Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

A Woman's Nature: Addressing Violence against Women through Femininity in Poland

Academic journal article Journal of International Women's Studies

A Woman's Nature: Addressing Violence against Women through Femininity in Poland

Article excerpt


This article is an investigation of women's self-defense courses in postcommunist Poland. I focus on WenDo, a women's self-defense seminar which is based on feminist principles and which seeks to empower women through changes in body culture: i.e. their physical capabilities, posture, demeanor and vocalizations when in a position of interpersonal threat or danger. Through an ethnographic study of this self-defense method, I show how WenDo's pedagogy is designed to lead to these changes. In addition, I question whether WenDo can be conceptualized as a form of women's empowerment which is disconnected from an organized feminist movement and is based on individualized self-improvement. Although most WenDo organizers and instructors are self-identifying feminists, most participants are wary of feminism and are invested in identities which privilege traditional femininity and domesticity. Therefore, WenDo limits its engagement with feminism in two ways: first, the pedagogy of empowerment in WenDo seminars emphasizes the strengths and limitations of women as an essentialized category. Secondly, the recommendations of WenDo generally focus on the danger women face from strangers on the street as opposed to violence within the family faced by a greater number of women. Despite these limitations, widespread participation of women in WenDo may constitute a culturally appropriate way of addressing women's status in an environment that is largely hostile to feminist organization.

Keywords: Ethnography, Women's Empowerment, Postcommunism


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 of Warsaw, Poland. One by one, they introduced themselves and told their reasons for participating in the self-defense seminar. Katya, a woman in her late fifties, tearfully told of her victimization through domestic violence and how she had chosen to attend this course in order to become more assertive. Later, when the participants were practicing saying "No!" in loud, strong voices, Katya was reluctant to raise her voice because "the people downstairs will think we're crazy".

My first impression of Katya was that she adhered to stereotypical Polish gender norms, sacrificing her own happiness for her duties to family and home. However, over the course of this self-defense seminar, where she learned to express herself in an assertive way, learned to use physical force to defend her space, and where 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. At one point in the seminar, she surprised herself (and perhaps others) when she sat at the front of the room, and with nothing but her bare hands and a loud shout, snapped a two-centimeter-thick board 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.

Katya's story is an example of the positive results which can occur when a woman participates in a self-defense seminar. This transformative experience took place over just a two-day period, during a beginner's training seminar for a self-defense method known as WenDo. WenDo's Polish website and official 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" and "a feminist form of self-defense". 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. 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. …

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