By Cynthia L. Cooper
Thursday, October 4, 2001
Women in Black, an international network of women protesting war, holds silent vigils worldwide to protest U.S. plans to wage war following the Sept. 11 terror attacks. Their silence also underscores women's historic voicelessness.
NEW YORK (WOMENSENEWS)--At first, four women dressed in black formed a line on the wide, white steps of the New York Public Library, 15 feet in front of one of the guardian lions. In addition to black pants, black shirts and black jackets, some wore black head scarves--to demonstrate solidarity with Muslim women who have been assaulted or harassed in blind reprisals for the Sept. 11 terrorism attacks.
Even in the aftermath of terrorist bombings, these peace activists deliver no speeches, chant no slogans and invite no male participants. And, they say, these are precisely the elements that make the international human rights group, Women in Black, effective.
On Wednesday evening, the women in line were soon joined by more women, most wearing black but some gray, denim and khaki, until over two dozen stretched across the white stone steps to create a stark and imposing image. A plain cloth banner announced: "Women in Black Against War."
The women stood without speaking for the next hour.
"At times like this when people don't know what to do, we allow for people to communicate in silence," said Indira Kajosevic, one of the participants. "Silence is very powerful. I am mourning the victims of violence, and I am making a public statement about that."
Women in Black is a loose international network of women who share a common philosophy of opposition to militarism and violence and use a similar style of silent demonstration. Without a formal organization or officers, they convene at standard times for peace vigils in public squares, wearing black clothing of bereavement. Only women are invited to participate.
"There's a strong communal energy among women together," said Stephanie Damoff, a philosophy student who began standing in the vigils in New York several years ago. "It makes people stop and think."
The silence is a contrast to noisy demonstrations, a familiar part of the anti-war protests during the Vietnam years. "There are already too many words about the issue," said Pat DeAngelis, a longtime participant. And silence, said Kajosevic, draws attention to the historic voicelessness of women.
The first Women in Black protests began in Israel in 1988 to mobilize sentiment for peace with Palestinians. In 1991, a group formed in Belgrade, where women stood weekly in the Republic Square to protest war in Yugoslavia. Allied groups sprang up in Azerbaijan, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Israel, India, Indonesia, Italy, Scotland, Spain, Switzerland and Turkey, and in several U.S. locations, including San Francisco, Portland, Ore., Ann Arbor, Mich., Rhode Island and Arizona.
The Belgrade group, which has been particularly active in "street manifestations" and programs offering assistance to displaced women, was awarded a Millennium Peace Prize for Women by the United Nations Development Fund for Women and International Alert, a global women's awareness program, in March 2001. In June, eight Danish and Norwegian parliamentarians nominated Women in Black for this year's Nobel Peace Prize.
Monthly New York vigils have been ongoing since 1993, at first located across the street from the United Nations to protest the rape of women as a tool of war in the former Yugoslavia. At times, the women have joined with local action groups, such as Women in Mourning and Outrage, an organization that formed in response to the New York City police killing of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea.
After the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, the New York group changed its monthly vigils to weekly ones.
A flyer handed to passersby at the library calls on government officials to "step back" from war.
"We mourn the dead and feel deep sympathy with the bereaved and injured," the flyer says. "Those who perpetrated the violence must be brought to justice under international law."
Unlike a conventional nonprofit organization, Women in Black does not have officers, staff or an operations center. Core members make collaborative decisions and take on particular assignments, such as Internet postings or photocopying. Money, when needed, is collected in a coffee tin.
"We are not interested in power; we are very interested in social change," said Kajosevic, who joined New York vigils after moving from Belgrade in 1994. "It's a means of mobilizing," she added.
Women in Black groups around the world act independently. But an international network comes together yearly. At the tenth reunion in Novi Sad, Yugoslavia, in August, 250 women from 16 countries attended and made opposition to violence in Macedonia a priority topic.
The idea of acting in concert with women around the world is central for many regulars.
"I have a tremendous sense of solidarity with all our sisters around the world facing conditions of violence and war," said DeAngelis, who has sometimes maintained the vigil on her own in rain and cold. "It's terribly important to take a stand against injustice and to take a visible stand."
Responses to that stark and silent stand are not always positive. One man raised his fist and yelled, "Bomb them, bomb them!" But a woman spectator stopped and pointedly shook the hand of every woman in the line.
"It's effective," said Damoff, adding, "but slow and steady, not big and splashy."
Cynthia L. Cooper is a free-lance writer in New York.
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