I write in celebration of International Women’s Day. I write to celebrate all who identify as women and who struggle, in every way, in every sphere, to be more free and for a better world.
Struggles for overall liberation and struggles for day-to-day survival are equally important. I write in celebration, though not without frustration, that we still need to specify a day to celebrate women – that we are not nearly equal or respected in all ways. I want to write of how we used to need to celebrate women and our struggles – but now we live in a free world where these struggles are things of the past – where girls are not raped or married off and toxins are not a part of our daily meals. But that is not yet our world. So I write to celebrate the women fighters of today – sharing a few stories of women who are laying the groundwork for this new world, in our social relationships, workplaces, schools, homes, as well as on the streets and barricades.
I recently traveled to Argentina to learn about and collaborate with people defending the earth, water and commons, as the struggles are referred to (en defensa de la tierra, agua, y bienes comunes). From the anti-mining and anti-fracking struggles to those against the spraying of pesticides and attempts at deforestation, communities are in resistance, winning, and often creating alternatives in these same spaces of struggle. I was given contact names for the various movements for each city and town – after the first three towns I began to notice a pattern: Vanessa, Sofia, Gabriela, Monica, Paula … they were all women. And once I began to meet these inspiring women and learned their stories, I also noticed a few patterns.
None had been political before. All came to organizing as what they called an instinct and reaction to the contamination or potential destruction of their community. Most all had children, and everywhere they organized in horizontal assemblies.
There is a powerful intentionality to create leaders in everyone, not have hierarchies, and share in all decision making. Men in the communities are also involved, but in each case the calling together of the assemblies was done by women. And significantly, the most militant direct actions are also led and conducted by women.
In Malvinas, Argentina, it is the women of the assembly who locked arms week after week and blocked the Monsanto trucks from passing. And they won! Monsanto is no longer constructing what would have been the world’s largest genetically modified seed processing plant in their town.
In La Rioja, the defense of the mountain La Famatina has been organized by women and again, the road blockades and building of barricades has been led by women. And they are winning! They have forced two international mining companies to withdraw their intentions of mining the mountain.
As I traveled and spoke with people around the country the stories were consistent: horizontalism, direct action, non-hierarchy, autonomy … all predominantely women- organized and women-led led and carried out.
Canada: Idle No More
Sheelah, Nina, Sylvia and Jessica: these are the women who initiated Idle No More.
Theresa Spence – the Attawapiskat Chief who sparked further mass actions across the continent and world by her powerful hunger strike.
The movement that began with four women emailing back and forth and deciding to be “Idle No More” took off across Canada and the U.S. with many thousands holding rallies and marches; blockading streets, bridges and highways; and dancing in malls, shopping areas and intersections. These actions forced a conversation about the protection of the earth. Initially in response to potential legislation in Canada, laws that would remove protections of the land and water, and in particular indigenous lands, the movement has now grown and evolved into a broad-based international network of indigenous peoples and their supporters. The movement is led almost everywhere by women, from the running of the many hundreds of internet sites to the spokespeople, coordinators and facilitators of the movement in its many locations.
What Widia Larivière, a 29-year-old Anishinabe and Québécois woman who is a leader in Idle No More reflected on her website is consistent, I believe, with what so many thousands are feeling.
“For me, being a young activist woman means to speak up and take action for my people despite the obstacles that we face as a youth, women, Indigenous, etc., and to create space to empower other youth to do so,” stated Larivière.
Women all over are leading, but as Widia explains, not only leading for themselves, for the present, but teaching others to lead – and for the future.
What one eats is increasingly becoming a life and death matter in many parts of the world – places like Argentina where the crops are sprayed with napalm based pesticides, long banned even in the U.S. or Japan, where after the nuclear plant meltdown in 2011 the soil was not only contaminated, but intentionally spread around the country, making it unclear where or if there was any non-toxic soil.
Aki, Sersuko, Tatsuko, Yukiko, Kazue and Setsuko are six of the thousands of brave women who are standing up to the Japanese government, their communities and even their spouses and families. The above names are from the prefecture of Fukushima, where the nuclear meltdown took place, but represent so many women resisting the contamination of their bodies, and by extension their minds. The government has carried out a massive propaganda campaign arguing since the beginning of the crisis that it is safe to go outside, play in the dirt and sand, and eat the food. They have even gone so far as to argue that to not do these things is unpatriotic, un-Japanese and therefore punishable. People who resist have lost their jobs and been alienated from their neighbors and families. There is such a climate of social control that to disagree, to say “No, I will test my food before feeding it to my daughter,” or “I will test the sand before my child plays in it,” is an act of resistance and, an act of power. It is women who are manifesting this power.
Women are, and have been on the frontlines of this resistance in Japan. Immediately after the meltdown women organized to purchase what was then illegal Geiger counters in order to measure the contamination levels in their neighborhoods. They shared this information with one another, letting other women know what food was safe to eat or dirt safe for the children to play in. They resist and refuse the propaganda of the state, arguing that to comply could mean death and for sure illness. To oppose the state of Japan is no simple task and many women describe having been divorced by their husbands and no longer invited to family functions. This is a heavy toll to pay for trying to survive and keep one’s family safe.
Many of the women, such as Setsuko, are now not only organizing for the survival of their families and communities but to change everything. As she puts it in the film Women of Fukushima, “We have to take down this government”.
India: Gulabi Gangs
The horror stories of child marriage and the rape of young women and girls in India are devastating – and increasing. The response of the media, courts and generalized opinion of most men in the country, that women and girls are the ones to blame, make it all the worse.
Over the past decade another force has been rising – a pink one – not based in the legal system, as it is a totally broken, but one organized exclusively by women in towns and villages across the northern region of the country. This new force holds men accountable for violence and by doing so tries to prevent it in the future.
What began with a few women is now is a loose network of anywhere from tens of thousands to 400,000 women, dressed in pink saris and wielding bamboo sticks. They are called the Gulabi Gang (Pink Gang) and, as they move forward, their vision is to “protect the powerless from abuse and fight corruption.”
Their focus is on women’s rights, as well as fighting aganist abuse of girls and women. They are most known for beating men senseless when they rape or abuse women or girls, but they also fight against child marriages, help arrange marriages based in love, and work in various ways to ensure that the poor are protected.
“Yes, we fight rapists with lathis [sticks]. If we find the culprit, we thrash him black and blue so he dare not attempt to do wrong to any girl or a woman again,” explained the groups founder, Sampat Devi Pal.
But defense is not their only activity. As they write on their website, they also “Support and train women to enhance their basic skills to become economically secure and develop confidence to protect themselves from abuse through sustainable livelihood options.”
Day to Day Resistance as a Flaming Barricade
There are countless struggles, such as the ones I mention in Argentina, Canada, Japan and India where women fight to survive, protect those around them, and strive to build a better world, while teaching others how to do the same. We come from a long line of women around the globe who have consistently organized for a better world, defending another and all that we hold in common.
And then there are the struggles of survival, which often receive less attention as they can appear less glamorous – there might not be barricades or street actions – but these stories of survival are no less powerful and are also a part of what is transforming our world – creating new worlds – and setting the example for young women and girls that there are alternative ways of living, being and relating.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day – let us celebrate all we have accomplished, the power we have and create, and remember that this power is manifest in all sorts of ways, from the flaming barricades to the networks of safe houses of abused women – from our empowered public rally cries to our day-to day-survival.
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