Code Pink's Diane Wilson

(WOMENSENEWS)–As Congress prepares to adjourn for fall elections that are being closely watched for a reading of the country’s attitude toward the Bush government’s prosecution of the war in Iraq, Code Pink, the women’s peace activist group, is joining other groups to observe International Peace Day on Thursday, Sept. 21.

This is the latest action on the part of a group that has been in the forefront of peaceful protests since 2002, including a recent hunger strike. The title of the organization is a play on the Bush administration’s color-coded terrorist alarms; pink is a peace alert.

Code Pink activists have been asking Americans to sign their Declaration of Peace pledge, their latest effort to maintain anti-war momentum. The declaration calls for a timetable for the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, the establishment of a peace process and an increase in funds for human needs.

Earlier this year, the group conducted an attention-getting hunger strike to pressure the administration to end the war and start bringing–or planning to bring–U.S. troops home.

Deciding that the antiwar movement needed a fresh jolt of energy, Diane Wilson, a cofounder of Code Pink, announced plans for a hunger strike at a Mother’s Day rally. The “Troops Home Fast” began on July 4.

Wilson said that 5,000 people from 22 countries, including such celebrities as Susan Sarandon and Sean Penn, joined the strike, many on a rolling basis, meaning that individual fasters each gave up food and drink for a day.

Activist Cindy Sheehan and other members of the Venice, Calif.-based Code Pink and Global Exchange, an international human rights organization based in San Francisco, also participated in the strike. Most fasters drank juice or returned to food after a few weeks.

Wilson’s Fast Ended in Jordan

Wilson, who originally said she was prepared to live on water only for 60 days, ultimately maintained her foodless vigil, mostly spent in Lafayette Park, across the street from the White House, for one month. The decision to end the strike came after a plea from an unexpected source: Iraqi government officials.

In late July, antiwar protest groups received a call from a delegation of Iraqi government officials who also seek an end to the U.S. occupation, asking for a meeting in Amman, Jordan. Within three days, the fasting protestors, including Wilson, Sheehan and a handful of others, packed their bags and headed to the Middle East.

During the flight to Amman, Wilson said her legs and feet became swollen. Perhaps it was Wilson’s elephantine legs or the gaunt look on the Americans’ faces, but the Iraqis asked the Americans to eat.

With their Iraqi hosts, including a number of members of parliament as well as representatives of about 175 other political leaders, both Sunnis and Shiites, the Americans broke bread with a meal of kebabs, hummous and pita.

“They were taken with our willingness to do a hunger strike,” Wilson said. “They had talked with a lot of NGOs (nongovernmental agencies), but to do a hunger fast shows the sincerity.”

Over the course of two days, the Americans and Iraqis discussed the urgent need to press for getting U.S. soldiers out of Iraq. The groups vowed to try and arrange another conference in which U.S. politicians who support an immediate end to the war would be invited.

Wilson said the Iraqis claimed that about 80 percent of the “so-called insurgents” were just regular civilians trying to defend their country from the United States and that much of the violence would die down once the military pulled out.

After the meeting, some members of the U.S. contingent went on to Lebanon to assess the damage caused during its war with Israel, which was then raging.

Gained Iraqis’ Attention

Upon returning to the United States, several of the fasters said that they felt the fast had achieved its purpose by garnering official Iraqi attention, if not support from the U.S. government.

One of the hunger strikers, peace activist Gael Murphy, called the fast an “absolute success.”

“We ventured into the fast not knowing what it would bring about. But we felt that if we put out the intention something would happen and there would be a shift,” said Murphy. “We had been feeling Iraqi voices were needed in the process.”

Other female peace activists, however, questioned the wisdom of a hunger strike as a tool to oppose the war.

Carol Schneider, president of Another Mother for Peace, of Beverly Hills, Calif., said that while the hunger strike may have given activists a common focus, it would have little impact on decision-makers in the White House.

Referring to the Bush administration, Schneider said: “They don’t care about people dying. Why would they care about people starving?”

Female activists have a history of using hunger strikes as a political tactic and have long raised questions about how effective they are.

Striking for Suffrage

Suffragists in England and the United States, for instance, gave up food in their efforts to get the vote during the turn of the last century.

In England, some militant women, imprisoned for taking actions as drastic as arson, staged hunger strikes, which prison authorities counteracted with forced feeding. In one 18-month period, Emmeline Pankhurst, who was now in her 50s, endured 10 of these hunger strikes.

Suffragist Lucy Burns in prison in 1917.

In 1917, U.S. protestors, including Alice Paul and Lucy Burns, went on hunger strike while in prison. Their militancy earned them some measure of sympathy, but others thought the action went too far.

The efficacy of the suffragists’ hunger strikes, however, is a matter of debate. Some academics say the imprisonment of women’s rights activists, particularly in Britain where the conditions were appalling, had more to do with their eventual victory than the hunger strikes.

“The arrests were more controversial and publicized than the hunger strikes,” said Ellen Carol Dubois, a history professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Wilson, a medic during the Vietnam War, has carved a prominent place for herself in the history of female hunger strikers.

In 1991, the shrimper from Seadrift, Texas, stopped eating in an effort to protest toxic dumping in the waters that sustained her. It worked. Within two weeks the Environmental Protection Agency demanded that a local chemical company conduct an environmental impact study before building a new plant.

Her 1991 strike was almost revolutionary in her home state of Texas, where people–including environmentalists–told her she was nuts for trying. Wilson says that after two years of trying tamer strategies, she knew she needed to try something new.

Since then, Wilson, 58, has completed seven other hunger strikes, most recently her 30-day water-only fast to oppose the war in Iraq.

“A hunger fast has a spiritual component,” said Wilson. “Gandhi called it soul power.”

Jennifer Friedlin is a writer based in New York.

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For more information:

Code Pink Women for Peace:

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Gold Star Families for Peace:

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