International Women’s Strike shows what feminism really looks like

On March 8, women around the world gave themselves a day off — from the system.

Not that a woman’s work is ever done. But for one day, to mark the International Women’s Strike, women in dozens of cities in the United States and in more than 50 countries across the world redeployed their productive energies to fighting for gender and economic justice.

Women downed their tools on multiple fronts. Mothers outside the waged workforce restructured their schedules to share the burden of care work. Others took part in local direct actions.

Reviving the spirit of the event that inspired the original socialist International Working Women’s Day — organised to support the huge garment workers’ strike led by immigrant women in New York in 1909 — women found creative ways to rupture the patriarchy.

They also showed that, contrary to dismissive claims that taking action for women’s rights is just for the privileged, activists in 2017 come from all walks of life — including nannies, fast-food and retail workers, teachers, and “unorganised” microtaskers.

In New York, no woman was left out at the march. Professors pushed for a “sanctuary campus” for immigrants at regional colleges and universities, and sex workers and bodega (convenience store) owners marched arm in arm for environmental, gender, and racial justice under the banner of “feminism for the 99%”.

Organiser and Arab-American Palestinian rights activist Suzanne Adely said the rally upheld a “tradition” of women “using their economic power to build a social movement that declares that the liberation of women can only come … when we stop wars, when we stop violence against black women and black people, [and] come together to learn how to work together towards building real liberation for women and for all people”.

Octavia Kohner, a trans worker who recently launched a union at the Babeland sex toy boutique, spoke about the need for intersectional resistance instead of establishment feminism. Her fellow workers struggled for a contract that would strengthen the staff’s civil rights and labour conditions, she recalled, against vocal resistance from nominally liberal (but profit-minded) bosses.

“Boss feminism is denial, it is deception, it is self-interest over solidarity,” Kohner told the crowd at Washington Square Park. “That I am a woman did not matter … what did matter is that the workers came together, we agitated, we educated …

“When we are united as an intersectional workforce — when the sex workers, when the trans women, when the women of colour, when the disabled women … when we centre those most marginalised in our community [and] put their voices forward, when our goal is not only to help them survive but thrive — is when our feminism is a success.”

Rabyaah Althaibani, a Yemeni-American family business owner, highlighted the link between feminist success and racial justice in the bodega strike, in which thousands of local grocers in New York closed shop for a day to protest Trump’s original Muslim travel ban right before it was suspended by the courts.

Althaibani said: “Following the great success of the bodega strike, thousands of Americans throughout the country took to the streets and strikes were organized in other major cities and towns…

“Strikes work, boycotting works, protests work.”

But her community’s work remained painfully unfinished; her husband is unable to enter the country because of Trump’s policy, which was recently reissued with slight amendments.

“I have constitutional rights, as an American, to have my husband here with me in my life, just like any other American,” she said, “and I demand it.”

The New York march route touched historic sites of struggle, from the Triangle Shirtwaist factory, where women workers burned and rebelled a century ago, to Stonewall Inn, where the first generation of queer rights activists exploded against police oppression. At a time when even Ivanka Trump calls herself a feminist, these women were showing that working women still can’t get a break.

Saffiyyah Muhammad, a mother of five and peer counsellor for families with children on the autism spectrum, painstakingly planned her strike day. She made sure her kids were prepared for a day without mum to fetch them from school or clean up after them, and steel herself for the challenges ahead for women’s rights under Trump.

Muhammad drove a long way to the Washington arm of the women’s-strike march, from her home in Newark, where she helped lead a campaign for a local paid sick days law. She was politicised by family needs: Years ago she had to drag her sick child with her to her retail workplace after being warned she’d lose her job if she stayed home to nurse him.

Now a nationwide campaigner with the advocacy coalition Family Values @ Work, Muhammad said a policy for paid leave “makes common sense … It makes financial sense, and it makes spiritual and health sense, for people to be afforded the opportunity and the right to … not have to be conflicted to take care of their families.”

Esther Vicente, who rallied in Washington as president of International Planned Parenthood Women’s Federation Western Hemisphere, said many of the federation’s member groups are now besieged by the “global gag rule”. This Republican policy revived by Trump curtails international aid for groups providing any abortion-related service or advice.

Although she works with the affiliate in Puerto Rico, which as a US territory is not subject to the gag rule, Vincente said Trump’s pending overall cuts to local aid money and vicious austerity policies will cripple health care services, and endanger reproductive health care. This is because Trump has emboldened conservative political factions on the island.

Since providers have often campaigned for reproductive rights reforms, the administration could now effectively punish their advocacy with billions in funding cuts.

Now that Trumpism is bringing the full weight of such global injustice to bear on women, half the world’s work lies ahead. For mums like Muhammad, the struggle continues well past this March 8. But when she left her work behind that day to march, she reported to work in a new way.

“The world is used to women showing up,” she said. By withholding her labour for a day, “we get the chance to not only show up, but we get to show out … speak up and speak out, and build awareness of the importance of coming together…

“The sacrifice is for unity.”

[Abridged from The Nation.]

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