Yesterday afternoon thousands of people took to the streets to take part in the capital’s International Women’s Day march. It was a show of solidarity, a demand for respect, and a chance to outline exactly what change people want to see in the immediate future. We delved among the crowds and behind the chants to listen to the many, diverse voices from yesterday’s march. This is my view from the afternoon.
When I arrived on the scene there seemed to be a nice poetic irony in the air; the sheer quantity of pedestrian protesters was a nightmare for drivers, and as such the cacophony of car horns and whistles – often the soundtrack to street harassment – were instead a result of diverted traffic to make way for hoards of women.
Before the march, I was worried about how effective the protest would be; is ’women’ too broad an agenda to practically achieve anything? Could holding a march that allows so many different, and often conflicting factions of feminism be alienating, blurring a clear resounding message?
Once there, however, I was forced to reconsider. The diversity was encouraging; people of all genders; children and retirees; those with completely different definitions of feminism and ideas of what the march means to them came together in unison.
Moreover, as a manifesto was read to close the march, and certain topics cropped up again and again in homemade signs and chants, the messages rang loud and clear. Equality and liberty. Zero tolerance for femicides. Zero tolerance of domestic violence. Zero tolerance of gender discrimination and gender roles. Zero tolerance of machismo. Zero tolerance of suffering.
Homemade t-shirts, witch hats, pink flares, firecrackers, theatrical performances and drums were just some of the ways people chose to celebrate and participate in “la lucha femenina por America Latina” (the feminist fight for Latin America), to borrow from one of the chants. Each had their own agenda.
Colectivo Fin De Un Mundo, an artistic and social action movement, brought their project, Perras, (Bitches) to the march. Looking at physical and symbolic forms of oppression, it featured women with plastic smiles forced to dance, forced to follow a “master” around, or forced to endure the sexist comments from three men wearing football jerseys. Each one of the women was chained, with physical reigns held by, and connecting them to, their oppressors.
Belén Saracho was marching for her sister Caro, who was murdered by her husband in Salta last year. Her killer is, fortunately, in prison. But that is not enough. The message, from Justicia Para Caro Saracho and from the march in general, is that we cannot keep letting a woman be killed every 18 hours due to femicide. “You have to be strong,” Belén told me.
I bumped into Alberto, an independent protester. He wasn’t marching for anyone in particular, instead his message was simple: “if women didn’t exist, there would be no life.” He seemed already convinced of the message put out by the A Day Without Women campaign, which held strikes throughout US cities. He held a handmade sign, in the shape of a cross which read “a woman is the most sacred thing there is.”
The march, for him, was about women displaying their self-respect, and demanding it from others, but that it wasn’t only women’s responsibility to fight for this cause. When I asked if his four sisters played a part in shaping is views, he said he didn’t think so. It was more that “the things you see in the street affect you…catcalls are very violent these days.” Yet, notably, he drew a distinction between catcalls he felt were acceptable “how pretty you are” for instance, and those that were not, like Macri’s personal favorite “what a nice ass you have.”
Agustina, a schoolgirl who attended the march with her mother, did not share this opinion. “If I don’t ask for your opinion, I shouldn’t have to listen to it,” she said. Indeed, “my body didn’t ask for your opinion” was one of many powerful banners held up in Plaza de Mayo. In a stroke of irony, as if she needed proof of patriarchy at play in society, she was wolf whistled on the way to the march itself.
The loudest voice was undoubtedly the Ni Una Menos movement. You could tell when they turned up on the scene. The resounding chants of “Ni una menos, vivas nos queremos” (“Not one woman less, we want us alive”), took over the street. Their resilient and dense front line, bearing a long extensive banner, which was preceded by protesters carrying a rope to move the crowd and pave their way, it seemed like they were going into battle. And they meant business.
A number of marches took place around the city center, but all of them congregated in Plaza de Mayo at around 6pm, when Liliana Daunes – Argentine journalist, feminist activist and spokesperson for the National Campaign for The Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion – took to the stage to read the International Women’s Strike manifesto, which took inspiration from Ni Una Menos.
A critique of lean-in feminism, it called for real political change to be made to end violence against women: physical violence, yes. But also, for instance, the institutional violence against women’s bodies through restricted access to abortion; the violence in discriminatory policies against lesbian, trans and queer women, and the violence in failing to allocate state funding to tackling femicides.
The atmosphere carried with it an overwhelming sense of solidarity. “This strike is for everyone,” said Daunes in her address, “and for those who cannot be here today.”
Despite this, the “us and them” rhetoric was still very much present. Macri’s name elicited swarms of booing, and t-shirts bearing the derogatory slogan “Macri gato” could be bought along Avenida de Mayo.
This divisive streak unfortunately came to a head toward the end of the march; one group of protesters campaigning for legalised abortion took aim at the Catholic Church, throwing bottles and stones at the Cathedral in Plaza de Mayo, and setting fire to the railings outside it.
For many, this is an inevitable part of any Argentine protest, and similar incidents have taken place in past years, but that doesn’t lessen the controversy it has sparked. The girls’ actions, were no doubt illegal, but video footage showed that police treatment of them was excessive and extremely violent, using tear gas and dragging the protesters along the floor in an attempt to arrest them.
According to Ni Una Menos’ Facebook page, police attacked those who were simply “waiting for buses or coming out of pizza places.”
As a result, we are faced with a question: were these girls’ actions a show of desperation, a powerful proof of the lengths they had to go to just to get someone to listen? Or were they shooting themselves in the foot, ruining the sense of solidarity as many fellow protesters are left wishing certain political groups were not involved or associated with their cause.
It would be a shame to let this image define the march, so I’ll end with a different one. On my way home I bumped into a group of girls; they didn’t know one another and had each come to the march separately, but had formed a little unit, united by their decision to march for a particular victim – a woman imprisoned for killing one of her attackers in self defense after she was gang-raped. I asked, incidentally, why they had decided to march topless. “Because that’s freedom,” came the simple reply, “and because it’s hot today.”