The first international discussion on Women in Struggle (September 20, 2020) was deeply moving and an inspiration for solidarity to the labour movement internationally. Organized by the Workers’ International Network, it brought together women from the globe, to hear first- hand reports of struggle and draw out common issues and actions. A follow-on discussion will build on this work on Sunday, September 27th.
“This is one of the ways that the pandemic has altered how we organise for the better. It’s difficult to imagine that such a rich meeting would have happened previously, or at least would have been enormously difficult to organize,” wrote Andrew Burgin (https://leftunity.org/international-women-in-struggle-launched/).
Felicity Dowling, Left Unity’s National Secretary, who herself has a decades-long history of struggle, took the chair. The meeting heard from many women active in the “North” (Britain, US, and Belarus) and in the struggles of the global South, including from Zimbabwe, South Africa and Pakistan.
Zehra Khan, leader of the Home-Based Women Workers Federation (HBWWF) in Pakistan and of the current mass anti-rape campaign, spoke of struggles in progress and led the discussion.
“Women have no dignity, and the notion is that women are an offshoot of men, not people in themselves. We have witnessed the appalling motorway rape and murder of a 6-year-old child in Pakistan. Instead of action, the police want to know not why she was raped, but why are children out at night.
“Women in factories don’t have the power to change as individuals; in working- class communities it is all about women’s rights. It’s difficult to mobilise, as many are working from home to support their families.
“We are working as a home-based women’s organization. Home work is one of the most unorganized sectors, and millions of hidden hands are fighting to get recognition as formal workers.
“At the national level trade there are trade-union and legal rights, but at the provincial level there is no law except the constitution. We are organising our union at the provincial and then the national level, pushing for legislation and talking to legislators about rights for 300,000 workers. We now are gaining some support from the labour department.”
Elena Edwards and Viktoria Tamazian spoke from Belarus and gave direct testimony of the way that women are organising against the dictatorship there. Women have become the face of the protests against Lukashenko, and more than 300 were arrested on the regular Saturday Women’s March last week. There has been extraordinary defiance by women. One of the leaders of the movement, Maria Kolesnikova, tore up her passport at the border with Ukraine to avoid being forcibly deported from her country. More than 1000 women have been detained and many raped; this is very hard to address, as (understandably) they don’t want to have their names published. There are 500 cases of torture and rape.
“It’s impossible for women to stay at home, as everything was going on outside. Women have formed chains of solidarity. Women have been defending the men by throwing their bodies between the police and the men under attack. Our struggle has to result in success and achieve safety for us all and in every country.”
Tia Kurtisgner-Edison from Louisville in Kentucky, spoke about the Black Lives Matter movement and the campaign for justice for Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old African-American emergency nurse who was shot and killed in her own home by police officers who were operating under a ‘no knock entry’ warrant. The officers had gone into the wrong house and shot Breonna eight times. Tia is one of the leaders of the Kentucky Alliance Against Racist and Political Violence and she spoke about how the far right were armed and organising in Kentucky.
“We are in a state of emergency; there’s no business as usual. Black people are in trauma because they feel there will be no justice. I’m scared for my life. The oppressors know who the organizers are; they are entitled to privilege and will do all to maintain their privilege.
“The other day 300 white militias come to town and it looked like our people would all die; they were putting cameras in our faces. On our side there were young people with guns. We thought we will all die right now. These boys we see are our sons.
“We have 100 unsolved murders in our city, and they are blaming us protesters for this crime. But we are working to keep society going, supporting public health. Black women are standing up as the essential workers, cleaning the hospitals and working as the previously unacknowledged essential workers. In solidarity, black mothers are taking food to them.”
Women from many campaigns in the UK also spoke, including Jabu Nala-Hartley and Lesley Mahmood. Jabu is involved in BLM Oxford and a prominent campaigner in the “Rhodes Must Fall” movement. She spoke about the living wage campaign for workers in insecure employment, and reported on her formation with others of Mothers 4 Justice to challenge the criminal justice system.
“The families, particularly the mothers, of young black men charged by the police end up going all over the place from point to point. There is very little supporting connections to help those struggling to defend their own against the weight of the law. We’re working on this.”
Jabu is now focusing in on a successful campaign on insecure employment and on how to overcome difficulties among BAME workers who are essential workers but struggling from day to day.
Nomsa Sizani of Abahlali, the shack dwellers movement in South Africa, spoke of the war waged against the poor.
“Our South Africa is a land of terrible inequality, and this affects mostly women. We are constantly under attack by our ANC government for challenging the existing order. Most women are in abusive relationships because of poverty, and mostly women are forced to stay in such relationships. We are physically abused and the rate of unemployment is high. Violence against women must become a major offence. We should mobilize as the working class, organise ourselves and build society irrespective of gender. Women are treated as animals or things, and we must build solidarity with each other.”
We also heard from a young Muslim activist, Ayesha Abbasi from the recently founded Help the World Campaign. This is a campaign started by young women of colour which is raising awareness of world issues. Their last event focused on Palestine and the need to support the struggles of the Palestinian people. Ayesha spoke about the wearing of the hijab and about the Islamophobia within society that has to be challenged.
As Andrew Burgin concluded: “The meeting expressed the essence of internationalism. It marked the beginning of a new campaign, Women in Struggle, which aims to unite those struggles taking place across the world through the sharing of experiences and the building of solidarity.”