Thanks to Tina Gianoulis for this inspiring account.
Of all the disappointments of the COVID-era shutdowns, the cancellation of the 2020 Women in Black International Gathering in Armenia was one of the greatest. WIB Armenia is an energetic, deeply feminist group who enthusiastically declared their intention to host the next gathering at the end of the 2018 conference in Cape Town, South Africa. The event was planned for May 2020, but as the date approached, and the world was engulfed in the isolation, illness, and loss of the corona virus, an international meeting began to seem more and more impossible.
Beginning with the first reported case on March 1, Armenia was swept by the pandemic, which forced border closures and ultimately killed more than 4500 people. By September, in addition to the physical suffering and grief caused by the virus and the economic and emotional problems resulting from the shutdown, Armenia also faced a military crisis, as long-time hostilities with neighboring Azerbaijan broke out into full-fledged war.
The Armenian friends we made during the Cape Town conference were saddened that the COVID quarantine prevented us from coming to Yerevan to meet and discuss issues of militarization and violence against women with activists from around the world. But their pain at the outbreak of war was even more intensely personal, as some had relatives on the front lines. Calls from Azerbaijan and Turkey to “kill all Armenians” brought up fearful cultural memories of the 1915 genocide at the hands of the Ottoman Turks, still denied by the descendants of those who perpetrated it. A., one of the WIB Armenia organizers, laughed grimly as she told us that Turkish president Erdoğan had promised to complete the genocide of Armenia: “On one hand,” she told us, “at least he is admitting that it happened, but on the other . . .”
It was lesbian energy that enabled us to keep up communication about the conference and other events in Armenia. Sorely missing the lesbian workshop that has always been part of WIB gatherings, and that has over the years allowed us to build strong international bonds, we decided to have our workshop online, via Zoom, like so many events in the past year. That first meeting went on for almost 4 hours and was so exciting and successful at fulfilling our need for lesbian connection that we began meeting monthly, gatherings that became a lifeline of one of WIB’s most important principles: transcending borders to build connections, woman to woman.
Finally, more than a year after it was scheduled, the Women in Black gathering was held on Thursday and Friday, July 8 and 9, 2021, on Zoom. Like our lesbian Zooms, it was both less and more than the “real” thing. There were no hugs for long-missed friends, no stops for coffee, no shared meals, no treasured photos of ephemeral groups. But in all the ways that mattered, the conference felt very “real,” powerful, deeply felt, and passionately informative. As we began to pop up on the screen, each of us separate in our homes, it was warmly thrilling to see familiar faces, reach out through the chat with a verbal hug. Some of us were sleepily holding our morning coffee, others tired at the other end of the day, settling down at computers in the evening. But we were all genuinely glad to see each other and excited to share this important meeting.
The organizers filled the gathering moments with music, from the Spice Girls and Cyndi Lauper to Armenian tunes, which injected warmth and energy into our virtual space. Even at 8 in the morning, it made me feel like dancing. The first speaker was M., who spoke on “Crisis, Challenges and Solutions.” M. is a painter and her sister is a musician. Fueled by a deep belief in working for social justice through art, in 2014, they founded an Art Center to provide classes for poor and disabled children. Beginning with painting classes for young people, the center soon branched out to other arts, and extended teaching to women with disabilities as well as those living in poverty or displaced by combat.
Teaching traditional arts, such as carpet weaving and ceramics helped spread the message of social change to conservative women, and choral singing provided an opportunity to reach out to the Deaf community with sign language interpretation. Projects have focused on issues of importance to women, such as domestic violence, breast cancer, and selective abortion, which has prevented the births of 40,000 Armenian girls in the past 25 years.
The center functions on whatever funds organizers can raise, supplemented by small grants. Their goal is to teach skills, such as weaving, sewing, and pottery, rather than providing aid. Although its activities have been drastically reduced by the pandemic and the war, the center has provided classes for more than 300 children and performed concerts for audiences of 5000. M. was visibly excited and committed to the importance of art as a tool for social change. Because she promotes women’s rights, she has been targeted by conservative forces. She shared videos of song and sign created by those at the center. One, “I am Phoenix,” combined music and empowering paintings of breast cancer survivors, two of whom died during the filming. The phoenix is a symbol of survival that Mariam has made very personal in a tattoo on her own body.
Armenia to Afghanistan
The next speaker was Latifa Ahmady, an Afghan woman who talked about the particular stress placed on Afghan women by decades of ongoing war, made worse by the pressures of poverty, domestic violence, and patriarchal traditions that limit women’s options. After some years in a refugee camp in Iran, where there were no schools for girls, Latifa’s family moved to a camp in Pakistan. There, she was able to attend school and go on to college, bringing back what she learned to teach classes for girls in refugee camps. In order to receive some funding for supplies, she established a women’s center. In 2003, she returned to Afghanistan with the goal of starting a women’s center there.
At first, women were afraid to come to the new center, but eventually they were drawn to projects geared to education and financial independence, such as a chicken farm, distribution of goats, and lessons in carpet weaving. Some of those early reluctant women later became facilitators at center functions. When organizers realized that a local religious leader was telling men that the center was anti-Muslim and wanted to westernize their women, they approached the Mullah to explain that their program of women’s rights, human rights, mathematics, health care, reading and writing did not threaten the teachings of Islam. He apologized and promoted the center by sending members of his own family there. However, male opposition to the center continued, and eventually Latifa was forced to flee Afghanistan to save the lives of herself and her children.
Latifa has personally been affected by her country’s longstanding state of war, beginning with her father’s military service during the war with Russia, when she was just a child and traveled long distances to bring water to Afghan fighters. Decades later, her uncle was killed during the early years of the U.S. war. She was critical of claims by the United States and NATO to bring peace and justice to her country, pointing out that, while schools have been established in the city of Kabul, and in some places women can more easily go to work or operate businesses, large-scale change has been limited. Rather than supporting the impoverished population and working to promote women’s rights as they once promised, the governments of NATO nations have supported war lords and used funds from illegal opium cultivation to finance the war. As for funding initiatives like the women’s center, Latifa said, “The U.S. prioritizes funds where they know they will return to the U.S.”
Afghanistan to Africa
During the next section of the conference, three Indigenous African women spoke about issues of colonization, and the erasure and reclamation of ancient wisdom. Bernedette Muthien of Cape Town, South Africa, pointed out that only in recent years have male Indigenous writers begun to be published, and the voices of Indigenous women are still largely unheard. As the second largest continent with 17% of the world’s population, Bernedette described Africa “the embodiment of diversities” and a wellspring of woman-centered culture. Calling up the African principle of Ubuntu, which she defines as, “I am because I belong; I am because I care,” she called for the re-matriation of societies, most of which have faced patriarchal colonization, and for the reclamation of matriarchal roots and matricentric spirituality.
Loretta Feris, a South African Indigenous woman of Khoi descent, also focused on the effects of colonization in reducing indigenous thought to the subject of research rather than a source of ancestral wisdom. Not only was the land of Africa colonized, she said, but also the minds of the people, leading to the devaluation of indigenous expertise and knowledge. Loretta told us that one result of this colonization has been the South African classification of indigenous people as “Coloured,” holding up her fingers to make ironic quote marks as she said the word. Even more ironically, the first people of Africa often have mixed European heritage, leading them to be labeled, “non-African.”
The other example Loretta gave of the effects of the colonized mind on Indigenous wisdom was the situation of midwives among the Nama people, an Indigenous South African ethnic group. The role of these traditional midwives is still very important to Indigenous women, and even those who might see medical doctors for pre-natal care place their trust in midwives for the actual birth process. Even after the birth, the midwife retains a special connection to the family as an honorary “grandmother.” Modern laws have largely de-legitimized traditional midwives and the generational skills, such as massage, that they learned from mothers and grandmothers, by requiring midwives to have formal training and registration. This has effectively placed access to traditional midwifery outside the law and increased the erasure of Indigenous knowledge and essential skills.
Yaliwe Clarke spoke about gender fluidity in traditional Zambian society, where she encountered people whose roles transcended gender expectations, such as female husbands, uncles, and fathers. These roles did not necessarily involve queer sexuality, but did cross what might be considered “normal” social boundaries in other cultures. Clarke also read a powerful poem by Cape Town spoken word artist Khadija Tracey Heeger, “Camissa,” a name given to the mixed-race people generally lumped together under the colonial label “Coloured.” It begins:
The first day of the conference ended with a presentation by Vita Arrufat, a Spanish women’s health advocate, who works in the group Mujeres para la Salud (Women for Health) in Valencia.
Vita discussed a self-help notebook created by women to reclaim knowledge about their bodies and inspired in part by the work of activists such as the Boston Women’s Health Collective, who published the groundbreaking feminist work, Our Bodies, Ourselves in 1970. Sadly, audio and translation problems (coupled with my shameful lack of Spanish) prevented me from understanding much of Vita’s presentation, except for the wonderful pictures she showed of the mighty clitoris, the center of women’s sexual pleasure whose long internal arms reach up to embrace the vagina.
I pause here in the lull between the two days of the gathering to mention the issues of language and translation that must be part of any international discussion. In the WIB conferences I’ve attended, English has been the most frequent common language for presentations and networking, placing us native speakers in a privileged position. Organizers work hard to provide translation, and bilingual women pitch in where they can to help, but those who do not speak English often feel at a disadvantage, even though they may be fluent in numerous other languages.
Friday morning, we reconvened sleepily at the computer with cups of coffee and hot chocolate. The first presenter was M.A., who talked about the impact of war on the environment. Using the devastating effects on forests of weapons containing explosive white phosphorus as an example, M. called war “aggression toward the environment.” Nations frequently encourage citizens to support war as defense of the homeland, but environmental activists such as M. call for a broader, “more cosmic” definition of home, as the earth itself and the ecosystems that are damaged when nations go into battle.
Groups like Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International analyze the human costs of war, but do not study the losses to wildlife and plant systems. Only the United Kingdom-based Conflict and Environment Observatory publishes information environmental effects of war, and good data is often not available. Mariam shared one shocking fact that has been documented: in the ten days between October 26 and November 4, 2020, 447 fires were ignited in the forests of the contested Nagorno-Karabakh region as the conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan raged. As is often the case when wartime environmental damage is acknowledged, each side blamed the other.
Armenian journalist K. was the second speaker of the morning. An anti-war activist, K. took the courageous and unpopular position of speaking out against militaristic escalations in Armenia in 2016 and 2020. She described the factors that affected her experience of the recent war, including the fear of being scapegoated, both as a queer woman and a peace activist, the damage to the environment, and the isolating effects of the shutdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Knar was especially critical of the role of technology in separating people from each other and from nature, contending that an increasing tendency to escape quarantine by entering cyberspace has alienated people even from their own bodies.
Pointing out that much of the technology we take for granted today, such as radio, video, computers, and drones, was invented in wartime to aid combat, K. questioned the current role of newscasters and online news sources. Trapped at home alone for 44 days when Armenia declared martial law to enforce COVID protections, K. found herself becoming addicted to livestream Internet news, as members of her family were involved in combat. However, her trust in the news media eroded quickly as she was bombarded with images of violence and torture. When she attempted to fact-check what she was seeing, she discovered that some of the horrifying footage was not from the fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh at all, but was taken from Syria and other war-torn areas and was used primarily for shock value.
Overwhelmed by trauma and stress, K.began to do whatever she could to get away from online news and social media with their constant assault of information, opinion, and the expectation to comment. She walked her dog and started to keep a hand-written diary, noting that, “You remember events, but you don’t remember feelings.” Feeling embattled and marginalized for her queer and female identity, one of her biggest fears was having to “rely on some man for help.”
To combat these fears and reclaim a sense of agency, Knar focused on the struggle to end arms sales that allow a “little clique of people” to profit from the destruction of war. As an Armenian Knar grew up with an acute awareness of the generational trauma resulting from the 1915 genocide, and the difficulty of emerging from such atrocities without a desire for vengeance. Understanding that the children of the perpetrators of wartime massacres also experience trauma, she felt compelled to resist traditions of enmity and work with like-minded activists to stop the sales of arms and develop programs for creating peace. In this she felt a deep kinship with Women in Black, which was founded by Palestinian and Israeli women coming together to seek peaceful solutions and demand justice for Palestinians.
The final scheduled speaker of the day was Israeli activist Yvonne Deutsch, whose workshop was titled, “Self-care and community wellbeing in times of trauma.” One of the original members of Women in Black in Jerusalem, Yvonne talked about “compassionate fatigue,” the damage to her health caused by 11 years of activism against the Occupation of Palestine, a seemingly endless struggle that has been maintained in the face of ever-increasing government repression and hostile reactions from conservatives. Even within progressive political groups, competition, disagreements, and power struggles sometimes felt overpowering. “Nobody saw that I was collapsing.”
Although she realized that being able to take a break from activism in order to do self-care is a privilege only some can afford, Yvonne was impelled by her own need to heal and by concern for all the women worldwide whose work for justice and peace may wear them down as much as the traumatic violence they live with. A therapist herself, she realized that talking is often not enough to combat the effects of these kinds of stress on the body. She began to work on integrating the body and mind in her practice with the goal of helping women doing change work to establish healthy boundaries and learn to release anxieties.
As Yvonne led us through several calming exercises to calm our breathing and energize our bodies, we received a dramatic illustration of the terrifying realities of repression and persecution.
We had been fortunate at the conference that we were joined by several women living in Block 13 of Kakuma Camp, a refugee facility in northern Kenya. Unusual among refugee camps, Block 13 is an area set aside for LGBT and other queer refugees. Many have fled neighboring countries, such as Uganda and Burundi, where homophobic attitudes and laws have endangered their lives. Their placement together in Block 13 has been in some ways positive, as it has allowed them to find each other in order to form supportive community. However, it has also made them easier targets for homophobic attacks from other refugees. Queers in Kakuma have been beaten, raped, and set on fire, simply because they are identifiably queer.
The lesbians who joined us from Kakuma were visible to us as dynamic figures gathered in the dark around the camera of a cell phone. They participated actively through the group chat, strongly seconding Latifa’s description of the harshness of life in a refugee camp and enthusiastically commenting on other speakers. As we all joined together to breathe and relax, one of the women was stung by a scorpion, causing concern and immediate focus of the whole group on the women in the dark in Kakuma, whose warm engagement in the conference had turned to panic. Medical care was impossible, they told us, as it was far too dangerous to leave their building in the dark. Two gay men had recently been set on fire, and one had died, increasing feelings of terror and hopelessness among those living in Block 13. In tears, women called out to us for help, citing their need for basic supplies, such as clothes, blankets, and menstrual pads as well as financial support and advocacy with government agencies that too often ignore the needs of refugees with no legal status.
The sting of the scorpion, thus, sparked an emotional discussion about our need as a group to pool our resources to help those of us living in dangerous situations such as those in Kakuma, Afghanistan, Palestine, and Armenia. Some of us from NATO nations relived the pain and frustration we felt over our inability to stop our governments from going to war in Afghanistan and Iraq in past years. Those of us from weapon-producing nations, such as the U.S., the U.K., and Spain, felt a special responsibility to work to stop the production and sales of the arms that cause so much destruction around the world. Many of us left the discussion with a determination to work for the relocation of the lesbians trapped in Block 13.
The intensity of our conversation, coupled with our feelings of powerlessness to help our sisters who seemed so close but were in reality so far out of reach, left us shaken and disturbed. A., one of the Armenian organizers, was in tears as she announced the video they had made that was scheduled to end the conference. We in the lesbian group had met with A. and other organizers to discuss planning the zoom conference. Some of us remembered the powerful introduction to the history of Cape Town we had received at the beginning of the 2018 gathering, and we had asked for a video that would show us a little of the Armenia we would not be visiting. Overwhelmed as they were by the isolation of pandemic and the terror of warfare, the Armenian activists filmed a trip to the countryside they had taken for self-care and healing, an understated but inspirational ending to a conference that called us to do so much, both in terms of rising to action and in taking care of ourselves and each other so that our activism is sustainable over time.