Karolina Skowron advocates for farmed animals as the Corporate Relations Director at Fundacja Alberta Schweitzera in Poland. She is also involved in the feminist movement and openly speaks about being lesbian. She uses her lifelong experience in activism to make connections between these movements and to inspire others to widen both their circle of compassion and activism.
Q: You frequently speak about animal rights to feminist audiences such as during the Animal Center during the Women’s Congress 2018 in Poland, which you both founded and coordinated.
That’s right! Connecting feminism and animal rights is still fairly new in Poland, so I’m extremely thrilled that this year the Women’s Congress, which is the biggest social movement in Poland, agreed for me to host the Animal Center during its annual event with up to 5000 attendees. The lectures and workshops of this event are grouped into about 20 centers, and I find it both symbolically important that one of them is fully devoted to animals (with a focus on farmed animals and the institutional treatment of animals in society), and practically important in terms of having the chance to address such a big feminist audience.
Q: Why did you choose feminists as an audience in the first place?
I have been an animal activist for as long as I can remember, and a feminist probably ever since I could talk, so this connection came to me kind of naturally. Both feminist activism and animal activism are my background and it would be a pity to keep them separate when there’s so much potential in combining them. Also, it’s plain to see that it is mainly women who are involved in animal activism, and this has made me wonder. Today I’m quite certain that this is no coincidence. I noticed that my feminist circle is very open to ideas regarding animal welfare and liberation, veganism, or at least meat reduction, much more so than other circles I’m familiar with. I think that feminism comes with a certain set of values, and freedom from violence is certainly one of them. Women who call themselves feminists, who are active for the goal of full equality of women and men, must have a certain sensitivity, an ability to see injustice – both individual and institutional. They see much more than their own interests, they have empathy for women they have never even met. Empathy is a quality – or perhaps even an art – which has an amazing ability to grow, broaden and include more groups.
Q: Why is it so important for feminists to get involved in animal rights activism?
It is in the best interest of women to have better animal protection laws and more respect for animals in society in general. There are many common motives in women’s struggle and the plight of animals in society. Our position is surprisingly similar, we share a common burden, because patriarchy affects both women and animals. What’s more, our two movements – feminism and animal rights – are guided by the same values. We have the same goal, which is - in essence – dignity, respect, and freedom from suffering.
When I speak to feminists about these interconnections of oppression, I usually group them into four areas: objectification, language, violence, and inconvenience.
I think it all begins with objectification. Just like men objectify women in society (who are portrayed as sexual objects), humans objectify animals, referring to them and treating them as if they were things. Speciesism lies very close to patriarchy. If you take a look at how bodies are objectified, this becomes very visible. Women are sexualized in music videos, are hired as hostesses, used as props. Female bodies advertise anything you can imagine (from beer through cars to suits), and in these commercials female body parts are shown up close as if the women they belong to aren’t human, but consist of these body parts only (= which can be used by men as they wish). This influences the way that women are treated in society, how they are judged primarily by their looks – being first a body, and only later a human being. Women are judged by whether or not they are mothers, whether they are in an age that’s attractive for men (ageism affects women much more than men, this is also an area where intersectionality is important), by their clothing, hairstyle, and body, even when they are in a role which has nothing to do with appearance (e.g. a politician). Historically and in many areas of the world today, the objectification of women includes their “usefulness” as wives, their ability to raise children, cook and clean. These are all things that feminists are trying to change, but without changing the very fact that the process of objectification is so common in society, this may prove difficult. The analogy to the objectification of animals is quite striking. They are treated as things by humans, they can be consumed, used for clothing, fur, painful experiments, entertainment in circuses, sea worlds, films and zoos, etc. Ironically, animals also appear in advertisements as “happy” cows, pigs or chickens who dream of being eaten or giving up their own milk or eggs for humans. Both animals and women live in systems of violence in which their bodies serve somebody else. That is why when we allow any group or species to be objectified, we agree to the process of objectification itself. Inevitably, this will affect other groups.
The second interconnection between women and animals is language. I see it as a bridge between objectification and the third interconnection – violence, because the first step to justifying violence is to objectify someone, take away their dignity and rights. It then becomes “ok” to hurt them, because you cannot hurt “objects/things”, or someone, who is always “less than”. Oppressive language towards women and animals is an inevitable element of our patriarchal society – women are portrayed as sexual objects, and animals are things that you can use. Both are products. Our language has a way of belittling harm done to women and animals to ensure that this objectification can continue. We’ve all heard that “boys will be boys”, “it’s only a compliment”, “don’t be so dramatic”, “it’s just what men do”, “he’s basically a good guy”, or even “she was asking for it.” I can name so many more phrases like this in a few languages, and I’m quite certain this is universal across many cultures. Belittling harm towards animals is no different. “Humane killing” is one such phrase, as is “species regulation” used by hunters or counting dead animals in kilos and tons instead of individuals. Even “meat” and “fur” is oppressive language when you really think about it.
Oppressive language strongly influences the third interconnection, which is violence. Research has shown that domestic violence (towards women and children) is strongly connected to violence towards animals. For example, animal abusers are five times more likely to commit violent crimes against people (Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and Northeastern University, 1997). Another study showed that 71% of battered women in shelters claimed that their abuser had harmed or threatened to harm their domestic animal companion (Ascione, F. R. 1997. Battered women's reports of their partners' and their children's cruelty to animals. Journal of Emotional Abuse, 1:1, 119-133.).
As part of their violence towards wives and partners, men threaten to hurt domestic animals who they love. Many shelters for women do not accept animals, which leads to large numbers of women staying at home with their offender in order to protect companion animals. Violence is universal, it is caused by the perpetrators’ of violence sense of power over their weaker victims, the mechanisms of violence are always the same no matter of who the victim is. Therefore, to end violence towards women, we must end all violence.
Finally, what connects the situation of women and animals is inconvenience. It is inconvenient for men to acknowledge the full equality of women. If they did, this would mean fewer privileges and more obligations for them. The same goes for animals. If we as humans were to accept that animals are subjective beings with their own complicated needs, we would have to change our ways as individuals and as a society – change our diet, what we wear, what we do for entertainment, etc.
It is not just our position in society and the guiding values which connect us, but most of what women and animals endure is interconnected – objectification, language, violence, and inconvenience. We depend on one another. That is why I’ve chosen feminists as an audience for the animal rights cause.
Karolina speaking on stage. Picture by Robert Ostrowski.
Q: What were/are the reactions from feminist audiences to your talks?
They were great! In fact, it was the good reaction of the feminist audience last year when I spoke about these issues during a debate on ecofeminism at the Women’s Congress which made the Animal Center this year possible. The Animal Center, which consisted of four debates, was absolutely overcrowded, the audience couldn’t fit into the room. I think this shows that Polish feminists are really ready for this topic, they’re ready to make the connection and act on it. I expected more resistance and thought that many women would say I was belittling their experience by comparing them to the experience of animals. However, at least the large numbers of women who spoke or wrote to me after the talks, understood the connections instantly. Of course I don’t expect that all feminists will appreciate these connections and I would actually love to hear negative feedback to improve the arguments that I use. However, I strongly believe that this is the best audience for the animal rights cause, and I hope to do more in this regard. There’s still so much to do in Poland and elsewhere!
Q: Apart from raising awareness and getting female activists involved in animal rights activism, do you also consider it important to get more animal activists involved in feminism?
This is a very difficult question to answer, because women are fighting for themselves in large numbers, while animals still need human advocates of whom there are so few in comparison to those who exploit animals. That’s why animals need all the allies they can get, and my hopes are high with getting more feminists on board to do this. However, the animal rights movement is not free of sexism either, and last year in particular has shown that we have a big problem with sexual harassment. We definitely need more feminism within the animal rights movement, we need women to be more empowered. It is striking how almost 80% of the movement is made up of women, but it is mainly white, heterosexual, cis men who are the leaders. Focusing our activism and advocacy on animals is a way of thinking which is very close to my heart, but it cannot mean forgetting about other oppressed groups, especially within the movement. If more feminists joined the movement, they could help make sure that we always remember that. What’s more, research has shown that people who are activists in one field are much more likely to become successful activists in another, so I say we should all join forces and work together wherever possible.
Q: Some animal rights activists feel that “addressing other social justice issues takes away from the fight for animal liberation”. How would you respond to people with that view?
If we look at animal activism as a marathon, not a sprint, as something that we want to do our whole lives, we have to take care of ourselves as well. If women cannot feel safe in animal rights organizations or in the movement itself, this will push them out or at best take away some of the strength they need to work with these difficult issues and give their best. To achieve a better world for animals we need to be determined, innovative, sensitive yet firm. This is not possible without a supportive environment. What’s more, if addressing other social justice issues gets animals more supporters and helps us get results, this can only enrich the fight for animal liberation. I have involved feminists in animal rights activism on more than one occasion, I have seen them help out and even save the day in some instances. Believe me, we need feminists, animals need them. The same goes for other social justice movements. I cannot say this enough - animals need all the allies they can get, and they need allies who are aware of other social oppressions, seeing the interconnectedness and overlaps. I think more feminists in the animal rights movement would also help heal our movement from some of the effects of the dominant patriarchal culture.
Karolina (left) at the Animal Centre. Picture by Dom dla Kundelka.
Q: You are currently working as the director of an all women team for Fundacja Alberta Schweitzera (Albert Schweitzer Stiftung) in Poland. What is it like being part of this team and has this shaped the way you conduct activism?
This experience has changed my life, it has been its absolute highlight. My job means the world to me now, and finally working for animals full time is a gift from life that I will always be grateful for. As a lifelong politically involved animal activist, I used to believe that engaging in politics was the only way to change the Polish reality for animals. Until recently there weren’t any full-time jobs in animal advocacy. Being part of Fundacja Alberta Schweitzera has shown me that working in an NGO for animals can be even more effective than political work. It has been an honor to join this amazing foundation and to learn from our German partners. The director of corporate outreach in Berlin, Silja Kallsen-MacKenzie, has taught me everything I know about cage free work, and has been a huge inspiration!
In Poland I lead a team of extremely dedicated and talented women. I feel very lucky to have each of these extraordinary people on my team. There’s a very creative, supportive energy that comes out of women working together, I’ve always valued that. It’s both about our bond and common goal, as well as the sensitivity that we share. I know we’re going to do even more great things together! So working for animals is also about the people you work with, about taking care of each other and giving each other strength on both the good and bad days, about creating a safe environment. This is just one more reason to remember that all social justice movements should be connected.
Q: Departing from working with other women and feminist audiences, we would like to ask you about your experiences in the LGBTQIA community in Poland. What is it like being an out lesbian in Poland compared to other places you have lived, such as London and the UK, where you studied Sociology and Global Diplomacy?
It is still much more difficult to be an LGBTQIA person in Poland than in western Europe. Homophobia is visible in all areas of life, and we don’t have much legal protection, not to mention marriage equality or anything of the like. As everywhere, it is much easier for people living in big cities in comparison to rural areas and small towns. I have always been an out lesbian, which makes it both easier and more difficult, depending on how you look at it. Our country seems to be made out of contradictions, we’re constantly somewhere in between modern, open Europe and conservative, catholic tradition, not fully knowing who we are. Being a homosexual person in such circumstances is full of challenges.
Some of these include facing homophobic comments in public space, from prominent people in the mainstream media, in schools and on the streets. Others are more tragic – the numbers of kids being thrown out of their homes because they are gay/lesbian is tremendous. There is an LGBTQIA shelter in Warsaw for young people who are in this situation, and it can be really overcrowded. And for those who are “out” – you can never be invisible. When I take my partner’s hand on the street I know I’m observed (10 years ago we would be attacked or openly offended, but that has decreased over the years and we had high hopes before the current government came to power that things would really change) and I know I have to be careful, that I have to be ready to protect her and to protect myself. We still take hands, because we refuse to be scared, but also because we believe that only by being “out”, by being ourselves, can we ever change the current situation. It is tiring to be an activist 24/7, though, even in your private life. What a relief it would be to just take the hand of a person you love on the street and not be in the center of attention for such a simple, normal gesture! We’ll get there one day.
Q: Did the current situation for LGBTQIA people in Poland change over the last couple of months?
It has changed over the last two years, ever since an anti-democratic, ultra conservative government has taken over. Politicians from the ruling party are openly homophobic, and this has affected society, with a rise in homophobic discourse and discrimination. While during the last ten years the situation had improved enormously, year by year, we are now witnessing a backlash. Sadly, Poland is slowly becoming a scary place for LGBTQIA people.
Q: Are animal rights being addressed and discussed in the LGBTQIA community in Poland?
They are definitely not discussed enough. There is an LGBT Facebook group for animals in Poland and it is the only one I know of. I think this is another group who would be a good audience for animal rights issues, although more difficult to address than feminists. It’s a highly internally diverse community and being an LGBTQIA person does not necessarily mean that you have a specific set of values and world views into which animal rights may fit, while feminists are brought together by the values they share. However, I do believe that belonging to a discriminated group generally enlarges your sensitivity to injustice, not just your own, and this is where I see hope for the LGBTQIA community to embrace animal rights. My personal experience is very uplifting, I know many vegan people from this community, it’s probably larger percentage-wise than the general population, but I haven’t seen any data on this.
Karolina with a lovely goat. Picture by Aleksandra Swierzy.
Q: What is the current perception of and situation for veganism in Poland?
It’s an exciting time for veganism in Poland, with a rapidly growing trend for more plant-based food. The landscape has enormously changed in the last few years, with vegan products and restaurants popping up and numbers of vegans and vegan-friendly people growing at an amazing pace. In fact, Warsaw has been named one of the top three vegan cities in the world – we have about 50 vegan restaurants in our capital at the moment. It’s hard to keep up! However, there is a lot of work to be done outside of the big cities, where the traditional, Polish menu dominated by animal products is still the only known path.
Q: Is there anything else that you would like our readers to know or that you would like to give them on their way as a piece for thought?
Yes! I’d really like to encourage others to take a look at their other circles – apart from the animal rights movement – and find connections which can bring more people in for animals. Just like the feminist movement, other human rights and social justice movements have many similarities and share common values with animal rights. We need their support, let’s get them on board!
Also see Karolina's amazing talk at the International Animal Rights Conference on 6th September 2018:
Why Feminists Should fight for Animal Rights and Veganism - Karolina Skowron [IARC2018]
Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this interview are prepared to the interviewee’s and the interviewer’s best capacity and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of The Vegan Rainbow Project itself. Please also not that people change and so do their opinions. We kindly ask you to be mindful of that when reading past articles and/ or statements that are referenced in this interview.