How did the epochal Women’s Global Strike for Dignity begin? The idea was first broached at the huge All-Women’s Assembly organised at the World Social Forum the year before. The topic was “Women at Work,” and participating were organised networks of female workers and professionals in every field including agriculturists, market-women and garbage-pickers (from the million-member Indian Self-Employed Women's Union). Panelists of specialists and women researchers documented what everyone already knew: women do most almost all the actually necessary work on the planet, both paid and unpaid.
Statistics were produced to show that in most societies women tend the crops, haul the water, care for the children, cook the meals, teach the young, care for the sick and aged, and perform most of the actual manufacturing in the labor-intensive industries like textiles and electronics that supply ordinary consumers. Men, on the other hand, were perceived as useless jerks running around giving orders and waving guns – or else sitting around in cafés and/or government offices, talking with other men (while women serve them), getting drunk, and generating useless paperwork (for women to type and file). A consensus soon emerged among the assembled women’s : we can do very well without men, but men can’t do without us. So let’s teach the men a lesson. Let’s get together and go on strike!
Hassan Mahmoud of the Organisation for Women’s Freedom in Irak took the floor to state that although there was much truth behind that male stereotype – especially in Irak – women everywhere need to unite with the majority of working men, who are also exploited. This basic class division, she explained, was why the Iraki Organisation for Women’s Freedom support with the Federation of Workers’ Councils and Unions, who in turn support women’s equality and freedom. She proposed that the women invite working men to participate in the general strike of women and to take responsibility for the children and household work so that the women could meet and demonstrate.
March 8, celebrated for nearly a century as International Women's Day was chosen as the date for the strike. Since 2003, Eve Ensler, feminist author of ‘The Vagina Monologues,’ had been organizing “V-Days” on March 8 – a planet-wide series of events, including dancing in the streets, aimed at eliminating the growing world-wide epidemic of violence against women. What actually transpired exceeded her wildest expectations. Julia Guseva, an anarcho-marxist from Moscow, reminded the women that March 8, 1917, the day when Russian women strikers made the rounds of St. Petersburg factories calling out the men to join their strike, had signalled the beginning of the Russian workers’ and peasants’ revolution which brought sexual and social equality to Russian women before degenerating into a male-dominated, bureaucratic, state-capitalist dictatorship under the Communist Party. Quoting Marx, who wrote that ‘woman is the proletarian of the proletarian, the slave of the slave,’ Guseva urged the women present to take a great oath never to allow women's issues to take a back seat to anyone else’s ‘urgent priorities.’
And so it was agreed that on March 8 women everywhere withhold their labor – waged and unwaged – and assemble in their workplaces, villages and neighborhoods to demonstrate their power and discuss what to do next. The idea behind the Women’s Global Strike for Dignity was to demonstrate – by their idleness – that without women’s work the world economy . The women’s first demand was that governments and corporations respect the right of women to work as free laborers – not as slaves toiling in the fear of beatings by male bosses, landlords, foremen, husbands, pimps and religious enforcers.
Their slogans of the “Day Without Women” were “Stop Male Violence!” “Hands off Working Women!” “Women will no more be the slaves of slaves!”
“Sisters Rise Together!” the Strikers’ Handbook advised each collective and each individual woman to plan the level of her resistance according to her social and personal situation. In countries where unions were tolerated and civil rights respected, women would strike and demonstrate. But in other cultures more subtle forms of resistance might be appropriate, like slowdowns and various forms of sabotage – everything from letting the machines break down, burning the soup, misplacing household objects, acting sullen, and giving men the silent treatment. Resistance could take the form of a ‘sick headache’ – and still provoke a beating from a husband used to service plus sexual favors. The Handbook retold the ancient story Lysistrata, who organised an international sex strike to force their Spartan and Athenian husbands to stop the Peloponnesian War.
The idea caught on quickly among U.S. feminists and activists. Democratic officials eager for women’s votes gave their female state and municipal workers the day off. Smart employers like Google encouraged their employees to participate. (‘Sex discrimination creates a disunited workplace and is bad for productivity’). The Greeting Card Manufacturers’ Association and the Florists’ Council, smelling another Mothers Day bonanza, quietly lobbied for the March 8 holiday and began working on a heartfelt Women’s Day cards to send, accompanied by flowers, to “Mom,” “Sis,” “Grandma,” “Daughter” and Tilly the Toiler, the “girl” in the office. The Fishies used their cyber network to spread the word and help their mothers, sisters and girlfriends communicate with other women around the world. (See Rules of the Game BvB: “All winning strategies involve the free and active participation of the female Billions – united as equals with the male Billions.”)
In the poor countries, where women's oppression is direct and brutal, the very idea of a Strike for Dignity presented difficulties for women – both in the family or clan and in the factories where women workers were routinely confined and beating. Within traditional families, the rising pitted wives and daughters against the authority of fathers, husbands, brothers, uncles and mothers-in-law. Despite fear of reprisals, women organised events in their towns and villages – wherever there was some form of women’s cooperative enterprise, trade union or women’s center connected to the world-wide women's networks. Often traditional women's activities, including female dancing, served as a pretext for gatherings.
In many societies, the very act of women leaving the house or the sweatshop without male permission, of getting together with other women to organise and protest was considered revolutionary – and scary as well. Yet there were women in all these lands courageous enough to resist: for example Nigerian women struggling against the destruction of their land by Shell Oil. When troops killed dozens of male demonstrators, these women took their place and stripped naked to shame the soldiers. And so from Africa to Asia to the Middle East and Latin America, the Women’s Strike call went out along the grapevine linking AIDS clinics, women's cooperatives, human rights groups, unions, NGA’s and on into the hinterland.
In preparation for the international one-day strike, women activists from the rich countries sent delegations to accompany women strikers in the poor countries – hoping that their witness presence would shield them from the worst organised violence. Naturally, the local potentates, police chiefs, warlords, and religious enforcers were enraged. There were increasingly violent attacks on women’s organisations everywere from Afganistan to Zambia, and ‘foreign agents’ were often singled out.
The crisis went global when the HBollywood star Sarah Azad was kidnapped in an attack by armed men in Nigeria. After long days of suspense and mounting pressures on Shell and the Nigerian generals, the sexy, straight-talking actress was released. Bruised, exhausted and shaken, Azad pointedly thanked the world-wide women's solidarity movement for pressuring the initially-reluctant Republican Administration in Washington to intervene on her behalf. “It’s not about me,” she went on, “it’s about daily about state-sponsored terrorism against all Nigerian women.” Asked if she had been raped, Azad looked straight into the reporter’ eye: “What do you think?” before being ushered out of the press conference, tears streaming down her cheeks.
In answer to Azad’s call, new international women’s delegations came streaming into the poor countries, while from Washington, London, and Paris the word went down to the thugocracy to “chill the violence until this Women’s Day bullshit blows over.” Sensing the moment, millions of poor women took courage, left their homes and flocked around previously isolated women’s rights and self-help groups. Suddenly, International Women's Strike for Dignity Day – originally yet another ‘Good Idea’ initiated by the usual woman activists – was blooming into a living planetary movement.
By March 7, millions of women were streaming in from the countryside by bus or on foot – toward cities many had never seen before. Moreover, for every militant woman who managed to march, hundreds of her sisters remained defiant whether shackled in sweatshops or cloistered at home – engaging in subtle forms of sabotage, sullenly refusing to work or even to speak. The more intelligent and confident Machos, tiring of arguments, cold meals and cold beds, chose to dismiss the Strike as a harmless female whim and generously ‘let the girls have their Day.’ The rest – scared, mean, disappointed men – simply beat their wives with anything handy.
The organisers had attempted to provide shelters for women in fear of their lives, but many feared these shelters would attract additional violence. Nonetheless, non-violence was the Order of the Day. Out of common sense, the women organisers had refused (with thanks) offers from various armed revolutionary groups to act as bodyguards or escorts. Violence was incompatible with the women’s tactic of shaming their male oppressors in order to neutralising them. In any case, parading around with guns would only provoke the vastly superior firepower, while the presence of thousands of participant-witnesses might provide a shield. “Our strength is in our willingness to die for our cause, not kill for it” was the movement’s byword.
On the male side, the violent Rabbis, fanatical Mullahs, Christian fundamentalists, Hindu nationalists, feudal princes and warlords – used to acting with impunity – found the women’s challenge to their God-given patriarchal authority intolerable. As Women’s Strike for Dignity Day approached, their seething hatred boiled over. During the first week of March, abortion clinics were bombed in Texas, AIDS clinics burned out in Africa, women's centers destroyed in Afghanistan – all by unidentifiable “radical elements” repudiated by their respective fundamentalist leaders. This unchecked violence became a worldwide scandal on March 7 when fanaticised mobs dragged hundreds of Asian women from a train packed with demonstrators and hacked them to pieces for hours as police and army stood aside and digital cameras beamed out photos and videos in real time via the Internet.
These horrific pictures became world-transforming images, like those of September 11, 2001. The whole world stopped and took a breath. World-wide saturation media coverage brought home the strikers’ message: Violence against women must cease! those responsible – both high and low – must be brought to justice! Far from intimidating the women of the planet, the tragedy provoked anger and resolve in the vast numbers of women who – vaguely sympathetic to the goals of the strike but convinced that it would do no practical good – had remained passive.
The outpouring of women on March 8 was massive. As dawn traveled from East to West, women woke to the news of the huge turnout in earlier time-zones. This created a snowball effect as the strike followed the sun around the planet. Safety in numbers: even timid women dared to stand up and be counted on this historic day. By noon in the world, business and every other social activity had ground to a halt. Vast numbers of women of all ages and conditions on every continent had left their houses and congregated, whether in village greens or the great squares of teeming cities. The roads were choked, transportation at a halt, no work was done. The army and police, overwhelmed, either made themselves scarce or tried to look useful for once in their swaggering lives. That day, the planet belonged to the women.
No one was more surprised by this massive outpouring than the women themselves, beginning with the pioneering visionaries and courageous local activists who had launched the strike in the first place. For feminist historians, the March 8 Women Strike for Dignity marked the beginning of the end of a whole era of female defeat and despair under patriarchy – an era which had begun with the invention of by jealous, ambitious, violent, punishing male chiefs, kings and priests of jealous, ambitions, violent, punishing gods.
These feminists saw womankind, acting together, re-emerging as a self-acting historical subject with her own, radically different project of society – a society based on community, with power flowing in circles and webs rather than through competition, hierarchy and domination. Their goal was not separation from men, but new relations with men as equal, yet different, partners in the struggle for the survival and reproduction of the species as well as in the quest for sexual fulfillment.
A billion women were in the street, taking the measure of their common condition, common needs, and the power of their unity. No longer did their individual miseries appear to them as somehow inevitable and somehow their own fault. A new global superpower had been released, and this female Genie – unlike the vain and stupid male Genie of Scheherazade’s tale – would never again let herself be put back in the bottle.