This Time The Fire Is Ours

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Liz Mason-Deese on the Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion Campaign in Argentina

Yesterday, after a debate that went well into the night, the Argentine Senate rejected a bill for legal, safe, and free abortion. The bill had been approved in the lower chamber of Congress in June after a 23 hour debate inside and an accompanying all night vigil outside in which hundreds of thousands of people turned the neighborhood surrounding Congress into an experiment in a feminist form of life: dancing and singing in the streets, cooperatively cooking meals, collectively caring for one another, sharing stories and experiences. This Wednesday as well, while the Senate debated, two million people filled the surrounding streets, despite freezing rain, singing, chanting, dancing their support for the right to abortion. It has been this feminist movement, this transversal and multi-generational force that has pushed forward the campaign to legalize abortion and will continue to do so despite the setback of the Senate vote.

How has a largely Catholic country, with a right-wing government, home of the current Pope, been able to give rise to such a strong feminist movement? A feminist movement that has been able to connect multiple issues, multiple forms of violence that women suffer, create connect links between different struggles, garner massive public support and deploy their force on the streets. It has been the convergence of different movements: the National Campaign for a Free, Safe and Legal Abortion that has been organizing for over a decade; the National Women’s Encounter, which has been meeting annually for over thirty years; the Mothers, Grandmothers, and daughters of the human rights movement, the piqueteras of the movements of the unemployed, and Ni Una Menos against gender violence.

While feminism has long been associated with middle class interests and values, the current feminist wave has built a cross-class and multi-ethnic movement by focusing on the relation between physical violence, economic violence, and colonial violence. Thus the campaign for legal, safe, and free abortion has emphasized how the criminalization of abortion means that poor women are put at greater risk of dying from unsafe procedures. 

For years now, Ni Una Menos has been directly linking economic precarity to women’s vulnerability to male violence and to ideas about women’s inferiority and disposability at the root of the gendered violence. The three feminist strikes to date have thus served as tools to highlight the relationship between economic and other types of violence. As Verónica Gago has argued:

This tool [of the strike] allowed us to link machista violence to the political, economic, and social violence that results from the complex but fundamental logic of current forms of exploitation, which are making women’s bodies into new territories to conquer. Speaking of a strike enabled us to approach violence in a new way, to locate violence in imploded households and in lands devastated by agribusiness, in wage gaps and in forms of domestic work rendered invisible, in the prominence of women’s popular economies in efforts to confront crisis. We also located violence in the financial exploitation of private and public indebtedness and in the attempts to discipline our disobedience through overt state repression or the persecution of migrants. We saw violence in the way in which the poorest women are imprisoned and subsistence economies are criminalized, as are abortions.

The recent feminist movement has found some of its strongest and most radical expressions in working class urban territories, some of the same territories where the movement of the unemployed was the strongest in the late 1990s. While women made up a large percentage of the participation in the organizations of the unemployed, their experience was, in many ways, ambiguous: they were often denied leadership roles or relegated to traditionally ‘feminine’ tasks. Yet that experience also served as a training ground for a new generation of young activists from the popular classes. Years later, these women, many of whom were only in their teens when they participated in their first roadblocks are now leaders of the fight against gendered violence in their neighborhood. For example, many of the young women formerly involved in the unemployed workers’ movement are leading the campaign to legalize abortion and to fight gender violence. When talking about their mobilizations, they cite specific examples of seeing friends in abusive relationships or being the victims of machista violence, as well as talking about how their involvement in the unemployed movement was important for learning methods of self-defense and confidence.

The popular feminism of this movement, rooted in concrete struggles and issues of material reproduction,  is based on allowing women to speak for themselves, to tell their own stories, from their own positions, and to become the subjects of their own lives and decision-makers over their own bodies. This stands in sharp contrast to the Catholic Church which claims to represent and speak for women, especially poor women. Shantytown priests, represented by figures such as Padre Pepe, attempt to associate the campaign for legal abortion with foreign powers, ignoring women’s own stories of risking their lives for access to abortion. Of course, those priests and the anti-abortion campaign in general, is largely funded by the Vatican and other foreign Catholic and Evangelical groups.  

The popular and territorial character has been the defining feature of this new wave of feminist struggle that has forced Congress to take up the issue of abortion. The movement is based on concrete actions and investigations in specific territories, forms of militant research into women’s lives, the violence they face, and the practices of resistance they create. Through assemblies and actions that bring together women from different sectors, different political experiences, and different class and ethnic backgrounds, and starting from those concrete practices of investigation, the feminist movement has grown into a transversal movement. A movement that cuts across different sectors and different movements to transform how they operate from within. 

Organizing assemblies, sometimes of hundreds of women, bring together women across different and through sharing a space and working together, they build a common subjectivity. These assemblies multiply in diverse spaces: in workplaces, in unions, in political organizations, in schools, in urban neighborhoods, towns, and rural areas. There are assemblies of artists and writers, of musicians, of teachers, of migrants. These assemblies both allow for weaving a new political composition as women learn to work together and build commonalities through their encounters and also for building an analysis that connects the criminalization of abortion to other forms of violence and discrimination that women suffer.

The campaign for legal, safe, and free abortion has then drawn on a strong, diverse, and transversal feminist movement to be able to paint the entire country green. The green symbol of the campaign is seen at soccer games, at workplaces, on the streets, in the bus, in hospitals. For months, high school students have been taking over and occupying their schools with the demand for legal abortion and comprehensive sexual education. In unions and grassroots organizations, women force a conversation on abortion, highlight the links between the violence of clandestine and unsafe abortions and other types of physical and economic violence that women suffer. It is through connecting these struggles, as was witnessed in the March 8 International Feminist Strike, that the feminist movement has grown into such an overwhelming force in Argentina. This is why, despite the Senate vote, the feminist movement is already winning, or, as Ni Una Menos stated in a call to action earlier this week: “If the law is not passed, we will not leave the streets and they, will not be able to leave the Congress building because in the street Legal Abortion is already the law. We will not let ourselves be burned because this time the fire is ours.”