Women in Black Against War
London, United Kingdom
“Women in Black is a network, with no formal constitution or structure. Each vigil is autonomous. Although there are charismatic personalities, no-one ‘holds office’. Any woman or women who hold a feminist critique of militarism, war, and violence may start a vigil.”
Women in Black against War is an international network of several hundred small local groups in many countries. Its main purpose is to bring women together for the purpose of organizing and campaigning actively as feminists against militarism, war, and violence more generally – particularly violence against women in peace and war. I’m one of a little WiB group in London, where we hold a vigil around an anti-militarist theme at the statue of Edith Cavell, in London WC2, every Wednesday evening from 6 till 7 pm. We engage with passers-by and distribute informative leaflets, which are often designed for signature with demands directed to our government.
Our movement began in Israel. There, on the first night of the 1987 Palestinian intifada, some individuals on the left, men and women both, came together to think about how to dramatize their own opposition to the Occupation. “Let’s do a ‘black’ vigil,” they thought. They had in mind something like the Argentinian Madres of the Plaza de Mayo or the South African women’s Black Sash movement. At the first vigil outside the Cinematech in Jerusalem they were seven – two of whom were men. The next week, the vigil was mounted in Zion Square – and it involved only women. The number of WiB women’s vigils in Israel snowballed and at a certain moment there were more than thirty around the country. They would stand every week on a Friday, usually for an hour from 1 till 2 pm, at some prominent place such as a major crossroad. The Israeli vigils were never totally silent, in the way many of those in other countries would eventually be, but the message was quietly put across on placards. The most common symbol was a raised black hand bearing the words ‘End the Occupation.’
Gradually, as you can read on the WiB international website (www.womeninblack.org), Women in Black spread from Israel to become a worldwide phenomenon. Italian women came to Israel to support Palestinian and Israeli women working together to end the Occupation. They took home the WiB formula, creating ‘Donne in Nero’ groups in many Italian cities. These in turn, as Yugoslavia collapsed into war in the early 1990s, carried the idea to Belgrade where a group adopted the name ‘Žene u Crnom protiv Rata’ (Women in Black against War). WiB Belgrade would eventually match the Israeli group in influence. From Italy and Serbia, WiB spread worldwide. It’s impossible to make an accurate census of ‘membership’ because groups come and go, not all of them record their existence on the website, and we do not know how many women are involved in each.
‘Justice for Palestinians and peace for Israelis’ has remained an important theme in Women in Black internationally, the more so in recent years with the provocative growth of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the building of the Separation Wall, and brutal attacks launched on Lebanon and Gaza by the Israeli Defence Forces. Some groups, notably Jewish WiB groups in the USA, still focus exclusively on the Palestinian issue. Other localized conflicts as they flare up and die down – in Bosnia, Rwanda or Sudan for instance – enter and leave the agenda of WiB groups around the world. But most significantly, Women in Black, like the broader antiwar movement of both men and women, have felt driven to mobilize against US /Western war policies. After the events of 11 September 2001 Women in Black groups took to the streets calling for law, not war. A few months later they would protest against the shattering attack on Afghanistan, one of the poorest populations on earth, and two years after that against the invasion and occupation of Iraq by the USA and its allies.
Women in Black is a network, with no formal constitution or structure. Each vigil is autonomous. Although there are charismatic personalities, no-one ‘holds office.’ Any woman or women who hold a feminist critique of militarism, war, and violence may start a vigil. In a way WiB is just a formula for practice – the silent vigil in a public place, wearing black, holding signs, offering leaflets. Yet it is also more than this, since many Women in Black groups stage different kinds of actions instead or as well as vigiling. Some parade in costumes, lobby parliaments, use the media, blockade military establishments, enter forbidden zones, or give support to refugees fleeing war. WIB has held international encounters, approximately every two years, since 1993. The earliest gatherings were organized by WiB Belgrade, in Novi Sad in the former Yugoslavia. Since then they have been organized by groups in a number of cities in different countries. The last was in Bogota, Colombia, in 2011. The next is anticipated for Uruguay 2013. There are also occasional regional conferences, for example of European WiB groups in Sevilla in 2012. A further European encuentro is planned for Brussels in 2014.
This article expresses only the views of its author, Cynthia Cockburn, of Women in Black London. Please read more about Women in Black on our website <www.womeninblack.org> and a longer version of this account in From Where We Stand: War, Women’s Activism and Feminist Analysis, by Cynthia Cockburn (Zed Books, 2007).
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