They shall not pass: feminists on the front line

Across the world, feminists are fighting the far right and fascism. We hear from activists in seven countries.

July 9, 2019 · 10 min read
Illustration: Tomekah George

US

Rosa Y. Negra

While the Women’s March attracted thousands of liberal protesters to Washington DC on the first day of Donald Trump’s presidency, the previous day’s Disrupt J20 actions better reflect the anti-fascist and coalitional aims of many US feminists. Local group The Future Is Feminist led one of multiple blockades blocking entry to the inauguration ceremony, joining environmental, indigenous, trans and queer, and Black Lives Matter activists in resistance to Trump.

Defending women’s reproductive freedoms has been a key concern. Hanging by a thread in many states, they face an existential threat with the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh to the supreme court – a process marked by mass protest – which tips the court’s balance towards anti‑abortionists.

Anti-fascist feminist action predates and surpasses the Trump administration, however. In 2014, feminists raised early warnings about the angry young white men organising the #gamergate movement – breeding grounds for tactics and ideologies that, emboldened by Trump, fed into ‘alt-right’ groups. The alliance of anti-trans ‘feminists’ with ultra-conservative lobbyists is a current growing danger. Monitoring and disrupting far‑right groups’ online networks, as well as their gatherings and rallies, have become invaluable anti-fascist feminist strategies.


Poland

Marzena Zukowska

In October 2016, one year after the election of the right-wing nationalist Law and Justice Party (PiS), Polish women across age and class staged one of the largest street protests in recent history to oppose the government’s proposed anti-abortion law. Spread out across large cities and rural towns, more than 100,000 people mobilised for ‘czarny protest’ (black protest), holding their now-iconic black umbrellas aloft. The mobilisation, far larger than expected, was powered by feminist groups such as Manifa and civil society organizations such as KOD (Committee for the Defence of Democracy). Days later, the legislation was successfully defeated in parliament.

Protests have since continued throughout the country, with groups such as Akcja Demokracja and Dziewuchy Dziewuchom (‘Gals for Gals’) organising in opposition to a range of anti-democratic and outright fascistic policies on a par with the rising far-right tactics seen globally today. For example, PiS has undermined the independence of the judiciary and consolidated power by appointing its own judges – a move under European Commission investigation – and restricting press freedom, including by fining broadcasters for airing footage of protests.

The challenge ahead for Polish feminists is one faced by women’s movements everywhere: translating protest into lasting political power. Only one political party in Poland, Razem, has an overtly feminist agenda, and it is far from certain that the politically diverse groups galvanised during the czarny protest are a dependable voting bloc for the 2019 elections. Meanwhile, PiS continues to enjoy widespread support for its economic and social welfare policies, while quietly finding ways to limit access to contraceptives, sex education and abortions.

Even so, women in Poland, as across the globe, are in the frontlines of the resistance to authoritarian rule. This reclamation of power goes far beyond a single election or protest. From #MeToo to the women’s march to the czarny protest, the feminist tide is steadily rising.


Rojava

Dilar Dirik

The Kurdish women’s movement has a decades-old legacy of autonomous social and political organising against colonialism and fascism. It was a struggle that was largely invisible until the resistance against the so-called Islamic State in the city of Kobane, in Rojava/Northern Syria. Since 2012, years before the formation of the US-led coalition against IS, Kurdish women had been at war against them and similar Al Qaeda remnants. With the slogan ‘Jin, Jiyan, Azadî’ (Women, Life, Freedom), they not only fought against the rapist gangs of external patriarchal systems but led a women’s liberation revolution.

Amid war and destruction, the people of Rojava started building self-governed grassroots democratic structures, with a commitment to women’s liberation, co-existence and solidarity. Women organise in all spheres of life, from creating neighbourhood communes and economic-ecological co-operatives to taking up equal co-leadership positions in the federal system in the north of the country.

These historic developments are now under threat due to the invasion plans and occupation ambitions of the Turkish state. Last year, due to Turkey’s unprovoked war of aggression, hundreds of thousands of people were displaced from Afrin and have been living in make-shift refugee camps. Extremist mercenaries systematically used violence against women during the attacks, including sexualised mutilation of the dead bodies of YPJ (Women’s Protection Units) fighters.

Turkey, which has an atrocious record of war crimes and human rights abuses within its borders, is not only aspiring to annex these lands, but to make it impossible to solve the crisis in the Middle East. But in spite of these attacks, the resistance of women continues.


UK

Hope Worsdale

In recent years, the UK far right has been weaponising the experiences of sexual violence against working-class women and girls to further a racist agenda. Tommy Robinson, aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, has become something of a celebrity for his supposedly ‘brave’ attempts to highlight the issue of ‘grooming gangs’ and child sexual exploitation. Following on from this, the far right has launched a crusade to ‘protect’ women from Asian and Muslim men, who they claim are enemies of ‘British values’.

We don’t need the likes of Robinson to point out that sexual violence against women and girls is an endemic problem in our society. We know that this violence is perpetrated by men of all nationalities, ethnicities and religions. Yet Robinson and his supporters have nothing to say when our rapists are white or non-Muslim.

We will not allow Tommy Robinson to speak on our behalf. We do not accept solutions to sexual violence that perpetuate racism and xenophobia. That’s why feminist anti-fascists have been mobilising in growing numbers to stop the far right marching through our streets.

The newly-formed Feminist Anti-Fascist Assembly (FAF) has led successful counter-demonstrations against the far-right Democratic Football Lads Alliance and Tommy Robinson. In November, FAF took over the streets again, this time on the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, to march against fascism and sexism across the world.

We will fight against both sexism and racism wherever they manifest – our feminism and our anti-fascism go hand in hand.


Philippines

Iris Gonzales

During his 2016 campaign for office, the now president of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte, joked about the rape of Australian missionary Jacqueline Hamill, who was killed during the 1989 hostage crisis in his hometown of Davao City. He said that, as mayor at the time, he should have been ‘first in line’, instead of the perpetrators of the crime.

On another occasion, he told a group of soldiers in a military camp that they were allowed to rape up to three women.

Feminists have formed advocacy groups to educate the public on Duterte’s misogynist and sexist ways, and have launched local and international campaigns such as the #BabaeAko (I am a woman) network.

‘I’ve spoken out as a journalist and an advocate, pointing out – like a broken record, really – that his misogyny is not a unique part of his character, but part of his general authoritarian style of governance,’ says Inday Varona-Espina, one of the founders of #BabaeAko.

Let’s Organize for Democracy and Integrity (LODI), another advocacy group, has also taken up the issue of the misogynist intimidation of dissenters.

Nikki Luna, a Filipina artist, for her part, uses art to make other people think about Duterte’s abuse of power. She collaborates with other feminists and activists, including through their feminist publishing house called Power In Her Story. Together with Chang Jordan, Faye Cura, Ja Arumpac and Lara de los Reyes, they create books and visual materials that inform and educate girls and women regarding women’s human rights.

‘It is important to teach children and arm them with information since we live in a time with misogynist/fascist leaders,’ Luna says.


South Africa

Kylie Thomas

Women in South Africa played a critical part in the struggle against apartheid, a system based on white supremacist racial hatred and patriarchal violence. Although apartheid ended in 1994, its legacy continues to affect life in what remains the most unequal country in the world – and that also has the highest rates of sexual violence and rape.

In the 1990s, the nascent post-apartheid feminist movement brought women of all races together to ensure that the new constitution recognised the rights of women and LGBTQI+ people. What was a hopeful time for political and social liberation was, in some ways, crushed by the emergence of the neoliberal state and the persistence of inequality and violence. In 2006, Jacob Zuma, who was elected president in 2009, was accused of rape and his lengthy trial and acquittal was a shameful episode in the country’s history. During the trial his supporters rallied outside the court and burned images of the woman who was raped, while chanting ‘Burn this Bitch’. In 2016, feminist activists who formed part of the One in Nine Campaign interrupted Zuma’s presidential address, holding up signs calling on the country to remember the woman who had been raped.

In 2015/16, feminist and LGBTQI+ activists played a central role in the RhodesMustFall and FeesMustFall student movements. But attempts to silence feminists in South Africa continue, and those who have resisted racism and heteronormative patriarchy have faced threats of violence as well as rape, assault and murder. Fascism in South Africa does not have a single face but it can be seen through the violent actions of those who seek to extinguish anti-racist feminist activism before it has even begun.


Brazilian Women Against Fascism. Photo: Camila Fontenele

Brazil

Brazilian Women Against Fascism

Brazil’s new government promises to be against all of us: women, black people, indigenous peoples, members of the LGBTQI+ communities, immigrants and minorities in general. We are up against dark times when dissenting could cost our lives.

Brazilian Women Against Fascism UK is a non-partisan leftist group of immigrant Latina women from Brazil living in the UK. It was born out of the necessity to oppose the rise of fascism in Brazil and stands in resistance to the Bolsonaro government and everything it represents. Our aim is to give international visibility to human rights violations and to support activists and social movements in the struggle back home.

The rise of fascism is a global phenomenon and we need to unite forces to resist it. The hate speech spat out by Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil represents the same xenophobia that Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Theresa May repeat in the US, Europe and UK.

We believe that women play a key role in defeating this agenda. If we take, for example, the #elenao movement, organised by women in Brazil in September 2018, the impact that we, as women, had in preventing the victory of Bolsonaro in the first round of presidential elections is undeniable. Women and so called ‘minority groups’ are rising up to oppose Bolsonaro’s discriminatory narrative.

Together we are going to prove that sexism, racism, LGBTQ-phobia and fascism no longer have a place in the world. New times are coming and the revolution will be feminist, anti-racist and anti-fascist. We will carry on fighting for a fairer and more equal society for everyone. We will oppose and resist all attacks against our democratic institutions and the Brazilian people. We have entered 2019 with hope but knowing that hope alone doesn’t change anything. We must fight!



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