The beating drums. The cadence in the marching. The slogans and chanting grow louder, and louder. The feeling of solidarity. The strength that can be felt in the presence of masses of people is truly tangible.
When we think of activism and women, a number of example come to mind: the Suffragettes movement, fighting for women’s rights to vote; the women of the Civil Rights Movement, who faced police brutality just as much as their male counterparts, and where Rosa Parks stood her ground and kept her seat; or even the Miss America protest from 1968, where the infamous idea of “burning bras” to protest patriarchy was born (although they never actually burned any bras). But even in those instances, what is recognised is the fact that they were women taking part in civil disobedience, and not how they were taking part. Marching and shouting demands is one thing, but getting creative with it is a complete game changer.
As the co-founder and director of a peace organisation, I didn’t know what to expect when I first started, but I knew that what I was doing felt right to me. It was like a gut feeling; there’s no other place any of us would have been, and as I met and connected with other women, I quickly realised that I was channeling the frustration and the passion of the women who came before me, fighting for the same causes: equality, justice, freedom. My co-founder and I have a lot to learn from those who came before us. How do you assert yourself as a valuable and legitimate voice? You get creative, you get loud, and most importantly, you don’t stop.
What makes a public demonstration accessible to anyone and everyone that would want to, and could, join? The non-violent element. A protest comes from a frustration or anger about the status quo, but what renders an action ineffective is if it looks like an attack, rather than a defense. The Suffragettes, for example, resorted to more disruptive and somewhat violent measures when peaceful ones weren’t working, with the most famous act committed by Emily Wilding Davison, which also turned out to be her last. So how do we ensure that the action is direct, non-violent, heard and respected? You get creative.
Actions are usually deemed successful with two measurements: awareness raised to the cause through the action, and how much new engagement there is with the campaign after the action. One sure way of ticking the first box is by getting creative with your action. The Greenham Common women, protesting against the presence of American nuclear weapons on British soil, began to tie nappies, teddy bears, and blankets to the fences surrounding the compound once they established their camp. Another way in which they got creative was by dressing up as huge teddy bears, making it uncomfortable for security to tackle them and justify their acts.
The creative aspect of campaigning and protesting doesn’t only exist in the time frame of the action. In France, a collective of women called “Sœurcières” made a striking assembly in Caen to protest violence against women. Their name - Sœurcières - is a pun as the word for “witch” in french is “sorcière”, and the word for “sister” is “soeur”, thus creating the “sister witches”, or Sœurcières. It also completely feeds into the dated (but sometimes still relevant) misconception that women who don’t behave like women - aka docile, obedient, quiet - must be witches! Having a creative name is sometimes just as mind-boggling as carrying out a creative action.
In Chile, we’ve seen assemblies of women calling out the patriarchal system which systematically and conscientiously denies women the rights, recognition, and justice we deserve. “El Violador en tu Camino”, or in English “A Rapist in Your Path”, is a choreographed chant created by LasTesis, and while it originated in Chile it’s been reproduced in over 200 cities across the globe. Talk about sisterhood!
What’s particularly poignant about their action is that it’s actually a spin on the slogan used by Chilean police force from the 80s and 90s - the Carabineros - who notoriously used sexual violence to torture those opposing the political makeup of the country at the time. The chant, and accompanying choreography, are striking in the power and confidence they generate in their participants. These women will usually have a blindfold on (bringing to life Lady Justice and giving her a 21st century spin) and stand in a militaristic formation to point to and call out their aggressors: the state, the judges, the president, the police...you.
But what’s even more striking is the universality this demonstration holds. The line “And the fault wasn’t mine, not where I was, not how I was dressed” speaks to, unfortunately, too many women all over the world. At the end of the day, the fight for feminism is the fight for equal rights, and transcends borders.
This chant is a literal cry for feminism. It’s a cry for our right to assemble and let our voices be heard. It’s a cry for those who can’t speak. It’s a cry for those we don’t want the next generations to go through the same thing. It’s a cry for justice, for recognition, for equality, for humanity!
The future is female
In the last year, we’ve seen Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg lead the fight for the climate through the school strikes, and while it’s encouraging to see the young generation of the 2020s actively engaging in these issues, it also sheds light on the difference in treatment of male and female activists.
Greta Thunberg has been on the receiving end of some harsh and inappropriate hate. The women who protested the Miss America pageant became infamous for something which never even occurred, which feeds into the idea that women are irrational and act irrationally when left unsupervised. The very idea behind the name “Sœurcières” serves as a reminder that any woman, throughout history, that would stand up and speak up against the status quo must be a witch, because that is entirely unnatural to the nature of a female.
But the future is female, and it is diverse. As a woman, a peace campaigner, a researcher, a daughter, a friend, a Sister, and hopefully one day a mother, I am proud of the women who came before us and paved the road for me and my co-founder to carry out the work we do today, and to do it in a way which represents the colourfulness of our brains. I am humbled to be a part of history, to be a part of something bigger than you or me. We must recognise those who came before us not only as elders, but also because we carry and continue the fight they started. Women in the Black Panthers proudly wore their afros, to show that black women are beautiful beyond western standards of beauty, and now, in 2020, the natural hair movement within black and African communities around the world has become the symbol of self-acceptance and self-love.
The creative, emotional edge that women bring to campaigns and non-violent direct actions is one which has various forms and shapes. Without it, it’s possible that some inequalities and injustices we face wouldn’t have been addressed the way they have now. However, although they’ve been addressed, they’ve not necessarily been fixed. So what does all of this tell us?
All of our inequalities, injustices, issues, and problems are linked. We all need to support each other and work together to reach our goals. Racial injustice is linked to climate change. Women’s rights will vary depending on the authoritarianism of the government. The outcome of efforts to save the climate and our planet’s species will depend on governments’ priorities, and in the case of my organisation and campaign’s mission, it will depend on our governments prioritising sustainability, health, and the climate over military expenditure, arms manufacturing, and conflict as means of innovation and progress.
The title for this article is based on a song by Helen Reddy.