Honouring International Women’s Day: feminist protests


The 8th of March is a day to celebrate and honour the achievements and sacrifices of women who came before us, and to celebrate our own.

When the subject of women’s protest comes up, there tends to be a focus on a very specific (white) form of protest, from the suffragettes of the UK that embarked on violent public protests for the vote, or the Equal Rights Amendment demonstrations, all the way to the present day Slutwalks or Reclaim the Night marches that protest the stigmatisation of sex work and all forms of gender-based violence against women.

Although these marches are historically important, entailing great personal sacrifice and raising awareness for salient issues, they have historically been whitewashed and hetero-normative, and therefore exclusive. They have also been predominantly middle or upper class, and require certain privileges not everyone has access to: being mobile and able-bodied, being able to leave caring roles or employment (or both) to attend marches and being able to safely and publicly protest a cause without fear of retribution. Whilst this does not diminish their value, other forms of protest should be given attention, as they can be equally impactful.

Alternative forms of protest

Furthermore, alternative forms of protest can go beyond the potential confines of marching and protesting, enabling creative, abstract explorations of what it can mean to disrupt the norm. One such form of protest is yarnbombing, the act of covering public objects such as trees with colourful knitting or crocheted material.

Although not always political, yarnbombing has been used as part of a wider social movement, aiming to draw attention to issues such as the post-conflict space. Academics Manuela Farinosi and Leopoldina Fortunati argue that yarnbombing can blend elements from domesticity, handicraft, art and feminism that distinguish it from other forms of urban graffiti, as well as being an intentional preservation of the environment, which aims to draw attention to spaces that might otherwise be too conventional to be of note.

Another ‘unusual’ form of protest is the Women in Black movement, a world-wide group against militarism and violence, who organise silent vigils or other non-violent demonstrations like sit-ins. The women-only organisation doesn’t assume their gender makes them ‘natural’ peacemakers, but argues that women predominantly bear the consequences of violence and so recognise forms of injustice and oppression.

By redefining what a feminist protest looks and sounds like, those engaging in protest can also reclaim the frustrating phenomenon where feminist (or ‘women’s’) agendas are placed on the back burner for the sake of a ‘greater cause’.

I am thinking of when liberation movements or governments co-opt women’s groups and incorporate gender equality discourse into their rhetoric, but then silence or side-line women and other vulnerable groups once official representation has been achieved. One, although by no means the only, example is how black nationalist movements have diminished the contribution of black women who often provided much of the ideology espoused by rousing figures such as Marcus Garvey and Malcolm X. Taking control of protest by redefining its definitions and conceptualisations can be a powerful step in ensuring women’s voices are never co-opted or lost in a melting-pot of just causes.

When protesting gets personal

On to my own form of protest: I make a daily one-hour commute to SOAS, and have spent more time on the tube this year than ever before. I’ve noticed how space becomes a coveted commodity during rush hour, and have learnt to navigate the politically charged game of who gets a seat and where the best places are to avoid a stranger’s morning breath on your face (never, ever the middle!).

I have also noticed the difference in the way men and women navigate the space around them: women shrink and take up about two thirds of the space they are entitled to. Men expand and take the rest.

So commences a silent battle with some of my fellow male commuters as I either refuse to move my arms from the arm rest (Underground etiquette dictates that 50% of an armrest is rightly mine, but men tend to absentmindedly elbow you out of the way) or mimic the way they sit by spreading my legs well beyond the confines of my seat. The results are always varied; quite a lot of men sadly do not notice and my efforts go in vain. Some awkwardly shift their limbs around until one of us gets up; some engage in furious, silent struggle where they push elbows and knees against me and breathe heavily, because how dare I prevent them from taking up as much space as they want! Those are the most entertaining, but also the scariest. Sometimes the fear of retribution subdues me, or I don’t feel like having my crotch stared at, so I stay within the confines of my seat and keep my legs firmly crossed. But my personal protest continues, in a manner that feels safe and accessible to me as a perpetually busy, stressed out student!

So, this International Women’s Day I invite you to consider ways in which you can protest, no matter how small or abstract your actions may be. In a society where self-doubt and the incessant calls for self-improvement are commodified into products or experiences to be sold as feel-good solutions, sometimes simply living and loving is a courageous protest in and of itself. It is not always possible, or necessary to participate in large movements to tip the world’s scales just a few grams towards something better.

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