Last Wednesday, I attended the vigil of Women in Black. The antimilitarist female-led movement started in Israel to protest against the Palestinian Occupation in 1988. Since then, their campaign has spread around four corners of the world, from Jerusalem to London to Bogotá. Along the way, they have embraced other causes affected by armed conflict.
Their demonstrations differ in every city; they are independent networks. Yet, their essence, name and purpose are the same: put an end to armed conflict and raise awareness of the abhorrence of militarisation.
This pacifist group has been active in London for over twenty years. They get together every Wednesday from 6pm to 7pm in front of the statue of Edith Cavell, a nurse that saved numerous lives from both sides during the First World War.
The symbolism of performing in this location is not accidental but deeply meaningful. The movement advocates for the same values and concerns of this illustrious nurse a hundred years ago. Their ritual consists of remaining still and silent, surrounding the four corners of the figure, wearing all black and holding banners with antimilitarist and informative inscriptions.
Women in Black against militarism and war
Their messages change every two weeks, although there is always one that explains who they are: Women in Black against militarism and war. Some of the women involved have been demonstrating every Wednesday for more than two decades, no matter the inclement London weather. Some of their members are prominent pacifist feminist scholars and longstanding peace activists that are strongly committed to the movement and deeply believe in the impact and significance of their act.
The force of their peaceful demonstration is twofold. On one hand, the gendered character of the group, the sovereign act of a group of women reappropriating public space, where they have been traditionally denied presence is in and of itself a political act. On the other, their performance conveys an antimilitarist message in the middle of a metropolitan Western city that seems oblivious to the violence happening in other parts of the world or the implications of arms trade fairs taking place in the city.
Patriarchy and militarism are intertwined, they produce a gendered dichotomy (see Women & Wars by Carol Cohn). Women’s experience of war is different, yet they remain largely ostracized in political decision processes. The suffering they endure during conflict is either undermined or used as a method to disable their active participation.
A reflective experience
Personally, I found the experience reflective and politically meaningful. This one hour of immobility challenges the political and military structures while serving as a commemoration for all of those affected by the horrors of war and militarism.
Reactions from bystanders are mixed. Some openly support the cause and thank you for being there. Others ignore it and the most part read the message and continue their way. However, you leave with a sense of having left an imprint in people’s minds and that something has been advanced towards a peaceful world.
Despite the unwavering commitment of their members, the movement is in urgent need of generational replacement. This is a call to all the feminist pacifists that firmly believe in the power of transnational peace protests to abolish war and raise awareness against militarisation to join them!