Five wins for feminism

March 6, 2015
Women’s rights activists at Parliament House in Sydney to watch Zoe’s Law lapse. Photo: Peter Boyle

Every activist has at some point been told that activism is pointless today, that it achieves nothing and hasn’t since the ’70s. Others say that there’s no point to feminist activism in particular because we already have gender equality. A quick look at the issues feminists are struggling for, and the wins we’ve had recently, show that neither claim is true, nor are they likely to be for some time.

1. Zoe’s Law

When “Zoe’s Law” was introduced to the NSW parliament in 2013, advocates for a woman’s right to choose mobilised. Zoe’s Law sought to give foetuses personhood, redefining when life begins and therefore undermining the right to safe and legal abortion.

Personhood laws are a new weapon in the arsenal of anti-choice campaigners in Australia, who are trying to reframe the debate as concern for pregnant women who suffer a miscarriage due to someone else’s actions. In reality these laws would chip away at abortion rights, making it inaccessible without having to outlaw abortion itself.

Seeing the effect foetal personhood campaigns have had in the US, pro-choice activists saw through these arguments and launched a counter-campaign to scrap the bill.

While the bill initially passed the NSW Legislative Assembly easily, the mounting public pressure from this campaign forced politicians to let the bill lapse, preserving current abortion laws. On November 20 last year when the bill officially lapsed, pro-choice activists were finally able to claim victory.

Whether anti-choice politicians will seek to reintroduce the bill in the future is unknown. What is known is if that were to happen, pro-choice activists would mobilise again as a strong fighting force in defending a women’s right to choose.

2. Abortion law in El Salvador

In El Salvador, where the state considers life to begin at conception, people know the consequences of personhood laws.

El Salvador has some of the most restrictive abortion laws in the world: it is completely illegal even in cases of rape, incest, threats to the mother’s life or foetal unviability.

This complete ban has not only led to shocking maternal death and suicide rates, but has caused many women to be jailed after suffering a miscarriage where the distinction between complications from abortion and miscarriage are hard to determine.

In 2008, 19-year-old Ms Vásquez was raped and became pregnant. She miscarried and was taken to hospital where she was accused of inducing an abortion. She was arrested, and subsequently sentenced to 30 years in jail. She is just one of “Las 17”, (The 17), a group of women who have been jailed under similar circumstances. But a win, and a ray of hope, came earlier this year when Ms. Vásquez was pardoned after nearly a decade of imprisonment.

Feminist and pro-choice activists have begun to push for further pardons and less-restrictive abortion laws. The case of “Las 17” has gained international attention.

With a majority of Salvadorans now supporting less restrictive abortion laws and individual members of government speaking out against the laws, pro-choice activism has had a huge boost in the country.

3. Anti-rape demonstrations in India

The women’s movement in India has been making headlines over the past few years thanks to mass protests against gendered violence in the country.

These protests first reached prominence following the horrible gang rape and murder of a student in 2013, which sparked widespread outrage and brought the question of women’s rights to the forefront.

The anger and enthusiasm for change did not go away when the mainstream news cycle moved on, and women in India have continued to fight for equality and their right to participate safely and fully in society.
Late last year 100,000 people marched on the streets of Calcutta demanding an end to violence against women. Countless other rallies have been held and continue to be a regular event.

This movement has largely resisted attempts at being co-opted or misdirected by those wanting to blame Muslims, lower-caste people and migrants for rape and violence. Instead it has taken aim at the politicians and police who ignore and belittle victims, and who seek to blame women themselves for rape.

Across India a spark has been lit, with the movement absolutely refusing to be silenced or pushed aside.

4. Julien Blanc was “taken down”

When sexist “pick up artist” guru Julien Blanc decided to tour Australia, he was not expecting to be shut down by the very people he instructs his clients to choke and sexually harass.

When word went out about his tour, opposition spread quickly on social media, resulting in multiple hotels cancelling his venue booking. Attempts to hold a seminar on a Melbourne river cruise boat were also thwarted when Blanc and crew were greeted by fiery protestors on the dock, who prevented the boat from leaving and drowned out any attempt at salvaging the seminar with their protest chants.

Blanc had equally poor luck in other cities, with yet more hotels refusing to host his events. The Australian government eventually cancelled his visa and Blanc slunk out of the country, unable to spread his misogynist message. It had been overpowered by a far better message: We will not tolerate those who advocate violence against women.

5. Liberation of women in Middle East

Many news articles have been written about the Kurdish struggle against Islamic State (IS) in Rojava, with special attention paid to the women Kurdish fighters, who make up about 35% of all combatants.

The mainstream media largely frames the situation as women fighting those who would sell them into sexual slavery, and pays little attention to the politics of the women fighters, or how they came to be such a large part of the struggle.

Women are not only leading military commands in Rojava, they are leading a revolution. Kurdish women are fighting for a system called democratic confederalism, which has been crucial in empowering women and in the fight against IS.

This system emphasises equal democratic rights for all ethnic groups and women. It does not treat women’s rights as a tokenistic goal, but puts them front and centre in the attempt to build a new and better society.

As the process goes on, sexist attitudes towards women have been challenged, initiatives against domestic violence have been launched and women have taken the lead in their own liberation.

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