OPINION: The Women’s March and the power of the ‘pussyhat’

Photo via daily gazette.com

Majalya Fernando is a Filipino writer who used to live and work in Washington, D.C. She now spends time in both Washington and Manila. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers.

By Majalya Fernando/cnnphilippines.com – Underneath knitted pussyhats, behind placards displaying artistic representations of female reproductive parts, the Women’s March on Washington felt eerily familiar. A sea of people on the streets sending a message to their political leaders — reminiscent of many a protest in the Philippines over the last three decades.

People Power to overthrow a dictator 30 years ago.

EDSA Dos to protest a botched impeachment trial in 2001.

A gathering in EDSA a third time around to protest the hero’s burial of a dictator just a few months ago.

Between those major protests, Philippine history is peppered with rallies.

There were others who were painfully aware of the familiarity of protest. In the Women’s March on January 21, ladies in suffragette costumes held up signs saying, “Same shit, different century.” Women in their 70s to 90s said with a similar vein, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” I heard a black woman respond when asked if she was joining the march: “I’m already here. I’ve been in D.C. and my people are here. Everyday is a protest.”

I met the New Year in the U.S. feeling like I had escaped 2016 and the social anxiety that it had brought to the Philippines. Except now I was in Washington D.C., about to witness the inauguration of a demagogue. Same shit, different continent.

Such was my feeling of jadedness as I designed rally posters and donned a shirt with a uterus-shaped patch. But there was a sense of excitement stirring in me, like something had shifted and something great was about to happen. Protests have the ability to let weariness and feelings of futility exist alongside a belief in collective action. You have to believe.

On the morning of January 21, you couldn’t walk a block without being reminded of the massive protest about to take place. Lines entering train stations snaked out into the street, and everywhere you looked you could see the unofficial uniform of the movement — the pussyhat, a pink, knitted hat shaped to look like cat ears. The pussyhats, which caused a nationwide shortage of pink yarn, were an attempt at reclaiming the word “pussy” from Donald Trump, who bragged of grabbing women by them.

The crowd was much larger than anticipated, and people filled the National Mall and surrounding streets so there was no space to march. What started as a Facebook event created in response to the U.S. election results turned into a worldwide movement participated by some 4.8 million people, according to WomensMarch.com. Some protesters made it to the White House and lined its fence with placards, creating a barrier, an allusion to the wall Trump promised to build.

The organic, grassroots beginnings of the movement brought about challenges for the Left. However, it also created a space for intersectional feminism, a view that women experience oppressions in varying ways and degrees of intensity depending on other factors such race, class, sexuality, etc. Numerous issues were represented at the march — women’s rights, race, LGBTQ rights, environmental issues, economic inequality, the flaws of the U.S. electoral college, to name a few.

Some felt that intersectionality alienated white women who wanted to march. Others will argue the intersectionality promised by the organizers fell short, and struggles of women of color were glossed over.

The Women’s March was not perfect. However, it made one thing apparent: the Trump presidency is a symptom of power imbalance and so many other systemic ills which are the basis for struggles around the world, including those that have plagued the Philippines. The U.S. election was an awakening for many, and once you’re awake, it is hard to unsee the disease and its symptoms.

I experienced an awakening of sorts as well. My participation in the rally was less about opposition to Trump than it was about my stand on women’s rights and immigration. I have experienced and witnessed sexual violence and discrimination. I have been rejected for a job because of my citizenship. I know what it is like to be apart from someone you love because of your visa status. Before I felt comfortable rallying, I had to grapple with these issues on a personal level and transcend any feelings of jadedness. Then you are with thousands of people — men, women, children, members of the LGBTQ community — who have similar experiences, and these issues become too apparent to ignore.

One thing that makes the Women’s March different from other rallies is the continued action post-protest. Organizers of the march launched a 10 Actions/100 Days campaign to urge people to sustain collective action. The political action committee Emily’s List conducted training to encourage women to run for office. It was a breath of fresh air, one of the missing pieces lacking in many previous protests.

To borrow a phrase from Erykah Badu and the Black Lives Matter movement, we must stay woke. Stay woke to underlying systemic issues and to the struggles of people before you, and be persistent in addressing power imbalances even if they make you uncomfortable. Stay woke because going back to sleep could mean the same shit over and over again.

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