Politics and Society

One of the Greatest Women’s Movements of Our Generation is Unfolding in Argentina

There’s something in the air in Buenos Aires. Take a look around any train carriage, any supermarket line, any crowd waiting at a crosswalk: a third of them will be sporting green handkerchiefs, usually tied to their bags or around their wrists. Most are young women, but many are older and many more are men. They may not know each other, but they exchange silent nods of acknowledgement and the odd thumbs-up. The simple gesture of flying the green is a revolutionary act, that of proudly wearing your politics on your sleeve in a country where many consider them an affront to their religion.

Argentina has a history of women driving political change. The legendary Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo well and truly led the civil resistance to the country’s military dictatorship of 1976–83, fearlessly protesting in the open at a time when speaking up was incredibly dangerous. They have since been instrumental in the continued campaign for justice for victims of the dictatorship, inspiring generations of activists.

Image result for panuelo verde abortoIndeed, the shape of the green handkerchief (pañuelo verde) — the symbol of the pro-choice movement — is modeled on the Mothers’ world-famous triangular headscarf. The Mothers themselves appear quite happy with this — still politically active despite mostly being 80+, they are openly pro-choice and supportive of the movement.

This green take on a classic style originated in 2003. Feminist activists in Rosario, an inland city north of the capital, sought a symbol for their then-fringe campaign for legal abortion. While their first preference was pink, there just so happened to be more green fabric on hand. Little did they know that their impromptu compromise would eventually become an integral symbol for the pro-choice campaign and women’s rights in general. Now, the green handkerchief is distributed practically everywhere, from street corners to the halls of the country’s famously free public universities.

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While some prefer to think otherwise, Argentina is still a very socially conservative country, particularly when it comes to sex and women’s issues. The majority of the population is Catholic, the influential church is still funded directly by the state, machismo remains pervasive, and old habits die very hard. Same-sex marriage was legalised in 2010 by a narrow margin, with only 53% of legislators voting in favour. Despite its passing, polls of society at large show that as many as 60% of Argentines were actually against it. The right to legal abortion is at least as divisive, only being supported by 40% of the population. And recently, a resurgent, church-led anti-sexual education movement has been festering.

For many, the pañuelo verde is now everyday attire. / Image: Agustina Girardo @ Wikimedia Commons

Even in this hostile climate, the pro-choice campaign has grown rapidly, so fast that annual production of its signature green handkerchief increased from 8,000 to 200,000 units in just one year, a number that doesn’t include the millions-more ‘bootleg’ copies being peddled by street vendors. Its rise has been astronomical, a cascade effect of millions and millions of people being emboldened by the example of others and finally saying “ENOUGH!”

Of course, this didn’t come from nowhere. Despite the right to choose currently being its immediate focus, the movement is more about women’s issues in general. Many of these new activists were originally spurred into action by Not One Less (Ni Una Menos), a grassroots campaign against gendered violence that emerged in 2015, itself spreading across Latin America like wildfire. In a country with an estimated 450,000 clandestine abortions per year, where the leading cause of pregnancy-related death is unsafe abortion, it was only natural that the right to safe and legal termination would quickly take centre stage.

Mass protests, both organised and impromptu, have become very common and very, very green. Among them, they’ve included a large-scale mobilisation on International Women’s Day with a concurrent women’s strike. The participants are overwhelmingly female, mostly young, and have proven very influential. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, current senator and former president who was vocally anti-abortion during her term, expressed the sentiments of many a convert:

“seeing the millions of young women letting their voice be heard in the streets, I couldn’t help but be inspired to change my opinion.”

These women didn’t merely change the opinion of one legislator, though — they brought the issue back to centre-stage. As a direct result of their activism, a proposal to legalise abortion, originally levied way back in 2007 and ignored since, was finally debated in Congress in June. There, representatives are elected proportionate to population, giving a bigger voice to more progressive, high population regions like Buenos Aires. To the joy of many and against most forecasts, the law passed Congress. Yet a huge hurdle still remained in the Senate, in which all provinces are equally represented, regardless of population: the 152,000 people of Tierra del Fuego get the same vote as the 16.5 million residents of the province of Buenos Aires.

Pro-choice vigil outside Congress, June 13th. / Image: Sergio Santillán @ Wikimedia Commons

On the 9th of August, after dozens more mass protests, the bill was finally brought before the Senate. Outside, the atmosphere was jovial, almost party-like. Hundreds of thousands of aborteras filled the streets, watching their elected representatives debate the proposal on dozens of big screens. Each senator made ample use of their allocated time, the session lasting for more than 12 hours as a result.

Everyone was well aware of the high likelihood that the law wouldn’t make it through the Senate, which skews much more conservative than Congress. Yet they didn’t look on with nervousness, nor did their hearts sink as it was, predictably, rejected by 38 votes to 31. Instead, they sang on with pride long into the night. This wasn’t a defeat, rather the beginning of a powerful movement of millions taking change into their own hands. Walking among them, it was impossible not to get caught up in their optimism.

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This struggle has been so influential that you’ll now find many more varieties of handkerchief hanging off people’s bags. One of the most common of these auxiliary pañuelos— often seen alongside the green — is the orange, representative of the ‘Campaign for a Secular State’. Through their activism, these millions of women have not only brought much attention to women’s issues of all kinds, but also to an oft-ignored elephant in the room: the fact that Catholicism is still Argentina’s official state religion.

But there’s no better compliment to their power than the fact that the pro-life opposition has tried to appropriate the handkerchief, making their own light-blue version with an almost incomprehensible slogan: “We Save The Lives of Both Mother and Child.” You won’t see many, if any, people wearing it on their backpacks, though — I’ve seen maybe one or two total versus a hundred green pañuelos every day. This pathetic attempt to imitate the aesthetic of a popular grassroots movement is a testament to their powerlessness in the face of inevitable, sweeping change.

The green/orange backpack combo. / Image: Agustina Girardo @ Wikimedia Commons

Since the Senate’s rejection in August, there’s been no reduction in the amount of green handkerchiefs visible on the streets, nor any signs that the movement might flounder anytime soon. For now, the millions of young activists who wear it with pride have turned their attention to more immediately actionable women’s issues, such as domestic violence.

Next year, the law will once again be debated in the chambers of government. Whether or not it passes, it will surely get at least a couple more votes than it did this year. Thanks to the ‘National Campaign for Legal, Safe, and Free Abortion’, its eventual passage into law is inevitable. The question is more one of how many more women have to die and how many more millions must show their support before anti-abortion politicians finally realise their position is untenable.

There is, of course, a silver lining: in their heartless political machinations, they’ve inadvertently strengthened a fierce women’s movement that is certainly not just going to pack up shop once abortion is legalised; one that’s inspired a more general political consciousness in countless young people. Best of all, it undoubtedly counts many future politicians among its ranks.

The future of Argentine politics looks not just very bright, but very female.


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