Argentina’s Life-or-Death Women’s Movement

Argentina’s Ni Una Menos protests. Nicholas Allen

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he March 8 Women’s Strike will bring women all over the world together, showing us possible connections within an emerging women’s international. In this regard, Latin America offers us an important model.

The region’s revitalized feminist movement has pushed past old boundaries, aligning itself with the environmental movement, labor unions, and struggles for expanded sexual, economic, and social rights. It has effectively withstood a neoliberal onslaught that has, for the most part, neutralized the region’s progressive forces.

The Ni Una Menos (Not One More) collective, a continental alliance of feminist forces, will participate in the March 8 action, which will be the second women’s strike in Argentina in less than a year. Born in 2015 in Argentina as a campaign against gender violence, Ni Una Menos has become a political counterbalance to what many now acknowledge as a region-wide war against women. This movement helps us see how a global movement for women’s liberation can connect with calls for economic and social justice.

Agustina Santomaso spoke with Verónica Gago on the eve of the International Women’s Strike to better understand how the event is taking shape in Latin America.

Can you tell us a little bit about the history of the movement in Argentina?

One of the key precedents for Ni Una Menos is Argentina’s National Women’s Meeting, now in its thirty-second year. The meeting has become the largest event of its kind — seventy thousand women attended last year’s three-day conference. Because of the longevity and frequency of the meeting, it has become a space where the women’s movement has been able to develop in light of shifting political contexts.

The clearest instance of this was at the 2003 meeting with the participation of the piqueteras, the movement of unemployed women that had been organizing neighborhood assemblies and street demonstrations against neoliberalism for years. From that moment on, the Women’s Meeting became a mass phenomenon, and increasingly Latin American in its scope. You find women coming from Peru, Colombia, and so on. It’s become a special moment for women to come together and share experiences.

The Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo also form an integral part of our genealogy. These women, the mothers of the victims of the military dictatorship, started confronting state terrorism in 1977 and remain one of Argentina’s most important human rights organizations. We look to them for an example of politics where women are the protagonists; the tactics they used, street occupations and so on, are still important today.

This is our way of tracing the current movement’s genealogy, of thinking about the current struggle in relation to a feminist tradition that, of course, goes back to the beginning of the twentieth century.

New generations have to find fresh ways to relate to that tradition, to the ancestras, as we sometimes say, and discover the elements of that inheritance that provide strength in a given political context. It’s an idea that comes up often in the assemblies of Ni Una Menos, an idea that basically contradicts the notion that these strikes and actions are spontaneous: recognizing our own part in a larger tradition, assuming responsibility for that legacy, and historicizing our own movement.

To cite a recent example, in an assembly held last week with the women of the Confederation of Popular Economy Workers (CTEP), we saw the piqueteras’ daughters attending, the daughters of that anticapitalist movement from the early 2000s. This shows a commingling of temporalities and generations that is really powerful.

One also thinks of the National Campaign Against Violence Towards Women and the National Campaign for the Legalization of Abortion in Argentina. These campaigns also have a significant historical trajectory and their own structures.

Exactly, those campaigns have been sustained over the years through militant participation and concrete demands. Today we’re seeing a convergence of different tendencies — not some spontaneous movement that appeared out of thin air. The current moment is actually the fruit of accumulated experiences, discourses, street tactics, and community activism, which of course all find expression within the current political context.

March 8 will be the second women’s strike in Argentina in less than a year: the first took place on October 19, 2016. The event that triggered the first strike was the murder of a young woman — a femicide, to be precise — but the specific issue of gender violence quickly assumed an economic and social dimension.

Lucía Pérez’s murder occurred during last year’s Women’s Meeting, so the violent nature of the crime felt like a reaction against such a clear manifestation of women’s autonomy. The fact that Lucía was murdered by impalement also recalls, as Rita Segato has pointed out, a particular kind of colonial imagery, a reactivation of the colonial inheritance in Latin America. And the crime was committed on the eve of Columbus Day, no less!

So I would argue that there is some type of collective unconscious that is being exorcised on women’s bodies through this kind of violence and cruelty. This was part of the background against which the October 19 strike took place.

I consider the intersection of gender violence and economic and social issues a huge step in the right direction. The idea itself began to take shape through the assemblies that ultimately issued the call for the strike action, when it started to become clear that by striking we would leave behind the logic of victimhood. Naturally, there was a need for mourning after Lucía’s murder, but the time had come to make a demonstration of our collective power in the streets.

Of course, underlying all this there is also a certain ambiguity. They’re killing women all over the place, but as that’s happening, women are the ones controlling the streets, the ones exercising a kind of power that has to do with the struggle over our bodies’ autonomy. By combining these considerations with the strike tactic, the action assumed a different connotation.

This was especially evident in the period leading up to the demonstration: we drew a lot of attention by calling it a strike and declaring that we would perform a work stoppage in whatever place we might inhabit — be that at work, at school, in our neighborhoods, or on our streets. Even more, incorporating workers from diverse sectors of the informal economy, the shadow economy, and the domestic economy sent a powerful message: it pointed to an actual site where violence could and must be stopped.

Equally so, it made an important statement: the men who commit gender violence are not psychopaths or isolated cases, nor is the media responsible for the way they behave. There is a whole sociopolitical and economic framework that we need to understand in order to better see how women’s bodies are converted into a territory subject to conquest (hence the reference to the colonial question). As Rita Segato says, there is a war being waged against women in Latin America right now.

But it’s important to repeat: we can no longer think of these acts of violence as isolated incidents, as pathological cases, or “crimes of passion,” as they’re commonly called here.

What is the best way to articulate the connection between neoliberalism and patriarchy? How does neoliberalism enlist patriarchy in its service?

The debate around neoliberalism helps us see the battlefields on which subjectivities are being formed and on which women are being subjected to exploitation through multiple forms of precarity. Another angle worthy of our attention is how the exploitation of men in the workplace reappears in the domestic sphere as violence.

This flaring up of domestic violence is significant: for the last two years in Argentina, if not longer, people have been wondering when the whole political situation will explode, remembering the massive social revolt that took place in 2001. Once again, we find ourselves in the midst of a social and economic crisis. My own reading of neoliberalism, however, tells me that what we’re now seeing is an implosion rather an explosion, and that this is aimed at the domestic sphere.

In 2000, there were powerful social movements that could take decisive action within the community, but today there are other forces at work trying to manage the crisis in their favor. Today’s social movements have effectively been deactivated — when they’re not actively repressed — because they’re forced to work within this oppressively conflict-ridden scenario.

In that sense, neoliberalism allows us to take a much more realistic measure of the terrain and the conflicts unfolding there. It’s only after we adopt this perspective that we can begin to understand the connection between gender violence and economics. If we don’t, the question always returns to that old theoretical ghetto: “Those women are victims. They’re the one who are most victimized by the current economic model.”

This victim-based analysis is very weak because it doesn’t allow us to see that the assault on women is really a response to the different types of autonomy that women are pursuing over and against this broader social scenario. Clearly, it is difficult to attain any sort of autonomy when women are being beaten at home and have no income of their own to escape that situation.

What would it would mean to overcome the “ghetto” of victimization, especially in light of the statement made by Nancy Fraser, Angela Davis, and others, calling for a strike in the United States and for a rupture with “neoliberal feminism”? Do the ideas formulated there make sense in the Latin American context? In other words, is there a kind of feminism that we should be rejecting here, too?

The case of the United States is interesting. What stood out for me in the January Women’s March was the voice of the African-American women, as well as the acknowledgment of…