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Chile’s Feminists are the Memory of the Future

Sunday 2 January 2022, by siawi3

Source: https://roarmag.org/magazine/chiles-feminists-are-the-memory-of-the-future/


Chile’s Feminists are the Memory of the Future

Bree Busk

Issue 11, Autumn 2021

“We have come to transform everything”.

Manifesto for the Feminist General Strike 2020
March 8 Feminist Coordinating Committee

It was November 29, 2019 in Plaza de la Dignidad, the central gathering place of the urban revolt that had broken out in Chile’s capital city of Santiago five weeks earlier and rapidly spread throughout the country. The late afternoon sun painted the crowd in a golden orange light and the air bore traces of teargas and bonfire smoke that wafted in from the side streets where protesters played cat-and-mouse games with the riot police. Everyone was hot and thirsty and sunblind, but clearly thrilled to be there. After all, it was a Friday night in the midst of what was beginning to feel like a revolution.

Although protests and other types of political interventions had become a daily occurrence, Fridays in the Plaza were different, special. It was there that the largest crowds congregated, claiming not only the central square but the streets, bridges and parks that surrounded it. It was at times both carnival and army encampment, with hot dog vendors set up a few yards from burning piles of debris and plumes of spray from water cannons visible in the distance. When the police were held at bay, there was an atmosphere of absolute freedom, like anything was possible. It was in that space, both physical and philosophical, that some of the most iconic interventions of the uprising took place. Such was the case that Friday.

As the sun slowly descended, the Plaza began to fill up with performers. One could easily identify them as a group, as many wore clothes and make-up better suited to a nightclub and sported red or green bandanas and black blindfolds as accessories. Soon, a crowd of hundreds surrounded the prominent statue at the center of the square, with a dozen or so daring to scale it. From the summit, they brandished the bright green bandana that had come to represent the fierce new feminist wave sweeping through Latin America. And then the beat started.

By then, everyone knew about “Un Violador en tu Camino” (“A Rapist in Your Path”), a viral performance piece introduced barely a week earlier by the feminist collective LasTesis. The lyrics, inspired by the work of Argentinian feminist Rita Segato, were at once incredibly catchy and eloquent in their description of the complicity of state institutions in gender violence. What is more, they rang with a terrible poignancy in the context of the unfolding revolt: at the time, the National Institute of Human Rights was receiving regular complaints of police brutality carried out against protesters, including harrowing accounts of sexual violence and torture.

The arrival of this feminist hymn at the heart of the protests was a clear demonstration that those who had found their voices in Chile’s feminist movement would not be pushed to the side in this broader reckoning they themselves had helped to set in motion.

Plaza de la Dignidad echoed with the voices of hundreds of feminists as they denounced patriarchal violence while performing choreography based on invasive police searches — a form of sexual humiliation. One by one, the performers pointed their fingers and named the forces complicit in this violence as the crowd roared back in agreement: “The cops. The judges. The state. The president.” With that final accusation, the crowd exploded in cries of “Piñera culiao!” and as the chorus kicked in, protesters of all genders pumped their fists to the beat: “El estado opresor es un macho violador!” (“The oppressive state is a macho rapist!”) The Chilean feminist movement — so innovative in its tactics and so timely in its analysis — had once again exhibited its power to give new life to political processes already in motion as well as those just waking up.

A new feminism crossing all types of borders

Organized feminists have played a definitive role in shaping Chilean politics, deftly adapting to the needs and challenges of the moment without falling prey to institutional cooptation. Politically, the contemporary movement’s greatest contribution has been transforming the “horizon of the possible,” meaning that it has successfully challenged the conventional wisdom about how social change occurs and who the agents of that change can or should be.

Since the student feminist wave of 2018, Chilean feminists have made headlines both locally and internationally with their massive, colorful mobilizations. However, these spectacular marches represent only a fraction of the work being done on the ground. To this day, the feminist struggle can be found in the classrooms, on the shop floor, in the prisons and even within the ongoing Constitutional Convention, where feminist delegates are fighting tooth-and-nail to democratize the process of writing a new constitution for the country and to put an end to the neoliberal legacy of the Pinochet dictatorship.

This emergent practice of feminism is characterized by its skepticism of — if not outright antagonism towards — the idea of “changing the system from within,” preferring instead to build power from the bottom up and organize through horizontal collectives, assemblies, networks and coordinating committees. Even the decision to back candidates for the Convention was contentious, with a great deal of time and thought invested in whether the potential victories to be snatched within the process outweighed the risk of institutional contamination.

Movement bodies such as the March 8 Feminist Coordinating Committee (CF8M) strive to practice a form of feminism that is “transfronteriza” — not merely international, but interested in crossing all types of borders, particularly those cordoning off so-called “women’s issues” from the complex and intersecting subjectivities we inhabit. This orientation demands the rejection of any feminisms that attempt to reduce the experience of patriarchal oppression to a narrow, cisgender identity. It also manifests itself in an unwavering feminist commitment to the struggles for Indigenous and migrant rights as well as against colonialism, racism and xenophobia more broadly.

In the words of Argentina’s Ni Una Menos Collective, “it is evident in every action how neoliberal capitalism is both patriarchal and colonial and there is no way to end one without confronting everything at the same time.” Throughout Latin America, our new feminisms are bound by a desire to transform every aspect of our lives, from our most intimate relationships to the economic and political systems that discipline us with violence when we refuse to obey.

In this period of escalating global crises, it is no longer tenable to enact incremental social change through the “proper channels” within the rigid boundaries of our nation-states and outdated conceptions of struggle. We must look to popular movements that are not only fighting for the lives we wish to save today, but for the lives we hope to one day live.

The March 8 Feminist Strike

As early as 2015, various feminist hashtags calling attention to patriarchal abuse and violence went viral around the globe. In some countries, this surge in social media activity was accompanied by street protests, national days of actions and even the establishment of lasting movements. The first hashtag with a global impact was #NiUnaMenos (“not one [woman] less”), a slogan against femicide put forward by the movement in Argentina. This bold rejection of the violent status quo resonated with women throughout the region, eventually sparking similar campaigns and mobilizations in Chile, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, El Salvador, Guatemala, Mexico, Brazil and in Spain.

However, this new surge in feminist activity was not limited to Latin America and the Spanish-speaking world. In 2016, the feminist movement in Poland captured international attention with their Women’s Strike in response to the proposal of a strict abortion ban. The Strike was organized under the hashtag #BlackMonday, a reference to the fact participants took to the streets dressed in mourning for their lost reproductive rights. Later that same month, Argentinian feminists called a strike of their own to protest the gruesome femicide of Lucía Perez at the hands of two men who attempted to pass her death off as a drug overdose.

Thanks to these two landmark events and the solidarity actions that followed, the idea of a women’s or feminist strike emerged as a valuable tactic for the movements and individuals who were finally beginning to feel their collective power. The impact of this rising feminist wave could be seen around the globe; even the United States — a country that had been largely immune to the momentum of #NiUnaMenos — witnessed a historic mobilization in January 2017 when advocates of women’s rights marched in record numbers to protest the inauguration of Donald Trump.

In Ireland, abortion rights activists launched the #strike4repeal campaign, threatening a national strike on International Women’s Day if the government failed to call for a referendum on repealing the constitutional amendment which placed equal value on the life of a fetus and the person gestating it. Thanks to the consistent and creative activism on the part of the broader movement, the abortion ban was overturned the following year. Irish feminists were not the only ones to embrace the tactic of the strike; carried by the momentum of the escalating global mobilizations, organized bodies of feminists called for an International Women’s Strike on March 8. This first “feminist general strike” was adhered to by organizations in over 50 countries, but it would only grow in participation and militancy in the years to come.

The feminist general strike — a political process as well as a day of action — was a reinvention of a traditional tool of struggle, one which intentionally extended the tactic of withholding labor to workers without unions or even formal employment. In particular, it highlighted the patriarchal forms of exploitation and violence experienced by domestic workers, healthcare workers, caregivers, homemakers, sex workers and workers in the informal economy. However, varying degrees of importance were placed on the idea of organizing the feminist general strike as a strike instead of a day to march and protest.

In most countries, these reinvigorated movements and their corresponding strikes cohered around putting an end to patriarchal violence, the expansion of abortion rights or a combination of the two, under the analysis that deaths from clandestine abortions are essentially state femicides. Chile was an outlier in that its March 8 coordinating committee (later to formalize into the more permanent organization CF8M) convoked the country’s first major mobilization of this period in 2018 under the slogan, “Against the precarization of life!”

Arising from the conversations begun in the Santiago-based NiUnaMenos coordinating committee from 2016-17, the March 8 coordinating committee chose to frame this moment of feminist struggle within the broader fight against the neoliberal economic model imposed under the Pinochet dictatorship and preserved by the establishment political parties after the return to democracy in 1990. From their analysis, the suffering caused by these policies of privatization was experienced most acutely by those who were already marginalized, already the subjects of violence — Indigenous women who faced intimate partner violence in a context of militarization and the industrial exploitation of their ancestral territories, for example.

Furthermore, these feminists built on the analysis conducted by their forebears who resisted the dictatorship, declaring that intimate and state violence were two sides of the same coin. Under Pinochet, the secret police carried out horrific acts of sexual torture against detainees, women in particular. This practice was intended to punish women not only for their political involvement but for transgressing against their prescribed gender role — that is, for failing to be submissive mothers and caretakers. When LasTesis popularized the slogan “The oppressive state is a macho rapist,” it spoke directly to the reality that the Chilean state has historically employed rape and other forms of gender violence as a way to discipline women and people of other marginalized gender identities with a goal of preserving a patriarchal vision of how society should function. In short, gender violence was understood as both an individual and systemic phenomenon, one which had to be confronted and done away with in every sphere of life.

After a potent day of action on March 8, 2018, the coordinating committee affirmed its commitment to further developing its alliances with other social movement bodies with the goal of eventually weaving together the diverse demands of these spaces into a feminist political program — one that would help set the agenda for the first feminist general strike to take place the following year. This work became even more critical with the arrival of “Feminist May,” an explosion of feminist university occupations in response to sexism in the educational sphere. This surge in activity required the rapid development of movement infrastructure to channel the momentum. It was in that context that the coordinating committee stopped functioning as an ad hoc organizing body and became a social movement organization dedicated to serving the needs of the movement.

From that point on, the topic of the strike was always on the agenda, with a particular focus on enabling the participation of those who may not have thought feminism had much to offer in terms of improving the conditions of their lives. Indeed, the tactic of feminist strikes had already come in for criticism from two directions: on the one hand, activists from traditionally masculine (and macho) labor unions dismissed feminism as a strategy for uniting and advancing the movement; on the other hand, many working class women and others of marginalized gender identities were rightfully skeptical of a movement that had, at that moment, its greatest expression within the elite universities of the capital.

CF8M responded by establishing a feminist labor committee that explicitly rejected the narrow, legal definition of a strike, as well as the equally narrow conception of what type of worker deserved a seat at the table. Accordingly, the committee was comprised of not only trade unionists, but also workers whose labor — be it formal, informal, unwaged, criminalized, or invisible — was essential to the reproduction of life. These feminists declared that they were “the workers who have never known what it’s like to be off the clock” and did not need anyone’s permission to call themselves workers or to take action as such.

In addition, CF8M promoted a list of “100 Ways to Strike” as a way to invite as many people into the process as possible. Since a traditional work stoppage or walkout was not on the table for many workers, the list included actions that could be taken in the home, on the job, at school, in the neighborhood or in the streets. Many of these options encouraged participants to find opportunities to start conversations and build relationships — often with the people already in their lives, such as elders and co-workers. Others suggested symbolic actions such as hanging your apron outside your window or wearing a purple ribbon around your wrist at work.

When the strike was repeated in 2020, even more items were added to the list, including activities for men to do in solidarity. There was also a better-developed inclusion strategy for those who could not easily participate in traditional strikes or mobilizations. For example, a domestic workers union composed largely of migrant workers chose to participate in the strike by intentionally sitting down on the job for 30 minutes and documenting their resistance through photos distributed via Facebook.

While the traditional marches were the most visible form of participation, a wide variety of activities took place in the lead up to and on the day of the strike. Popular assemblies were organized in schools and neighborhoods with the goal of tackling issues of patriarchy in their communities. These types of actions also took place on a smaller scale, with women leaving their children at home with their male partners or family members and taking the afternoon off to meet with their friends, relatives and neighbors.

A number of cultural interventions also took place to “take the strike to the streets.” The most notorious of these were carried out by CF8M’s recently formed Art and Propaganda Brigade who, on “back to school” day in early March, orchestrated the mass-renaming of Santiago’s subway stations in order to lift up the women and sexual dissidents who made their mark on history. Four days later, on March 8, Santiaguinos awoke to find that the Brigade had once again coordinated with feminists all over the capital and tied green bandanas around the necks of statues and monuments along the major avenue that cuts through Downtown as well as in a number of public parks. Both actions spoke to the desire to transform public space and envision a world where we could walk calmly without fear of violence.

Ultimately, the 2019 feminist general strike was endorsed by the Teachers’ Association and all three of the main confederations of public health workers. This made it an effective strike in the traditional sense, as well as a strike in the broader way it was coming to be understood in the feminist context: “the strike as a cumulative process and itinerary of struggle, the general strike as an objective and a process that encompasses all jobs, paid or unpaid, and all women workers.” Of note, a mostly-male construction union was also convinced to support the strike and has continued to act in solidarity with the feminist movement at other key moments.

The mobilizations that accompanied the first feminist general strike took place in 72 cities and were the largest since the end of the dictatorship — a clear indication that the movement was gaining in power and influence. Six months later, Chile erupted in a massive popular uprising. In the country’s capital buildings burned and the graffiti in the streets read: “Neoliberalism was born in Chile and it will die here.”

On November 25, six weeks into the revolt, Alondra Carrillo, spokesperson for CF8M, gave an interview in which she stated unequivocally, “It’s impossible to understand this moment of revolt without remembering that it started with the women’s revolt on March 8.” From the perspective of the present, it is impossible to understand any of Chile’s recent upheavals and advances without first tracing the trajectory of this movement which — through feminism — was able to reawaken a popular desire for profound systemic change.

Feminism from below

After the official return to democracy in 1990, Chileans were hoping to reverse many of the changes made under the dictatorship. However, this effort was hampered by two major obstacles. On one hand, the constitution drafted under the Pinochet regime was specifically designed to protect the neoliberal economic model from future attempts at reform. On the other hand, the center-left Concertación coalition that took power during the transition period and held the presidency until 2010 was not interested in making substantial changes to the system. The result was a country increasingly marked by inequality, where a good quality of life was only available to those who could pay for it and the rest were left to rack up debt or fall into poverty. To make matters worse, many officials who served under the dictatorship (and were complicit in its crimes) were allowed to launder their reputations and continue in public service without facing any significant consequences.

Taken together, it is no surprise that Chileans interested in systemic change eventually lost faith in the ballot box and turned to mass protest as the most effective tool available to finally do away with the twin evils of neoliberal capitalism and impunity for human right violations, past and present. This disillusionment with the political establishment goes a long way in explaining why the most powerful mobilizing forces of this period — the feminist movement and the October revolt itself — rejected party leadership and relied instead on directly democratic forms of decision-making and self-organization to coordinate their activity.

In Spain, Argentina and Chile, among others, masses of feminists have coalesced around coordinating committees, a form of social organization that facilitates intra-movement collaboration by providing a space where discussion and analysis can catalyze into collective action. In Chile, CF8M is the largest and most influential of these bodies. This can be attributed to its central role in building the feminist general strike as well as its power to turn out big crowds for dates of feminist significance. It has also proved to be quite agile in responding to the outrages of the day with either a thoughtful analysis or a hastily organized political intervention, making it a popular point of reference for people looking to understand the feminist perspective on the day’s events.

Internally, CF8M functions as something of a feminist clearing house — a space through which campaigns launched by other feminist projects can flow and be amplified. It is also a social organization in its own right, meaning it can launch its own projects and invite others to join in. Whether alone or in coalition, this work is always guided by the “feminist program against the precarization of life,” a living document which outlines political priorities and sketches an itinerary of struggle for the year to come. Every summer, this program is revisited at the Plurinational Meeting of Those Who Struggle (EPL), an annual conference that gathers feminists from all parts of the country — and beyond — to discuss the state of the movement and strategize for the future.

The Chilean feminist movement is an intricate mosaic, consisting of every form of social or political organization imaginable, as well as a significant number of unaffiliated individuals (so-called feministas sueltas) who contribute to the struggle by packing the streets to bursting every International Women’s Day. The EPL is a space to embrace that diversity and all the potential conflicts that come with it.

During the break-out sessions at the EPL, participants are tasked with advancing the analysis around key programmatic axes, the meeting rooms filled to capacity with dozens of sweaty, focused activists of all ages, ready to speak their minds. It was through these discussions and debates over the past few years that Black and migrant feminists effectively changed the conversation about whose experiences should be centered in the movement. The break-out sessions were also the space where abolitionist feminists demanded a deeper commitment to the inclusion of prisoners in the process of building the general feminist strike. These interventions and others forced substantial transformations in the movement’s political orientation that have helped it remain relevant in the evolving climate of crisis and repression.

An unbroken narrative of resistance

After a difficult year and a half of life under the COVID-19 pandemic, cases were finally back at manageable levels and with 70 percent of the population fully vaccinated, organized feminists were increasingly confident in their ability to safely return to the streets in force. This feeling was bolstered by the announcement that September would be the final month of the extended state of exception that had granted the government special powers to control and criminalize political activity. This news could not have come soon enough, because there was widespread agreement that external pressure was urgently needed to advance the feminist agenda within the Constitutional Convention and secure freedom for the political prisoners of the October revolt.

Saturday, September 11 dawned cloudy and gray in downtown Santiago, where black-clad protesters began to gather in anticipation of the annual procession in honor of those tortured, murdered, or disappeared under the dictatorship. The 1973 coup d’etat that usurped the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende was not ancient history to the people marking this anniversary, although most of them were too young to have experienced it firsthand. The legacy of the dictatorship weighs heavily on this country, particularly on those who have lived to see their ostensibly democratic government respond to the revolt by turning to many of the same brutal tactics employed under the Pinochet regime.

In Chile, remembrance is a political act: a repudiation of the campaign of terror that sought to extinguish even the memory of resistance. This year, the majority of attendees rallied under abolitionist slogans and marched with signs and banners demanding freedom for political prisoners. Feminists are a major force in this struggle, arguing that the lack of consequences for past human rights violations set the stage for the state violence being perpetuated today. In this way, they carry on the tradition of their forebears who, during the dictatorship, demanded justice for their missing comrades, partners and family members.

A contingent of feminists responding to a call made by CF8M carried 137 red bandanas each inscribed with the name of a woman who was killed or disappeared while resisting the dictatorship. As they marched north to the Cementario General, they intoned the names of the fallen, each followed with a resounding chorus of ¡Presente! They kept it up even as the streets became clouded with smoke and the water cannons loomed. In response to state violence both past and present, they declared that feminists would not forgive or forget a single golpe — neither a hand raised against us nor a coup d’etat.

When speaking of their relationship to the past, Chilean feminists often call on the metaphor of a “red thread” that weaves its way through history, uniting the struggles of all who have stood up to patriarchal oppression in an unbroken narrative of resistance. In the words of members of CF8M’s Memory and Human Rights Committee, “Feminist memory is a construction made in the streets, in the community, not only taken from books, not only found in libraries.” The red thread binds all of us active in the struggle and we know that the history we are making today will one day be turned to by future generations looking to understand their own place in this feminist memory we are building.

This feminist memory is woven day by day as if it were a textile, using many hands to incorporate the struggles of each new generation into the cloth. As the feminist contingent bearing red bandanas marched through the capital, their litany was intermingled with calls to remember other women who died as a result of state violence. These included Macarena Valdés, an Indigenous activist widely believed to have been killed for her work in defense of the natural environment and ancestral Mapuche territories in the south of the country, and Joane Florvil, a young Haitian mother living in Santiago who was accused of abandoning her infant daughter, denied a translator and brutally arrested, in a series of events that culminated in her death a month later. Every fresh story of injustice or resistance represents a new strand to be intertwined with what has come before, ensuring that our understanding of our own history is as pluralistic as the feminism we wish to practice.

“The patriarchy is going to fall. Feminism will win”

This new feminism that animates us has taken many forms, each reflecting the priorities and conditions of the communities from which they have emerged. Although it has yet to be fully grasped in its totality, it has been explored as transversal feminism, intersectional feminism and perhaps most comprehensively, “Feminism for the 99%.” In their 2019 manifesto, Arruzza et al. describe the latter as seeking “profound, far-reaching social transformation,” which cannot be achieved without taking on all forms of oppression and exploitation. They are quick to clarify that “feminism for the 99 percent is not only antineoliberal, but also anticapitalist.”

While this may not perfectly encapsulate the complexity of the emergent feminist movements of this period, it is undeniable that all over the world, feminists are coming to the conclusion that we cannot put an end to our oppressions without directly challenging the economic and governmental systems that determine the conditions of our lives.

As a species, we can no longer avoid the reality that we have entered what is most likely a permanent state of overlapping crises. In Chile and elsewhere, neoliberal capitalism has failed to bring about the free and fair democratic societies that were said to be the natural result of free-market economics. Instead, we have been abandoned to the all-too-real consequences of widespread precarity and rampant environmental destruction, all contributing to the profits of the few. The COVID-19 pandemic and escalating effects of human-induced climate change have left many looking for solutions, and right-wing extremists are eager to take advantage of the situation, harnessing people’s fear and instability to their own genocidal ends.

The pluralistic feminism that continues to pose a threat to neoliberalism and authoritarianism around the globe represents an alternative to this culture of mutually assured destruction. Those who suffer most acutely under patriarchy due to their position at the locus of intersecting oppressions have proven that they are willing to fight back, even at the cost of their lives. This indomitable spirit can be found amongst the women’s #EleÑao protests against the ascent of Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil in 2018, the anti-racist and anti-police protests in the United States spurred by the murder of George Floyd in 2020, and the feminist protests in Turkey that pushed back against this year’s withdrawal from the international Council of Europe treaty — the “Istanbul Convention” — to protect women from violence.

Throughout Chile and its indigenous territories, we, as feminists committed to making another (way of) life possible, have confirmed for ourselves that we do not need to delegate our power to anyone. We can speak for ourselves in all our diversity, from all our feminisms — Indigenous, Black, queer, trans, and so many more. We have made our everyday lives our battlefield, because the work of raising children and taking care of our loved ones is the most essential form of labor that exists. Also, thanks to the red thread that binds us to our own history, we know how to resist a violent government and how to help our communities survive a crisis. And, of course, we know how to strike — everywhere, and all at once.

Perhaps most importantly, we have found each other in this process — not only in the streets, but in all areas of our lives that require transformation. Today, we can look to other parts of the world and hear our own slogans chanted back to us in foreign tongues and know that we are not alone and never will be again. When we raise our voices to shout, “Now that we are together, now that they see us,” the callback no longer seems so impossible: “The patriarchy is going to fall. Feminism will win.”

“We are no longer the same as we were a few months ago, and this country will never be the same again. We have opened radical new political horizons. The possibilities that exist today are a product of our ongoing work: nothing has been a gift, and no one can take this away from us. We will continue fighting until life is worth living.”

Manifesto for the Feminist General Strike 2020

(issued by: March 8 Feminist Coordinating Committee)

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Bree Busk is an American anarchist living and working in Santiago, Chile. She currently practices her politics through her neighborhood assembly and the Brigada Laura Rodig (CF8M), a feminist art and propaganda group that intervenes in public space through direct action.