
-How do I get close enough to her to carry out my plan?
-What will I do to cause the least amount of argument or trouble?
-What will I do to escape responsibility for this deed?
If you‘ve finished, answer this: Did the planning of the crime absorb you? Is it true
that this can be an engaging activity? This is also exactly the feeling of the
criminal. The plan absorbs and excites him (Kruczyski and Drożdziak 2003: 22-23).
A third way that the discourse found in Always Safe relies on socially-accepted
assumptions about femininity to teach self-defense is its encouragement to women to use their
natural intuition. WSDP is similar to WenDo in this way, but unlike WenDo, the way that WSDP
constructs intuition has more to do with assessing real-life scenarios than with intuitively
discerning one‘s personal boundaries. In a section describing how a woman should use her
―natural intuition‖28 the authors describe how a woman‘s intuition will tell her when a situation
presents danger, even if there are no external signs. They set up a scenario in which a woman is
standing in an elevator when a strange man steps on before she reaches her floor. Although
women cannot reasonably avoid every instance of riding in an elevator with a man she does not
―…unease was awakened by some element of this exact, concrete situation. Maybe
the late hour, the man‘s way of looking, the details of his outfit. In any case, the
woman feels a little bit ill at ease. It what way does she react to the information that
her organism is offering her? She smothers her unease, saying to herself: ‗But I can‘t
just shut the door in his face, because I will offend him and I will just wind up
looking like an idiot.‘ And so the woman shuts herself in the steel, soundproof cell
with a man who causes her fear. She disregarded her best weapon that nature gave
her for defense: intuition‖ (75).
Fourth and finally, although Always Safe acknowledges the role of culture and social
institutions29 in shaping the social norms of masculinity and femininity, the text tends to lend
special power to women in a primordial or even mystical sense. It relies on archetypes of woman
as nurturer and ―Earth Mother,‖ intimately connected with the natural world and with the physical
body. I found one example of this connection surprising because of its contrast with what I
observed to be the dominant beauty ideals for Polish women:
―How do these internal experiences and conflicts appear in our own bodies? The
main hotbed of emotions, including sexual experiences, is the stomach. When we
want to control our reactions, we usually hold our breath and stiffen our diaphragm.
This automatically cuts us off from paying attention to the lower parts of our body,
causing us to slightly contract our position and inadequately feel the ground, and
this has awful consequences for self-defense. Control of the stomach muscles by
women has a long history. Only the most ancient prehistoric models of feminine
beauty could have praised a relaxed, magnificent belly. Later, patriarchal generations
had already taken up significant control over feminine sexuality (Kruczyński and
Drożdziak 2003: 58).
This explanation is followed by an exercise encouraging the reader to hold her body in a
stable, relaxed fashion. The authors advocate the idea that relaxation of the stomach (in contrast
to the constriction and diminution associated with feminine beauty ideals) can put a woman in
harmony with the environment and with her own body. Despite the somewhat essentialist tone of
the preceding quotation, I view it overall as a positive way of approaching the role of the body in
self-defense training. It is an encouragement for women to be comfortable with their bodies even
if they do not fit contemporary ideals by hearkening back to a primordial model of femininity.
Alongside these affirmations of women‘s independence from social norms, other
segments of Always Safe construct women as guardians of the hearth, home and children. It
utilizes a discourse of maternal instinct very similar to what I encountered in WenDo. However,
Always Safe takes the association one step further by tying any innate aggression women might
have to the ferocity of female animals with young:
Everyone believes that the most dangerous animals are females with young. When
the young are endangered, the females of most species do not weigh the risks of
their own life in their defense, and they do not have any resistance against killing
an aggressor. (240).
This comparison is meant to show that women are not inherently gentle or peaceful as they are
constructed by the dominant discourse of gender in Poland. However, the image of a selfdefending woman as a wild animal or a ―mother bear‖ defending her cubs is a result of a cultural
association of women with nature and emotion, as well as with nurturing and child rearing.
In addition to the construction of women as the guardians of the home and of children,
some parts of Always Safe show how women should conduct themselves as guardians of their
own bodily integrity. Although the aim of this discourse is women‘s empowerment, it constructs
women as holders of responsibility for violence prevention even if it casts men as responsible for
its perpetration. Some of the ―safety tips‖ offered by this volume are similar to those contained in
explicitly patriarchal self-defense courses of decades past:
If you are wearing a tight skirt and high heels, and in the pocket of your fur coat
you have a key, then in his opinion it would surely be worth it to try an attack,
even if generally you look like a tough specimen. For all types of attackers, a
hood pulled over your head is a signal to attack. If you are walking on the street at
night with a hood, your field of vision is very powerfully limited…. If you walk
with a large hood and a thickly insulated coat, someone can literally walk right
behind your back, and you will not notice anything, as long as you do not feel the
weight (104).
The same section of the book goes on to caution about that danger of wearing scarves that can be
used to strangle a person: ―With such a choking strangulation it is usually hard to get free, and if
the attacker is not frightened away by someone, this situation can even end in death‖ (104).
Despite a caution against a ―tight skirt and high heels‖ because of their role in impeding
motion and making a woman seem like an easy target, the text continues:
It is said that clothing that is bold and emphasizes feminine beauty provokes assault.
I think that this is not true, but I also think that I know why it can seem that way.
Hundreds of women are walking on the streets who are dressed in a very sexy way,
but in no way do they seem like good targets for an attack. There is, however, a
certain group of girls dressed in this way, who really do seem like they would be
appropriate victims. Both types wear sexy clothes, but there is a certain subtle
difference. It does not matter what length your dress is and how high your heels are.
It doesn‘t matter, either, how intensively you use makeup. More relevant is WHY
you do it (106).
This qualification is followed by an explanation of the sexist implications of certain
feminine attire, and an assertion that some women wear such clothing not because of their own
preference but to ―receive validation from the male gaze‖ (107). In this way the authors of
Always Safe negotiate a fine line between making women feel empowered and self-confident, and
offering prescriptive recommendations for safe behavior and clothing choices.
In addition, Kruczyński and Drożdziak focus on ―childlike‖ clothing that can make a
woman seem like an easy target for assault because of its implication of naivete or vulnerability:
Also risky are those elements of your outfit that transmit a personal character
that is somewhat infantile. A backpack in the shape of a teddy bear, large, colored
pompons on long shoestrings, plastic jewelry, hair accessories that are typical for a
young person, jackets and jeans with bright colored badges and patches for rock
bands, philosophical sentences written in pen, etc. These types of devices are, for
an attacker, associated with a person who is oversensitive and looking for attention,
and because of this they are not too safe.
On the other hand—parts of your wardrobe that would discourage a street robber are
all elements associated with energetic and physically fit people:
-Sporty or military footwear
-Camouflage pants or military-style pants
-Military jackets
-A single, sporty bag
-A leather jacket—with a style associated with punk rock, the Ramones, etc.
Aside from this, it is an obvious consideration that a woman in pants is a less
attractive target for a street rapist than a woman in a skirt (109).
Throughout this section of the book, for the most part, feminine norms of dress are portrayed as
―risky‖ from a self-defense standpoint, and that the (rather short) list of ―safe‖ clothing that would
discourage an attack tends to be that which is coded as masculine in Polish culture.
A second way that the discourse found in Always Safe implicitly places responsibility for
gendered violence on women involves its cautions about social behavior. More than one segment
of the book contains a series of ―horror stories‖ related by former WSDP participants who had
experienced violence. The purpose of these stories is to show how this violence could have been
avoided with proper self-defense and intuitive training. In one of these stories, a situation that
begins completely innocuously turns into a nightmare when a woman is sexually assaulted by a
male colleague after a company party:
I drank at the most two glasses of wine, and I had a great time. After the reception
everyone went back in their private automobiles, through the woods. I found
myself in a car with one of our section directors. It never entered my head that this
might be unsafe. At the party he was nice, attentive, and witty. Several times I
danced with him, but no more than anyone else. During the drive back the car
started to slow down and finally stopped in an empty, wooded parking lot…I
started to get nervous, but he explained that the engine had overheated and we
needed to wait a little bit before we went any further…. I didn‘t know anything
about it, so I kept quiet. Then he started to smile strangely and proposed that since
we had a few minutes we should get to know each other better. I started to get even
more nervous. Through the windows were just the dark woods. He said something,
I don‘t remember what any more, and at the same time he touched my hair, he kept
getting closer and closer. I asked if he could stop that, but in general he didn‘t
listen to me (87).
These cautionary tales, as well as the above-mentioned prescriptions for dress, are
presented as ways for women to let go of excessive femininity, to be strong and capable
and to trust their instincts. At the same time, the content of the advice tends to focus
more on what women should not do than on empowering solutions to violence.
Contradicting these later prescriptions somewhat, the book states from the outset
that ―women should not be blamed for provoking an attack by any means. We live in an
unsafe world and everyone should do what keeps them safest‖ (9). Piotr also denies that
the book‘s recommendations place responsibility on women for violence committed
against them. Rather he points out the ways in which his course pedagogy is more
effective and empowering for women than most other self-defense courses offered in
Poland. He stated that police-run self-defense courses were inherently patriarchal
because of their association with masculine power.30
This is why I disagree with such courses run by the police, they perpetuate a
certain patriarchal stereotype and really they make women feel stupid….
Maybe there are some policemen who are really cool but in general they have
to restrain their own aggression, they are often associated as perpetrators of
domestic violence, so they are not a very good group to be teaching women.
It is obvious that the creators and instructors of WSDP in Poland have a sincere
desire to empower women and are pursuing this goal in what they see as the most
appropriate fashion. However, through the texts and interview data I show a struggle
between empowering feminist discourse and the continuing association of women with
nurturing and caring roles, as well as characteristics of emotion, intuition and
connectedness to the natural world. The recommendations contained in the advice
sections of Always Safe also implicitly place responsibility for the prevention of violence
upon women. Although this text places great emphasis on the psychology of men who
attack women, it at no point suggests that anything can be done to change this psychology
or behavior, or the social conditions that lead to them.
Conclusion: The Results of Gender-Sensitive Self-Defense Training
At the core of WenDo‘s and WSDP‘s pedagogies and practices is a philosophy
that privileges feminine experience while allowing women to ―get in touch with‖ the
body and attempting to effect empowering changes in women‘s body culture. These
courses attempt to empower women through a combination of psychological, emotional
and physical training. The mental techniques taught by WenDo instructors involve
communication and negotiation, and they are embodied in posture, gestures and an ―aura‖
of confidence, although it was difficult for interviewees to define these changes when
asked about them directly. Interview data shows that a focus not just on punches and
kicks but also on bearing and posture enables Polish WenDo participants to perform an
alternative body culture without disrupting their feminine roles. According to
interviewees, the skills they learned in WenDo courses did not only apply to confidence
in potentially dangerous situations, but also in everyday situations, including job
interviews, conversations with difficult colleagues, and negotiations with intimate
Despite its use of padded-attacker techniques, in many ways WSDP‘s pedagogy is
similar to that of WenDo. In fact, Piotr states that their ―psychology and philosophy are
very close.‖ Although WenDo insists that its use of women as trainers avoids
introducing the harmful influence of the male gaze, they make many of the same
assumptions about women‘s nature (i.e. motivations, psychological and emotional
Both of these self-defense strategies are also open to the same critiques that have
been leveled against women‘s self-defense courses in the United States context, as I
outline in Chapter 1. According to feminists such as hooks (1993), Bromley (1992) and
Lorde (1980), the use of violence by women, even in self-defense, does nothing to
address underlying norms of male domination, and can even encourage women to
embrace masculine forms of coercion to conform to a masculinist culture. However,
WSDP and WenDo pedagogies maintain that such concerns are unfounded, because most
women‘s psyches are not set up to misuse violence or to be abusive toward others. For
example, the ―Frequently Asked Questions‖ section of WenDo‘s official brochure
contains the following quote: ―the most important lessons of WenDo are communication,
learning one‘s own boundaries, and respecting the boundaries of others by not escalating.
Women do not need to worry about ‗exaggerating‘ their response to perceived attacks,
but to try to use their intuition and communication skills to their advantage‖ (WenDo
2003: 18).
Other critics consider self-defense and assertiveness training to be a less-effective
solution for women‘s empowerment than structural and political measures Some Western
feminists are uncomfortable with the principles of self-defense on grounds that it is a
short term solution to a deeper problem (Lonsway 1996, Madden and Sokol 1994,
Corcoran 1992). However, advocates of women‘s self-defense in Poland contend that
such training provides a necessary background and favorable conditions for women‘s
further economic and political progress. Bożena, a WenDo participant who is also
involved in feminist organizing (the only participant I interviewed who was an actively
involved feminist), describes these benefits by focusing on the confidence-boosting
aspects of WenDo rather than physical techniques, saying ―There is no sense in just
focusing on one thing at a time, just economics, or just reproductive rights, or just
violence. For example, maybe you get fired because you have a baby, or maybe you are
harassed at work because you are a lesbian…all these problems are connected; being
assertive can help with all these situations.‖ Wendo, and to a lesser extent WSDP, is not
overtly focused on physical self-defense but on communication skills and assertiveness,
as well as more subtle changes in bodily comportment. Because of these features, such
gender-sensitive self-defense training methods are effective in a wider range of situations
than other, strictly physical, self-defense methods. They also more directly impart the
confidence and assertiveness that may lead women eventually to political participation on
their own behalf, and also in order to help other women.
The women who participated in this study who were students of gender-sensitive
self-defense courses found ways to resist gendered violence and feel physically and
socially empowered without significantly disrupting the hegemonic body culture defining
masculinity and femininity in Poland. One way that this is problematic is that the
gestures and language of empowerment performed by self-defense participants are
undertaken on an individualized level. Therefore WenDo and other gender-sensitive selfdefense methods do not advocate a radical subversion of the heteronormative nuclear
family that is the location of the bulk of gendered violence. Rather, the practitioners of
WenDo and WSDP practice a form of resistance against violence and oppression of
women through instilling self-worth and confidence within a culture that overall does not
approve or feminism or any questioning of the hegemonic gender order. These women
successfully navigate identities constructed in terms of the dominant Polish culture, while
constructing individual narratives of empowerment and success. This research shows
that women‘s self-defense in a Polish context is well-received and effective when
packaged in a way that highlights the differences between men and women, and plays
upon women‘s supposed universal strengths like nurturing, intuition and negotiation.
WenDo‘s and WSDP‘s constructions of women‘s strengths are consonant with a
philosophy of cultural or ―difference‖ feminism, because their pedagogy privileges
feminine ways of being, as they are broadly conceived in Polish society. For this reason,
the focus on gender difference provided by cultural-feminist ideas may be more palatable
to Polish women than a feminist position that they would perceive as radical feminism,
but that actually fits more closely with Ruth Lister‘s definition of equality feminism.
The vast majority of self-defense participants I interviewed expressed a belief in the
complementarity of the sexes, and did not believe that women, despite their nurturing and
caring values, were in any way superior to men. Because of these beliefs, the instructors
of WenDo and WSDP shaped their pedagogies by picking and choosing the elements of
cultural feminism and the dominant gender regime to create a hybrid they thought was
most beneficial to Polish women; a delicate balance utilizing consciousness-raising
strategies without forcing participants too far outside their comfort zones.
Chapter 7
The Silencing of Domestic Violence in Self-Defense Pedagogy and
A billboard that was erected as a part of an awareness campaign against domestic
violence around 2004 featured an image of the lower part of a man’s torso, with the hands
clutching a belt in a threatening manner. The color scheme of this billboard included a
background of sickly green along with smeary brown lettering, and the lighting evoked the grim
aesthetic of a gory horror movie. The text of the billboard read ―Because the soup was too
salty.‖ Another public service advertisement bearing the same slogan shows a woman with a
severely bruised face.
A Google images search for the phrase ―Because the soup was too salty‖ produces
rather disturbing results. I learned that the public service announcements bearing this phrase
have been the subject of what I assume is ill-humored parody, showing both pictures of men who
have been beaten, and images of extreme violence and gore.
In an interview, Piotr told a story of a former student of WSDP who was confronted by
her abusive ex- husband.
One of the girls who finished the course, she had already been divorced from this
guy. They were arguing over the house, there had been some kind of violence
earlier, while they were still married, and for now it had stopped. They fought
over the house, and she did not want to let him in, she kicked him out of the house…
And well, one day, there was something like he came to the house and was holding
this kind of plastic bag. Then he came in and asked her if she wanted to take the
house. And she answered that yes, she would like to take the house. And so then
he pulled this hammer out of his plastic bag, and he hit her with this hammer.
Right in the middle of the head, right? Well, in that moment, the training started to
work. Because normally, just like she said, she would have ducked and squealed,
or something like that. Immediately, she just started to kick him or to kick at him.
She could not get up, really, because her head was spinning, but she started flailing
and kicking. She grabbed things and threw them at him, and so she was able to make
it to the balcony and started to scream for help. And that was how someone was able
to help her in this really physical confrontation. Some people came, they locked the
guy up, and later she went to the hospital for her busted head, and all that. So there,
her training really saved her.
Unfortunately, very few domestic violence confrontations end like the one that Piotr
described. However, through teaching WSDP, he hopes to help women protect themselves both
from attacks by strangers and aggression from family members or domestic partners. In other
self-defense contexts, the prevalence of domestic violence is largely elided or silenced.
When one examines the techniques included in both WSDP and WenDo, as well as those
found in martial-arts based courses, it becomes clear that the vast majority of these techniques are
intended to be used against attacks by strangers, or at the least attacks that take one by surprise.
They are focused on the following narrative: When a woman is accosted or attacked, she should
employ the vocal and physical techniques she has learned in her self-defense course, so that she
can run away and escape the situation. The techniques most often referred to in the pedagogy of
the courses and in the success stories or testimonials from participants include a quick punch to
the face or a knee to the groin. However, these ―one-off‖ self-defense techniques are not
effective in a situation where a woman cannot escape so easily.
In addition to removing explicit references to feminism from course content, gendersensitive self-defense training in Poland limits its engagement with Western-style feminism (or
what they would call radical or militant feminism) by silencing the problem of domestic violence
within the course pedagogy. According to statistics on domestic violence in Poland, the home is
the context for the overwhelming majority of violence incidents against women (Mrozik 2002).
However, among the interviewees in this study some skepticism existed as to whether a selfdefense method like WenDo could be effective in such a context. Since the statistics on random
street crime and stranger rape in Poland are relatively low (although almost certainly
underreported), it is arguable that self-defense training that focuses on escaping from attacks by
strangers can only benefit a relatively small number of women.
All the interviewees acknowledged that domestic violence was a major problem in
Poland, and that a much higher number of women were abused by a spouse or a partner than were
victims of violence by strangers. However, most self-defense instructors also expressed a
cautious belief that self-defense training could be beneficial in helping women prevent domestic
violence, if only in providing them with the confidence to avoid such relationships. In cases like
Katya‘s, who I mentioned in the previous chapter, where a woman has lived in an abusive
situation for many years, the interviewees expressed more doubts.
Many of the participants, in contrast to the instructors, were not convinced that the verbal
and physical techniques used for immediate escape from an attacker on the street would be useful
for defusing a domestic situation. One participant expressed concern for Katya, saying that using
the physical techniques she learned in the course might make Katya‘s situation worse: ―This
could be considered escalation. I was wondering if that would be effective, or if it would worsen
the situation.‖ However, all the interviewees also agreed that the general techniques of
assertiveness, boundary-setting and negotiation used in these self-defense methods were the most
useful for domestic violence situations, although they do not necessarily present a solution to
such a problem.
Although the commercial WenDo and WSDP courses were not really designed for
women in situations similar to Katya‘s, these self-defense methods have developed special
courses and interventions for women who are survivors of violence of various kinds. However,
in order for these courses to be offered cost-free to their participants they have to rely largely on
government and international NGO funding, which can be problematic when they are defining
who is eligible for such interventions. In situations like Katya‘s, where abuse had continued for
years, but where no criminal charges were filed and the woman has not been in contact with a
hospital or a crisis center, there might be no way for a woman like Katya to come into contact
with the opportunity for a free course.
Although I was not granted permission to attend and observe these courses because of the
sensitive information shared by the participants, I was able to conduct interviews with two
instructors who specialize in such courses. Piotr, the WSDP instructor I interviewed, splits his
time between commercial and what he called nonprofit ―therapeutic‖ courses. Ela, a WenDo
trainer, exclusively teaches non-commercial courses for the victims of violence. These two
trainers explained several ways in which their courses differ significantly from the commercial
courses I had already encountered when I interviewed them. One significant difference in the
pedagogy of these non-commercial courses is a greater focus on psychological discussions of
self-defense, verbal self-defense and conflict resolution, as opposed to fighting off an attacker.
Piotr states, ―The kinds of psychological exercises, there are more of these, a little bit more
emphasis is put on assertiveness, and on separating out one‘s own needs from others‘ needs.‖ Ela
stated that WenDo pedagogy takes a similar approach to these kinds of classes:
―The core of the course is more or less the same [as commercial WenDo] but
obviously the women who are victims of domestic violence are bringing their
experience to the process… so we focus more on assertiveness, and on their
own experiences. We focus more on the basis of assertiveness. They have to
stand in a special way, they have to walk in a special way…‖
A third way in which these nonprofit self-defense courses differ from commercial courses
is the removal of some exercises the instructors might consider too traumatic or triggering for
participants who have experienced violence. Piotr states, ―these girls are very strongly sensitized,
they are probably already in contact with a therapist…. We have to be very cautious because they
may have experienced sexual molestation. When we start to play out a certain scene they can go
through a sort of awakening, they might start to become scared.‖ He goes on to state that a
padded-attack course such as WSDP can be especially traumatic for previous victims of violence,
so that extensive debriefing is required, a method that is not always used in the commercial
In commercial WenDo courses, some of the exercises in which women learn to define
and defend their personal boundaries required participants to close their eyes while someone
approaches them, or to face the wall while they are approached from behind. Ela said that she
does not include any activities that require participants to close their eyes, or any involving mock
attackers coming up from behind. ―[T]his sort of thing might be risky. I would be concerned for
the group that does not know each other very well. Honestly, I would not want to do this
A final contrast, which only applies to WenDo, involves the length of the course. A
commercial WenDo course lasts only for a weekend, for a total of 12 hours of instruction. The
courses taught by Ela for victims of domestic violence have a structure more similar to the
ongoing courses I described: participants meet once per week, and there is not a set period of
instruction—women can attend these weekly sessions as long as they wish, although Ela stated
that most participants attend for about 6 months to a year. The reason for this difference in
structure, according to Ela, is that her students often have more barriers preventing them from
being in a frame of mind to defend themselves. Therefore, these barriers require a longer time
frame than the commercial weekend courses to break down. As can be seen from these
considerations both in WSDP and in WenDo, courses for women who have experienced violence
have been carefully planned and do take into account some of the structural inequalities and
aspects of gender oppression that may affect its participants. This is interesting because such
consideration is largely absent in the commercial and martial-arts based courses I attended.
However, some critics have argued that the interventions of these self-defense seminars,
even when they address domestic violence in such a way, may not significantly affect the
problem of domestic violence in Poland. Domestic violence is connected to a variety of historical
and cultural factors in Eastern Europe, and the interventions taken against the problem in this
cultural context have not always been successful. This issue of domestic violence and the reasons
it is still considered a ―hidden problem‖ in Poland will be treated to a more sustained discussion
in the remainder of this chapter.
According to a 2005 study by Poland‘s Center for Public Opinion Research (CBOS),
41% of Polish women reported knowing another woman who had been a victim of domestic
violence. However, only about 14% of women who responded to the survey said that they had
ever been hit by a spouse or a partner. However, among divorced respondents, the numbers were
much higher; 61% declared they had been beaten by their spouse before they ended the marriage
(CBOS 2005: 3-4). Very few men admitted to having been struck by a wife or girlfriend;
however, when asked if they have ever hit a spouse during a quarrel, more women admitted to
this act than men. These statistics all indicate that domestic violence in Poland is both
widespread and underreported. It is undoubtedly the subject of an unsettling silence.
Domestic Violence and the Polish Criminal Justice System
In 2002, the Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, in collaboration with a Polish
feminist organization called the Women‘s Rights Center (Centrum Praw Kobiet), published a
report on the research they had conducted on the domestic violence problem in Poland. This
report stated that although domestic violence is a criminal offense in Poland it is almost
impossible to successfully prosecute. The process of bringing a domestic violence charge against
one‘s husband or partner is very complicated, and the victims themselves are usually expected to
initiate the charges and navigate this complex system without assistance.
When law enforcement responds to a domestic violence call, they often will only be
authorized to take the offender to a ―sobering detention center‖ overnight, and to give the victim
of violence a so-called Blue Card.
The Blue card is divided into four parts, designated by the letters A through D.
The A and B cards document the incident. The A card is a report of a concluded
home intervention, and the B card consists of the police notes made at the time
of the intervention. The C card contains information about local assistance centers
and programs, and the officer gives this card to the victim at the scene. The law
requires officers, in addition to giving victims the C card, to contact local ―Social
Service Centers‖ and consult with social workers. Together, the officers and social
workers track whether the victims have contacted any support agencies, determine
a date for a joint visit to the family residence, and develop a ―help plan‖ for the
The D card is a ―help request,‖ which the victim has an option to sign and return
to the responding officers… the ―help request‖ is geared toward assisting the victim
in contacting the social support agencies, rather than initiating a police investigation
(Minnesota Advocates 2002:25-26).
This description of the Blue Card system continues, but the above excerpt is sufficient to show
that the system is not only quite bureaucratic, but also places all the initiative for beginning the
legal proceedings on the woman who experiences domestic violence.
Even if a woman succeeds in bringing a domestic violence case to court, Polish law
contains language that makes it difficult to prove that domestic violence occurred, was
unprovoked, and that it resulted in significant injury. According to the Minnesota Advocates
―In the Polish language, ‗mistreatment‘ implies that the behavior was repeated rather
than an isolated incident.31 As a result, many people interpret this provision to refer
to a series of incidents, although the statutory language does not explicitly define the
crime as such. One judge explained that ‗A single act cannot constitute abuse‘‖ (2002:
In addition, if significant physical injury does not occur, psychological abuse is very difficult to
prosecute, even though the law formally defines psychological violence as a crime. Based on
these statutes, the decisions of many judges have placed responsibility for violence prevention on
the victim. Commentary on one domestic violence statute ―indicates that it seeks to protect the
family above all else; individual rights to life, health, freedom and bodily integrity are of only
secondary concern.‖ This wording has led to the result that ―courts have interpreted Article 207
to permit a man to abuse his wife to preserve a marriage or the woman‘s own ‗well-being‘‖
(Minnesota Advocates 2002: 30).
The Minnesota report also includes ways that women who report domestic abuse, marital
rape or date rape are often re-victimized by the callous and suspicious attitudes of law
enforcement and doctors who are collecting evidence. The report includes several accounts of
women who underwent humiliating physical exams to find proof they were assaulted, only to
have their credibility undermined in court by doctors and other ―expert witnesses‖ who reported
the injuries a woman received were different in cause or severity than she claimed (Minnesota
Advocates 2002: 36).
Even if a woman is successful in prosecuting such a case, obtaining a divorce and
securing protection from an abusive ex-husband or partner, her situation is still not rosy. A
woman who has difficulty finding a well-paying job may not be able to support herself and may
thereby lose housing and/or child custody, in addition bearing the stigma of victimhood. Even if
the law formally supports a woman who is abused and gives her some degree of compensation,
state social support networks are not guaranteed for a woman in this situation. In addition, a
divorce and a separate living situation (a luxury not always obtainable in the current economic
climate) are often not enough to stop violence from an angry and abusive ex-husband (Minnesota
Advocates 2002: 14).
Feminist Interventions Against Domestic Violence
Fortunately, women‘s and feminist groups in Poland have made some efforts to help
women who face the difficulties of domestic violence. However, these interventions are not
without problems. Some of the resources available for women who experience domestic violence
in Poland include the ―Blue Line,‖ which can refer either to a group of organizations that have
joined the campaign against domestic violence, or a crisis hotline that women can call to get help
in the case of domestic violence. This phone line can give women information about shelters,
crisis centers and legal assistance, but the caller must still take the initiative to take legal action
against a perpetrator. Currently the Blue Line also has developed a website that provides much of
the same information, but that can be accessed without the embarrassment of calling and
explaining one‘s problem. However, in order to take advantage of either of these resources a
woman must have access either to a (physically) secure internet location or a phone line that is
not monitored by an abusive partner. In urban areas contacting the Blue Line or other resources
without fear of reprisal is fairly easy due to pay phones and internet cafes. In rural areas, such
access is still very limited.
The Blue Line phone operators and website can refer women to various domestic
violence shelters (which can be few and far between in some, especially rural, areas) and give
them contact information of women‘s groups that provide assistance to battered women like legal
advice, counseling, and some economic support if they have the funds. However, these women‘s
shelters are notoriously underfunded and overcrowded, and are not intended to be a long-term
solution for women in abusive situations. In addition, the writers of the Minnesota Advocates
report found some disturbing practices occurring at several women‘s shelters they investigated in
Of the government-supported shelters in existence, activists charge that many revictimize the women who they purport to help. At some, staff members reportedly
teach women how to please their husbands to lessen the risk of violence. At other
shelters, staff members negotiate with the abusers to force victims to return home.
Shelters impose rules on the women who stay there, with varying degrees of severity.
Some control the women‘s mail, prohibit them from taking jobs outside the shelter,
require them to deposit money with the shelter manager, prohibit them from leaving
the shelter without permission, and force them to be ready to work at the shelter at
all times, day and night (2002: 4).
The writers of this report did not state whether the ―government supported‖ shelters are
the only shelters in which these issues exist, but they imply that shelters run solely through NGOs
or women‘s organizations are less problematic in their treatment of clients. The Minnesota
Advocates report describes the difficulties women can face when they decide to report an incident
of domestic abuse to the police or to leave an abusive living situation. These difficulties are
based in cultural attitudes about gender roles, relationships, and violence. Polish police often
have a deep distrust of women who report domestic violence incidents. ―…police officers often
blame the women involved for provoking their drunken husbands to become violent. In one
study… 33 percent of male police officers and prosecutors responded that victims, through their
behavior, contribute to the violence they suffer at the hands of perpetrators…. Police officers
responding to the scene often blame women for perpetuating the abuse through their decision to
stay with a batterer‖ (Minnesota Advocates 2002: 28).
The frustration of even well-intentioned police officers who witness this cycle of violence
occurs mostly because they do not understand the complex factors that contribute to women
staying in an abusive relationship. First, police and policy makers often confound these factors in
constructing domestic violence as a problem solely associated with alcoholism. For this reason,
more funding has been pushed toward alcoholism prevention and treatment programs because
they see alcoholism as the root cause of most or all domestic abuse. However, despite the
stereotypes, not all men who commit domestic violence abuse alcohol, and not all men who are
alcoholics commit domestic violence.
In addition, to say that a woman can prevent further abuse by simply leaving an abusive
situation ignores the various inequalities that make such an action untenable. First, according to
the Minnesota Advocates report, even as late as 2002, a majority of Polish women, especially in
rural areas, held very conservative views about gender roles and the rights of women to leave
what was perceived as duty to the family. Secondly, the economic situation for women in Poland
makes it very difficult for a woman with little education or experience to make a living in the
current job market. In addition, a shortage of apartments in urban areas might make it impossible
for a battered woman to find an adequate and secure place to live if she leaves an abusive partner.
For all of these reasons, it may not simply be weakness or passivity that prevents women from
leaving abusive relationships.
Feminist Interventions in the Broader Post-Socialist Context
Recently the gender-empowerment initiatives of the European Union have also shown
interest in reducing the cases of domestic violence in Poland, and in providing support for women
who have experienced violence. According to Women Against Violence in Europe (WAVE), the
Council of Europe and the European Parliament have implemented a number of resolutions and
sponsored grants to women‘s shelters and other interventions in order to lessen violence against
women. In addition, the European Policy Action Center on Violence Against Women
(EPACVAW) estimates that 81,000 cases of domestic violence were reported in Poland in 2008.
However, their web site states that this is almost certainly a very small percentage of the total
incidents of domestic violence that took place during the given year, because of the hidden and
―shameful‖ nature of domestic violence. This European Union task force has found that Polish
authorities still do not consider domestic violence between intimate partners to be a serious
problem for law enforcement. According to this task force, the Polish state does not publish
statistics on violence against women (aside from stranger rape) and does not consider violence
against women to be a separate category for analysis. There are very few resources for the study
of gendered violence in the country, a situation that makes the real extent of the problem difficult
to determine (Open Society Institute 2007:38).
In other post-socialist contexts, authors like Zorica Mrsević, Julie Hemment, and Janet
Elise Johnson have all studied the interventions to alleviate gendered violence, especially
domestic violence, in Serbia and in Russia, respectively. Although the cultural contexts in these
countries are quite different from that in Poland, the interventions these authors describe have had
some degree of success, and they have achieved this by adapting international models of domestic
violence hotlines, women‘s shelters and ―crisis centers‖ to local cultural contexts. The successes,
failures and insights gained by these interventions can be applicable to the context of Polish
domestic violence interventions including WenDo and WSDP. By investigating these three
cases, we might learn how self-defense courses might more effectively address domestic violence
in Poland.
For example, Mrsević‘s study of the SOS Hotline for Women and Children Victims of
Violence shifts the focus of ethnography in Serbia away from the gruesome wartime violence that
received the majority of media attention, to the ―process by which women organized themselves
against… the micropractices of violence in everyday life‖ (Mrsević 2000:371). The SOS Hotline
was specifically constructed to be a resource not only for women who experienced domestic
violence, but rather violence of any kind. Although the hotline did not receive a high volume of
calls at the time of research (between 5 and 10 per day, according to Mrsević), the hotline has
since gained acceptance as a successful intervention for domestic violence, and it had been
receiving an increased volume of calls around the time Mrsević wrote her article.
The cultural context in which this SOS Hotline operates is patriarchal and in many ways
seems similar to the context that the Minnesota Advocates researchers encountered in Poland.
One difference between these two cultures is that in Serbia as described by Mrsević, domestic
violence, instead of being denied or ignored, is constructed as a ―custom‖ even by law
enforcement officials and judges. In her study, the victims of domestic violence themselves
sometimes believed that the abuse was their fault, although more often, the victims connected it
to alcoholism or even described it as completely irrational. Because of the irrational nature of the
violence and the lack of support available in Serbia, Mrsević states that the relatively abstract
emotional support provided to callers by the SOS Hotline can have a significant impact. The
hotline operators simply assure callers that they are believed, that they are not responsible or at
fault for the violence they suffer, and that they are not alone. Operators do not push callers
toward any decision, but they encourage and respect a woman‘s autonomy and remind her that
she has a right to live free of violence. They do not offer ―instant solutions‖ but rather
―constructive support‖ (Mrsević 2000: 375).
Finally, Mrsević discusses the politics surrounding the feminist label attached to the SOS
hotline and the possible counterproductive results this label has had for the hotline‘s success. In
dealings with clients, hotline operators do not explicitly discuss feminism, but within the group of
operators and organizers, some members are suspicious of the ―party-line‖ thinking that they
perceived as dominating the group‘s decision-making. Mrsević states that feminist groups in
post-socialist Eastern Europe should ―learn to address differences in more democratic ways‖
(2000: 390). By putting aside political differences surrounding feminist terminology and
focusing on the specific culturally-defined needs of clients, the SOS Hotline has achieved some
degree of success in gradually changing public opinion in Belgrade about violence against
Janet Elise Johnson, in a series of publications, has tracked the development of domestic
violence law and social interventions, especially concerning ―crisis centers‖ in Russia. In a 2005
article, Johnson discussed the history of one women‘s and one men‘s crisis center in Barnaul,
Siberia, both far from the urban centers of women‘s rights and feminist groups in Russia.
In Johnson‘s study, the women‘s center was successful because it constructed a frame of
gender violence that did not fit with a ―radical feminist‖ way of thinking about the issue. This
approach employed classic consciousness-raising techniques and ultimately advocated a
dismantling of heteronormative family structures, while placing the responsibility for change on
women. Instead, this crisis center preferred a gender-neutral sociological frame. This ―domestic
violence frame calls for increased responsibilities for men—albeit within the context of all
individuals raking responsibility for inflicting violence…‖ it also evokes ―an ideal of men and
women working together to understand and address a problem facing them‖ (Johnson 2005: 4849).
The men‘s center Johnson studied is described as the ―most robust men‘s crisis center in
Russia.‖ At the start, the group that started the men‘s crisis center faced confusion among the
community, because the crisis center was such a foreign concept. ―Originally, most of the calls
came from men concerned about their physical health…‖ (Johnson 2005:49). Although such
concerns were not the intended purpose of the hotline, they technically fit the group‘s mission of
―rehabilitating the physical, psychological, and social health of working-age men in the region.‖
However, the center presents a divergence from most other interventions into gendered violence,
which have tended to focus primarily on the responsibility of women.32 The men‘s crisis center
was unique because it could ―hold men-batters directly accountable for their actions through their
hotline and their group and individual counseling… [the center‘s] work has potential for
challenging a masculinity that does not hold men accountable for their violence (Johnson 2005:
50). However, in some ways, the men‘s crisis center falls short of its goals because of a
―tendency to excuse, or at least diminish, violence‖ with the goal of reconciling married couples
and ―the psychological frame reinforces the gender ideology in which women are held much
more accountable for their behavior than are men‖ (51).
Julie Hemment, in Empowering Women in Russia (2007), shows how the preferred
strategies for women‘s empowerment in Russia are very similar to those I discovered in Poland.
According to Hemment, the most common women‘s empowerment projects ―embrace
individualized solutions such as self-help and voluntarism… There has been ample funding for
projects that focus on computer networking, information technology and self-help oriented
support groups, few grants support activists to combat the structural forms of dislocation women
may be experiencing‖ (Hemment 2007: 3). In addition to these similarities, Hemment draws
attention to the ways that domestic violence is constructed as relatively unimportant issue for
Russian women, even by the feminist activists she interviewed. ―…Irina, who worked for an
organization that supported antiviolence campaigns, rolled her eyes upon learning that I was
working with a group to set up a crisis center. ‗Crisis centers, crisis centers! That‘s all you can
think about. But let me tell you, there are good Russian families, you know, I know that there is
a really serious problem in America, but in Russia it is different‖ (Hemment 2007:99).
Although Hemment acknowledges the specific cultural factors that lead to attitudes like
Irina‘s, she warns anthropologists and feminist activists alike against forcing a Western feminist
framework onto local constructions of violence and empowerment. ―Making gender and violence
a marker of progress obscures a fact that both crisis counselors and their clients know very well—
that all forms of violence, including gendered violence, have been exacerbated by structural
adjustment, the very liberalizing project that was supposed to bring civility to Russia‖ (Hemment
2007:100). This suggests that focusing on violence against women, even domestic violence, is
perhaps not the best strategy for improving gender equity in post-socialist contexts.
In the specific Polish context, the EPACVAW publication ―Does the Government Care
about Domestic Violence in Poland?‖(2007) shows the attempts to reform the way Polish
authorities and feminist organizations approach domestic violence since the Minnesota Advocates
report of 2002, although progress in this regard has been limited. The changes include, in
addition to the increase of EU gender mainstreaming projects, a requirement that police undergo
training specifically related to domestic violence procedure and a new law that allows police to
remove an abuser from the home if necessary. However, interventions specifically focused on
domestic violence receive less government and international aid funding than those related to
other crimes that can be more successfully and broadly prosecuted, especially stranger rape and
human trafficking (right now trafficking is probably the ―hottest‖ topic right now in international
human rights and development funding).
Johnson and Hemment also show how many of the crisis centers and women‘s shelters
they study have lost funding in favor of these other issues, especially trafficking, that are more
attractive to international aid agencies. Hemment describes the decline and closing of the crisis
center that was one of her primary field sites in 2003: ―…the ‗shield‘ of international support
proved to be inadequate…. And starting in 2001, these agencies began to redirect their resources
to the new hot topic of sex trafficking‖ (2007: 138) while those activists who are invested in
stopping domestic violence against women experience burnout in the face of the apparent futility
of their work. They realize that if they can have no effect on material conditions they have little
hope of ending domestic violence.
Johnson points out similar trends, and ends her 2009 study of Gender Violence in Russia
with a series of recommendations for improving the functioning of NGOs in relation to the
government and international funders, providing a more optimistic conclusion than Hemment.
She believes that, despite the problematic aspects of exporting global feminism to such a context,
international feminists‘ involvement is crucial to progress in reducing violence against women.
She also highlights the importance of flexibility in funding these interventions, allowing local
groups to shape programs to the needs of their clients, rather than adhering strictly to the
international community‘s definition of what they ―should‖ be doing (Johnson 2009: 156). In
addition, simply making laws prohibiting violence against women is not enough; this can be seen
in the Polish context in the largely symbolic laws against domestic psychological abuse and
marital rape, which are on the books but nearly impossible to successfully prosecute. Johnson
maintains that ―[n]ew laws are only a small part of a larger process of reform that activists hope
will lead to improved lives for women…. global feminist resources may be more effective when
focused on increasing local mobilization and shifting the public awareness [than when solely
focused on formal legal systems]‖ (157).
Cultural Factors in the Silencing of Domestic Violence
The Polish context of violence against women and domestic violence specifically is not
dissimilar from that of Russia and Serbia, where these authors conducted research, so some
concern about the wholesale application of feminist interventions is warranted. However, despite
warnings about ―screening out local meanings‖ presented by some Western anthropologists, there
are more factors at play in the Polish context than simply the local culture and feminism. There
are also issues at play of class and race that, while not ignored by these authors, deserve special
attention here because of their connection to women‘s self-defense discourses.
According to CBOS statistics from Poland, as well as the perceptions of research
participants collected from interviews, the rate of random violent crime in Poland has gone up
significantly since the end of the communist period. A study from CBOS in 1997 showed that a
large majority of Poles surveyed (75%) had the opinion that ―Poland is not a safe place to live.‖
This study also shows that almost two-thirds of respondents were afraid of becoming victims of
violent crime, and attributes this fear to recent media attention at the time given to a rash of
murders carried out by teenage thugs. At the same time many of the survey respondents saw
increasing violence and crime as a part of a growing trend that showed no signs of abating
(CBOS 1997: 3). However a more recent study published by CBOS in 2005 shows that the
perception of safety among the Polish populace is gradually improving. In this study, only 49%
of respondents said that they perceived Poland to be unsafe.33
Statistics that prove the reality of an increase in violent crime are not available because of
a lack of figures from the communist era. However, the perception of lessened safety rather than
the reality is more important for studying women‘s participation in self-defense in Poland. When
the interviewees in my study expressed their concerns about the rise in crime, it was almost
always phrased in terms of violence by strangers. Women‘s self-defense courses like WenDo and
WSDP reflect these concerns in their pedagogy, by devoting most of their time to teaching
techniques that are most effective when they are used against a random, unknown attacker.
However, as I have shown, reports from Minnesota Advocates, Stop VAW, CBOS and the
Warsaw Center for Women‘s Rights unequivocally state that the majority of violence against
women in Poland occurs in the home, or by individuals who are known to the woman.
Although the Polish state, in conjunction with activist groups, has sponsored at least one
advertising campaign to help bring awareness to the problem of domestic violence, such as the
billboard mentioned in the introduction to this chapter, the campaign has been discontinued,
although the reasons for this his unclear (EPACVAW 2010). At least one American researcher
who has studied this campaign states that the confrontational imagery found in the billboards and
other elements of the campaign made it unpopular. Some claimed that ―it made Polish men look
like monsters,‖ implying that outsiders, (i.e. Westerners or feminists) were the source of such
domestic violence rhetoric, denigrating the Polish man and Polish culture (Chivens 2005). In
addition, the public awareness campaign was criticized by some feminists who stated it made
domestic violence seem like a one-dimensional phenomenon, consisting only of arbitrary physical
brutality. According to the Women‘s Rights Center in Warsaw, domestic violence is defined not
just as physical violence, but also verbal abuse, emotional or sexual manipulation, and economic
control, aspects that are silenced in most awareness campaigns for domestic abuse. The
confrontational, frightening scenarios depicted on the ―Because the soup was too salty‖ billboards
fails to interpellate Polish women who have experienced more subtle forms of violence.
As I mention in Chapter 6, WenDo‘s strategy of teaching self-defense and assertiveness
to women who are currently in abusive relationships does not include an insistence that all
women immediately leave their home situations. They often give these women information about
women‘s shelters and other support on an individual basis, and like Mrsević‘s hotline operators,
they usually frame their strategy as ―respecting women‘s choices‖ while giving them the tools to
negotiate and de-escalate potentially violent situations in the home.
In cases involving domestic violence, WenDo trainers did not take a hard-line position,
insisting that a woman immediately leave an abusive marriage or family situation. Instead, they
acknowledged the primacy of domestic and family roles in the lives of their students, and stressed
negotiation and assertiveness within these contexts. Instructors did provide advice for getting out
of an abusive household situation but maintained that such a decision was the woman‘s alone and
best handled on a case to case basis. Ela, the WenDo trainer I interviewed who specialized in
seminars for victims of domestic violence, stated ―I don‘t want to tell them everything, that all
their problems are because of the patriarchy or whatever. I want them to figure it out for
themselves. If we say it outright, they won‘t buy it, because they don‘t consider themselves
feminists.‖ In this way, WenDo trainers like Ela, who self-identify as feminists and who are
active in the Polish feminist community, adapt their feminist consciousness-raising tactics to the
needs of WenDo participants who might be resistant to the idea of feminism.
The Violent Other
As I mention above, the most recent European Union report on violence against women
states that the most successfully prosecuted forms of violence against women in Poland are
stranger rape and human trafficking (2007). The difference between the successfully-prosecuted
forms of gendered violence such as stranger rape and trafficking lies in the latter category‘s
construction of an Other as the perpetrator of assault.34 Such a displacement of violence onto an
Other leads to a discursive focus, both in self-defense course pedagogy and in casual
conversations, on random acts of violence perpetrated by strangers rather than systematic
violence carried out by family members or close acquaintances. This focus is consistent
throughout the ethnographic evidence I collected. In interviews, several research subjects shared
stories about times in which they had personally experienced violence. These stories ranged from
accounts of school bullying that never resulted in physical confrontation, to rather serious
physical assaults at the hands of strangers. Not one of the interview respondents shared with the
author a story about domestic violence, date rape, or acquaintance rape.
The refocusing of the location of violence onto an Other is not unique to Polish or to
Eastern European culture. Feminist scholars of violence against women have documented the
reluctance to acknowledge domestic violence in the United States and elsewhere (Buchwald
1992; Brecklin 2004; Hollander 2002, 2004). Girls and women are taught that their parents,
significant others and men of their own in-group are protectors and are inherently good. If they
are hurt by one of these men, the incident causes distress and ―cognitive dissonance.‖
Shannon Woodcock wrote a very insightful article about the social construction of sexual
assault in Romania, entitled ―Romanian Women‘s Narratives of Sexual Violence: Ethnicized
Identities, Othering Spaces‖ (2005). In this article, Woodcock describes the ways that Romanian
women often express fear of violence for ―Ŝigani,‖ a derogatory term for Roma men. These
ethnic Others are constructed and framed as ―uncivilized, violent and vengeful… and thereby
[Romanian women] render themselves powerless in the face of supposedly Ŝigan criminals‖ in
public spaces (159).
However, this construction of the violent Other is an elision of a much more insidious
and prevalent form of violence. In Romania, as in Poland, the vast majority of assaults against
Romanian women are perpetrated by Romanian men, usually spouses or family members. The
tendency toward violence, in Romanian discourse, is placed in the realm of the ethnic Other, to
avoid connecting Romanian men with these violent tendencies. This discourse, which places
violence against women in the public rather than the private sphere reinforces the idea that the
home and family is the ―proper‖ sphere for women. ―The familiar theme is, of course, that
women who are outside their ‗natural‘ boundaries invite sexual violence from men. In theory, the
private sphere offers sisters, wives, and mothers of men protection from rape…. The terror of
sexual violence in public space compounds the need for a safe private sphere‖ (Woodcock
2005:155). In this way, the sexual violence discourse constructs both the normal (Romanian)
versus the abnormal (Roma) man; and the normal (private) versus the abnormal (public) woman.
A similar process occurs in Polish discourse, although violence is displaced onto an
economic rather than an ethnic Other. Most self-defense courses including those that specifically
address domestic violence (WSDP and WenDo) tend to generally construct the figure of the rapist
as a street person, an alcoholic or a ―hooligan‖ who resides on the streets of Praga, a
neighborhood on Warsaw‘s east side. For this reason, discussion of the potential danger in
women‘s own homes is largely avoided.
The district of Praga has something of a reputation as being the ―rough side of town‖
among Warsaw residents. Praga is one of the few parts of the city that was not devastated by
bombing during World War II, but I have heard Varsovians state that ―there was nothing good
there to begin with.‖ The area is largely industrial, although recently some gentrification has
taken place, and was the location of several art shows and cultural events during my time in
Warsaw. Although some evidence shows that Praga has had a reputation as ―dangerous‖ since
before the transition to capitalism, it seems that this reputation has been more prevalent among
Poles than among foreigners. In travel guides geared toward foreign visitors to Poland, Praga is
often given only minimum attention. Although there are a few tourist attractions in Praga such as
the city‘s only Orthodox Church and the city‘s Zoo, located very much on the near side of the
area, the district only takes up about 2 pages, even in a travel guide mostly focused on Warsaw.
Many of the older travel guides do not reference the east side of the Wisła at all; and those that do
rarely speak to any particular ―dangers‖ presented by this area.
The travel guides that tend to especially draw attention to the dangers of Praga are those
published around the time of the transition (in fact, one of Poland‘s main attractions according to
these guides are the extreme fluctuation in currency, making travel there very cheap!). Two
guides I encountered from around this time period address the idea that Praga is dangerous,
before going on to downplay these dangers while giving a few ―common-sense‖ safety tips. A
guide to ―Polish cities‖ (Ward 1989) states that ―locals‖ tend to warn tourists about the dangers of
visiting Praga, but goes on to state that as long as tourists stay out of the industrial wastelands late
at night and stick to the main thoroughfares danger is minimal. Another guide, the ―real guide‖ to
Poland (Dunford and Salter 1991) states that ideas about Praga‘s dangerous status are ―mostly
This concern about the dangers of economically disadvantaged urban spaces in Poland
seems especially acute among native Poles as opposed to (specifically US-based) foreigners,
perhaps because of the relatively low crime rate compared to large cities in the US. Despite this
disconnect, I hypothesize that considerations reflect cultural anxieties surrounding Poland‘s
changing economic status and its increasing cultural diversity in the face of European integration
and globalization. In the Polish case, the Other seems to be framed in terms of economic status
rather than ethnic identity. In many of my interviews with self-defense participants as well as in
casual conversations with women living in Warsaw, fear was expressed about Praga, the district
of Poland on the east side of the River Wisła. The first time I went to Praga (about 1 week after
arriving in Warsaw), I was cautioned by my Polish flatmate that I should be very careful to hold
on to my wallet. ―When you go to Praga [to the supermarket], make sure you keep an eye on your
wallet, and all your things. It is not very safe, people around there are just… kind of… different,‖
she said. At the time, I was living in Warsaw‘s Old Town, a posh and tourist-friendly area, but
this neighborhood was just across the river, a short tram or bus ride, from Praga. Although from
my subjective point of view Praga did not seem particularly dangerous, I was surprised that the
same trope of Praga as a frightening crime-ridden area came up again and again in interviews and
casual conversations.
―Maybe it is safe enough in the main station like Centrum or Mokotowskie (two large
subway stations) but now in Praga at night… I normally feel pretty good, but one time I had to
walk through Praga about two in the morning, and that was most definitely unsafe, although I
didn‘t really meet anybody, I felt unsafe. (Iwona, Karate Participant).
―I live in Praga, and I like Praga, but there are all these guys walking around in track suits
who bother you sometimes, there are some skinheads, and other such lovely characters.‖ (Marta,
Krav Maga participant).
Interviewees also expressed fear of the economic Other in their discourses of violence on
the part of ―drunks‖ who populate bus stations and train depots, who, although they might be
more likely to commit property crimes than violent ones, they are perceived by many Polish
women as a real threat to life and bodily integrity. In this way, middle-class Polish women who
might have a very real fear of both domestic violence and violence on the part of strangers
discursively displace the violence of middle-class Polish men onto a convenient Other, the
economically disadvantaged who are seen as more capable of violence because of their poverty or
perceived vices.
In addition to, and in some ways corollary to, the economic Othering of ―street people‖ or
―hooligans,‖ discourse surrounding violence against women often constructs an Other around the
concept of drug or alcohol use and abuse. By constructing men who assault women as most often
drunk or on drugs, this discourse implies that a ―normal‖ Polish man would never think of
committing violence against a woman, mostly because of Polish culture‘s high value placed on
chivalry in which women are often ―placed on pedestals.‖ As I showed earlier in this chapter, in
this way domestic violence is turned into an alcohol or drug problem, rather than a sexism
Marya, a Combat participant, Aleksandra from WenDo, Ala from Krav Maga, and
Magdalena from UnSafe Woman, as well as other self-defense participants, shared stories about
being accosted by unknown men. Marya told two stories about situations in which she
experienced assaults or near-assaults by strangers; both times she stated that they were men who
were ―under the influence of alcohol.‖ The first story she told was from the past, before she took
a self-defense course:
―I can say that a while ago, when I was walking to middle school, I was the victim
of violence of a person who was under the influence of alcohol. And this happened
often, and sometimes I managed avoid him… and well, sometimes it came to a
confrontation, to a fight once in a while, and well, that is all I can say.‖
The second incident, which occurred only a week before the interview, was a success story,
showing how she used her self-defense skills to repel an aggressive teenager who accosted her
while walking home.
I can say that I had such a situation a week ago. I was coming home from dance
class, and this boy was talking toward me…. And at first I was not paying attention
to him, but later when he got closer… when I sped up my steps he sped up after me,
so I was already very cautious, first of all. Second of all I had costly things with me,
I can‘t say what. Next he accosted me, I told him to calm down, and I don‘t know
why but my subconscious worked so that the second time he accosted me, I punched
him in the crotch and ran away…. He yelled out in pain, it really hurt him and I just…
this situation scared me because I became brave enough, but I don‘t know [what would
have happened] if I hadn‘t been. I became convinced of my own rights, and even
though it took a lot to gain control over this, I managed to take control over it, I was
Aleksandra, a participant in WenDo, told a similar narrative to Marya, although her story
took place in Berlin rather than Poland:
―Once [when I was living in Berlin,] some kind of drug addict started to attack me in
the metro station and nobody wanted to help me. I mean, he was shoving me the
whole time, and I was afraid that he was going to throw me down on… the train
platform, but nobody even helped me. Then he finally calmed down….‖
Ala, a Krav Maga participant, tells another story with ―going home from school‖ as the
setting for a nighttime assault by a stranger:
Since I was going to music school, I finished my classes very late, and I lived in this
pretty small village, so I took a bus home from the city, and it ran very rarely, and I
always had to wait for the bus for a pretty long time. So I walked to the station
expecting the bus at 8:48. So it is already dark, and it‘s cold. And so I walked a
long way with my saxophone… and there is something very tempting to many people
about me walking late at night with a saxophone, by myself…. And so I was sitting at
the bus stop, and there was this one many, not very sober, and he started hitting the
bus stop from the back, and I thought the whole thing was going to fall apart, and he
was just crazy. I ran away, and it was just survival for me, because if he had been
sober, and he just, I don‘t know, I guess I would have acted the same at that moment.
All of these narratives, repeated in a variety of forms by other participants in self-defense,
share a few common elements. In all of these incidents the interviewee was engaged in a socially
acceptable feminine activity, constructed as something rather virtuous like coming home from
school, work, or dance class late at night. A second shared element is that the attacker, always a
stranger, was intoxicated in some way, which is consonant with the association I mentioned
above linking violence against women to alcoholism. Thirdly, in two out of these four stories, the
woman telling the story emphasized that she was carrying something of value, which made the
most likely motive for attack robbery, not physical or sexual assault. In these ways the tellers of
the stories, whether they perceived themselves as being victimized or just experiencing a close
call, construct themselves as good victims who did nothing to ―deserve‖ an assault. I in no way
wish to imply that these interviewees were being dishonest or distorting their stories, but due to
the cultural ideas surrounding violence against women these individuals would be less likely to
share a story of violence that involved coming home from a bar late at night or going out drinking
with friends, lest she be accused of somehow ―provoking‖ an assault.
This analysis is not intended to say that assaults by strangers or ―street‖ assaults against
women in Poland are unimportant or unworthy of intervention. However, the framing of
―violence against women‖ by self-defense participants almost always involves a situation such as
those described by most self-defense participants, rather than the domestic violence described by
individuals like Katya, whose story was shared in the introduction to Chapter 6.
The fact that interviewees did not share stories of domestic abuse does not, in itself,
provide evidence against the argument that domestic violence is the most common form of
violence against women. Because of the cultural taboos surrounding violence within the home,
even if several of my research participants had experienced such violence they would be unlikely
to want to talk about it, especially with a foreign researcher. When I asked interviewees about the
problem of domestic violence in general, they often responded, ―It is a problem, but it is mostly a
hidden problem.‖ Some stated that ―it has gotten better, but women are still ashamed to talk
about it.‖
Part of the reason for such cultural discomfort with addressing domestic head-on is
related to Polish national mythologies. The Polish national narrative sets up Polish men as
metonymic universal citizens who have fought for Polish independence during the years of
partition and during the two World Wars, and suffered oppression from various foreign invaders.
During the years of state socialism, the national myth constructed men as resistors of state
repression and the creators of underground resistance movements, especially the Solidarity
movement. In all of these cases, the private sphere, (including the domestic sphere and the
Catholic Church) are set up in opposition to the oppressive state or the threatening invader. For
this reason, in such nationalist myths, the traditional domestic gender roles and moralities
espoused by the church are highly valued.
Although my ethnographic findings show that self-defense participation provides
concrete benefits for Polish women, the representation of violence against women in these
courses, especially those that occur in commercial contexts, is somewhat limited. Because of a
construction of gendered violence that privileges violence by strangers and Others, the reality of
domestic violence in Poland is silenced. Women who believe that they are only vulnerable to
attacks from ―street people,‖ ―hooligans‖ or ―drug addicts‖ learn self-defense by learning punches
and kicks, as well as strategies of confidence to show that they are not ―easy victims.‖ However,
these techniques are less useful for a situation in which the perpetrator of violence is a spouse or
an intimate partner. By maintaining the fiction that women can protect themselves against all
violence by learning assertiveness and physical self-defense techniques, self-defense courses,
despite their best intentions, are complicit in the construction of a violent Other and the elision of
domestic violence. The effacement of domestic violence stems from a reluctance to construct
Polish men as the perpetrators of violence, in light of their historical oppression and perceived
Because of the construction of Polish men as heroic and the perception of
complementarity between men and women, Polish women are reluctant to report incidents of
domestic violence. When such incidents are reported, they are most often associated by the
victims and law-enforcement authorities with addiction, especially alcoholism. The nearly
exclusive association of alcoholism or other addictions with domestic violence is an Othering
strategy that allows those associated with the case (perpetrators, victims, police, and judges alike)
to claim that the perpetrator was ―not himself.‖ At the same time, through, it elides the sexism
and misogyny of domestic violence and constructs addiction almost as an excuse for acts of
The cultural background related to the effacement of domestic violence in many Polish
women‘s self-defense classes, as well as in general cultural discourse, also underlies the current
tensions in Polish culture surrounding globalization and European integration. Because of
Poland‘s history of occupation these recent developments have led to anxieties about loss of
sovereignty, and these anxieties have been accompanied and to some extent symbolized by a
surfeit of ―gender talk.‖ In the next chapter I will begin to analyze the meaning of this gender
talk as it relates to women‘s self-defense, and show how women learning to defend themselves
can be seen as a symbol of the current state of the Polish nation.
Chapter 8
Individualism, Citizenship, and the Self-Defense of the Polish Nation
During my one-week orientation to Poland as a part of my Fulbright fellowship, I
attended a ―refresher‖ Polish language class a few hours each morning. This class was taught
by Anna, a young philology student who informed us that in a few weeks, she would be leaving
for England to become a Polish teacher. She explained to us that there was no way she could
make enough money to support herself in Poland with her philology degree. She planned to
accumulate savings and experience in the United Kingdom by helping managers in that country
learn Polish in order to deal with the recent influx of Polish immigrants in the labor market
there. After a few years in England she planned to return to Poland to buy a ―nice apartment.‖
When it came time for our ―graduation‖ from orientation, the director of the Fulbright
orientation program, an older, professional-looking woman associated with the University of
Wrocław stood up in front of the class to congratulate Anna and say bon voyage. However, while
she gave this short speech, she gave several opinions about the current emigration situation in
Poland. ―It is a shame that so many of our intelligent, ambitious young people, especially our
young women, are going abroad. Poland needs good teachers like Anna too, so I really hope that
more of the college graduates will choose to stay in Poland.‖ Anna seemed uncomfortable with
this statement, and later, in a private, casual conversation, admitted that hearing the director say
that made her feel guilty.
To make the long story short, nationalization is an ideology praising manhood;
manhood based on a certain vision of ―brotherhood,‖ a bond between men. But
at the same time the fatherland is really the motherland. This universal phenomenon,
that the personification, the symbol of the country the nationalist loves, the nation he
feels part of, is in fact idealized womanhood. In Poland it is the Holy Mother, together
with Polonia and the mythical ―Polish Mother.‖ We hear all the time the right wing
MPs idealizing that womanhood, that is supposed to make sacrifices for them. They
show their mentality very clearly. But the same can be said about nationalists in Ireland,
Singapore or Sri Lanka. From research and observation we know now, that the more
idealized is the symbolic womanhood, the more humiliated, and the more powerless real
women are‖ –Agnieszka Graff, Interview with Przekrój Polish weekly magazine, March
8, 2007.
In the face of increasing European integration, the local meanings of national European
citizenship and identity are constantly changing. When Poland acceded to the European Union in
2004, the landscape of citizenship, migration and opportunity changed for Poles. The opening up
of European borders and the European labor market allowed Polish citizens to work in Western
European countries for greater pay, and to travel without a passport to most other European
Union countries.35
As a result of continuing integration, conservatives in many European countries have
expressed fears that the European economic community, which has developed into a political
entity, will result in a loss of the distinct languages and cultures of individual countries (see Shore
2002). For example, according to Szczerbiak and Taggart (2008) the Euroskepticism that has
existed since the founding of the European Community in Western Europe has historically been
concerned with its economic aspects, with more prosperous states concerned about the less
economically stable countries being ―takers‖ in the international relationship and providing little
benefit. However, with more and more expansion of the European Union, as well as attempts at
culture and identity building, there has been increasing concern about the cultural hegemony of
European identity. This concern about the loss of cultural sovereignty has been present in the
original members of the EU (especially the United Kingdom), but has become especially notable
in many of the newly acceded states. This is because of the perceived dominance of countries
like France and Germany, and the fear that cultural assumptions in these countries will dictate
policy applying to other countries that are very culturally different.
These Euroskeptics also express concern about economic imbalances within the EU,
arguments that have become more heated with the accession of several formerly communist
Eastern European countries. Specifically in the instance of Poland‘s EU accession, conservatives
in several Western European countries expressed concern or contempt for the number of Polish
laborers who were seeking jobs in Western Europe. For example, when French conservatives
raised the archetype of the ―Polish plumber‖ as a specter of economic integration that would
―invade‖ France and take away jobs because they would work for less pay, the Polish response
was humorous: A billboard showing a very handsome plumber against a background of Polish
architecture, reading, ―I‘m staying in this country. I hope lots of you come here!‖
On the other hand, Polish conservatives express anxieties about the loss of sovereignty,
and the imposition of foreign standards of morality. According to Aleks Szczerbiak, the most
radically Euroskeptic parties in Poland (especially the League of Polish Families) joined forces
with the religious nationalist media outlet Radio Maryja to oppose EU integration on principle.
The League‘s leader, Roman Giertych, stated that their ―disagreement with the European Union
does not emerge from ideological premises…but from a pure economic calculation‖ (Szczerbiak
2008: 227). However, not all the ideologues associated with the League of Polish Families
agreed with this position. Amid the party‘s official talk of being ―taken over‖ economically,
Giertych‘s father Maciej was known to have characterized the EU as a ―Masonic, Godless idea
for destroying religion, national identity… in the interests of Germans, who hate Poles and there
is no secret about this‖ (Szczerbiak 2008: 228). In addition the Law and Justice Party (which
until recently held the Polish presidency) gained popularity by expressing its concern for Polish
sovereignty over European law, and preventing an economic and social takeover.
What Does All of This Have to do with Women‘s Self-Defense?
In classic Polish nationalist imagery, the nation is most often symbolized as a woman,
usually as a mother of sons at war, or as a self-sacrificing religious figure, especially the Virgin
Mary. These figures as stand-ins for the Nation have historically been passive and unable to fend
for themselves, relying on the metonymic male universal citizen for protection, defense and
sustenance. According to the work of Agnieszka Graff and Anna Niedźwiedź on Polish national
symbols, the female symbol of the nation in classic Polish art was often shown as sickly, dying or
under attack.36 Much of this kind of art was created and the religious symbols described by
Niedźwiedź were most heavily mobilized during times when Poland was under partition or at
war. When a female figure in such artwork is not directly symbolic of the Polish Nation, the
figure is often shown as a mother whose sons are away at war, who patiently keeps the home fires
burning and prays for their return. This mother-figure is inherently passive and relies on divine
power (also male) rather than her own to affect her environment or situation.
In addition, this archetype as such is inherently non-individualistic: it provides a template
for ideal heroic femininity instead of encouraging the active creative shaping of identity. In
contrast to such templates and archetypes, real-life Polish women are increasingly taking
advantage of opportunities afforded them by Poland‘s thriving capitalist economy as a means of
individualized self-empowerment. Self-defense courses constitute a way in which Polish women
seek increased personal safety and empowerment through acts of consumption and by
undertaking embodied disciplines.
The individualized responses of Polish women to their material and social circumstances
have some problematic consequences, as I have stated in earlier chapters. However, on a more
positive note, this response may signal an interesting shift in thinking among Polish women,
which may have even more far-reaching benefits for women‘s empowerment. Can women‘s
practice of self-defense be conceptualized as a symbol for the self-defense of the Polish nation?
The imagery conjured by the idea of self-defense is evocative: Poland as a self-confident,
empowered woman, rather than as a passive martyr figure, taking the initiative in her own
defense rather than relying on the protection of men.
One well-known conservative, Euroskeptic political party has adopted the nickname
―Self-Defense‖ or Samoobrona (short for Party for the Self-Defense of the Polish Republic).
This co-incidence in the names of two unrelated movements has led me to question the accepted
dichotomy of men‘s status as metonymic universal citizens and women‘s status as passive
symbols in Polish public discourse, and in this chapter I will explore the possibilities created
through deconstructing this dichotomy.
The Conservative Response to Women‘s ―Empowerment‖
Although Polish women‘s participation in self-defense might indicate that these women
are gaining characteristics of assertiveness, self-investment and ambition, Polish feminists
maintain that women in that country are far from empowered. Activists and scholars cite
continuing employment and pay gaps, continuing high rates of violence against women, and
discrimination as proof of this. Although Polish women have a high rate of participation in the
labor market, this means that large number of young women in Poland have migrated to Western
Europe for jobs. This trend has created anxieties about a ―brain drain‖ and decreasing birth rates
and marriage rates.37 This moral panic in turn has led to further promotion of women‘s domestic
roles and responsibilities to the nation in the form of reproductive labor.
According to conservative press and political opinions, women‘s increasing migration,
increasing labor participation and decreasing domestic roles have led to a surge in the ―power‖ of
women. Current media culture and political satire in Poland often portrays images of very
powerful, while often sexualized, women in conjunction with diminished, even emasculated or
childlike men.
At the same time, femininity in appearance and behavior is a highly valued attribute for
women; a fact that is borne out both in my interview data and in popular culture artifacts. The
perception that Polish women are naturally feminine is due both to the hyper-feminization and
sexualization of women in popular culture and in dress trends, and nationalist rhetoric about
returning to ―traditional roles‖ in view of declining birth rates and increasing EU integration and
Agnieszka Graff discusses the ways that Polish nationalists have constructed their
country as a bastion of gender stability in Europe, much of which (according to them) has become
immoral, overly permissive and too welcoming to ―sinful‖ lifestyles (Graff 2008). At risk of
oversimplification, this traditionalist nationalist view of ―proper‖ gender roles is based largely on
the doctrine of the Catholic Church. In other words, church doctrine is accepted as the standard
to which behavior should be held, and this standard should be enforced by the state.38 Radio
Maryja, one of the most popular religious conservative radio stations in Poland, promotes a hardline stance against homosexuality, abortion, and sexual promiscuity, all of which it constructs as
rampant in Western Europe. ―[These sources are concerned that] Masculinity is threatened,
women are not having babies, our sex lives are in shambles, women are dominating men…. There
is a tendency in European nationalism to disdain all that is unmanly, and to project sexual
perversity onto the Other‖ (Graff 2008). Later in her presentation, Graff describes how
conservative president Lech Kaczyński used an image of a gay wedding (in the United States) as
the epitome of all things ―un-Polish‖ and reassured his audience that he would prevent Poland
from going ―too far‖ in terms of EU integration. In similar terms women who do not fit the
dominant narrative of femininity are seen by Polish conservatives as part of the same complex of
gender instability and confusion.
Perhaps the quintessential ethnic ―Other‖ constructed in these nationalist gender
discourses is Germany, as evidenced above by the quote of Maciej Giertych. Germany is cast as
a place in which homosexuality, transsexuality and promiscuity are accepted lifestyle choices,
and Polish conservatives construct this relative sexual freedom as unnatural and degenerate. In
addition, German women are constructed as less beautiful and less feminine than Polish women,
too focused on career, and not attentive enough to domestic and family roles. According to
Polish religious conservatives, such permissiveness and ―mixed-up‖ gender roles are sinful and
are the cause of most of Germany‘s social problems. The stereotype of the ―German sex tourist,‖
who visits Eastern European countries to victimize their young women and men, is deployed in
conservative discourses as the most threatening example of the European Union‘s depravity. This
stereotype is ironic when one considers Matti Bunzl (2000) study of German sex tourists, in
which the research subjects construct German sexual mores as staid and restrictive, and the
―East‖ as an exotic land of sexual freedom.39 In contrast to images of promiscuity and immorality
projected onto the Other, Polish conservatives construct Poland as a ―land of real men and real
women‖ (Graff 2008: 180).
Many mainstream periodicals in Poland show images of overly powerful women and
diminished, emasculated men representing the state of the Polish nation. These same
conservative (and some not-so-conservative) media express anxiety about gender stability in
general, while sometimes publishing diatribes against gay rights, reproductive rights and other
issues involving the expression of alternative gender identity or sexuality. Graff argues that this
recent proliferation of ―gender talk‖ in Polish society is a symptom of anxieties stemming from
broad processes of greater globalization and European integration. In Graff‘s article ―The Land
of Real Men and Real Women,‖ she shows how popular weekly news magazines in Poland, even
those that are more or less progressive and pro-Europe in their politics, still use rhetoric
portraying Poland as a land of ―real men‖ and ―real women‖ (as opposed to, say, other European
countries in which men are emasculated and women are overly career oriented and unhappy.)
They also express anxiety about the declining Polish birthrate and the outmigration of workers,
leading to an influx of foreign (European and non European) immigrants. Headlines of these
newspapers (Wprost, Polytika and Newsweek, in Graff‘s study) include ―The Return of the Real
Man‖; ―The Last Parents: Dramatic Decline in Polish Population‖ and ―If we want to be a healthy
society: Let‘s Make Babies!‖ (Graff 2008: 192).
According to Graff, this widespread prevalence of ―gender talk‖ and gender anxiety is
related to processes of myth making, during ongoing renegotiations of gender and nation that are
occurring in Polish society. Narratives of the Polish nation that rely on nuclear families,
reproduction and control over women‘s sexuality are being reiterated by these public discourses;
while at the same time European integration has led to pressure to integrate sexualities and family
structures that deviate from this national myth. ―the consoling narrative about an orderly past, the
present crisis and an imminent restoration of order in the realm of gender relations can be read as
a displaced narrative about collective identity, an effort to contain ambivalence and anxiety about
European integration‖ (Graff 2008: 199).
However, while the majority of gender talk has the goal of constructing collective
identity, activities like self-defense and other means of self-improvement (broadly defined) are
about crafting identities that are potentially untethered from national identities and largely
deterritorialized. Identities formed around consumption and self-improvement, although they can
be problematic in terms of perpetuating economic and structural inequalities, constitute a way of
exercising agency for Polish women. This exercise of agency flies in the face of conventional
constructions of women as symbols of a collective Polish identity.
Anthony Giddens views these exercises of agency, which are often focused on bodily
disciplines, as one of the distinctive features of late-modern society, and are typified by a quest
toward self-knowledge. This quest can be ―…found in the rise of modes of therapy of all kinds‖
(1990: 33). The goal of this therapy, in the case of self-defense, is to learn self-confidence and
competence within one‘s body, and by extension with one‘s constructed identity. ―Regularized
control of the body is a fundamental means whereby a biography of self-identity is maintained;
yet at the same time the self is also more or less constantly ‗on display‘ to others in terms of its
embodiment (57-58).
Matza (2009) and Mazzarino (2009) discuss this individualized construction of selfidentity in the cases of self-help advice on Russian radio talk shows, and high-powered Russian
businesswomen, respectively. According to Matza, the therapeutic language deployed in radio
advice shows is a way of providing neoliberal personal/economic advice to its guests while
―liberalism‖ remains a dirty word in Russian politics. As Matza states ―…[T]herapeutic idioms
such as self-esteem, self-realization, self-knowledge, self-management, independence, personal
potential, and responsibility have articulated with consumer desire, capitalist self-fashioning and
careerism.‖ All of these ―therapeutic idioms‖ can apply to the rhetoric of self-defense courses.‖
(Matza 2009: 501). Mazzarino states that the business women in her study also apply neoliberal
discourses in their activities of self-improvement: ―the adjective ―neo-liberal‖ aptly describes
these activities because of features they had in common with self-help practices that have been
documented in the United States corporate world.‖ However, ―A woman‘s total autonomy is vital
because it implicates the people she must care for on her own…Independence, therefore, is social:
Women develop it among others and view it as a means to contribute within Russia through their
families and their careers. ― Therefore, what appears to be a completely individualistic
phenomenon actually has implications for citizenship and nationhood.
Gender, Body and Nation
Just because the body is the locus of the construction of atomized, individualized
identities in Giddens‘ formulation does not mean that the body and bodily imagery is not used
instrumentally by proponents of collective identity and nationalism. The maintenance of stability
in gender roles and gender expression has long been tied to the well-being of the Nation in Polish
culture, and in Eastern Europe more generally. As Ewa Hauser (1994), Andrejka Milić (1994)
and many other scholars of gender elsewhere have shown, the Nation is often symbolized by the
image of a woman, and individual women are seen as the bearers of culture and reproducers of
the Nation (see also Anthias and Yuval-Davis 1992; Lister 1998; Friedman 2005.) In many of the
most well-known cases, especially in the former Yugoslavia, the equation of women with
symbols of the nation has led to brutality against women of Othered nations, and to the use of
rape as a weapon of war.
Such large-scale brutality has not been the case in Poland, but ties between gender
stability and nationalism become especially interesting in the Polish case when one considers the
current debates surrounding European integration and the acceptance of EU policies by Poland.
The introduction of EU mandated gender-mainstreaming policies and laws promoting gay rights
in other European Union countries have led some conservatives in Poland to use rhetoric about
the ―invasion‖ of foreign immorality, as opposed to Polish Catholic morals and values. Such
rhetoric implies that it is the duty of ―true Poles‖ to defend against such a loss of sovereignty. As
I state above, one political party that is anti-EU and known to be conservative on gender and
diversity issues bears the name ―Self-Defense‖ or Samoobrona.
Samoobrona is a political party that enjoyed a moderate degree of popularity during the
late 1990s and early 2000s in Poland, although at the time of writing they have lost nearly all of
their parliamentary representation. Their platform has been described as agrarian, nationalist,
conservative and Euroskeptic, although according to Szczerbiak, their Euroskepticism is of a
more practical variety than the ideological stance taken by the League of Polish families. The
party is otherwise best known for a sexual harassment scandal involving party leader Andrzej
Lepper. For this reason one Polish scholar joked with me that women needed to learn selfdefense to protect themselves from politicians from Self-Defense.
This coincidence of names has led me to ask whether the increasing popularity of selfdefense among Polish women can be perceived as a mirror of a broader ―self-defense‖ of the
nation. On the surface it appears that any parallels that might be drawn between women‘s selfdefense on an individual level and national ―self-defense‖ movements like the political party
Samoobrona are superficial. This is because the political and social beliefs underlying these two
phenomena appear to be working entirely at cross-purposes.
For example, the main reason interviewees provided for taking a self-defense class was a
need for increased personal safety. However, their strategy to increase safety did not include
restriction of behavior, or relying on the protection of others. Their response to danger was to
equip themselves to prevent and/or repel assaults. These interviewees stated that their
participation in self-defense courses improved their confidence, regardless of the type of courses
they attended. Those who participated in courses that gave more attention to psychological
techniques of assertiveness stated that the course had given them a sense of confidence in social
and family situations, as well as in their careers, aside from improving perceived safety in
potentially violent or dangerous interpersonal situations. These findings seem to suggest that
Polish women are rejecting old stereotypes of self-sacrifice and embracing strategies of selfinvestment.
Conversely, the national self-defense implied by the Samoobrona movement discursively
relies on women as a symbol and a vessel, not as agents in their own right. While women‘s selfdefense focuses on an atomized conception of personal responsibility that flattens other
differences along the axes of gender, ethnicity or class, nationalist movements argue that national
identity is something that mystically binds individuals together and trumps all other forms of
identity; they also preach the value of self-sacrifice above the neoliberal discourses of selfinvestment or self-realization.
However, women‘s self-defense participation can be seen as symbolic of the struggles of
economics and citizenship ongoing in Poland today. Because of the construction of the economic
Other as the perpetrator of violence against women, many middle-class Polish women are
participating in self defense (which is primarily designed against random street assaults) to
protect themselves against this Other. As I have mentioned previously, Ghodsee (2004) asserts
that class is a more relevant axis of inequality than gender in post-socialist contexts. I would
propose that class, in the post-socialist EU Polish context, represents the most salient division
between the winners and the losers in the economic transformation. Therefore, women‘s
participation in self-defense in Poland may be a way of asserting economic citizenship through
consumption, and of cementing status as a ―winner‖ who then has to protect herself from the
―losers‖ who have been constructed as predatory.
Gender Binaries and Individualism
Although self-defense-courses in Poland are a cosmopolitan phenomenon associated with
globalization and transnational culture, and some interviewees identified with a politically
progressive, deterritorialized identity, they continued to deny what they defined as Western
feminism, or Western ways of thinking about gender. Very few of the Polish self-defense
participants I interviewed explicitly identified as a feminist, and many of them tended to play
down the importance of gender difference. Not surprisingly, participants in mixed-sex martial
arts courses tended to play down gender difference more than those in psychology-based and
women‘s only courses like WenDo. Regardless of the type of course, these participants
discursively continued to rely on a gender dichotomy that privileged masculinity as associated
with power, and associated femininity with softness or weakness.
For example: many participants in Krav Maga, Karate, UnSafe Woman and Combat
professed an interest in other ―masculine‖ activities, including motorcycling, skydiving and other
martial arts. Marta, a participant in Krav Maga who attends advanced as well as beginner‘s
courses, and unrelated courses in ―submission fighting‖ says: ―I really like these classes, because
they allow me to just dig my heels in, and this is why I like it…. And I really enjoy the physical
contact, with the whole body. It just kind of reminds me of the way children play, you know, not
holding back. And I guess this is sort of a primitive pleasure.‖
Jolanta is another Krav Maga participant who also participates in two other martial arts
methods. After saying that she does not really fit the ―schema‖ of Polish gender relations, and
citing this as a probable reason for her divorce, she hypothesizes about the reasons that she does
not fit this schema.
―I have a little bit of this character which in all of these pseudo-psychological courses
has been blamed on a higher than normal quantity of testosterone, so from my point of
view, I feel that verbal or psychological self-defense might not be enough. I have a
tendency toward escalation so I have to be very careful in confrontational situations….
It is sort of a catharsis to be able to spar and fight in a safe context. I enjoy going to
class, even often at work I think to myself, ―it‘s good that I am going today, that I will
be able to fight somebody after this day of work.‖
Zosia, an UnSafe Woman participant, expresses her enthusiasm for a newfound hobby of
motorcycling, and takes pride in disappointing the expectations of her detractors. ―…there are a
lot of men who think that women are not suited for riding motorcycles, that it requires too much
strength, that it‘s a masculine sport, but to ride a motorcycle you don‘t have to have this kind of
brute strength, you just need technique and passion.‖
These quotes suggest that women who participate in martial-arts based courses tend to
derive pleasure from being the only woman or one of a few women participating in a specific
activity, and from performing activities that are socially coded as masculine. This is part of their
construction of a unique or distinctive self-identity, and therefore they construct themselves as
different from ―most‖ women. Jolanta even (winkingly) attempts to construct herself as
biologically different from most women in her invocation of ―testosterone.‖ At the same time
that these women profess an attitude that feminism is unnecessary because ―women can do
anything‖, they are wary of the feminist movement‘s alleged desire to make men and women
exactly the same, and implicitly construct other, ―average‖ women as weak or fragile in
comparison to their own strength.
Elżbieta, a Krav Maga participant and a 19-year old college student, first said that she
prefers the masculine atmosphere of the Krav Maga studio and dislikes sparring with women
because she is afraid of their weakness. ―I prefer [exercising with] guys, definitely I would prefer
to spar with men, because with girls I am afraid that I will hit them too hard and so on, but with
men it is like, well, they have this lower [sic] pain threshold… I mean it is harder to do them
harm, that‘s why.‖ Later in the interview, however, Elżbieta goes on to state that her enjoyment
of performing a masculine sport and being treated like ―one of the guys‖ does not necessarily
extend beyond the context of martial arts. When we were discussing feminism, she stated:
―If you don‘t see that women are different from men, well, I mean sometimes it is
nice to be treated just as a woman, but not necessarily as equal with men. On one
hand, women want equal rights… but if someone never holds the door open for
them, or if a man forgets to give them something for the holiday or something.
This is how a man would treat another man, but that isn‘t cool. So this is just like
selective feminism, despite everything.‖
Here, Elżbieta is trying to negotiate the complexities or contradictions of the attempt to integrate
women‘s rights and equality feminism into a culture that still values gender difference. Like
many women I interviewed she sees an inherent contradiction between ―equal rights‖ and the
acknowledgement that women and men are inherently different and complementary. However,
several interviewees who participated in martial arts, even if they saw men and women as having
distinct, inherent natures, tended to construct their own identities as ―exceptions to the rule.‖
On the other hand, participants in more psychologically-based (what I have termed
―gender-sensitive‖) self-defense courses such as WenDo were more comfortable with gender
difference and women as an essential category. In contrast to women in martial-arts based
courses, they tended to construct themselves as more or less typical members of this universalized
Aleksandra is a WenDo participant who found that she gained much more benefit from
the psychological aspects of the training than from the physical techniques. Even breaking the
board, the one physical activity in WenDo that the most participants claimed as the most
important part of the course, was not terribly meaningful to her. Although she did not succeed in
breaking the board, she stated that this was not an important indicator of success in the course.
―I didn‘t break the board and it isn‘t difficult for me, for that reason, and I‘m not
sorry. I know that it is just a gesture…. It isn‘t necessary for me anymore, I didn‘t
do it just because I didn‘t do it, not because I was afraid or I didn‘t want to…. I
understand the strength of the symbol, but it is not necessary for me.‖
Although Aleksandra struck me as a very confident person, she said that the WenDo course had
caused her to gain confidence and become ―less passive‖ in all the realms of her life. However,
she did not construct this loss of passivity as giving up any of her feminine identity. In fact, she
said that she enjoyed learning self-defense in a women-only environment and hearing other
women‘s stories. She preferred this kind of environment to the mixed-sex martial-arts courses
she had taken in the past:
―…in a course like WenDo it is important, because women have to become
acquainted with martial arts differently, certain techniques that are not obvious,
which are not generally well-known, which can work through the element of
surprise… aside from that I think it is easier for women to open up in such a
class…. It is easier for them to get certain things.‖
She went on to state later,
―There is not this element of bragging, of showing off, this rivalry, which can
occur [in martial arts classes with men].‖
Janina, another WenDo participant, was in agreement about the benefits of women‘s-only
training, although she said she wished that there had been a greater physical component to the
―When we are talking about such issues, such situations, definitely only women are
fit for this, women would not open up in front of men anyway, when we are talking
about situations from our own lives. In [Krav Maga] we are really learning to fight,
and in WenDo there are a lot of conversations, it is a different character, right? And I
think, that it is a good situation that the Krav Maga teacher is a man, but women
should teach WenDo.‖
Janina‘s argument that WenDo and Krav Maga are qualitatively different and uniquely
gendered reflects an idea of complementarity between men and women. Both hers and
Aleksandra‘s arguments discursively continue to associate women with communication and
nurturing, and men with fighting.
Because I was not able to directly interview participants in the WSDP self-defense
method, my analysis of attitudes toward gender and difference prevalent among them must be
necessarily limited. However, the voices of some participants are heard in the publication Always
Safe, published by the method‘s instructors and co-creators. The book‘s authors print several
―success stories‖ as well as ―horror stories‖ related by the course‘s graduates. Similarly to
WenDo participants, these women constructed their identities as typically feminine, and
embraced highly valued conventional relationships as wives, girlfriends and mothers. In
addition, the interview with Piotr provides additional evidence that WSDP participants identify as
typical women. Piotr stated that it often takes WSDP participants some time to overcome their
feminine socialization in order to fight in the fierce way required in the course. They sometimes
have trouble unlocking their ―aggressive personalities‖, unlike some martial arts participants who
construct themselves as having a naturally aggressive personality.
A student the authors call ―Beata‖ states:
I was at a birthday party at a friend‘s. It was a big party…with about 50 people.
I saw a boy who I had met a whole year before….We had a very pleasant
conversation, there was a little alcohol, and we danced a little. After a while he
started dancing with more forcefully, more suggestively… I certainly did not like
this, and I particularly did not like the way he was dancing with me. He…pulled
me into the entryway, where there was nobody else in the room…I shouted ―Let
me go! I want to leave!‖ but he just acted like he didn‘t hear me.
When the man pushed her onto a bed, Beata
kicked him in the chest and face….but then he fell on me with the whole weight
of his body, and I threw him into the window so hard the glass broke…then I shouted:
―Help! Please somebody help me!‖ and all kinds of things like that. I don‘t know if
people reacted to my shout or to the sound of breaking glass….After a moment the
room was full of people, and the guy tried to explain that it was all a joke.
Fortunately my boyfriend had returned by that point, and so we were able to leave the
party in a hurry. (Kruczyński and Drożdziak 2003: 267-268).
Another success story shared by Kruczyński and Drożdziak is from a participant called
―Dorota‖, who says:
About 12 at night I was out with my boyfriend and we sat down on the night bus.
There was a younger man, who was under the influence, and an older man, about
40 who came up to us. He was a little bit drunk, too. I whispered to him, ―Don‘t
pay attention…‖ but after a couple minutes the guy started to make horribly vulgar
comments. My boyfriend did not keep quiet, he answered something.‖
―Dorota‖ goes on to tell how the drunk man grabbed her boyfriend by the shirt and begins
yelling and threatening him. ―Dorota‖ was able to take the attacker by surprise and elbow him in
the face so that he let go of her boyfriend. ―At the same time I yelled ‗Help! People, Help!!‘ This
worked perfectly… we quickly got off the bus and returned home by taxi.‖
Both ―Beata‘s‖ and ―Dorota‘s‖ stories of self-defense are inspiring and show women who
are not afraid to use a certain amount physical force to prevent or stop an assault. Neither of
these women needed a total revision of their gender identity in order to prevent violence. Beata
used a strategy of negotiation and communication, and Dorota used a strategy of avoiding and
ignoring a verbal assault before the situation forced them to use physical violence. These are
success stories in every sense, showing that some critics‘ fears that 1) self-defense for women
cannot be successful, or 2) women who use self-defense will misuse or exaggerate their use of
self-defense techniques. Both of these participants‘ emphasis on typically feminine activities like
going to parties, dancing with men, going out with a boyfriend, also show that they identify as
―typical‖ women who would not normally be expected to behave in a violent or aggressive way.
In addition both of these stories highlight calling for help from others as a main aspect of defense.
These trends in participants‘ self-construction as typical or atypical women are not
surprising considering that the women who participate in martial-arts based courses versus
psychologically based self-defense courses are largely self-selecting groups. However, the
pedagogies in both types of courses nonetheless revolve around a gender dichotomy of
masculinity and femininity that structures gendered interactions in Polish culture. The equation
of masculinity with outright strength and direct power, and of femininity with subtlety, softness,
and communication remain intact in all of these discourses. Women in all types of courses
tended to construct themselves either as atypical ―strong, direct‖ women, or as typical ―gentle,
physically weak (but in control)‖ women. This latter subject position is emphasized by the
frequent statements from participants in psychologically-based courses describing their
participation as a way of ―controlling [their] own weakness.‖
Gender and the Place of Poland in Europe
If Polish conservatives view Poland as the ―Land of Real Men and Real Women‖ as I
discussed earlier in the chapter, how is Poland, and how are Poles perceived within the rest of
Europe? How do self-defense participants view themselves within the wider European context?
Marysia Galbraith has published a study of attitudes toward Europe and Poland‘s place within it
based on a survey of teenagers in southern Poland, including urban Kraków and the mountain
town of Zakopane.
―One lyceum [pre-college high school] student from Kraków compared her
impressions of Italy, where there is order, peace, and people are happy, in
contrast to Poland, where there is ‗a complete mess,‘ anarchy, and where people
are sad….Similarly, students in other classes characterized Poland as more
orderly than its Eastern neighbors. After returning from a hiking trip in Ukraine,
a group of technical school students in Lesko commented on how wealthy and
how fortunate they felt in comparison with the poverty that plagues the region
east of the border (Galbraith 2005: 62-63).
While Galbraith‘s interviewees had a critical view of Poland‘s ability to ―catch up‖ to the West,
others were skeptical of any improvements that the West had to offer:
Just as some expressed skepticism about the quality of foreign material imports,
others expressed concern about cultural imports. They criticized other Poles for
accepting without discrimination everything that came from the West, including
pornography and drugs. They accused the West of introducing AIDS and crime.
A lyceum student from Kraków said, ―I‘m afraid of the influence Western culture
is having on Poland. Their TV, music, and painting—very little is new and valuable
(Galbraith 2005: 64).
These highly educated students are from roughly the same demographic as the selfdefense participants I interviewed, and their attitudes are similar in some ways, although they
tended to be more optimistic about Poland‘s prospects within the EU than the students in
Galbraith‘s sample. The discrepancy can possibly be explained by an age difference or a
rural/urban divide, but it is hard to definitively conclude this. The participants in my study, when
they spoke about European issues, tended to place Poland in an intermediate location between
East and West, between socialism and capitalism, but still very much in a European context.
Marek describes a ―European mentality‖ as the reason why Krav Maga is so popular in Poland:
―Krav Maga is thought of as Israeli, but the beginnings of Krav Maga were
However in Bratislava, this was Europe, so its birth was in Europe….That is
why Krav Maga is so very European, it is close to our mentality. It doesn‘t have
that kind of exoticism of the East…it is what a European needs, it is a tool, it is
something practical.‖
Janina, a WenDo participant also sees Poland as being in the ―middle‖ of Europe, but
with ambitions in a more Western direction: ―we are already kind of in the middle, between East
and West. Well, but we are always closer, maybe, to the West, I have this kind of impression that
in the East there dominates this tendency of a traditional family, but in Poland we tilt more
toward the West, where women are more independent.‖ Jolanta expressed this in a similar
manner, but highlights the tension between outward appearances and inward states: ―Poles are
really, really, really trying to follow the West and are really trying to look like the West, and
because of this it does not completely fit… ―Eastern Europe‖ and we really try to reflect this to
the newcomers. Also Poland has been usually… well, the ―East‖ resides in the soul, and so in
this external behavior it is awfully posed.‖
Some self-defense participants describe a deterritorialized identity that is not really
connected to a feeling of Polish nationality. However, the above participants‘ insightful
comments about Poland‘s place in the European Union signal their desire to participate in
national projects as well as exploring their expanded opportunities for participation in European
integration. They are very much a part of the Polish nation-building project. In other words,
Polish women are not abandoning their national identity or loyalties simply because so many of
them are traveling abroad for work. However, the same women refuse to participate in this
project on conservative religious nationalist terms that demand their passivity and self-sacrifice.
Their goal is to contribute on the same level as men while still recognizing gender difference, a
negotiation that is often played out in the self-defense studio.
Conclusion: Individualism, Metaphor and Metonymy
A group of established and emerging scholars in postsocialist studies have shown how
individualizing discourses have been embraced, adapted and appropriated by post-socialist and
post-communist actors. Tomas Matza‘s work on therapeutic idioms in Russian radio discourses
shows one aspect of this shift. Andrea Mazzarino‘s work among Russian business women has
come to similar conclusions. Mazzarino‘s paper ―The Human Effects of Conservative Gender
Politics‖ (2009) shows how discourses of entrepreneurship and self-development are increasingly
important to Russian women who are taking advantage of the free market economy to create
empowered identities, but are deploying these neoliberal concepts in new ways.
The inherent logic behind self-defense as a way of preventing violence against women is
based on individual responsibility and self-preservation. Again and again, self-defense
recommendations for women‘s behavior are prefaced by the rationale: ―Do not make yourself
look like a victim‖ and states that if a woman adopts the prescribed behaviors and confidence, the
attacker will seek out an ―easier target.‖ This language implies that some men are going to
attack women regardless of the structural interventions undertaken by society to prevent this.
Because of such an assumption, women are instructed to make sure that some other woman
becomes a victim. In a way, this attitude is diametrically opposed to feminist ideals of women‘s
solidarity and mutual support, and places responsibility for attacks on women, while absolving
the broader civil society, government or private sphere from responsibility for preventing attacks
and protecting women.
I build on this narrative of individualization by tying these trends of ―every woman for
herself‖ mentality to the politics of European integration and women‘s place in this integration.
In this way I marry two ways of looking at self-defense phenomena in Poland: the lens of
individualism and the lens of nationalism. I argue that women‘s participation in empowerment
strategies like self-defense, although they are not directly connected to Polish nationalism or
Euroskeptic political parties like Samoobrona, can be seen as a symbolic representation of the
Polish nation‘s efforts to preserve sovereignty and prosperity in the midst of European politics‘
whirlwind changes. I also would like to explore the possibility that women in Poland are gaining
a more metonymic status in Polish society because of their mobility throughout Europe and their
increasing visibility as the ―face‖ of Poland.
Agnieszka Graff has explained in Rykoszetem (2007) as well as her lecture ―Our
Innocence, Foreign Perversions: Gender and Sexuality in Nationalist Discourse‖ (2008) how the
metonymic or universal Polish citizen is always portrayed as and assumed to be male. Women, on
the other hand are relegated to a symbolic, or metaphorical role. In Polish nationalist discourses,
the male universal citizen is viewed as active, and women are viewed as passive damsels in
distress, in need of rescue.
Despite perceptions of women‘s passivity and non-participation, Polish women are
increasingly participating in the labor market, in transnational migration and political arenas
(although mostly in grass-roots organizations and local governments, and not at the higher levels
of government). Could this greater participation on the part of women, as well as their decreasing
domestic roles and obstacles to access to the public sphere signal a shift in women‘s position
from metaphor to metonym?
This question cannot be answered definitively or tied unequivocally tied to women‘s
participation in self-improvement activities. However, these questions open up exciting new
directions for ethnographic research in these areas. The self-defense participants I interviewed
tended to frame their participation, course preferences, and overall motivations for learning selfdefense in terms of individuated self-improvement and the crafting of an agency-centered
identity. Several scholars of the social sciences in Eastern Europe have discussed the importance
of processes of individuation in post-communist transitions in the region. Individuation is closely
tied to economic processes of market formation, privatization and the promotion of consumerism
(Mandel and Humphrey 2002, Verdery 1996). Evidence shows that in fields as diverse as
government policy, advertising and education, a discourse of personal responsibility,
empowerment and betterment at the individual level promotes a neoliberal ideal of personhood
(e.g. Phillips 2008, Elliot 20008, Borenstein 2005, Patico 2005). Although some authors (e.g.
Kharkhordin 2002) argue that this trend toward individualization is nothing new, but instead
represents a continuity with the Soviet period, I maintain, regardless of the phenomenon‘s relative
newness, that the popularity of self-defense and other self-improvement projects is due to their
construction of individuation and personal responsibility, as opposed to a focus on structural
change and solidarity within social groups. In addition, this logic of atomized individuals
completely responsible for their own circumstances will characterize the ways that Polish women
continue to negotiate the complexities of European integration.
In my concluding chapter, I will attempt to show the ways that the kind of individualized
empowerment advocated by self-defense philosophy is a necessary but not sufficient condition of
the empowerment of women in Poland as a group. In addition, I will conclude with further
directions for research to more fully flesh out the findings of this dissertation, and to create the
possibilities for policy recommendations based on these findings.
Chapter 9
Conclusions and Directions for Future Research
In the preceding chapters, I have detailed the complexities underlying the participation of
Polish women in self-defense and martial arts activities. The various types of courses available
for women in Poland who are interested in learning self-defense reflect dichotomous and
sometimes contradictory assumptions about masculinity and femininity, maintaining the binaries
that structure Polish gender norms and roles. For example, courses based on martial arts that
usually have a mixed-sex composition use a purportedly gender-blind approach to self-defense
training, but in so doing assume that the default participant is male. In contrast, women‘s-only
courses that claim a psychological or feminist basis utilize a discourse that constructs participants
as inherently good at negotiation, communication and intuition. Despite placing their participants
along a culturally-defined continuum of masculinity or femininity, these courses are primarily an
individualistic phenomenon, based on the idea that individuals can creatively piece together their
own identities through consumption, and are responsible for their own circumstances.
Polish women‘s apparent affinity for constructing identities through consumption and for
individualized empowerment led me to ask whether self-improvement projects like self-defense
and martial arts can serve as a culturally appropriate way for improving women‘s status in a
culture that is largely hostile to organized feminist movements. Self-defense participants in
Poland construct individualized identities through their participation in self-improvement
projects, the broader category of which self-defense is a part. These projects, including selfdefense, can be construed as consumer products and as ways of disciplining the body. However,
although self-defense is framed as a form of women‘s empowerment, participants rarely tie their
participation to engagement with organized feminism or any other political movement. Rather
their goal is the construction and protection of an atomized, bounded self. The types of
subjectivity encouraged and articulated by self-defense pedagogy rely on what Matza calls
―therapeutic idioms‖ of self-help, self-knowledge, and self-realization. Such idioms dovetail
nicely with neoliberal concepts of personal responsibility, and can be viewed as putting women in
positions of power and control over their own lives. However, at the same time, this discourse of
personal responsibility can potentially be disempowering to some extent because it is the kind of
language that has been the basis of the dismantling of the social safety net in Poland. Idioms of
entrepreneurialism and personal initiative have been used to discourage any expectations of social
support. In the context of self-defense, discourse meant to be empowering can continue to place
responsibility or even blame for sexual violence firmly on the shoulders of individual women.
Based on interview data, Polish women who participate in martial arts and self-defense
welcome the sense of power and control granted by self-defense‘s physical and psychological
training regimes. However, at the same time they do not associate this empowerment with what
they define as ―feminism.‖ Very generally speaking, most Polish women tend to be wary of
feminist agendas because in their perceptions, the goal of feminism is to eliminate difference
between men and women, or to overly aggrandize women as a group. Similarly, many
participants prefer the type of self-defense seminars that are specifically designed for women, and
the techniques and self-defense strategies explicitly intended for women, implying some
assumption of essential gender characteristics. These contradictions are very difficult to navigate,
but they seem to be related to the cultural-historical milieu of postcommunism and other Polish
cultural and historical legacies, as discussed in Chapter 2.
It is often assumed that in the transition from socialism to capitalism, Eastern European
social relations shifted from logics of collectivism to ones of individualism. However,
Kharkordin argues that socialist and communist society, specifically Soviet society, was never
very collectivist to begin with (2002). Therefore, the individualizing trends taking place in Polish
society cannot be explained simply in terms of backlash. In addition, state socialist interventions
for ―women‘s emancipation‖ often did everything but emancipate women, leading to suspicion of
state interventions that are supposed to help women (Robinson 1995). Polish women‘s distaste
for feminism cannot be explained solely in terms of backlash, either, however. Most of the Polish
women I interviewed expressed a strong belief in the complementarity of the sexes that would
make talk of ―equality‖ pointless, but still believed that women were powerful, in control and
capable of just about anything. One participant even utilized the often-heard saying ―The man is
the head of the family, but the woman is the neck that turns the head.‖
As can be seen, the tension between individualism and a belief in essential gender
differences comes to the forefront of my conversations with self-defense participants. Several of
them mentioned the complementarity of the sexes as a distinctive feature of Polish culture, and
took a certain pride in the idea that Polish women had found a balance between equality and
happiness. They considered Western women, who they had associated with feminism, to be
overly focused on work and career, and therefore unhappy because they did not have the support
and refuge of the family. This attitude is connected to the history of opposition between public
and private in Poland, which manifested in communist times in a construction of the home and
family as a site of resistance and refuge from the oppressive state.
An attachment to some ―traditional‖ norms of femininity is exactly what allows these
self-defense participants, to participate in some very masculinized forms of activity like Krav
Maga without seeing this participation as transgressive. Regardless of the specific method, selfdefense participants learn to protect themselves against gendered violence through changes in
body culture, without seeing a conflict between the body culture of self-defense and their
predominant feminine identity. They saw self-defense as a way to become more confident and
―equal‖ to men without going ―overboard‖ in terms of feminist equality. Many of the women I
interviewed saw hypocrisy in women who called themselves feminists in the sense of asking for
equal pay and equal rights, but who still clung to traditional social relationships, for example
expecting men to open doors for them, or expecting to have a conventional relationship with their
significant other.
Several postcolonial and subaltern feminists have written about how Western feminism is
an inherently neoliberal and individualistic movement that does not appeal to women crossculturally. However, that is not how Polish women view the movement. To the women I
interviewed, feminism meant adhering to a rigid ―party line‖ of siding with other women
regardless of the circumstances simply because of their gender, and rejecting highly valued
aspects of their identities like sexuality, marriage and family.
For example, Gosia, a Krav Maga participant, stated that she believed feminism was a
―relic.‖ ―I really have the worst associations with feminists. They try to burn their bra, and to
have total control over everything in their lives…this will never work. And for me these women
are very aggressive. They achieved equal rights, but they didn‘t stop at that, they will not admit
that they achieved their goal, so they just keep pushing farther.‖
Gabriela, a participant in UnSafe Woman, had a very strong association of feminism with
abortion, a practice that she opposed on religious grounds. ―I can‘t believe in any other feminist
causes because they believe in killing the unborn. That is really the beginning and the end of it
for me.‖ To her, abortion rights and women‘s rights were synonymous, and because of her
conviction that abortion is wrong, she felt that she could not approve of any other women‘s rights
or feminist interventions.
Finally, Ala, another Krav Maga participant, stated, ―we should strengthen each other
mutually and build each other up, in the family and just in general. I think that… really these
feminists think that women and men should be against each other. But it is really just all talk in
the end, it is an exaggeration, because well, I really can‘t imagine life without guys. ― 40 Even as
many self-defense participants advocate a philosophy of individuation among women, they also
tended to advocate complementarity, solidarity and cooperation between men and women.
Conceptualizing self-defense as a path to women‘s empowerment in Poland, however,
can be problematic in its address of women as atomized individuals, rather than addressing
women as a group. The participants I interviewed highlighted the benefits they gained through
the course as persons, not necessarily as women. Several pointed out the advantages that such
training can have for any individual, regardless of gender. Overall, these interviewees were very
disengaged from political feminism, despite their comfort with discourses of gender difference.
The social science literature has shown that structural gender inequalities still exist, despite many
Polish women‘s denial of this fact and their attempts to seek self-realization through
individualized empowerment and commercial consumption.
This evidence indicates that individualized empowerment is still only part of the story. It
is a necessary but insufficient condition of improving women‘s status in post-socialist Eastern
Europe. It remains to be seen, however, if Polish women will continue to attend self-defense
courses in increasing numbers, and whether their reported results of confidence and assertiveness
will bear fruit in greater equality in interpersonal interactions, employment or other ―success
Rather than discussing self-defense courses for women in triumphalist terms as a sign
that women are rising up against a masculine establishment, it is more useful to investigate why
self-defense has become more popular in terms of social processes of individuation and neoliberal
discourses of self-help and personal initiative. All of the ―therapeutic idioms‖ mentioned by
Matza (2009) can be used to describe the rhetoric of many self-defense courses, indicating that
the self-defense phenomenon, as a part of a greater category of self-improvement is a part of the
complex of neoliberal individualism, a philosophy that assumes disciplining the self is the key to
improving society.
Women who participate in self-defense and many other self-improvement strategies
attempt to discipline the self by transforming their bodies. Most self-defense participants and
other self-improvement seekers understand that changing the external body can transform internal
states of being, much as Mahmood (2005) has shown in a different cultural context. The
understanding of this phenomenological dialectic between mind and body allows self-defense
participants to expand their gendered identities though transforming their bodily habitus,
practicing movements that become integrated into ―muscle memory‖ and learning to carry
themselves in a way that projects confidence.
The Limitations of Individualized Empowerment
Can this discipline of the body create new subjectivities for Polish women that preclude
the possibility of gendered violence and therefore transform relations between men and women?
While there are possibilities for Polish women to gain greater confidence, self-esteem and
assertiveness through self-defense there are also limitations to this kind of individualized
empowerment. The principle behind most woman-centered self-defense training is that women,
by individually becoming more confident, assertive, and empowered, can help change the ways
that women interact with men. The principle is very consonant with neoliberal development
discourses, which presume that enough individual actors making changes in their lives can result
in more systemic change. Such a paradigm relies on discourses of entrepreneurship, individual
responsibility and integrity, three tropes that occur often in self-defense pedagogy.
This section will demonstrate the ways in which the empowerment gained through selfdefense training among Polish women is necessarily limited because of these connections with
consumerist and neoliberal trends as well as the inherently problematic aspects of self-defense as
a form of empowerment. As I have shown through interview data, self-defense participants
almost universally reported an increase in confidence in their daily lives as a result of taking a
self-defense course. Some of the participants also reported feeling that they would better able to
deal with a physical attack or another threat to their safety. Second-hand stories from the
interviews with WenDo, Krav Maga, WSDP and UnSafe Woman participants and instructors
seemed to add evidence pointing to the effectiveness of these courses, and similar results have
been reported by ethnographers of self-defense in the US context.
However, some feminists have taken issue with the premise of physical self-defense as a
way of lessening gendered violence. Jocelyn Hollander‘s article on ―The Roots of Resistance to
Women‘s Self-Defense‖ concisely details many of the reasons that feminists and the general
public alike are uncomfortable with women‘s embrace of self-defense philosophy, even if these
reasons are difficult to articulate.
The first negative reaction Hollander lists is ―it‘s impossible.‖ Although she does not
give academic citations for this objection, she shares several personal experiences, including a
rejected grant application that stated ―research on women‘s self-defense was not worth funding
because women are not capable of defending themselves against men‘s violence‖ (Hollander
2009: 577). She goes on to list statistics that show that physical or even verbal self-defense by a
woman during an assault significantly lessens the chance that the assault will be completed, but
then returns to ethnographic examples of negative reactions from family and friends of selfdefense participants.
A second objection to women‘s self-defense as a means of empowerment is that ―it‘s too
dangerous.‖ This reaction reflects some comments I received in interviews from Polish women
who feared that women who gained a little self-defense knowledge would gain false confidence.
Hollander cites a paper by Russell, McCarrol and Bohan (2007) showing that many feminists
believe ―women who are not vulnerable are dangerous to themselves and others‖ (4). Hollander
goes on to state that none of the self-defense participants she interviewed felt that they had
become overconfident or engaged in risky behavior as a result of their self-defense training,
although this could be because of exceptionalism on the part of her interviewees. Although
several of the women I interviewed expressed concerns about women‘s overconfidence they
never said that they were overconfident.
Hollander‘s final example of resistance to women‘s self-defense is ―it blames the victim.‖
Those who object to women‘s self-defense training as a feminist intervention on these grounds
claim that ―encouraging women to protect themselves… implies that women are responsible for
protecting themselves and thus are responsible for controlling men‘s violence‖ (Hollander 2009:
580-81). Although Hollander provides good reasons why this criticism is unfounded, I tend to
give it more weight than the other forms of resistance she encountered. Although Hollander
states, ―I do not think we should wait around for men to stop assaulting women… learning selfdefense carries with it a host of other benefits to women [including] a general sense of
empowerment and self-worth,‖ the victim-blaming criticism becomes more valid when women‘s
self-defense becomes the primary or only socially and politically acceptable way of preventing
violence against women. Because of the fluid nature of this phenomenon and of social policy in
Poland, this could very well become the case in that cultural context.
The most common criticisms of self-defense courses I heard from the general public in
the Polish context were that 1) it is ineffective because women are only practicing with other
women; and 2) it did not provide a long enough, or intensive enough, period of training. These
criticisms are most applicable to WenDo since it is for women only and consists of only 12 hours
of training. Instructors of other self-defense courses often criticized WenDo on these grounds as
well. They doubted that this weekend course could allow women to change their bodily habitus
over such a short time period, and also that it could effectively teach women effective selfdefense with such a low proportion of physical training to psychological training. Especially
those involved in martial-arts based training were skeptical of women‘s-only courses because
participants did not practice self-defense techniques on men, who could more closely
approximate the level of size and strength of a ―real‖ attacker.
These doubts about the effectiveness of psychologically-based and women‘s only selfdefense courses reflect concerns about women‘s ―overconfidence‖ expressed by many selfdefense participants. For example, Zosia, an UnSafe woman participant, said ―I think that a lot of
women are in denial about their kind of physical weakness, that they don‘t have the kind of
strength that guys have, they create this kind of fantasy that they are in a state to be able to defend
themselves, regardless of their physical condition, regardless of who might attack you. They
think they don‘t need to learn anything…‖ Joanna, a Krav Maga participant, stated that selfconfidence ―can be damaging, after you take Krav Maga for a few months, and you think you can
do something, that you can defend yourself, however, you have such an artificial self-confidence,
which can betray you.‖ Alicja, a participant in Combat, believed that the most important purpose
of self-defense was not to build women‘s self-confidence, but to break down false confidence.
She also stated that women needed to learn an ―important lesson that if things come down to a
moment of physical self-defense, we cannot go too far in self-defense, because women do not
have the benefit of the doubt just because we are women.‖ These concerns stood out in stark
contrast to the opinions of WSDP and WenDo trainers, who unanimously stated that women
(specifically Polish women,) were not confident enough, and were constrained by feminine
enculturation to be too passive and polite, leading to their vulnerability to assault.
Self-Defense as an act of Consumption
Often self-defense courses use images in their advertising and discourses that configure
the courses as a fitness and beauty-related self-improvement project. In this way some selfdefense courses may unintentionally perpetuate gender stereotypes and feed into a gender regime
that leads to women‘s subordination in the first place. ―Beautiful body‖ imagery can be found to
some extent in the marketing for many physical, martial arts-based self-defense courses. In
addition, such courses are strongly associated with diet and slimming strategies as a form of
exercise; some courses include ―keeping your figure‖ as one of the listed benefits of participation.
Although images of the narrowly-defined ―beautiful body‖ does not necessarily negate the
empowerment women may gain by participating in martial arts or any other fitness activity, they
may lead to problematic or unrealistic expectations for the results of the course. They may also
cause women to focus more on the body‘s appearance when participating in martial arts than on
the practical self-defense applications of this practice.
Another factor that affects the availability of almost all almost all self-defense courses is
the issue of cost. In Chapter 3, I list the cost of each course that I attended; I show that martialarts based courses are less expensive on an hourly basis than psychologically-based courses like
WenDo and WSDP. However, martial arts courses require a much longer training period for
effectiveness so a larger investment of money must be made over the long term. Both of these
factors give self-defense courses status as a consumer product, which was occasionally discussed
in terms of ―bargain,‖ ―value for money‖ and consumer choice by self-defense participants in
interviews. This conceptualization of self-defense as a consumer choice among many, as well as
its availability mainly to middle-class Polish women, may limit its true political potential.
Although women of all economic statuses can benefit from self-defense training, some
critics have suggested that the paid nature of the courses may cause them to become just another
consumer choice, a luxury available only to those who can afford it. Some other self-defense
courses are offered free of charge, but these are necessarily brief, neither intensive nor long-term
like the paid courses. Often these free courses are very popular and their large class size can
make learning difficult. WenDo and WSDP also offer courses free of charge, but they are only
available who have been accorded a special status as ―victims‖ and who have already sought help
at a hospital or a therapy center.
The Problem of Domestic Violence
WenDo and WSDP were the only courses I encountered in which domestic violence was
discussed at all. In interviews with instructors of other self-defense methods (UnSafe Woman,
Combat, and Krav Maga), discussion of domestic violence was elided. The instructors of these
latter courses emphasized that the moves learned in their self-defense methods were not intended
to be used in a ―family violence‖ situation, and although they expressed concern about it as a
social problem, they believed that these courses were not designed to be used in situations of
domestic abuse.
Although WenDo is described by some of its participants and instructors as a more
reasonable approach to domestic violence than the more widely available martial-arts based selfdefense methods, the discussion of the phenomenon in WenDo‘s pedagogy still does not present
an adequate solution to domestic violence as a social problem although it may help individual
women protect themselves. WenDo instructors provide emotional support and contact
information for other interventions for women experiencing domestic violence, but the actual
techniques of WenDo are not universally helpful in domestic violence situations. Even though
they encourage negotiation and communication to de-escalate potentially violent situations,
research on domestic violence shows that reason and negotiation are not always effective because
the actions of domestic abusers are often irrational. In addition, the physical techniques of
WenDo and other self-defense courses are often focused on stunning or disabling an attacker to
enable escape, which is not exactly feasible when a woman lives in the same household as her
WenDo instructors and other domestic violence counselors in Poland do not
automatically counsel women to leave a domestic violence situation. This is a recognition of the
structural factors that might prevent women from maintaining contact with their children or from
supporting themselves economically in the case of divorce. In addition, as I discuss in more
detail in Chapter 7, the conviction rate for domestic violence and the legal provisions in place for
these kinds of crime in Poland are woefully inadequate, so abusers often remain free to harass
their ex-wives even after a divorce, and shelters and other support services for victims are not
nearly sufficient to the demand for such services.
The Importance of Indiviualism
Perhaps the most fundamental limitation to self-defense as a primary path of
empowerment to Polish women is the way it displaces victimhood onto the ―next woman‖ or onto
an ―easy victim.‖ As I have just shown, self-defense courses of any kind are not available to all
Polish women, especially those without much disposable income. Even if self-defense training
were 100% effective and every woman who took these courses never had to worry about being
assaulted, the logic behind these self-defense courses does not address any possibilities for
preventing men from attempting violence in the first place. It only proposes that with this
training, women gain an aura of confidence that makes men refrain from attacking them as
individuals. If men cannot be stopped from attempting violence, this logic assumes that these
men will go on to attack a different more vulnerable woman the same night, possibly in the same
Therefore, women‘s self-defense philosophy, on its own, is based on a principle of ―every
woman for herself.‖ In this way, women who proclaim their individualized empowerment and
freedom from gendered violence through self-defense do so at the expense of other women, those
who cannot afford or access this training.
Despite these limitations, self-defense as a means of women‘s empowerment is far from
useless, especially in the Polish context. The instructors and participants I interviewed related
first-hand and second-hand accounts of encounters with violence that might have ended badly
without self-defense training. Some participants became visibly more confident and assertive
during the tenure of their participation in self-defense, regardless of the course‘s length. Perhaps
most important is their subjective interpretation of the benefits they gained from the courses,
regardless of the specific type of course in which they participated. These participants
overwhelmingly agreed that regardless of the effectiveness of the physical self-defense
techniques they learned, they had gained benefits in the form of increased confidence, self esteem
and at least the perception of increased safety.
Concerns about ―false confidence‖ aside, the most important benefit that Polish women
gain from self-defense participation is a sense of self-worth and accomplishment. Through selfdefense they are introduced to the idea that they are worth protecting. As I have said, selfdefense training alone cannot end violence against women. However, increases in feelings of
self-worth and confidence may be necessary conditions for women to begin thinking about
women‘s rights as a cause, and to lead eventually to political participation and organizing,
regardless of whether the political action is conceptualized by these women as feminist in nature.
Directions for Future Research
The completion of data collection and analysis, as well as the write-up of this dissertation
has led to my speculation about issues of metaphor and metonymy regarding gender roles in
Poland, which I began to explore in chapter 8. This line of thought was inspired by Agnieszka
Graff‘s work on the proliferation of ―gender talk‖ in contemporary Polish society. In her lecture
―Our Innocence and Foreign Perversions‖ she discussed the ways that the Polish universal citizen
is always discursively constructed and popularly conceptualized as male. The actors in Polish
history, as it has been constructed by media and historical accounts, have always been male, and
women have always been acted upon, passive victims, vessels or subjects of rescue and salvation.
This is a trope that is familiar throughout Western (European and North American) cultures, as
well as in images of pre-communist Polish nationhood.
However, because of women‘s increasing labor migration, participation in employment
markets and mobility throughout the European Union, the ―face‖ of Poland as it is perceived by
other European citizens is becoming increasingly female. Although Eastern European women are
still portrayed by international aid organizations as victims (especially in relation to human
trafficking), research is still needed to show how Eastern European women who are not trafficked
and not explicitly victimized by EU economic integration negotiate their own agency. The Polish
women living in Poland I interviewed did not view themselves as victims (either on the level of
individual, interpersonal violence, or on the level of economic, structural violence), or as
representatives of a primordial ethnonation, but as agents.
Supplementary ethnographic research is needed to fill in the gaps in this data concerning
conceptions of citizenship and gender, as well as processes of individuation and class
differentiation. This is because the themes of citizenship and individuation only emerged after
initial fieldwork had been completed, during the coding of my data.
In addition to this new conceptual direction for my research, there are some more
concrete additions that will make my data more complete. The first and most obvious is the
inclusion of observation and participant interviews for the WSDP method, since all the data on
this method comes essentially from the instructor‘s point of view. The text of Always Safe
includes some narratives form graduates of the WSDP course, but these accounts are of limited
value, because they are stand-alone stories, told anonymously with very little background
information like that which could be obtained in a personal interview.
Secondly, I would like to conduct follow-up interviews, re-contacting as many of the
original research participants as possible. I would like to use these follow-up interviews to gauge
any lasting effects that self-defense participation has had in their lives, and whether any of the
attitudes they shared in their original interviews have changed. In addition, a few participants
mentioned their desire to travel abroad for education or work, and I would like to learn if any of
them were able to follow through on these plans.
Thirdly, I will ideally complete some comparative work on the origins of WenDo and its
incarnations in other cultural contexts. As I mention in Chapters 3 and 5, WenDo was developed
in Canada in the 1970s and was gradually dispersed throughout Western Europe. By attending
WenDo courses in another location, preferably Canada, I will be able to discern any changes
made to Wendo pedagogy or its expressed philosophy in theory or in practice between its origin
in Canada and in its present form in Poland.41
Another missing piece of the story of self-defense in Poland is the perspectives of the
men who participate in martial-arts courses; as well as the interventions available for men who
are victims or perpetrators of violence. The next logical step in this investigation is to conduct
interviews with male participants in mixed-sex martial arts courses in order to learn if and how
men‘s reasons and motivations for taking martial arts are different from women‘s. Another
aspect that could be revealed by such interviews is male participants‘ attitudes to women‘s
participation in the masculine field of martial arts. American scholars like Susan Faludi have
shown how men in the United States often express resentment that can sometimes turn violent
when women ―invade‖ exclusively male preserves like the military and fraternal organizations.
However, interactions between male and female participants in even the most masculinized
martial arts, like Krav Maga appeared to be quite cordial, if somewhat distant. For this reason, it
might be interesting to undertake a cultural comparison in this regard.
In addition, two of the male self-defense instructors I interviewed mentioned that they
were involved with interventions that try to bring men back into the conversation about gendered
violence. First, Piotr who has a background in psychology and teaches WSDP, says that he works
for a therapy group for domestic violence perpetrators; Secondly, Marek, a Krav Maga instructor,
in associated with a group for men who have been victims of violence. Both of these therapy
groups would add an interesting depth to the study, and research on them would investigate
Johnson‘s assertion from Russia (2005) that states that male violence is often pathologized to the
point of removing all responsibility from perpetrators. However, this exploration may take the
form of a subsequent project rather than a supplement to the current project which will hopefully
culminate in a published ethnographic monograph.
For example, a 25 year old Polish woman with some college education made around 2000PLN per month
in 2004. If a self-defense course like Krav Maga costs 100PLN per month, this is 5% of the monthly salary:
a small percentage but considering the relatively high cost of living in a city like Warsaw, this can
constitute a substantial segment of a woman’s disposable income.
These informal networks included the Fulbright commission, the Polish friends of other American
Fulbrighters and professional contacts at Warsaw University. In addition, I lived with a Polish roommate
for the first five months of my research trip, and made contacts with a few Polish friends through
colleagues in the United States. One major difference between these acquaintances and the research
participants was that nearly all of these acquaintances were fluent in English, so most of our
conversations took place in English and were more spontaneous than the more formal interviews with
research participants.
WenDo was the only course for which I traveled outside of Warsaw; this was because WenDo had the
fewest “contact” hours of any of the courses, meeting for 12 hours over the course of two days. Since the
courses were offered relatively rarely in Warsaw, I attended an additional seminar in Kraków to gather
additional data.
This includes WenDo instructors interviewed during preliminary field research in 2006.
This fear has most often been articulated in terms of gay marriage and abortion policies.
For the purposes of this chapter, I will conflate the idea of “Polish culture” with the idea of the Polish
nation-state, although obviously the situation is much more complex than that. The Polish nation-state
has been more or less culturally diverse during various periods in history, with a period of relative
homogeneity related to communist-era deportations currently changing because of increasing European
and non-European immigration.
Bucur and Wingfield (2006) show how the few Eastern European women who fought in 20 century
roles in Eastern Europe were discursively de-gendered by frequent references to their “virginity” or their
status as atypical women.
The current law in Poland allows legal abortions in the case of rape, incest, or risk to the life or health
(narrowly defined) of the mother. Conservative legislators are constantly attempting to introduce even
more restrictive laws which would remove the allowance even in cases of rape, incest or risk to health.
However, even under the current law abortions are hard to obtain even in these extenuating
circumstances. In 2008, Polish courts tried to block a 15 year old girl who had been raped by a relative
from getting an abortion; however, under international pressure and media attention they relented and
agreed to allow this exception (Pochrzęsta 2008).
The word dziewczyna or “girl” was commonly used by my interlocutors to refer to grown women,
although it was usually used when these women were younger than 30. It was used self-referentially by
many women as well, and did not seem to carry a derogatory or dismissive connotation.
Canada’s organization employs over one hundred instructors and Toronto alone hosts at least one
WenDo seminar per month ( Germany offers regular courses in elementary and middle
schools, and commercial courses in many major cities. In contrast, there are 16 Polish instructors, and
Warsaw (the largest city and capital) offered only two courses during my nine months in Poland
WenDo offers courses for women who are blind, deaf, or who use wheelchairs; in addition, in the
“normal” courses they include accommodations for women who have any kind of disability or physical
The majority of the most advanced students in this course were boys or men, with the exception of one
female student with a brown belt who attended the course on a semi-regular basis.
As an anecdotal case of this, during one class in the late fall, at the beginning of the class between the
warms-upwwarmwarm-up and the main exercises, Iwona got up while the class was sitting in seiza to
open a window because the heat in the room was turned up and the room was very hot. This earned her
a reprimand from the instructor and an assignment of pushups.
Several participants stated that the physical conditioning aspects of UnSafe Woman and Combat were
too difficult, which may have additionally led to their dislike of the use of physical exercises as a
punishment for rule-breaking. I can attest to the difficulty of the physical exercises in these courses,
which usually included 20 minutes of intense calisthenics and drills such as “suicide runs.” On more than
one occasion, a participant in the class had to ask permission to sit down and stop training for a few
minutes because she did not feel well. Many interviewees stated that they had never been involved in
intense exercise and had not expected this level of difficulty. However, they usually did not see this as a
weak point in the course, but as a weakness in themselves.
For a more detailed discussion of the ways that consumers seek “distinction” through their
consumption of products, see Bourdieu 1979.
“Body work,” in addition to fitness and nutrition activities, can take the form of salon or spa
treatments, dance classes, meditation, tai chi, or yoga.
I should note that “beautiful body” imagery is usually found in the advertising of martial-arts based
self-defense courses, rather than women’s only, feminist-based courses like WenDo or WSDP.
Nonetheless, in some interviews, and in online testimonials from participants in these courses,
participants confessed that they took self-defense in part to increase fitness and improve appearance.
The European Krav Maga association distributed membership cards and passbooks with which to track
members’ payments and training progress, sold T-shirts to generate extra money, and sometimes
organized special seminars and social events that were also on a paid basis, and which encouraged
members to congregate outside of regular class time. (Un)Safe Woman, although it was a free course,
also sold t-shirts.
As one might expect, there is a difference between the ideal of gender-blind pedagogy and the realities
of practice. Some women who were participants in Krav Maga and Karate reported that male participants
were often “scared to hurt them” during sparring, and that the instructors were more disciplinarily lax
with female participants. However, the trainers and participants attempted to conceal any implicit
gender bias by including identical physical requirements for men and women, and for encouraging men
and women to spar together. Elżbieta stated that most of the time, when sparring with men, they were
courteous to her as a woman and as a novice participant, somewhat violating the gender-blind principle
of the course: “As a rule it is like this, when a boy is fighting with a girl, like in training, as a rule he is just
more like, careful, and is scared to do anything, so that he just doesn’t do any harm to the girl. It’s
apparent that no one will do any harm to me.”
Although I cannot say that all participants in my study explicitly identified as heterosexual, a majority
mentioned husbands, boyfriends, or crushes on male martial arts instructors. I did not ask about sexuality
in the interviews, so it is possible that some participants identified as lesbian. However, because of the
dominant culture of homophobia in Poland I find it unlikely that many participants would openly identify
as homosexual when speaking to a relative stranger.
For the purposes of this section I maintain the binary separation between the two subject positions,
masculine/feminine, male/female, man/woman. Although myriad authors have sought to complicate and
denaturalize this gender binary (i.e. Butler 1999) suggesting that masculinity and femininity,
heterosexuality and homosexuality are polymorphous and cannot be forced into a neat binary opposition,
the Polish participants in this study overwhelmingly understood gender and sex in terms of two mutually
exclusive subject positions.
The Kitty Genovese story has been name-checked in many pop-cultural stories of vengeance and
vigilantism, and the ways that this story has been utilized are varied. It has been used as an illustration of
the rampant violence in New York City, the apathy of witnesses to crime, and the inherent dangers of
being a woman in the United States. However, the WenDo web site highlights the fact that Genovese
“fought back and escaped” from her attacker three times before she was finally killed.
The changes that were most often stated by the Polish WenDo instructors were 1) less emphasis on
visualization and “new-age” activities that were favored by some of the German trainers, and 2) toning
down the ferocity required of participants in the physical training segments of the course. For example,
some Polish trainers did not require participants to shout when carrying out a strike, and no classes that I
observed required participants to spar or grapple with instructors or other participants.
The most obvious reason for this difference would be that women in Canada are more familiar with and
accepting of feminism, while Polish women view feminism with suspicion. However I think this
explanation is overly simplistic, and as one reviewer has pointed out, a wide variety of cultures exists
within Canada that might have different attitudes toward feminism. However, I cannot speak definitively
on this point, as more research is needed, specifically ethnographic research on Canadian WenDo.
It became clear through interviews that several of the Polish instructors do not get along with each
other, rarely speaking, let alone teaching courses together.
In Polish culture, handshakes between men and women are a common part of social interaction,
especially in professional contexts. However, etiquette dictates that a woman should extend her hand
first. If a man were to grasp a woman’s hand in a handshake without her permission, that might be a sign
that he is aggressive, or that he does not respect the woman’s personal boundaries.
This seeming contradiction may be the result of differences in individual style between WenDo
instructors, as I attended courses by four different instructors and interviewed several more. For
example, Ela stated “it is all right not to be a polite girl, you have to swear sometimes.” This contrasted
with Leticja’s admonition to a participant who responded to a mock attacker with the Polish equivalent of
“fuck off.” Other instructors seemed only opposed to those swear words they considered denigrating
toward women, such as kurwa or “whore.”
I will not enter an extended discussion of the WSDP approach to intuition here, because it is similar to
that I described for WenDo. Kruczyoski and Drożdziak explain that in a dangerous situation, a feeling of
fear will be awakened, even if the situation would not be seen as dangerous in most cases.
The institutions the authors specifically refer to are the Catholic Church, and what they nebulously refer
to the “Polish culture of patriarchy.”
Chivens (2005) has also connected the police to a culture of violence against women in Poland, and has
discussed the problematics of using police power to enforce domestic violence law when many police
officers have been offenders themselves.
This is probably because of the use of a noun form of an imperfect (rather than perfect) verb tense,
which inherently implies ongoing action.
When I conducted my study, some programs like this existed in Poland. For example, Piotr, who is a
psychologist and therapist in addition to WSDP instructor, stated in 2007 that he was leading a therapy
group for male domestic violence offenders, with the aim of “getting to the root of” their violent
Both of these studies I cite here refer back to a 1993 study on the same topic in which the fear of crime
was much higher, representing a threefold increase from a 1989 survey. However, I was not able to
access the CBOS reports on these studies because the online records only go back to 1997.
Many of the perpetrators convicted of human trafficking in Poland are Polish men, although Ukrainian
and Russian men are often by constructed by Poles as the “others” responsible for human trafficking.
Even though there are Polish traffickers, even these perpetrators are discursively othered by those who
assert that these men are not truly Polish, that they are “not like us.”
The Schengen treaty that went into effect on January 1, 2008 allows travel without border controls
throughout all the EU countries in continental Europe, with the exceptions of Romania, Bulgaria,
Lichtenstein and Cyprus.
Graff specifically cites the work of Jerzy Koza in this talk; but similar tendencies can be seen in the work
of Jerzy Duda-Gracz, whose paintings are best known for adorning the monastery of Jasna Góra in
Częstochowa, home of the so-called “black Madonna.”
The marriage rate, from 1994-2004, dropped from 5.39 to 1000 to 5.00 per 1000; this difference may
seem trivial, but according to Baraoski and Kaczmarek (2007) is one of the larger drops in Europe during
that period. The divorce rate has also been trending upward and Poland has one of the highest divorceto-marriage ratios in the sampled countries. Between 2004 and 2005, Eurobarometer estimates that the
birth rate in Poland fell 10%, with less dramatic decreases during the preceding years. However, in 2007
and 2008 the birth rate started rising again, prompting some commentators to announce a “baby boom”
(Banjanovid 2007), perhaps in response to conservative mobilizations, as well as tax credits that
encourage having children.
Such policies are justified by their proponents because of demographic statistics that assert that 95% or
more of Poles identify as Roman Catholic. However, this identification does not take into account these
citizens’ level of church engagement, attendance, or the level of agreement with church policies. Some
recent studies question the accuracy of such high figures of church membership among Poles. Secondly,
such statistics automatically collapse the categories of “Citizens of Poland” and “Ethnic Poles;” a
conflation that is becoming less and less reflective of reality as more non-Poles take up residence in the
In this case Bunzl was talking about the Czech Republic, which admittedly has a different social and
religious context than Poland.
This statement also can potentially read as an indictment of the individualism of Polish society and may
show that not all self-defense participants buy into the philosophies of neoliberal individualism.
It is still unclear whether the Polish form of WenDo is “legitimate” according to the Canadian managers
of the organization, so it will be necessary to tread lightly in this area to prevent any negative
consequences for the Polish WenDo trainers, many of whom claim WenDo as their sole livelihood.
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Abby L. Drwecki
Curriculum Vitae
3102 Bluff Street, Apartment 4
Madison, WI 53705
Phone: 618-553-4581
Ph.D. in Anthropology, Indiana University-Bloomington
Concentrations: Ethnography, Eastern Europe, Gender, Social Movements
Minor: Russian and East European Studies
Dissertation: Dangerous Women: Self-Defense, Individuation and Gender in Post-Socialist Poland.
Defense date May 10, 2010; projected deposit date November 18, 2010
M.A. in Anthropology, Indiana University-Bloomington. Received January 3, 2008
B.A. Butler University, Indianapolis. Received May 23, 2003
Major: Anthropology
Minor: History
Honors’ Thesis: Individuals in the Web of History: Memory and Identity of Polish Immigrants in
Languages: Spanish, Polish (Proficiency Level B2)
Research Affiliations
Honorary Visiting Fellow (Pending)
University of Wisconsin, Madison
CIC Traveling Scholar
University of Wisconsin, Madison
Methodology training in mixed methods and statistics, networking, guest lectures. Hosted by The
Psychology Department and the Women’s and Gender Studies Research Center, Madison, WI.
September 2009-May2010.
Fellowships and Grants
ACLS Travel Grant for Eastern European Studies
American Council of Learned Societies
For travel to the conference “National Bodies in Eastern Europe,” Victoria University, Wellington,
New Zealand, August 2010
Fulbright IIE Dissertation Fellowship
Warsaw University, Warsaw, Poland.
For dissertation ethnographic fieldwork in Poland. September 2007-June 2008.
Anthropology Department David C. Skomp Fellowship
Indiana University, Bloomington.
For dissertation proposal feasibility study. June-August 2006.
Russian and Eastern European Institute Mellon Travel Grant
Russian and Eastern European Institute Summer FLAS grant
Office of Women’s Affairs Women in Science Fellowship
Indiana University, Bloomington.
For feasibility study travel to Poland. June-August 2006.
Indiana University-Bloomington.
For summer language instruction in Krakow, Poland. June-August 2005.
Indiana University-Bloomington.
Covered coursework and post-fieldwork year of graduate education. Included teaching
appointment in the Anthropology department. August 2004-May 2009.
Teaching Experience
Madison Area Technical College
General Anthropology- 1 semester
Position: Instructor of Record
Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity- 1 semester
Position: Instructor of Record
Duties: Designed syllabus in conjunction with College’s learning objectives for Humanities and
Ethnic Studies, led lecture and discussion, facilitated in-class activities, utilized distance-learning
strategies, designed learning assessments.
Indiana University-Bloomington
Laboratory in Ethnography – 1 semester
Position: Instructor of Record
Duties: Facilitated a service-learning relationship with a community organization, lectured and
facilitated discussion, helped students design ethnographic projects, and designed activities and
Introduction to Cultural Anthropology- 4 semesters
Talk, Tales and TV: Africa, Europe and the U.S.- 1 semester
Position: Discussion Section Instructor
Duties: Managed 2-3 discussion sections per week, wrote essay and multiple choice tests,
managed attendance for discussion sections and lecture, designed activities and assignments for
discussion section, graded tests and assignments, and provided guest lectures.
Position: Grading Assistant
Duties: Designed in-class activities, graded essay tests and term papers, managed activities in
lecture, managed attendance, and provided guest lectures.
“Lost Tribes and Sunken Treasures” – 1 semester
Position: Discussion Section Instructor
Duties: Managed 3 discussion sections per week, wrote multiple choice tests, designed activities
and assignments for discussion sections and lectures, managed activities in lecture, managed
attendance in discussion sections and lecture, and graded tests and assignments.
Culture and Society- 1 semester
Position: Grading Assistant
Duties: Wrote multiple choice and essay tests, designed activities and assignments, managed
attendance, graded tests and assignments, and provided guest lectures.
Employment Experience
Conner Prairie Museum
Position: Historical Interpreter
Duties: Organized activities for adults and children of all ages, facilitated learning and experiences
for guests of differing abilities and backgrounds.
Indianapolis Museum of Art
Position: Student Intern, Education Department
Duties: Researched African art objects and their cultures of origin; wrote informational materials on
these artifacts for elementary and middle-school students.
Research Projects
Women’s Self-Defense in Poland: Femininity and the Body
Advocacy and Subject Making at a Women’s NGO
Tracking Alternative Feminisms in Poland
Individuals in the Web of History: Memory and Identity of Polish Immigrants in Indianapolis.
Dissertation research project- WenDo, Karate, Krav Maga, UnSafe Woman and WSDP courses in
Warsaw, Krakow and Wroclaw, Poland
Project for graduate course in Ethnographic Methods at Middle Way House, Bloomington, IN, USA
Feasibility study for dissertation proposal-Warsaw and Krakow, Poland
Undergraduate Honors Thesis Research Project, Butler University
Invited Lectures and Conference Presentations
Body Projects and Women’s Empowerment in Poland.
Presentation at the “National Bodies in Eastern Europe” Conference, Victoria University,
Wellington, New Zealand, August 28-29, 2010.
Women, Citizenship, and the Self-Defense of the Polish Nation.
Women’s Sport and Self-Defense in Poland: Intersections of Gender and Class
Panel Presentation at the 2009 Annual Meeting of the American Anthropological Association,
Philadelphia, PA December 2, 2009
Panel presentation at the 2008 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement
of Slavic Studies, Philadelphia, PA. November 23, 2008
Un-Safe Women: Gender Subversion and Self-Defense in Warsaw
A Year of Ethnographic Research in Poland
Invited lecture at the Polish-U.S. Fulbright Commission in Warsaw, Poland. May 10, 2008
Invited lecture at the undergraduate seminar Gender Sexuality and the Family, Ethnology and
Anthropology Institute, University of Warsaw, Warsaw, Poland. May 5, 2008
Playing with Power: Women’s Self-Defense (Dis)Courses in Poland
Panel presentation at the Third Biannual Conference of the Association for Women in Slavic
Studies, Columbus, OH. April 27, 2007
East, West, and the Elusive Polish Feminist
Self-Defense Courses in Poland: Preliminary Research
Panel presentation at the 71st Annual meeting of the Society for Cross-Cultural Research, San
Antonio, TX. February 24, 2007.
Panel presentation at the David C. Skomp Summer Research Forum, Indiana University,
Bloomington, IN. October 24, 2006.
Awards and Academic Honors
Women in Science Poster Competition, Second Place, Graduate Division. Indiana University-
Summa Cum Laude, Butler University.
Highest Departmental Honors in Anthropology, Butler University.
Lesley Sharpe Award for Outstanding Fieldwork, Butler University.
Phi Alpha Theta History and Anthropology Honor Society, Butler University.
Phi Kappa Phi Honor Society, Butler University
Published Book Reviews
Review of Timothy Snyder, The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus15691999 in Sarmatian Review 28(1): pp. 1366-1367.
A Woman’s Nature: Femininity and Individual Empowerment in a Polish Women’s Self-Defense
Journal of International Women’s Studies. 11(4): pp. 97-114.
’Everything Depends on Us: Discourses of Collective and Individual Responsibility in Polish
Women’s Self-Defense Courses.
Anthropology of East Europe Review. 27(2): pp. 176-192.
Professional Service
Society for the Anthropology of Europe
Anthropology Graduate Student Association Research Symposium
Position: Book Review Editor, H-SAE Listserv
Duties: reinstituting the book review system to the H-SAE online network; creating a database of
book reviewers; assigning, organizing and editing book reviews for content, before publication on
the H-Net online system.
Indiana University- Bloomington
Position: Volunteer, Panel Chair.
SOYUZ Annual Meeting
Indiana University-Bloomington
Position: Student Volunteer
2005-2006, 2009-2010 Member of the American Anthropological Association
2005-2006, 2009-2010 Member of the Society for the Anthropology of Europe
2008-2009 Member of the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies
2007-2009 Member of the Association of Women in Slavic Studies
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