Marching with a clear message

The global resonance of the Women’s March on Washington sent out the signal that the silent majority will register its resistance against rising intolerance and prejudice

Updated - January 26, 2017 12:39 am IST

Published - January 26, 2017 12:10 am IST

 “While the marches  FAR FROM OVER: “While the marches  brought together issues beyond women, the fact that this was the focus was undoubtedly a draw: women’s rights remain a major political issue even across the western world.” Picture shows a Women’s March in Ottawa, Canada. — PHOTO: REUTERS

“While the marches FAR FROM OVER: “While the marches brought together issues beyond women, the fact that this was the focus was undoubtedly a draw: women’s rights remain a major political issue even across the western world.” Picture shows a Women’s March in Ottawa, Canada. — PHOTO: REUTERS

It’s unlikely that anyone, including Teresa Shook, a grandmother from Hawaii, could have foreseen what would happen when, following Donald Trump’s election in November, she created a “women’s march” event to express her dismay and protest everything that the then U.S. President-elect stood for. Her idea quickly took on a life of its own.

A march for many causes

Just over two months later, over half a million people — women and men— marched on Washington DC on Saturday, the day after Mr. Trump’s inauguration, with other marches taking place across other U.S. States. Support for it extended well beyond those marching — those on the march spoke of the arrangements that people back home made to help it easier for protesters to attend. While it was pegged as a Women’s March, right from the start organisers made it clear that it was meant to be about far more: “The rhetoric of the past election cycle has insulted, demonized and threatened many of us — immigrants of all statuses, Muslims and those of diverse religious faiths, people who identify as LGBTQIA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer, intersex, asexual), native people, black and brown people, people with disabilities, survivors of sexual assault — and our communities are hurting and scared,” reads the mission statement of the march’s organisers who called on the participants to send a “bold message” on President Trump’s first day in office.

While the scale and breadth of the marches across the U.S. are striking, what made the day even more remarkable was the way it extended across the globe. Organisers of the D.C. march estimate that a total of 673 marches happened globally from Mexico City to Lima, Stockholm to Bucharest, and Kolkata to Bangkok. In London, around 1,00,000 people are thought to have joined the march, including the city’s Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. Over 4.8 million people participated globally, they say.

The scale of the protests caught many off guard, with Mr. Trump somewhat reversing a more aggressive initial tweet questioning the legitimacy of the movement, by saying that “peaceful protests are a hallmark of our democracy”. Other attempts to smear the march as a single-issue movement, alienating men — including by populist British television host Piers Morgan — failed to catch on, as men and women who took part made it clear that they had come to vocalise a whole host of issues. Placards seen across the world ranged from those taking on Mr. Trump’s stand on abortion and his comments on sexual assault, and other women’s rights, to those supporting Black Lives Matter, and others attacking Islamophobia. Still others took on the Trump administration’s approach to climate change, and endorsed fact-based scientific methodology, while others simply called, in one way or another, for an end to the rising intolerance that was being seen across the world. In London some of the signs drew parallels between the campaign to leave the European Union and Mr. Trump’s victory.

Behind the rousing response

The success of the movement caught many by surprise — in the U.K., within social media groups set up to support the move to remain in the European Union, many debated why the march had attracted numbers that had surpassed pro-European demonstrations that had taken place in the immediate aftermath of the Brexit referendum, and wondered what lessons could be learnt for their movement. There are of course a number of reasons for this: the broad nature of the march’s aims — a general expression of opposition to intolerance and prejudice — was clear from the outset, while being part of a global movement is likely to have spurred participants on.

The timing is significant too: when the Brexit referendum result emerged, it was a bolt out of the blue for many, rather than a signal of the rise of nationalism and the right. It took the U.S. election to jolt many out of that reverie. Since then, the challenge posed to many countries by the far right has been all too apparent. While Marine Le Pen is still likely to be knocked out in the second round of the French presidential elections, she is doing uncomfortably well for those opposed to her anti-Islam, nationalist world view, while the German Alternative für Deutschland is polling at around 12% — well above its levels at the last national elections, and a significant shift in a country where far-right politics had long been a no-go area because of the country’s history.

Even more worryingly, the right has shown signs of uniting — while many across the world expressed their glee following Mr. Trump’s victory, last weekend a meeting of the far right in Europe took place in the German city of Koblenz, where Ms. Le Pen spoke of 2017 being the “year of the patriots”.

In that context, the willingness of people to seize an opportunity to express their dismay — even beyond the shores of the U.S. — is hardly surprising.

And while the marches certainly brought together issues beyond women, the fact that this was the focus was undoubtedly a draw: women’s rights remain a major political issue even across the western world. In 2015, the Women’s Equality Party was formed in the U.K., putting at the heart of it a battle for equal pay but taking on other issues such as affordable childcare and girls’ education. The party has raised concerns about the impact that Brexit — and withdrawal of EU rights that provide certain guarantees to women — could have on women’s rights in the country. British Prime Minister Theresa May has also faced criticism for her purported unwillingness to raise the subject of sexism with the new U.S. President at their meeting scheduled for later this week.

Looking ahead

Perhaps the biggest test for the Women’s March will be going forward: many movements, such as the global ‘Occupy movement’ that was born in the wake of the global financial crisis, have struggled to keep up their original momentum. Women’s March organisers are clearly keenly aware of the need to keep up the pace and in the U.S. have already launched their next initiative, encouraging people to write in to legislators and spread the message of opposition to intolerance, as part of a “10 actions in 100 days” campaign. A similar move has been launched in the U.K.

Whatever happens, one thing is clear after Saturday: those who stand against intolerance and hate are capable of making a stand in an organised, inclusive, articulate and non-violent way.

vidya.ram@thehindu.co.in

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