Women in Black

Reference: Women in Black

Women in Black is an international movement of women for peace. What unites us all is our commitment to justice and a world free of violence.

The international movement of Women in Black began in Israel in January 1988, one month after the First Palestinian Intifada broke out, as a small group of Israeli women carried out a simple form of protest: Once a week at the same hour and in the same location – a major traffic intersection – they donned black clothing and raised a black sign in the shape of a hand with white lettering that read “Stop the Occupation.” Within months, by word of mouth, women throughout Israel had heard of this protest, and launched dozens of vigils.

Since then the Women in Black movement has spread spontaneously from country to country, wherever women sought to speak out against violence and injustice in their own part of the world. In Italy, Women in Black protest a range of issues, from the Israeli occupation to the violence of organized crime. In Germany, Women in Black protest neo-Nazism, racism against migrant workers, and nuclear armament. In India, Women in Black hold vigils that call for an end to the ill treatment of women by religious fundamentalists. And during the war in the Balkans, Women in Black in Belgrade set a profound example of interethnic cooperation that was an inspiration to their countrywomen and men.

The movement of Women in Black has empowered women and men in many countries to mobilize for peace. It is an international movement, so that the voice of conscience in one region now echoes and reverberates throughout the world. And it provides a worldwide support system for victims of oppression, exposing their injustice to the light of day and the pressure of world opinion. The movement of Women in Black assumes many forms in many countries, but one thing is common to all: an uncompromising commitment to justice and a world free of violence.

The international movement of Women in Black was honored with the Millennium Peace Prize for Women, awarded by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in 2001. The international movement, represented by the Israeli and the Serbian groups, was also a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2001. Israeli Women in Black won the Aachen Peace Prize (1991); the peace award of the city of San Giovanni d’Asso in Italy (1994); and the Jewish Peace Fellowship’s “Peacemaker Award” (2001).

Principles of Women in Black

Who are Women in Black?

Women in Black is a world-wide network of women committed to peace with justice and actively opposed to injustice, war, militarism and other forms of violence. As women experiencing these things in different ways in different regions of the world, we support each other’s movements. An important focus is challenging the militarist policies of our own governments. We are not an organization, but a means of communicating and a formula for action.

WiB vigils

Any group of women anywhere in the world at any time may organize a Women in Black vigil against any manifestation of violence, militarism or war. Women in Black (WiB) actions are generally women only. Actions often take the form of women wearing black, standing in a public place in silent, non-violent vigils at regular times and intervals, carrying placards and handing out leaflets.

Other non-violent actions

In addition to vigils Women in Black groups use many other forms of non-violent, non-aggressive direct action such as sitting down to block a road, entering military bases and other forbidden zones, refusing to comply with orders, and “bearing witness.” Wearing black in some cultures signifies mourning, and feminist actions dressed in black convert women’s traditional passive mourning for the dead in war into a powerful refusal of the logic of war.

A worldwide movement

It is impossible to know exactly how many Women in Black groups exist, how many women they include and how many actions have been held. When Women in Black in Israel/Palestine, as part of a coalition of Women for a Just Peace, called for vigils in June 2001 against the Occupation of Palestinian lands, at least 150 WiB groups across the world responded. Countries reporting vigils included: Australia, Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, England, France, Germany, India, Israel, Italy, Japan, Maldive Islands, Mexico, Netherlands, Northern Ireland, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland, Turkey, and the USA. The organizers estimate that altogether 10,000 women may have been involved.

A feminist perspective

Women in Black groups do not have a constitution or a manifesto, but the common perspective is clear from actions and words. It is evident for instance that we have a feminist understanding: that male violence against women in domestic life and in the community, in times of peace and in times of war, are interrelated. Violence is used as a means of controlling women. In some regions, men who share this analysis support and help WiB, and WiB are supporting men who refuse to fight.

Women’s different experience of war

Women-only peace activism does not suggest that women, any more than men, are “natural born peace-makers.” But women often inhabit different cultures from men, and are disproportionately involved in caring work. We know what justice and oppression mean, because we experience them as women. Most women have a different experience of war from that of most men. All women in war fear rape. Women are the majority of refugees. A feminist view sees masculine cultures as specially prone to violence, and so feminist women tend to have a particular perspective on security and something unique to say about war.

Women’s different and varied voices

WiB includes women of many ethnic and national backgrounds, co-operating across these (and other) differences in the interests of justice and peace. We work for a world where difference does not mean inequality, oppression or exclusion. Women’s voices are often drowned out in mixed actions of men and women. When we act alone what women say is really heard.

Choosing our own forms of action

Sometimes even peace demonstrations get violent, and as women alone we can choose forms of action we feel comfortable with, non-violent and expressive. Demonstrating together can give us a sense of the richness and scope of our varied experiences, and solidarity and purpose as women. Women in regions differently situated in relation to armed conflicts, including those that perpetrate violence and those that are victims of it, can lend support to each other. Together we can educate, inform and influence public opinion, and so try to make war an unthinkable option.

Click here for Standing for Peace, an on-line, book-length history of the early years of Women in Black, written by one of the movement’s founders, Gila Svirsky.

For more information, see the Women in Black website or go to the Coalition of Women for Peace here.