Women the World over Have Shown the US How to Deal with Sexism and Racism

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Women the World over Have Shown the US How to Deal with Sexism and Racism

From Liberia to Colombia and beyond, women have compiled a vast archive of methods to combat threats to their rights. The US need only follow their lead

Protesters opposed to Donald Trump stage a ‘Love trumps hate’ rally in New York. Americans can turn to women’s rights activists across the world for inspiration. (Photo: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Many in the US are emerging from their initial shock at the outcome of the presidential election to confront its likely impacts: a legitimation of right-wing identity politics, worsening climate change and militarism, assaults on women’s rights and LGBT rights, and the gutting of basic public services.

A litany like this can feel overwhelming, but none of these threats are actually new. Just ask the indigenous water protectors at Standing Rock, or women in the 89% of US counties without an abortion provider, or people of colour targeted by racist law enforcement policies.

What is new is the painful dislocation felt by those in the US who had always believed that, however imperfectly, their government represented them. For many, that belief ended on 9 November, a loss being mourned in the numerous post-election catalogues of the stages of grief. The analogy is an ominous one: the last stage of grief is acceptance.

What’s needed now, however, is the opposite of acceptance. Fortunately, many in the US recognise that this moment requires them to act in new ways. They are grappling, some for the first time, with what resistance might look like. Americans will need to reclaim and invent their own modes of resistance. For inspiration and role models, they can turn to women’s rights activists worldwide, especially women who know all too well what it means to have a government that actively targets their rights and communities.

In Nicaragua in the 1980s, villages were under siege from Contra militias sponsored by the Reagan administration, and armed fighters targeted women with rape as a weapon of war (pdf). Women formed committees to bring urgent humanitarian aid to their communities and to denounce that violence before the world.

These women shepherded their country back to peace, and pushed for a change in international law to recognise the violations they faced (pdf).

In Liberia, peace talks to end the civil war in the 1990s were going nowhere. Women who had survived the worst of the violence decided they’d had enough. They organised peaceful protests, stood up to warlords and powerful politicians, and forced action to negotiate peace.

Today, Leymah Gbowee, one of the activists who led that movement, is a Nobel peace laureate. The civil war is over, and Liberia has its first elected female president.

War gripped Colombia for decades, forcing millions of women and families to flee their homes and sowing divisions that seemed insurmountable. Through all this, female activists mobilised community peace enclaves, where arms were not allowed and where violence could not trespass.

When peace talks finally began, these women demanded a seat at the table. Now, they are determined to enact the best of Colombia’s newly renegotiated accord.

In each of these cases, and in countless others, women saw the threats arrayed against them and took action together. In doing so, they became the curators of a global library of activist strategies.

Here are some borrowings from that library for those seeking to resist the destruction that the next US president promises to unleash.

Like the Women in Black or the women of Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo, who made it a routine to take to the streets when their government shut out their voices, we must be relentless in our protests. And like the grandmothers of Standing Rock who block the advance of the Dakota access pipeline with their bodies, we must pair protest with grassroots organising to change policies and public opinion.

Like women in Haiti and Kenya, or in US cities like Detroit or Flint, Michigan, who have provided clean water to their communities when their government couldn’t or wouldn’t, we must take stock of people’s basic needs and be ready to meet them ourselves.

Like womenof colour in the US – who have long mobilised to defend their communities against state violence and mass incarceration, against the denial of civil rights and systematic economic marginalisation – we must act from an understanding of the ways that sexism, racism and other oppressions combine to affect people’s lives.

Like women in Iraq, who rejected both US-led occupation and the religious fundamentalists who posed as its alternative, we must forge a third way between neoliberalism and nationalism and fight for a feminist, anti-racist politics that prioritises human rights for all.

Like women in Nicaragua, who threw parties even as the Contra war raged, we have to know how to embrace the best in our lives when facing the worst. Like women in South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, we have to know when a joyous song is an antidote to despair.

Our choice does not have to be between cowed acceptance and protracted despair. The energy we need to resist is a renewable resource, which we produce when we treat each other with respect and kindness, even if those qualities are not forthcoming from our government. We produce this energy when we stretch ourselves to extend a blanket of protection to those most at risk, wherever they are in the world; when we have the courage to act, especially when it’s scary or seems impossible. Resistance is sustainable if we create the conditions for it in our lives. And doing that will be its own reward.

The writer and organiser Grace Paley once said: “The only recognisable feature of hope is action.” We live in keeping with the world we want to build until, eventually, we realise that the last stage of grief is not acceptance. It’s transformation.

Yifat Susskind

Yifat Susskind is the Executive Director of MADRE, an international women's human rights organization. She has worked with women’s human rights activists from Latin America, the Middle East, Asia and Africa to create programs in their communities to address women's health, violence against women, economic and environmental justice and peace building. She has also written extensively on US foreign policy and women’s human rights and her critical analysis has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy in Focus and elsewehere.

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