Saturday, June 02, 2007

Women the Periphery and Protest

From June 6-8 in Heiligendamm on the northern coast of Germany the G8 will meet. It is expected 100 000 activists, demonstrators, NGO workers, and revolutionaries will be on site as well. For the past few months "a 7.5 mile long, 2.5-metre (8ft) high steel fence topped with barbed wire, video monitors and sensors to detect movement" has been built around the conference site. The fence materials weigh 500 tonnes. Many of the activists attending the alternative G8 will be women. In fact the role of women in radical political action is often forgotten by our collective media memories or translated into a sensational account of demon women who lack the proper maternal graces (e.g. the removal of Ulrike Meinhof's brain after her suicide to determine her "slide into terror, while Che Guevara becomes a T-shirt icon).
Emilio Quadrelli has written a paper entitled Grassroots Political Militants: Banlieusards and Politics that examines through interviews and media comparisons the structures and discourses at work around the mass uprisings in the Paris peripheries in October-November 2005:

What happened last autumn in the French peripheries was quickly dismissed as an apolitical event of which the dynamics should be sought variously in resurgent community sectarianism, in ethnic-religious-cultural identification, in criminality, or in the senseless and desperate gestures of victims of the social exclusion, urban decay and socio-cultural privation typical of metropolitan peripheries. These versions deprived the events of all political significance. My work in the field during a series of stays in the French capital, one in the midst of the émeutes, would seem to reveal something different

What is revealed in Quadrelli's study is the central role of women in the uprising. The marginal of the marginal it seems, the women of the banlieues have to deal with the sexist objectification that is all around them (especially if they break with community norms) and the economic exploitation that accompanies contract and temping work:

Everybody knows what temp agencies are. They regulate access to the labour market on a temporary basis and on conditions that favour companies. They are also organisations of blackmail and social control by police and unions, because if you’re someone who organises the struggle and the conflict in the workplace or in any case someone who steps out of line, you’re thrown out, and you can be sure it will be very hard for you to get another contract. You end up among the undesirables and you don’t work again. The agencies are the main weapons used by capitalism to make workers harmless. Apart from the agencies there were also quite a few businesses, ones that use illegal or semi-forced labour exclusively, that went up in flames. There are quite a few of these which mostly exploit female labour, through piece-work done on domestic premises. Or, in other not infrequent cases, adapting for work warehouses and basements where women work almost under concentration camp conditions, with no safety, no ventilation, with shifts of never less than 10 hours, under the control of physically violent and arrogant bosses.

These are not hysterical women who have lost touch with themselves. In fact reading Quadrelli's study I am struck by the intelligence and insight displayed by the interview subjects when all we get on TV regarding the banlieues is the disadvantage and hopelessness of the inhabitants. This is result of misinformation at the government level according to Quadrelli:

For various ultimately converging reasons, much of the truth of the origin of the French conflagrations was conveniently hidden at the moment they appeared. It was hidden by the government, which in reality, thanks to the information obtained through the security forces, soon had a substantially realistic picture of the context in which the events were determined, but for obvious reasons preferred not to reveal it.[22] The media were largely unaware of the truth at the time, reduced to reliance on government bulletins.[23] Many intellectuals ignored the truth or interpreted it badly, simply because it was not known to them.[24] In some way they all eventually backed up power’s version of truth.

With the G8 upon us we are again faced with a periphery-center arrangement. A sort of banlieues on a global scale. The fence around the meeting attempts to keep the periphery as the periphery and the center secure to allow for discussion and, presumably, agreement. But exclusion is never a long term political solution. There will be breeches of the barriers and many of those who get through will be women.

Women in protest is the title of a photo series I collected of women taking politically motivated collective action. It was actually not so easy to find images of activist women using Google. I used other search engines (Picsearch and Image View) to fine these.

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