Women fight back: from survive to thrive

In the Trumpian world writ large, the feminist struggle is more acute than ever. 13-16 May, the Nobel Women’s Initiative brings activists to Germany to strategise about advancing women’s rights while opening democratic space.

Jody Williams
10 May 2017

Women's March in Washington, DC, 21 January.

Women's March in Washington, DC. PA Images/Albin Lohr-Jones. All rights reserved.

The rising backlash against women’s rights, as well as that against activists of all stripes, was infused with new and terrifyingly overt vigor with the campaigning tactics of Donald Trump leading up to the dumbfounding results of the US presidential elections last November. But perhaps for many, equally as surprising has been the massive, and mostly nonviolent opposition in the US to Mr. Trump’s dystopian agenda that favors the rich and Wall Street at the expense of the poor and middle classes, its sexist assault on women’s rights, and the fact that it doesn’t give one whit about the environment and climate change.

In total dismay the night after the election, Teresa Shook, a retired attorney and grandmother living in Hawaii, turned to Facebook and wrote the first thing that came to her mind, “I think we should march.” That little post was the impetus to what became the amazing Women’s March on Washington on January 21, the day after Trump’s inauguration.

More than half a million women, children and men came together to express a broad range of opposition to Mr. Trump and his plans. Eight of those people were at my house in Virginia and we planned to hook up with the Nobel Women's Initiative delegation at a point near where the march would start and walk together in support of women’s rights and opposition to all things Trump. While we did manage to make it to the march, which was an adventure itself, we never were able to find anyone we had intended to march with.

Women's March in Washington, DC, 21 January.

Women's March in Washington, DC. PA Images/Albin Lohr-Jones. All rights reserved.

The gloriously chaotic and completely peaceful crowd in Washington was so massive that finding our friends proved impossible so we focused on staying together and reveling in the magnitude of the march. That day some three million people marched in cities across the US and around the world to denounce the global rise of the authoritarian right, fueling xenophobia and intolerance of the “other,” whether because of gender, race, religion, place of origin – or any other hateful sentiment given power and space by the man who became president.

At a rally that day in Boston, US Senator Elizabeth Warren captured the essence of what propelled people, many of whom had never publicly protested before, to take to the streets. “We can whimper, we can whine or we can fight back,” she said. “Me, I’m here to fight back.”

The struggle continues as other longstanding issues such as climate change, gun violence in the US, and racism find new vibrancy, new voices rise up and are heard, and people continue taking to the streets in the hundreds of thousands as was the case on April 29 with the People’s Climate March in Washington and across the US.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., right.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., right. PA Images. All rights reserved.

But as we know, and echoing the words of May Bove, executive director of 350.org, writing to supporters after the march, “… [M]arching isn’t enough. We need to find ways to keep organizing and building our power.” She went on to say, “The best defense is a good offense,” and described the pillars around which the environmental/climate movement is building its work: organizing, inspiring, opposing and resisting. In the Trumpian world writ large, these are fundamental elements of all activism, including that of feminists.

Struggling for equality since “Eve was fashioned of Adam’s rib,” and as evidenced by the unexpectedly massive response to the call for women to march, we are using this political juncture as impetus for rethinking strategies and tactics to promote and protect women’s rights and those who defend them rather than simply working to “get through” this extremely negative political moment.

It has been both the current political tumult in the US and around the world coupled with the massive activist response that influenced the theme of the Nobel Women's Initiative upcoming biennual conference, to be held this year in Germany, from May 13-16. Women from more than a dozen countries, including the Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Indonesia, Iraq, Kenya, Syria, Turkey and Ukraine to mention a few, are coming together to share strategies and tactics from different cultures and experience under the conference banner, A Global Feminist Resistance: The Evolution and Revolution, Adapting to Survive Thrive!

Activists living in exile, such as Nobel Peace Laureates Shirin Ebadi of Iran and Tawakkol Karman of Yemen, as well as Yanar Mohammed of Iraq and Majd Chourbaji of Syria, bring to the discussions their experiences of working for women’s rights in countries where they no longer live. Indigenous/First Nations women defending human rights and their lands in Guatemala – Andrea Ixchíu Hernández, coordinator of Red Tz’ikin, and in Canada - Helen Knott from Prophet Rivers First Nations - will discuss and share their experiences with women like Julienne Lusenge, a feminist from the Democratic Republic of Congo who, against all odds, continues to fight back against rape and gender violence in her country.

One young activist coming to the conference is Sarah Clements, from Newtown, Connecticut, where twenty grade-school children and six adults were massacred by a lone gunman in December 2012; Sarah’s mother survived the attack at the school. I met Sarah and several other young people from Newtown several years ago at a peace weekend sponsored by PeaceJam. It was the first such event for the Newtown young people and their interaction with the hundreds of other young people that weekend will always be with me.

That weekend, it was clear that Sarah is a natural leader. Not does she have the ability to inspire but also to bring people together to strategize and act. She and her family are members of Newtown Action Alliance which works for strong gun laws in the US. We all are fortunate that Sarah and other activists like Felogene Anumo of Kenya, and Heba Obeidat of Jordan, will be at the conference to offer insights into successes and set-backs they are encountering in their work as young women activists with those of us who have been at it for decades.

NWI 2013

Nobel Laureates (left to right) Leymah Gbowee, Mairead Maguire, Shirin Ebadi, Jody Williams, Tawakkol Karman, Rigoberta Menchu Tum at the 2013 conference in Belfast.

As an activist myself for almost five decades, since the Vietnam war, I am looking forward to bringing my experiences in helping create a global campaign to ban landmines out of nothing, or from my work before that in various organizations trying to stop US military intervention in Central America in the 1980s. The International Campaign to Ban Landmines has been wildly successful while our anti-interventionist work was anything but.

Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchú Tum survived the genocide of Guatemala’s decades-long civil war that ended in 1996, but family members did not. Hers has been a life-long struggle to end impunity and bring to justice the perpetrators of those crimes against humanity. Her story and those of other Mayan women’s struggles will be at the table in Germany to inspire us to remember that while at times seeking justice may seem a futile exercise, when women triumph, we can turn our upside down world right. One such story is that of the women of Sepur Zarco, Guatemala.

In the early 1980s during the war, Mayan women were held as domestic and sexual slaves at an army fort in the tiny village of Sepur Zarco. For years after, afraid to talk about what had been done to them, they ate their pain. But slowly they began to talk to each other. Ultimately over many years that talk led fifteen of the women to fight for justice in a court case against two of the men involved in their slavery. Several Guatemalan women’s organizations came together to support the effort and the case finally went to trial over the month of February 2016. Rigoberta and I spent the last week of the trial in the courtroom in support of the women. What I wrote at the time best captures the moment we saw them in court.

“After having met and talked with the women the night before, it was a shock to enter the courtroom the next morning and see them totally covered… Fourteen of the fifteen women who brought charges in the case sat behind their bank of lawyers, only one of whom was a man. Over the six years it took to bring the case to court one of the women died. Her testimony stands, however, because the women had been allowed to testify by video so they would not suffer revictimization in open court… “

“The women were always still and silent, always with their faces covered…They may cover their faces in public, but these are the women who found something within themselves that compelled them to seek justice – not only for themselves but also for women who come after them.” And justice they found.

Sign at the Women's March.

Sign at the Women's March. PA Images/Monica Jorge. All rights reserved.

Against so many odds and in a precedent-setting case of monumental proportions, that February, the court found for the women. For the first time anywhere in the world, men had been tried for sexual slavery perpetrated during an armed conflict in the country where the crimes took place. The two men on trial were sentenced to a total of 260 years in prison and restitution was ordered for the women.

Fifteen Mayan women who speak no Spanish, have no education, live in intense poverty, and whose people are looked upon as less than human by Guatemalan elites, dared to take on the powerful military and seek justice. Despite immense tragedy and loss, they refused to remain silent victims. They are survivors who have demonstrated to women everywhere that together we can prevail.

It is with that spirit that we come together in Germany. We refuse to bow to the backlash against women’s equality and attempts to curtail our human rights. As May Bove said, “The best defense is a good offense.” To develop a good offense it is fundamental to come together to not only continue to increase feminist networking but also to learn from each other's strategies and tactics that have worked and those that have not and how we need to adapt and adjust our efforts to respond to today’s Trumpian world.

Elizabeth Warren got it right when she said, “We can whimper, we can whine or we can fight back.” In a few short days, women from around the world will meet in Germany to hone our efforts to create a world of sustainable peace with justice and equality. We will not just survive, we will thrive.

The Nobel Women's Initiative conference takes place in Germany 13-16 May. Follow 50.50's coverage of the event.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData