Saturday, July 25, 2015

IWD: Oppression transformed into revolutionary power

This article originally appeared on The Kasama Project, 8 March 2014. Reposting here to preserve a broken link. It may also be accessed here.

Where does the revolutionary spark come from? How do some people come to transcend and challenge the crushing oppressions of the world? International Women's Day (IWD) has something to teach us. If the political theoreticians of the radical movements of the 19th and early 20th century were mostly men, it was radical women, close to the grinding brutality and poverty of industrialism's golden age, who encapsulated the personal rage and determination needed to transform suffering and oppression into resistance. It was female anarchist Emma Goldman who said succinctly and straightforwardly, "Ask for work. If they don't give you work, ask for bread. If they do not give you work or bread, then take bread.”

b2ap3_thumbnail_women-workers_opt.jpgThe IWD holiday was first carved out as a day for working women to celebrate their mutual solidarity and empowerment back in 1908, by striking women workers in Chicago. A few short years later in 1914, the world socialist movement adopted March 8 as a political holiday to demand political and social rights for women. The ideals of that socialist movement were promptly tested as the world plunged into war and much of the socialist movement betrayed internationalism, but brave women kept the holiday alive.

And then by 1917, this simple holiday showed its revolutionary potential: A women's day demonstration in Russia for peace and bread (shown above right) turned into a mass strike which quickly became the February Revolution that overthrew the centuries-old rule of the Tsars. Revolutionaries had been organizing against the Tsars for decades with increasing mass success. But it took a demonstration of women workers, of mothers, sisters, daughters, wives, lovers, making an urgent heartfelt plea for an end to death and hunger that captured the mass imagination and changed the once unthinkable into the possible.

After the October revolution in Russia, International Working Women's Day, often shortened to just International Women's Day, was added to the canon of revolutionary holidays celebrated by communists around the world. It became a moment of recognition for women attempting to create new realities in socialist countries, and a rallying cry for women around the world challenging capitalism and imperialism.

In the modern era the holiday has been often co-opted by the mainstream bourgeois feminist movement: instead of radical appeals for social transformation, this depoliticized holiday came to celebrate the "sisterhood" of reactionary female politicians, or served to elevate women celebrities. But even cheapened into a feel-good holiday affirming the humanity and achievement of women, IWD has not lost all its power. (It's a remarkable statement that after all these years female humanity still needs to be affirmed.) The deep connection between women's experience of oppression and their potential to lead revolution remains.

b2ap3_thumbnail_1979Iran.jpgIn 1979, Iranian women played a major role in the overthrow of the U.S.-backed Shah. Communist women had joined guerrilla forces and urban revolutionary groups and been subject to bloody, brutal and violent repression along with their male comrades.

The Iranian revolution triumphed when the political opposition was joined by the mass Islamist movement. After the Shah was overthrown, the new rulers attempted to impose conservative religious laws on the general population: On IWD 1979, thousands of Iranian women filled the streets of Tehran to object (right). Under slogans like "In the Dawn of Freedom There Is no Freedom!" "Women's Liberation Is Society's Liberation!" and  "We didn’t make a revolution to go backwards!” they organized marches and sit-ins for six days. While the laws mandating compulsory hijab were eventually put in place, Iranian women's resistance ensured that, even under the forms of repression that followed, women were not driven from the political sphere.

Today women are a significant part of the revolutionary movement: whether in the rural regions of India where armed women Maoist rebels challenge Indian capitalism (photo at top), or in the mass movements of the squares from Egypt to Wall Street, or in the spheres of theoretical exploration and debate necessary to take the communist movement to its next stage, women's voices are a crucial part of grounding the struggle in the reality of experiencing and challenging oppression.

Revolutionary sisterhood is indeed powerful. Let's see what it can do next. Happy IWD! —ISH

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