March 20, 2022International Women’s Day celebration
“Still We Rise: Women Rebel Against All Odds”Presentation by Maudie Osborne, Melbourne, Australia
With poetry of Maya Angelou performed by Merri Ann Osborne, Seattle, U.S.
As we gather, we are facing a war of global dimensions. It is taking place in a part of the world where 105 years ago, International Women’s Day sparked a revolution. Today, again, women in both Ukraine and Russia are playing a critical and courageous role. In Ukraine, they are training to take up arms in self-defence. Their kitchens are production centres for Molotov cocktails. We’re also watching a massive exodus of refugees — mainly women taking their children in the search for refuge somewhere. In Russia, feminists are behind the massive protests in solidarity with the Ukrainian people, getting arrested in their thousands. From the women protesting in Nigeria’s capital to the outpourings of protest throughout the world, the human spirit of solidarity and fighting back is on full display. Radical Women stands with the working and oppressed peoples of the Ukraine and Russia. To Putin, Biden and our Prime Minister in Australia, we join our working class Sisters and Siblings all over the world who are saying, Get the hell out!
War doesn’t come only in bombs and tanks. Going back just three years ago, Chilean women performed A Rapist in Your Path. It’s a powerful song that points the finger at a system of power that hates women — it’s the cops and judges, priests and presidents. These representatives of the capitalist system are coming after us, because we and our non-binary siblings threaten the system’s social stability and profitability. They don’t intend to stop until we’re all back home or in the closet. But today’s International Women’s Day celebration isn’t about the predator in our path. It’s about us — patriarchy’s nemesis — because we’re rising up.
We also celebrate the women of Argentina and Ireland who won abortion rights, of Western Sahara who are the backbone of their people’s fight for self-determination and of Sudan fighting their military dictatorship. We celebrate the history-making strike of India’s community health and early education workers demanding recognition and wages. The First Nations women of North America, Australia, Kurdistan and Palestine who stand strong against relentless attempts to crush their people. The trans and non-binary people across the planet who are fighting for full equality. We are celebrating the women of colour in the United States, who are reinvigorating the labour movement and the sisters who are fighting hard for abortion rights and racial justice. At the International Women’s Day march in Melbourne, unionist women came out in force. In Australia, young women have blown the cover on sexual violence in Parliament, LGBTIQ+ people have led a fierce fight that has stalled a bill to legalise religious discrimination.
This is the beating heart of feminism.
The world is rumbling, because everywhere we are fighting back!
My talk will spotlight the rising of women in Afghanistan, Poland and Myanmar. In these life-and-death struggles, women are showing us how to resist tyranny, in all its forms.
* * *
I’m sure you saw the terrifying footage that emerged directly from Kabul in August of 2021. People holding onto the exterior of foreign airplanes in a desperate attempt to escape.
We gasped, watching this horror in real time: women and children, screaming for help as crying babies were placed into the arms of foreign soldiers. We saw bodies falling to the ground from aircrafts as they ascended.
Perhaps the most horrifying of this, was knowing what lay in store for women under the Taliban. This is what Left Radical of Afghanistan, a socialist organisation inside the country now working underground, says:
“The Taliban do not recognize women as active and independent members of half of human society. They do not believe in women’s abilities, human dignity and equal rights in society and in the family.” That is why, even before the Taliban’s takeover, women were fending off both Taliban and ISIS forces in the central and northern parts of the region. Women were taking up arms to defend their village -- dressed in an array of colours, of green, blue, red, pink, yellow and gold. Their vivid presence alone contrasted against the dull brown tones of the grim Taliban patriarchs, whose faces conveyed an unmistakable hatred.
These women freedom fighters stood proud, their faces raised to the sky, holding their weapons as if to say, See us, make sure you recognise our faces. If you come for us, we’re ready to fight you.
“I don’t want the country under the control of people who treat women the way they do. We took up the guns to show if we have to fight, we will.” One woman said.
It is considered shameful for the Taliban to be killed by a woman; “They are frightened of being killed by us.” They should be. Eighteen months ago, before the Taliban took control of the country, a young teenage girl named Qamar Gul, and her family were attacked by 40 insurgents who stormed their village of Geriveh, in Ghor province. “They dragged my mother outside and shot her dead. Then they dragged my father outside and killed him, too.” She spoke to journalists, describing her and her younger brother’s horror of witnessing the death of their own parents, but then suddenly, as she describes, “anger took over”. This anger led her to quickly grabbing an AK-47 rifle and shooting and killing two members of the Taliban in self-defence. “I killed my parents’ murderers”, she said. “I will fight the Taliban until my last drop of blood.”
Qamar has been praised as a hero and in the viral and much celebrated photo her gaze is that of equal parts of pride, strength and resilience. But there is also a profound sadness that comes with war, and particularly for a young teenage girl: “After I killed the two Taliban, I went to talk to my parents, but they were not breathing," she said. "I feel sad, I could not talk to them one last time.”
And despite violence and hunger, Afghan women continue to protest! And without fear, because when you have nothing, you have nothing to lose. In response to the Taliban’s seizure of the nation’s capital, Kabul, thousands upon thousands of protestors took to the streets almost immediately. As camera crews raced through the crowd to hear demonstrators speak, they were astounded by the large number of women who had come out to protest. “Let them see my face” said one Afghan woman to a Western journalist. She was ready to fight.
This takes real courage. I work alongside an incredible woman who works for an organisation that assists atheists escaping religious dictatorships. They’re inundated with applications from Afghanistan. She has spoken to me about receiving footage directly from Kabul of bodies hanging from cranes, which the Taliban drives up and down Kabul’s main square. She tells me about messages young people begging for help to get them out of the country. Tragically, many have had family members and friends disappear, only for their bodies to be found in the desert.
Yet women march in the streets. Under a barrage of Taliban bullets, they chant, “We want freedom, we want to work, we want bread!” “Our children want food, release our money.” They demand that the schools be reopened. They paint these slogans on the walls around Kabul. That’s the streets. In their homes, they’re secretly running schools.
And still, the women of Afghanistan rise.
You may write me down in history
With your bitter, twisted lies,
You may trod me in the very dirt
But still, like dust, I'll rise.
Does my sassiness upset you?
Why are you beset with gloom?
’Cause I walk like I've got oil wells
Pumping in my living room.
Just like moons and like suns,
With the certainty of tides,
Just like hopes springing high,
Still I'll rise.
With the certainty of tides, women also resist attempts to control their bodies. The battle for abortion access is raging in Poland, where the far-right governing Law and Justice Party, in league with the Catholic Church, has waged a full-scale assault on women.
The Polish Supreme Court’s near-total ban on abortion came into effect in January last year, and hundreds of thousands hit the streets — despite the pandemic. The nation’s capital was transformed into a spectacle of lights. Women held giant placards that read, “Not going back” and “I wish I could abort my government!” They were met with the full force of police who violently assaulted, tear gassed and arrested them. Egged on by the government, neo-fascists hunted them down with stones and baseball bats. In answering a reporter, young protester Gabriela Stepniak expressed what most of Poland’s populations wants: "I want us to have our basic rights, the right to decide about our bodies, the right to decide what we want to do and if we want to bear children and in what circumstances to have children."
Among the protest symbols is the red lightning bolt. This is the logo of the Women’s Strike, which has been an organiser of the protests. Another is the black umbrella, originating from earlier protests of women dressed in black — which became known as “Black Protests.” The largest were held in the rain. When the 2020 protests forced the government to “indefinitely” suspend the court ruling, demonstrators vowed. “We’re not closing our umbrellas.” Any threat to reproductive rights brings out the black umbrellas.
They came out again in November 2021 after the death of 30-year-old Izabela. Forced to wait for her fetus to die from lack of enough amniotic fluid, her heart stopped. Thousands upon thousands of protesters chanted, “Her heart was beating too.” Their tears were atmospheric, as though they were the substitute for rain on that gray, cold day. A woman who shared the hospital room with Izabela told a reporter: “I can still hear her words to this day, that she wants to live, that she doesn’t want to die, that she has people to live for”.
More “Black Protests” broke out again in late January this year, after the death of 37-year-old Agnieszka, forced to carry her dying twin fetuses.
State repression and far-right vigilantes can’t stop the movement. And protest has taken many forms: pink and red scissors are plastered around cities across Poland, giving women the number of Abortion Without Borders. People are painting the number on churches and bus shelters. It’s chanted at protests.
Reproductive rights warriors and their LGBTIQ+ siblings have joined in common cause. The Law and Justice Party and the Catholic Church, have smeared LGBTIQ+ rights as “an ideology worse than communism.” [make this funny – wait for the laughter] Across Poland, young women, supported by the LGBTIQ+ community, have turned the massive protests into street blockades and taken them into churches.
Many doctors have been organising with groups like the Women’s Strike to secretly resist the law. They pass on the mobile numbers of patients they were not able to help legally. Despite the fact that these doctors could lose their jobs and medical license, or face up to eight years’ imprisonment, some are still providing abortions. Dr. Anna Parzynska is one of these doctors. When asked if she was afraid of continuing to practice abortions in Poland in 2020, she responded calmly: “Actually, I am not afraid. I feel deeply inside that I am doing the right thing.”
This war for reproductive justice unites us, as women and non-binary folks, everywhere. The global profit system would fall to pieces if we controlled our bodies. Capitalism depends on women’s unpaid labour to raise its workers and on our insecure, underpaid labour in the workplace. This requires strict gender and sexual roles. That Poland’s young reproductive justice and LBGTIQ+ liberation warriors have joined in struggle is powerful.
And still, they rise.
Did you want to see me broken?
Bowed head and lowered eyes?
Shoulders falling down like teardrops,
Weakened by my soulful cries?
Does my haughtiness offend you?
Don't you take it awful hard
’Cause I laugh like I've got gold mines
Diggin’ in my own backyard.
Yes, in fact Myanmar has goldmines and also precious stones and petroleum. Yet the people are incredibly poor and low paid. It has been a year since the bloody military coup in Myanmar. This country, once known as Burma, is a country of incredible ethnic diversity, where many languages are spoken and religions are practiced.
The coup was triggered by the elections held in November of 2020, when the military’s party lost by 83%. The generals, unsatisfied with the result, declared the outcome fraudulent. Overnight, on February 1, 2021, the elected civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi was deposed. Ethnic minority activists, female garment workers, and students immediately took to the streets in outrage. Since then, protest has grown into civil war.
From the beginning, the strongest resistance against the military came from organised, militant workers, many from independent unions that represented garment workers, teachers and medical staff. Twenty-six-year-old Khine Mar Nwe, who is a textile worker, union leader and chairwoman for the Garment Factory Workers Association, said that because of her participation in the protests, she has been subject to sexist attacks by her bosses: “I am a mother to a son…. I am oppressed because I’m a female leader in the factory, and they were trying to lay me off. I have been physically intimidated.”
Despite the persecution she faced for attending the demonstrations — as well as encouraging other garment workers to join her— she refused to be bullied into submission.
The military has been relentless in its persecution and espionage against the protestors. In March of last year, 50 protestors were reported killed, but the numbers are estimated to be much higher. A young woman, Mya Thwate Thwate Khaing, was the first person to die in the protests when she was shot in the head on February 19th, 2021. She was only 20 years old. The number of women killed in this conflict is unknown. Instead of mourning their deaths, the protesters celebrate their lives. Says the union leader Khine, “I’m very proud of them…. I’m not sad and I promise to fight relentlessly on their behalf so long as I am alive.”
Since the military’s takeover, Myanmar has been in the throes of a bloody civil war. Many of the protestors, who were students, textile and office workers, have taken up arms and joined fighting groups. One of these groups, the Myaung Women Warriors, is the country’s first women-only anti-junta militia.
The women train under the hot sun in Sagaing's rural Myaung township, moving in sync, dressed in their camouflage uniforms as they crawl, sometimes barefoot, carrying a long stick in place of a gun. The hot climate doesn’t distract them from their training routine, nor does it tire them from their fierce devotion. They are there to fight, to protect their village. Their marching drills are performed in the streets as the village people watch on.
Before the formation of the Myaung Women Warriors, these women had never fought in a war, nor seen a loaded rifle. They now regularly participate in operations, using explosives and “exterminating military informers.” A member of the Warriors, named Amera, said: “It is assumed that women’s hands are meant for the rocking the cradle, but we want to show to the people that our hands are also capable of armed resistance to the military regime.”
Women and ethnic minorities are treated as “second-class-citizens.” The military declares itself to be the father of the nation, but one that deems its female children as lesser human beings. Sixty percent of the people involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement, which is designed to shut down the country, are women, and they continue to face sexual violence, harassment, abuse, and threats from the junta. It comes as no surprise that these women have taken up self-defense to protect themselves and their villages against the violence and bloodshed.
Their leadership as women is prevalent in these anti-junta militia groups. But so is their leadership as ethnic minorities who have been abused, pitted against, segregated as “inferiors,” and forced into the lowest-paid jobs. Global corporate tycoons have benefited from Burma’s desperately poor workforce and own most of the country’s wealth, most of which comes from natural resources such as rice, gems, oil and gas.
The Rohingya people, who are indigenous to western Myanmar, have faced genocidal persecution, segregation and displacement for a long time – including under the civilian government of Aung San Suu Kyi. In 2017, Pogroms of ethnic cleansing, war crimes and sexual violence forced the Rohingya to flee to neighbouring countries, such as Bangladesh.
Aung San Suu Kyi has defended Myanmar’s genocide of the Rohingya. So, while many protesters have favored her return, she is not popular amongst the ethnic minorities who wish to not see her back in power. They do, however, endorse the protests as well as the militia groups fighting against the military.
Some Rohingya refugees have taken up poetry as a means of coming to terms with the atrocities they have suffered. Poetry has long been associated with political resistance in Myanmar, dating back to the nationalist movement under British colonial rule. One Rohingya journalist writes that “The military have always feared the written word, targeting poets after it seized power in 1962, a practice the junta continues today.”
This poem by Lalmoti Khan encapsulates the solidarity between the Rohingya poets in refugee camps and the protestors fighting the military. It is called, Once My Turn, Now Your Turn:
Today it’s happening to them
and I recall what I witnessed yesterday
the rage of these soldiers may vary
in different regions or against people of different ethnicities
but the nature of their crimes is quite similar
Mayyu Ali, a young Rohingya refugee, poet, writer, and humanitarian activist said that “The words we write cannot fully capture the burning pain or blade of death we have experienced, but at least the act of writing can help lift the weight we carry.
“As we write to heal our wounds, we scream for justice for what we lost at the hands of the military…. Through our words, we seek not only to immortalize the bitterness and cruelty the people of Myanmar have suffered, but also to revitalize the people’s will to resist.”
And still, the women of Myanmar rise.
You may shoot me with your words,
You may cut me with your eyes,
You may kill me with your hatefulness,
But still, like air, I’ll rise.
Does my sexiness upset you?
Does it come as a surprise
That I dance like I've got diamonds
At the meeting of my thighs?
The bright diamonds of resistance give us hope. As women and non-binary people, as workers, as LGBTIQ+ folk, as people of colour and as socialist feminists, we see inspiring leadership coming from the experience of oppression and poverty. From different realities, we recognise this leadership shown by women across Afghanistan, Poland and Myanmar, Ukraine and Russia. They are mothers, teachers, nurses, doctors, students and more, who are made into extraordinary warriors from the impossible and dangerous circumstances they face. They show how to resist against all odds. This is inspiring.
Radical Women’s Manifesto says that in the diversity of women — of all ages and colours — there lies a vast potential for revolutionary strength and leadership. This leadership and strength is urgently needed in times of crisis, like now. To not assume this forefront role would hold back the global freedom movement and prolong not only our own suffering but the suffering of oppressed peoples all over the world. We need to throw out all the upholders of female oppression and capitalist profits – including right here at home. Join us, in building international, working-class solidarity, with the women of Afghanistan, Poland, Myanmar, Ukraine, Russia and the rest of the world.
The sun is on the horizon, ready to come out, and it’s only a matter of time before the exploited and oppressed combine forces to take what is truly ours — our right to be who we are and to collectively control a new socialist, humanistic liberatory system.
This is what International Women’s Day stands for.
Together we rise.
Out of the huts of history’s shame
Up from a past that’s rooted in pain
I'm a black ocean, leaping and wide,
Welling and swelling I bear in the tide.
Leaving behind nights of terror and fear
Into a daybreak that’s wondrously clear
Bringing the gifts that my ancestors gave,
I am the dream and the hope of the slave.
Maudie Osborne has been a community organizer since the age of 17 when she joined a long-running defense of Melbourne’s Fertility Control Clinic and met Radical Women. Her activism has included justice for workers, First Nations, LGBTIQA folks and refugees. Working two jobs in retail, Maudie is a member of the Retail and Fast Food Workers Union, where she has been immersed in anti-sexism campaigns and organizing for a COVID-safe workplace. Her passion for movies and media has led her to become a filmmaker and producer and a volunteer at her local community radio station.
Merri Ann Osborne is the Executive Director of The Mahogany Project, which provides a platform for Black artistic voices. She is both a writer and performer, and is currently working on a number of theater and film projects. Merri Ann has lived, traveled and performed around the U.S. and abroad, all of which inspires her to write about the intersections of culture, history, and social issues. Previously, she worked as an advocate for young adults, homeless families, refugees, and immigrants. She’s a member of the African American Writers Alliance in Seattle, a strong feminist and a longtime friend of Radical Women.