The movement of women, lesbians, travestis, trans and non-binary folk in Argentina has faced its biggest political battle this year. The treatment of the law of voluntary interruption of pregnancy in the Congress catapulted us to our highest level of organization and mobilization. The marches and vigils, the pañuelazos (demonstrations with green handkerchiefs) and twitterstorms, the thousands of information campaigns throughout the country, are the result of decades of feminist build-up.
Under the rain, among tents and gazebos, millions of people gathered to listen to the debate and witness the vote of the House of Senators of the Nation on August 8. From the beginning of the session in the morning, to the voting at dawn, handkerchiefs and green ribbons took the plaza of the Congress and its surroundings over Avenida de Mayo, Callao and Avenida 9 de Julio.
Thousands of women were assembled in squares, faculties, cultural centers and legislatures throughout the country conducting a real federal vigil. In addition, throughout Latin America, plus some cities in Europe, the United States and even Korea, pañuelazos were carried out in solidarity with the Argentinean women.
None of that was enough for the Senate to reflect the popular will. By 38 votes against 31, the first bill on abortion that was ever debated in the National Congress, and which had the approval of the Chamber of Deputies, was rejected. The vote was a predictable defeat, but no less bitter for it. We feel it in our body and our soul, the collective soul where death, torture and mistreatment towards so many of our sisters hurts us. The sadness, the frustration, were palpable: to have come so close, only to collide with the indifference and contempt of too many senators.
The green hurricane made its way across Argentina anyway, fueled by a storm of emotions and militancy. It demolished walls and silences throughout the territory, and left a trail of handkerchiefs and green ribbons in towns and cities alike. This feminist power was the great achievement and the great advance of this year’s struggle. For the first time since 2007, the bill of the National Campaign for Safe and Free Legal Abortion was addressed in Congress. Eleven years and seven presentations were necessary to reach this point. During that time, four national marches were held under the slogan “Ni Una Menos” (“Not One Less”, against violence and femicide) and two International Women’s Strikes.
The Era of Handkerchiefs
The green handkerchief was not born in a cabbage patch. It is the emblem of a collective struggle, initiated within the National Women’s Encounters and continued through the National Campaign. It is a direct legacy of the Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo, and their peaceful and unyielding struggle against terror. With the green handkerchief, we began to make visible the claim for legal abortion in the marches of the Encounters since 2003, and then in all political and social activities. Those of us who have been militating this cause, saw the massive use of the handkerchief as a yearned for fruit of our struggle.
After battling inch by inch in the Chamber of Deputies, and having seen the pressures and threats of the Catholic Church against the representatives, a new movement began to emerge for the separation of Church and State. A new handkerchief, inspired by the green one, and the colour orange, were chosen as symbol through social networks. It was also agreed to postpone activities and organization until after the vote in the Senate, but the orange handkerchiefs began to multiply there where the greens were.
The reactions regarding the new handkerchief were varied. On the one hand, it is clear that it is not a mere act of appropriation, as was the light-blue handkerchief with the fraudulent slogan “Salvemos las dos vidas” (“Save both lives” referring to the pregnant person and the foetus, used by the anti-choice movement). On the other, some questioned the need for a handkerchief for each occasion. It is also clear that the more or less spontaneous emergence of the National Campaign for a Laic State does not respond, as the National Campaign for Legal, Safe and Free Abortion, to years of construction, organization and articulation. Nor does it seem to adequately account for the extensive secular militancy that already exists in our country, from militant atheism to collective apostasy. In its essence, it is more like the emergence of the National Women’s Strike in October 2016, when a viral image and an articulation through social networks at full speed allowed the first measure of feminist strength.
The orange handkerchief is a new outbreak of struggle, in a context of mass militancy in resistance. The claim is legitimate and refers to the foundational claims of the International Women’s Strike in 2017: No more violence, legal abortion, and separation of Church and States. The broad popular adhesion the use of the orange handkerchief shows the need to identify and visualize this claim. It is to be expected that it will take a while for this new branch of the struggle to take shape and organize at the level of the struggle for legal abortion. For the time being, the process of apostasy is on the rise and thousands of people started it on August 8, during the vigil.
Building the feminist future
After letting off the anger and outrage, it is time to return to work . With the certainty of not forgetting or forgiving the executioners, with the memory of the bloody victims of an authoritarian and macho prohibition, we owe ourselves a balance that allows us to learn from this great struggle, to move forward stronger and better organized.
We learn to fight by fighting, and the marathon for legal abortion gave way to a field where until now we had not played massively organized. As during the “Ni Una Menos” marches and the International Women’s Strike, many young women and teenagers joined the participation. The dissemination of reliable information on safe abortions was multiplied, as well as the demand of students and teachers for the implementation of the Law on Comprehensive Sexual Education.
It is important to strenghten the networks of activism and containment, to improve the links between organizations, and above all to give place to the new women, lesbians, travestis and trans who come for answers and companionship. We also need to improve the permanent dialogue with the political representatives, an indispensable factor for democratic health. We also have yet to work on the issue of violence within our own organizations. Even in organizations that do not include cis men, cases of sexual violence between militants are not widely reported and often there are no tools to decide the best course of action.
As we continue our struggle for legal recognition of the right to safe abortion, there is still much work to do. Many instances of legal abortions for the three causes of the Penal Code continue to be denied or obstructed by health professionals and the judiciary. The stigmatization of women’s sexuality remains a cultural knot of violence that is difficult to disarm. Childhood and intrafamily sexual abuse continues largely unpunished. Even if the law were approved, all these fronts of struggle would remain open and it is our responsibility to attend them.
I encourage all of us to redouble our efforts, to resume the struggles slowed down or postponed by the great battle in Congress, to think and rethink ourselves from all of our realities. As always, and above all, to put the focus on those of us who are more marginalized, more violated and with less access to rights. Feminism is built from below, and this year has taken deep roots. It is to be expected, if we know how to sustain it, that a stage of great growth and strengthening is approaching. We can not allow to be stopped by defeat in one battle of the many that still have to be fought. Our struggle and work will pay off, and the day will soon come when safe and free abortion will be law in Argentina and throughout Latin America.