Proposed by Sonia Mitralia
- KAREN DOMÍNGUEZ BURKE
A bill to legalize abortion narrowly failed in the Argentinian Senate. But feminist movements have already effected a social revolution in South America.
What is your response to the Senate vote, which narrowly failed to legalize abortion in Argentina? What are the next steps for feminists?
Our response is fury and euphoria. Fury because the Senate’s rejection means a decision to ignore women’s power. It is a familiar scene: this moribund political elite pretends that our efforts are invisible, as if they don’t count. This attitude echoes their lack of recognition of our work, of the ways we produce value, of our ways of building community. The Senate’s rejection dramatizes their contempt but it is also an attempt to discipline us.
Here, the principal actor is not the Senate, but the Catholic Church, led by the (Argentinian) Pope. In Argentina, the battle for women’s bodily autonomy is crucial because the abortion debate is part of a radical, mass feminist movement and it is now a debate about class in terms of differentiated possibilities for accessing safe abortion. As we argued before the lower house vote, for the Church, the right to decide must be kept away from popular neighborhoods.
What was dramatized in the Senate’s rejection is how conservative political forces, under the leadership of the Catholic Church and with the complicity of other religious fundamentalisms, perceive the feminist movement as their enemy. This is something that we see strongly at the regional level.
By this we also mean to say that the way in which this debate was expanded, was complicated, and continues to be present is also an exhibition of the strength, the radicality, and the intersectionality of what we have built as #NiUnaMenos — which has ceased to be merely a slogan and become a mass movement.
The first step is: “ni olvido, ni perdón” (“neither forget, nor forgive”). We will practice escraches (public shaming) against these senators. We will fight to strengthen the network of abortion providers, occupy public hospitals, demand the public production and free use (not only in hospitals) of misoprostol, and for each death due to a botched abortion we will accuse the state and call it a state femicide. We will continue to expose how the issue of abortion intersects with other social problems such as work, poverty, and racism. One of the singular features of our movement is that we are weaving abortion into a web of other political issues.
This was neither easy nor spontaneous. It was an effect of intense political work that was built through debates, encounters, and assemblies, collectively elaborating the web of violence in which abortion is inscribed. The sovereignty over bodies is not an individual question, but lies at the intersection of interdependence and the precarization of our existence. This issue has now been taken up in spaces where it previously was taboo, as we have been told by campesina (rural) comrades from the Campesino Movement of Santiago del Estero (MOCASE-Vía Campesina).
What do we learn from the vote? First, a renewed lesson about the nature of the political regime in Argentina. The Senate is one of the most conservative institutions, where governors of the Justicialist Party, of Cambiemos, and local political parties operate as feudal lords. The Senate is also where the influence of “real powers” is revealed in a more transparent way: in this case the Catholic Church (in other cases you can see the pressure of economic corporations, for example). For anyone who had illusions about this political regime, the Senate’s vote showed how “real powers” operate when their interests are threatened and how traditional parties, like Peronism, are the vehicle of those interests.
The first conclusion, then, that we draw from the vote is that we must attack the “real powers.” The demand of “separating the church from the state,” which began to circulate almost naturally, is undoubtedly a prime objective of the women’s movement. That obscurantist institution, which put pressure on many boys and girls to put on light blue headscarves [symbol of the anti-abortion militants], which calls a sixteen-year-old girl a murderer for having an abortion, is economically supported by the state that pays the salary of the bishops and subsidizes the religious schools, which are the same schools where sexual education is denied.
The second conclusion is that we must also fight against those who are vehicles of that “real power”: the bourgeois politicians. The senators who voted against the Law of Voluntary Pregnancy Interruption come from various political tendencies — Peronism, Cambiemos, and even Kirchnerism.
The only political current with legislative representation in Argentina that advocates for legalizing abortion is the anticapitalist left expressed in the Workers’ Left Front (FIT), whose deputies voted on behalf of the IVE and are part of the mobilizations. The other political currents were divided around the abortion debate.
But there is another conclusion that is directly related to your second question. August 8 was proof that we need more strength to legalize abortion. I do not agree with the idea that even though we lost the vote in the Senate, we have already won the battle. The battle is not finished. It was and it continues to be a revolution in the schools, in the workplaces, in the streets, and in the home. Anywhere where there are women, and we are everywhere, this has been the discussion. Is that in itself a triumph? Yes, it is. But we did not win. Because we need more firepower.
What would have happened if we had achieved a general strike in Argentina for the legalization of abortion? What would have happened if the “green tide” had invaded the unions and on August 8 in Argentina, transport, schools, hospitals, factories, state agencies had paralyzed the country? What would have happened if the territorial workers’ organizations had paralyzed the neighborhoods and cut off the country’s routes? The result can never be predicted, but the cost of having ignored the millions that would have then come out to fight would have been higher for the government.
I think we have to become more threatening. And for that we have to inject our green in the conservative gray, in the routine gray, in the bureaucratic gray of most of the unions. Because access to abortion is an issue for the working class as a whole. So, while it is women who have to decide, it is the working class as a whole that has to fight to honor that decision.
This is the goal of the women’s movement: to build bridges with working women (who are already part of the workers’ organizations) and to collectively discuss how to make these organizations see the feminist agenda as their own. Not as an external agenda but as an agenda of its own, because the problems of women are the problems of the working class as a whole.
Women are half of the working class, we are the majority of the teachers and nurses, we have the majority of the precarious jobs, and we perform the overwhelming majority of reproductive work at home. This is why, a basic right such as the freedom to decide about one’s own body, to decide on motherhood, is a right for which the entire working class has to fight for. Similarly, that´s why the precariousness of work, the lack of funds for health and education (which took the life of two teachers last week), the extension of the working day (which makes the double burden of housework and paid work unbearable), all these attacks on the working class have to be demands of the feminist movement.
The vote revealed the existence of a right-wing nucleus that continues to talk in abstract terms about the defense of life while making misogynistic and repulsive claims that women are mere incubators. Even when referring to cases where abortion is legal in Argentina, for example if the pregnancy is the result of rape, Senator Urtubey from the province of Salta said that not every rape is an act of violence against women.
But outside the Senate it was a totally different atmosphere. We were thousands and thousands of comrades on the streets. Social and political organizations, feminist collectives, civil society organizations from the whole country, who had traveled to the capital and endured twelve hours of rain and cold during the day of the vote.
Our response will be to redouble our organizational efforts. We will strengthen the National Campaign for the Right to Safe and Free Abortion. We will consolidate other feminist spaces such as the Network of Health Professionals for the Right to Decide, which is campaigning inside the public health system. We want to expand feminist collectives, such as Pink Relief, which has been working throughout the country to provide information on how to perform safe abortions.
We will continue to demand the effective application of the law for Comprehensive Sexual Education, which enables discussions and reflections in educational spaces about sexuality, gender roles, feminism, and de-patriarchalization tools. We will of course fight for the next abortion bill. This will be the eighth time we do this. We know that though this is a moment of frustration, they have not defeated us. Abortion will be legal. We took amazing steps these last months: making the debate public, politicizing abortion, removing it from the intimate sphere, and highlighting the economic, social, and cultural dimensions of this practice.
For us it is important to stress that even though we haven’t won this battle, we do not feel defeated at all. The same feminist networks that brought us here are the ones that will make it possible for us to keep on fighting. And we’re happy to say that we belong to a new popular left that cannot think of anticapitalism without talking about feminism. And vice versa, of course. There is a lesson here: political parties and political structures in general should rise to the occasion and understand that feminism is not just a fashionable motto. It is a way to conceive and discuss everything.
What role have unions played in the battle for abortion rights in Argentina? Do you see the issues of labor rights and reproductive justice as connected? If so, how?
The debate in the unions is a live debate. The fact is, the feminist movement has put abortion rights on the unions’ agenda. A lot of unionized workers participated in the pañuelazos and this method of struggle was adopted by various labor conflicts during the past few months.
One of those pañuelazos took place at the door of the General Confederation of Labor (CGT) on the day of the June 25 general strike. Abortion struggle, its methods and politics, influenced the strike. This doesn’t mean that union leaders accept all the demands from the abortion movement. But the issues of labor rights and reproductive justice are now connected because we have already connected them in the feminist strike, when we re-conceptualized the idea of work from a feminist perspective.
This “intersection” is an effect produced by the feminist strike as a political process. It has to do with the class dimension of abortion that I mentioned before. It is important also to say that a lot of women leaders from different unions made public statements in support of legalization of abortion. But, again, the pressure of the Church in the unions was enormous.
It’s important to highlight how women workers have defied their union leaders in many cases. For examples, the flight attendants (unionized in the CGT) carried out actions in all the airplanes both on August 8 in support of abortion and on March 8, when they struck in the airports. The feminist movement also draws support from workers in the “popular economy” (from trash pickers, to workers in neighborhood soup kitchens, including sewing workers and community “carers”), who are part of new union forms and whose jobs challenge traditional notions of “work.”
From the feminist strike we launched, the very notion of “worker” was expanded, remapping what we understand as “class struggle,” beyond the dogmas of the party left. We are developing a capacity to pressure the union leaderships from below when it came to calling a strike, and transforming the strike itself. This remapping and reconceptualization is not an abstract theoretical proposal. It has been elaborated in countless popular assemblies, transforming the assembly itself into an organizational tool.
For example, #NiUnaMenos assemblies have been organized by workers laid off from the transnational company Pepsico and with workers from Line 144 who respond to calls about gender violence across the country, but also with media workers (the Télam Agency, which laid off 357 workers in the last month) and with women from Mapuche communities who have been criminalized by land owners such as Benetton. The #NiUnaMenos movement has also driven the launch of new political spaces such as #NiUnaMigranteMenos (Not One Migrant Woman Less) and adopted slogans like #NiUnaTrabajadoraMenos (Not One Woman Worker Less) or #NiUnaMenosPorAbortoClandestine (Not One Woman Less because of Clandestine Abortion).
The role of the CGT bosses was pathetic; on July 7, they issued a public statement expressing their “concern” about the economic costs of legalizing abortion for mutual or social plans which are administered by unions.
But the labor movement is not just its Peronist leadership. In response to the bosses’ statement, there was a union women leaders’ mobilization, and there have been a lot of pañuelazos in different workplaces: schools, hospitals, public offices, universities, etc. Furthermore, in recent years there have been several interesting rank and file campaigns, some of them led by militants from the left.
For example, there is a case of a sexual harassment strike in a food factory in Buenos Aires. In 2011 the entire factory went on strike because a woman worker had been sexually harassed by a manager. We do not have any other record of a strike with those characteristics in Argentina.
Is that a women’s strike or is it a workers’ strike? That question is very important. The victim was a woman, those who led the strike were women’s delegates of the Internal Commission (some were militants of socialist women’s organization Pan y Rosas) and the demand could be thought as a “women’s demand,” but the collective action chosen by the workers (the strike) is a classic action of the labor movement. Male workers also joined in the strike — indeed, without them the strike would have been impossible.
This example shows the need to stop thinking of the working class as an agent whose demands are about wages alone and begin to think of it as an agent that has the social strength to fight for the totality of social conditions; for the dignity of life as a whole. From this point of view, there are many demands that become central demands for the working class: shouldn’t all the workers’ organizations fight against sexual harassment at the workplace because such abuse humiliates women workers and seeks to discipline their bodies? Are they not going to fight for good day care, canteens, senior care, if all those care tasks are the ones that exhaust and break the bodies of working-class women?
Returning to the previous question, in addition to separating the church from the state, the most important strategic task the green tide has is to bring that subversive spirit that runs today through streets, schools, houses, and factories, and use it to shake the conservatism still prevalent in the labor movement. Working-class women could be the ones who change the union’s corporatism and enforce the idea that class struggle is not about a wage but about quality of life. That refers to things that happens both within the workplace and without.
Understood in this manner, we see why women are the main protagonists in the current wave of class struggle. They are the first to be affected when the quality of life is attacked, whether in the arena of production (precarization, salary, underemployment) or in the arena of reproduction (education, health, and all care tasks). We have the opportunity today to articulate two forces: the enormous social force of the workers’ movement (which in Argentina has a great tradition of organization and struggle) and the enormous force of change of the new feminist movement.
Unions in our country, as in many others, are very masculine, even those that represent mostly feminine occupations like teaching. One interesting moment in these last months of struggle was when the CGT, through its leaders, said that the unions’ health services, which offer coverage for its members, did not have the resources to provide coverage for abortions if it became law. The response of the feminist movement and of the feminists inside the union was immediate. The next day we organized a pañuelazo, a demonstration with our green handkerchiefs [symbols of the fight for legal abortion] in the headquarters of the CGT.
On the other hand, our comrades are mobilizing for a list of demands within the public employees’ unions; for example, the defense of our sexual and (non)reproductive rights goes hand in hand with our demands for equality in maternal-paternal leave and reflection on the distribution of reproductive labor, also understood as unpaid and feminized work.
What is the historical context for the Ni Una Menos movement? Do you see it as a response to neoliberal attacks on working-class people’s lives?
We build the movement precisely as a response to neoliberal attacks. We were able to make this leap through the strike: the first in October 2016 and then in March 2017 and 2018. The key was to connect the feminist strike with femicide and other kinds of violence. The strike weapon has now been reinvented by the feminist movement to politicize the problem of violence against women and to link it to broader social, economic, and political issues. We have shown how a wide variety of unexpected alliances and coalitions have been enabled by the strike, and how they have multiplied its impact and meanings. This political process has involved efforts to forge a new internationalism, with precarity as a commonconcern.
In the “process” that was opened by this series of strikes, very important discussions and actions took place. For example, on June 2 of last year, we carried out an action in front of the Central Bank denouncing the financial capital’s control over domestic economies and particularly against households where women provide the principal income.
The action was #DesendeudadasNosQueremos (We Want Ourselves Debt Free). One year later, for the protest of last June 4, our slogan “We Want Ourselves Alive, Free, and Debt Free” was taken up by many unions as their own, linking the process of taking out external debt in the country with experiences of private indebtedness. Including financial violence in the web of violence against women and dissident bodies has been a way to discuss the very core of the dynamics of neoliberal exploitation of our time.
In remapping work, we remap the forms of exploitation and value extraction that are not only concentrated in the world of waged labor. By this we mean that there is no feminist movement external to the class issue. Rather the feminist movement drives a social conflict that is a class conflict without this being limited to the narrow factory frame. What is fundamental here is that today popular feminism can connect conflicts and function as a sounding board that is translated into mass-scale, radical anti-neoliberalism.
NiUnaMenos as a movement can’t be understood without placing it in the context of neoliberal policies against working-class people’s lives and the crisis in social relations that such policies engender. Femicides are an expression of such attacks. Take the example of factory closures and attacks on grassroots unionism such as that suffered by women workers of Pepsico in 2017. NiUnaMenos was in solidarity with Pepsico workers, carried out many activities in their support.
NiUnaMenos, as yet, does not position itself as having a clear anti-neoliberal agenda; it does not have an anticapitalist discourse. But it is an evolving movement. The very fact that NiUnaMenos in 2015 was campaigning against femicides, almost as a single-issue campaign, and that three years later we are fighting to legalize abortion, is a sign that the women’s movement as a whole is evolving and growing. The green handckerchief is now a mass symbol.
We are going through a period of profound attacks on our rights, of suppression of all programs of the state except the repressive ones. The effervescence of the feminist movement, of women and LGBTQ people, combines the accumulation of four decades of experiences forged in our massive National Meetings of Women (which have been happening since 1986) with the rise of a young feminism, of students in their classrooms and neighborhoods. This spreads through social networks and denounces sexist violence in all its forms.
Neoliberal entrenchment makes clear that the work that sustains life is done by women workers. The dismantling of the welfare state meant that there were women comrades organizing themselves in their neighborhoods to seek survival in common. Similarly, the deeply conservative logic of neoliberalism makes the lives of LGBTQ workers more precarious, enabling dignified conditions of existence for only those who can afford it.
We are witnessing a feminization of poverty, a criminalization of trans existence, and an increase in racism towards migrants. All these elements have repercussions for the Argentinian working class which is why it is necessary to think of our class not only as masculine, white, heterosexual, and/or native to the country.
How important is internationalism to the Ni Una Menos movement?
It is central. We think it is one of the most important features of our movement. We’re practicing a new kind of internationalism: #LaInternacionalFeminista, as we call it, is producing a new kind of proximity between struggles and we feel it in very concrete ways.
Moreover, it produces a new kind of global battleground, different from the separation between the global and local that existed as recently as fifteen years ago. This implies weaving a network on the basis of resonances, sharing political lexicons and organizational experiences, which requires a complex process of translation and composition.
We are not interested in abstract anticapitalist declarations. We are concerned with connections among concrete struggles. The conflicts over land, over neo-extractive megaprojects, are as important as conflicts in workplaces and in popular economies (which are 40 percent of the economy in our country alone and the majority in our continent), as well as the offensives against dissident sexualities and the criminalization of abortion. The key is the type of web that we are making. One capable of theorizing and acting from below, and an internationalism that is part of everyday struggles.
It’s very important because this new wave of feminist struggle is not a local phenomenon but an international one. When you ask yourself what the different national feminist currents have in common, it is clear that the common denominator is that women, particularly working-class women, are the ones that are the worst targets of neoliberal policies. I’ve written an article about this that is going to be published in the next issue of La Izquierda Diario.
The contradiction between neoliberal capitalism that breaks the bodies of working-class women and the egalitarian discourse of liberal feminism is explosive. It would be a great political experience for the women workers who carried out the strike against sexual harassment in Argentina to meet with the striking teachers of West Virginia. Similarly, those teachers can share their experience with Las Pibas who are at the forefront in the struggle to legalize abortion. Because all these women have much more in common than they probably think.
The women’s and feminist movement, which rallies under the banner of NiUnaMenos, builds bridges and feeds on the common struggles being carried out by similar groups globally. Those of us who are anticapitalist feminists, we feel internationalism as part of our core political identity. And as far as the fight for legal abortion is concerned, international connections were a necessary tool to learn how the debate was being conducted in other countries where abortion is legal. We studied various legislation, we even replicated forms of political action that have been successful elsewhere such as by the Italian Pink Relief or the Jane collective in Chicago.
What organizing methods has the movement used? We know about school occupations by Las Pibas in support of abortion rights. What are some of the other forms of protest and how effective have they been?
The occupations have been decisive. They became a place of collective debate and counter-pedagogy forged by las pibas, this amazing young and radical component of the feminist movement here. But it’s also important to mention the various workers’ assemblies that proliferated, producing a feminist diagnosis in each conflict. We’re in a hard economic situation, with a lot of people losing jobs in both the private and public sectors. Here, once again, we could see the genealogy and traces of the strike: the alliances and practices within those workers’ assemblies are part of the modus operandi that the strike has produced.
What las pibas have done in the schools is very impressive. Many believe that these occupations are limited to the capitol or to the more politicized schools, but that’s not true. It’s an intense politicization that encompasses the suburbs of Buenos Aires and many other regions of the country and it is shaping a new generation of women activists and militants. The other day a sixteen-year-old Piba, who is a leader of her student center, told me that she gives talks to thirteen-year-old girls and boys, and she said: “I’m very happy because they are much better than us, they are the future . . .” A sixteen-year-old girl saying that the future was in thirteen-year-old people! This kind of politicization only happens in moments of high struggle.
There are also some important examples from the workers’ movement, which are less visible. For example, at the Madygraf factory (which is a factory run by workers) the Women’s Commission and Pan y Rosas called an “open women’s assembly” on July 22, to discuss how to participate on August 8 and to discuss women workers’ rights. The assembly was attended by more than seven hundred workers from different workplaces such as Pepsico, Kraft, Hospital Posadas, the aeronautical sector, INDEC, etc.
Something that caught my attention was what happened in the Rio Santiago Shipyard (which is also in struggle because the government wants to close it). On August 8 a huge green handkerchief appeared on the prow of the ship Juana Azurduy. It is one of the things that moved me the most, because the shipyard is historically a “male territory.”
These, and surely, dozens of other experiences in workplaces have to be unified so that these female and male workers can enhance their social strength. Can you imagine what will happen if next year, when the IVE law reappears on the Senate’s agenda, all these expressions are coordinated? If all these workers use their power in support of the law?
The fight for abortion in these last months multiplied to the point where it would not be possible to trace a map with all the activities that happened throughout the country. The pañuelazos and the street demonstrations in front of Congress each week were gathering points for a wide range of political and social organizations, feminist collectives, and artists.
There were the “green Tuesdays” during the debate in the Chamber of Deputies, and later the “green Thursdays” when the discussion moved to the Senate. In these actions we read out letters from actresses, scientists, writers, poets, and musicians. There were panels of debate, and also music to dance to so we could turn the demonstration into a party. From these street meetings called by the National Campaign for Legal, Free, and Safe Abortion, new groups were launched, for example the puentazos.
“Operation Spider” was another example of something that was put into practice by this proliferation of networks. The NiUnaMenos Collective along with the combative union workers from the subway (AGTSyP), with the help of the National Campaign for Abortion and more than seventy organizations, managed to organize a simultaneous intervention in every subway line. Each one with a particular slogan and original artistic protests.
In the secondary schools it was the teenagers who played a leading role in the debates and occupied the schools — demanding legal abortion, sexual education, as well as protocols against violence in their places of study. It is not strange that the main leaders of the students’ movement today are women. There was also an “estudiantazo”: activities in front of the Congress and in middle schools, high schools, and universities all over the country. The level of mobilization was high and undoubtedly these actions converged in to the two major mobilizations, the largest of this process: that of July 13 and August 8.
In the United States we have employed the concept of a “feminism for the 99 percent” to talk about a class struggle feminism, or a feminism that must of necessity be anticapitalist in order to speak to the needs of the vast majority of women. How have Argentinian feminists conceived of class struggle feminism? What are its contours and goals?
Well, we think that this is a very important point because it is part of our everyday discussions. We want to stress that here it is not just an academic debate, but a popular one. Although here feminism does not always get cast in a class language, we think this class-approach is important in terms of updating the notion of class in terms of real, existing movements.
Today, some of the most important moments in class politics are defined by anti-oppression struggles and political forms that are challenging and transforming the unions and the labor movement — often blurring the boundary between life and labor, body and territory, law and violence. This is entirely because of the feminist movement. We are building a movement that feeds the rebellious imagination around the world today and we are nourished by all these struggles.
As I said before, the relationship between the feminist movement in Argentina and the struggle for working-class people’s lives is something we are still building. But there are three solid pillars on which to build it: the massive size of the movement itself, which ensures that no one can say it is just a “middle class movement”; a new generation of women who in their political practice blur the boundaries between “class issues” and “gender issues”; and the unavoidable fact that women are “the bodies of exploitation” both in the arena of production and reproduction. So, as a socialist I ask: how can we think of a feminism that does not intend to destroy the exploitation that is destroying us?
From the massive turnout of the first marches under the slogan “Ni Una Menos” against femicides, the feminist movement in Argentina is now a firmly intersectional one weaving together all our struggles. The slogans that appear every June 3 have expanded. The violence against our bodies is not just physical violence. The violence is in the wage gap, in the unpaid labor that falls on our shoulders, in the debt, in the disciplining of our sexualities, in mandatory maternity, in unemployment, and our precarious access to basic services.
Recognizing this whole network of violence and the mechanisms that reproduce it enables us to question, through feminism, all aspects of our lives. The slogan “We want to be Alive, Free, and without Debt,” in reference to the recent IMF agreement, is an example of how feminism in Argentina is not limiting itself to gender demands. The feminist movement is today perhaps the only one that is a mass movement with radical dimensions.