In Mary’s Month

In the Catholic tradition May is Mary’s month, a month of devotions to the Blessed Virgin. Events I read about this week reminded me about a short story by the Polish writer Marek Hłasko.  Hłasko (1934-1969) was the enfant terrible of post-war Polish literature, not so much attacking sacred cows but rolling them in the dirt and making his relish clear.  He revelled in the seamy side of life and spared his readers nothing. In 1957 he was forced to leave Poland and spent the rest of his short life in Israel and West Germany where he died of an overdose of sleeping pills aged just 35.

The story ‘Mary’s Month’ is set in wartime Warsaw, during the brutal Nazi occupation.  Two men walk into the courtyard of a tenement block where  many of the residents are kneeling in prayer before a statue of Mary, reciting the May Devotions. They walk up the stairs and knock on the door of a flat. An elderly woman answers the door and is ordered out. The men have come to see her daughter, specifically to punish her for allegedly sleeping with German soldiers. One of the men holds her down on the bed while the other forces a vodka bottle into her vagina before using the butt of his pistol to smash it. They leave quickly ignoring their bleeding and traumatised victim.

The story is short and nasty. On one hand it can be argued that  Hłasko is attacking both what he sees as the irrelevance of Catholic piety in a brutal world and also the idea that the Polish Resistance was always heroic and noble. On the other hand this story can be seen as nothing more than a pornographic fantasy. I have always found it deeply uncomfortable reading.

Fantasies like this are not confined to Poland. This week I read about a case in a Northern European country where a young woman was assaulted at a party by having a bottle forced into her. What was truly shocking were the comments of the judge who, if he was reported accurately, said that she had contributed to her injuries by being modest, that is by resisting the violation.

What country was this you may ask? The surprising answer is Sweden, a country that a number of well known feminist commentators seem to regard as some kind of paradise for women, a model for our country to follow.

I am not saying this to attack Sweden. I have visited that country on several occasions and found much to like there. My point is that Sweden itself has a long way to go to achieve equality and should not be seen uncritically as a model for us to follow. We have our own struggles, our own problems, and need to find our own answers. And British feminists going to Sweden need to take their critical faculties with them.

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