“Until we find each other, we are alone.” - Adrienne Rich
Reflecting on the significance of women’s solidarity, the 2023 webzine Kyeol has curated a special feature with the aim of introducing international networks that focus on addressing wartime sexual violence and advocating for women’s human rights. Women in Black, a global network for the women’s peace movement, originated in Jerusalem in 1988 when a group of women dressed in black staged a silent demonstration to protest the 25th anniversary of Israel’s occupation of Palestine. Recognizing the diverse experiences of war, militarism, and violence that women face in different regions and circumstances, Women in Black perceive themselves as a platform for communication and a catalyst for action, resisting being a rigid organization. In this feature, we will delve into the written interviews conducted by the International Law and “Comfort Women” Seminar team at Seoul with Women in Black members based in London and Belgrade.
A Conversation with Sue Finch of
Women in Black London Part 1
International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team
As an international women's movement group, what differentiates Women in Black from the rest? We understand that there is no centralized or systematized organization within the group. Nevertheless, we are curious to know what elements allow Women in Black to be called Women in Black. Could you elaborate on how the Women in Black connect with each other and maintain their network? And if the identity of Women in Black started from reflection and critical introspection on the existing women's movement, could you also explain what kind of problem awareness it was founded upon?
Women in Black is not an organisation, but a formula for action. So I can’t speak for all Women in Black, but if we look at the history of how Women in Black has developed since 1988, campaigning against the inherent violence of militarised patriarchy from one country to the next, the themes that connect Women in Black in determined resistance to the continuum of male violence will hopefully emerge:
Rape, femicide and the social exploitation of women are endemic. Feminist activism to end gendered oppression and violence is urgent and will be strengthened by fostering a greater understanding of the masculinist and patriarchal nature of militarism and war and making the scope and extent of current movements for change better known.
Global military spending (two trillion dollars a year) is steadily growing. Massive national military budgets squander resources that could and should be spent on people’s health and wellbeing. It is urgent to give information about ways of protesting against this and drawing more citizens into activism.
It is also urgent that men adopt, and women support, forms of masculinity that are not shaped by violence and militarism.
The activist and author Cynthia Cockburn was one of the key theorists of Women in Black, and wrote several books on feminist Antimilitarism, as well as the history of Women in Black quoted above, before she died in 2019.
Women in Black acts across five continents for peace and justice, against violence, militarism and war. Variously called, in different countries and contexts, Women in Black against War, Women in Black against Violence and Women in Black for Peace with Justice, depending on the particular focus of the local group, we are a network connected by an international website, international conferences and shared theories, inspiration and actions.
Women in Black began in Israel in 1988, prompted by the Palestinian intifada, or uprising, of late 1987, with an appeal to End the Occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. Women in Black evolved a complex and productive partnership of Jewish Israeli women with Israeli Palestinian women and Palestinian women in the Occupied Territories, standing in vigils against the Occupation.
Six months after women in Jerusalem enacted their first Women in Black vigil, Jewish women peace activists began mounting similar actions in towns and cities across the USA. Italian feminist activists also encountered Women in Black in the late eighties when visiting Israel Palestine in the context of a project they called “Visiting Difficult Places”. They joined peace actions and, on returning home, began vigils in Rome, Perugia and many other cities under the name of Women in Black - Donne in Nero.
In turn, Italian women travelled to Federal Yugoslavia to support women struggling for peace in that disintegrating state, and inspired feminist activists in Belgrade to create Žene u Crnom protiv Rata (Women in Black against War). Žene u Crnom used Women in Black methods to protest the Bosnian and Kosovo wars of the 1990s. The group was hugely productive. In 2001, they reckoned that in their first decade of existence Žene u Crnom had handed out more than 50,000 leaflets about non-violence and resistance to war and organised more than eighty Women’s Peace Travelling Workshops in twelve towns in Serbia. They calculated that they had issued more than 100 public statements against the Serbian regime and its war policies. And they had published eleven annual volumes of their substantial series of books, “Women for Peace”, and organised international conferences which developed Women in Black’s feminist antimilitarist theories.
At the same time as Women in Black spread to former Federal Yugoslavia, in 1992, the Indian feminist Corinne Kumar met Gila Svirsky from Women in Black Israel Palestine and carried the vigil practice back to her home-town, Bangalore. Corinne was already part of Vimochana, a collective whose main campaigning issue is ending endemic domestic, sexual and social violence against women. The 16th Women in Black biennial international conference was hosted by Vimochana in Bangalore in 2015, together with a Court of Women: Against War, For Peace attended by over 1000 people calling for justice for women.
Women in Black in the UK developed out of a group of women - Women’s Aid To Former Yugoslavia - who drove trucks of food and supplies to support Žene u Crnom. Standing on the shoulders of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, and growing out of the women’s peace camp at Greenham Common, we moved through protests against the Iraq war in 1991 to weekly silent vigils since 2000, and non-violent protests, against the occupation of Palestine, the wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria, the arms trade and the UK’s nuclear missiles, as well as in support of refugees and asylum seekers and opposition to environmental catastrophe.
Žene u Crnom also inspired women in Spain and Belgium to start Women in Black groups, as well as a communication network that connects and spreads Women in Black ideas across the world. Mujeres de Negro (Women in Black) in Spain and Women in Black Belgium continue to lead international coordination of the Women in Black network.
Spanish Mujeres de Negro visiting Colombia led to an active Women in Black movement in Colombia, home to one of the world’s most sustained and impassioned women’s movements against violence and war. The organisation that developed Women in Black in Colombia is La Ruta Pacífica de Mujeres por la Negociación de los Conflictos (Women’s Peaceful Road for the Negotiation of Conflicts), La Ruta Pacífica. Women in Black in South America started in Colombia, then extended to Uruguay, and Argentina. Colombia and Uruguay have both hosted international Women in Black conferences.
Women in Black’s 17th international conference, held in Cape Town, South Africa, in 2018 was attended by more than a hundred women from sixteen countries, organised by women’s groups whose main concern was the impact on South African women of displacement due to slavery, colonisation, armed conflict, poverty and apartheid.
The most recent Women in Black group has been developed by young women in Armenia, focussing on the impact of recent outbreaks of war along their borders, who organised the latest international Women in Black conference from Yerevan in 2022.
As the history of Women in Black shows, each Women in Black group has its own approach to feminist action, growing out of their local situation, but linked to each other through international theories and conferences.
International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team
In Korea, various military base problems continue to arise from the past up until today. Given this situation, there continue to be protests against the US military's deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense(THAAD) missiles and the relocation and return of US military bases. In relation to this, we heard that in the 1980s and 1990s, Women in Black in the UK was active in protesting the missile deployment at the Greenham Common US Air Force Base, and as a result it was able to prevent the missiles from being deployed. We would like to hear a detailed story about the successful “stopping missile deployment” activity as an anti-military base movement, and what kind of experience and meaning this activity left to the Women in Black.
The Greenham Women’s Peace camp was one of the key antecedents for Women in Black. In 1980 the UK government agreed to base 96 ground-launched US missiles with nuclear warheads at Greenham Common in southern England. As preparations at the abandoned airfield went ahead, women in Wales prepared to oppose the deployment. In 1981, 36 Women for Life on Earth, along with a few men and children, began the 120 mile walk from Cardiff to Greenham. When they arrived, some women chained themselves to the gates and fence, recalling tactics used by Suffragettes fighting for women's right to vote 70 years earlier; others set up a camp. While some of the marchers headed back to Wales, others stayed, determined not to leave without the public discussion they had called for; and the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp began.
The Women's Peace Camp inspired an international women's peace movement that was woven into the origins of Women in Black. Growing out of a tradition of anti-nuclear protests and earlier pacifist movements, Greenham brought a feminist perspective to opposing nuclear weapons, and feminist resistance to the patriarchal attitudes and practices that dominated peace and political activities in the UK. The camp developed feminist empowerment, perspectives on nonviolence and opposition to nuclear weapons and war.
In early 1982, the camp decided that having started as a women's initiative they needed the few men to leave, so that they could move beyond male-dominated ways of thinking about peace. This decision was transformative. “Men were asked to leave so that women were not in a supportive role but in the leading role, making decisions about the way forward.” (Liz Khan, London Women in Black).
Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp lasted nineteen years. The first camp at the main gate was joined by nine camps at other gates, each named after the colours of the rainbow, stretching around the nine-mile perimeter fence. Thousands of women lived at or visited the camp over the years, and the message that “Greenham Women are Everywhere” enabled women from all over the UK, and many other countries, to join huge demonstrations at Greenham and take action locally.
Liz Khan recalls:
I was working as a childcare worker in a feminist children’s centre when the call came out in December 1982 for women to embrace the USA military base at Greenham Common, that was preparing to host nuclear cruise missiles. A group of us from work joined the 30,000 women who protested that day. I then joined a local Greenham Common group that participated in actions both at Greenham Common and in my local vicinity, highlighting the evil of the weapons and manoeuvres by the military both at Greenham Common and other military bases, including Faslane in Scotland where nuclear-armed submarines are based and launched.
The “Embrace the Base” demonstration in 1982 was widely reported on TV, radio and the front pages of many newspapers. The following day, over 6,000 women stayed to “close the base” with mass blockades at seven gates.
Rebecca Johnson, a Women in Black who lived at Greenham from 1982 to 1987, adds:
Whether in local groups or at camp, we set out not only to ban these weapons of mass annihilation, but to challenge patriarchal systems and attitudes at all levels, from the racism and colonialism at the core of today's wars, weapons and nuclear testing, to violence and abuse against women and girls. So many women came to Greenham with different experiences of sexual and patriarchal violence. Faced with violent policing and aggressive soldiers, passive resistance didn't work for us. To stop the nuclear deployments, we developed new forms of nonviolence, with empowering feminist-activist principles and practices to challenge and transform patriarchal violence. That's what Greenham meant – taking personal and political responsibility ourselves and changing how we live and what we do in the world.
Women cut and pulled down miles of security fencing, entered the base, and occupied its sensitive military areas, including the nuclear silos and air traffic control tower. Over 1,000 women were sent to Holloway and other prisons, proud to follow in the steps of the Suffragettes. After a 'Greenham Women Against Cruise' court case in the US failed to prevent the arrival of cruise missiles in November 1983, the camp joined with local residents and anti-nuclear activists to form the “Cruisewatch” network, which protested against and tracked every weapons convoy carrying missiles on public roads from Greenham to the deployment sites.
Within four years, the 1987 US-Soviet Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty was signed. By 1991, Cruise missiles had been removed from Greenham and destroyed. Greenham women and local residents ensured that Greenham was returned to common land for grazing animals and walkers to enjoy.
Like Liz and Rebecca, many Greenham Women became Women in Black.
International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team
We learned that during the civil war in Yugoslavia, Women in Black London was also active in extending their assistance. What activities did you specifically do, and in what ways did support and action unfold for the victims of wartime sexual violence, in particular?
In 1992 a handful of Greenham women seeking to oppose the war in Yugoslavia contacted anti-nationalist women's organisations in Slovenia, Croatia and Serbia, asking what they could do to support them. Žene u Crnom in Belgrade replied with a request for humanitarian aid for women refugees, and so Women’s Aid To Former Yugoslavia (WATFY) was established to collect and donate humanitarian aid and other support to displaced and refugee women on all sides of the conflicts, along with the activist networks supporting them.
In September 1992, after delivering aid in Ljubljana and Zagreb, nine women in three trucks arrived in Belgrade, met with Žene u Crnom, and joined their Women in Black vigil. Siân Jones (now international organiser of the Women in Black website www.womeninblack.org) recalls: “Žene u Crnom's politics were a revelation: I'd never before so clearly understood the continuity of patriarchy, war, militarism and violence against women.”
Working with anti-nationalist women's organisations supporting displaced and refugee women, WATFY grew out of the Greenham network and other women's organisations. Together with women from Belgium and elsewhere they organised aid convoys until 1999, extending to Bosnia and Herzegovina and, later, Kosovo/a. WATFY continued their close links with Žene u Crnom and carried the idea of silent vigils and other black-clad protests against war back to their networks across the UK, which led to the beginning of Women in Black here. They also brought new information about the use of rape as a weapon of war.
An umbrella campaign, Women against War Crimes, that included some WATFY women, along with a loose coalition drawn from a wide range of women's organisations, came together to call for war-time rape, already codified in international law as a war crime, to be prosecuted. The coalition activists lobbied, campaigned and with the participation of some women from former Yugoslavia held a massive demonstration in Trafalgar Square, London, on 7 March 1993. They joined the growing international coalition of women activists, organisations and lawyers who built global pressure for the prosecution of the act of individual and mass rape, sexual slavery and torture of both women and men committed by all parties in this and all other wars.
The first convictions for rape as a crime under international law took place at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, in 1997- 8. In a series of landmark cases, later Tribunals confirmed that rape was a form of torture; that rape and sexual assault may constitute acts of genocide; and that sexual violence, including enslavement or sexual slavery, could be prosecuted as a war crime, and as a crime against humanity.
- ^ Cynthia Cockburn, Introduction to “Women in Black: Against Violence, for Justice”, Merlin Press 2023.
- A Conversation with Sue Finch of Women in Black London (2)
Violence, militarism and war are gendered phenomena, and peace activism, to be effective, must likewise be gender analytical and gender aware.
- A Conversation with Sue Finch of Women in Black London (3)
The World Court of Women has held over 30 sessions since 1992, hearing from survivors of violence, conflict and war from around the world.
- Writer Sue Finch
Sue Finch has campaigned for peace since she supported the Greenham Common peace camp in England in 1982, and as part of the Women in Black network since the 1990s. She recently finished her friend Cynthia Cockburn’s book on the history of “Women in Black: Against Violence, For Peace with Justice” (Merlin Press, 2023) after Cynthia sadly died in 2019 before she could complete it.
- Writer International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team
The International Law & “Comfort Women” Seminar Team started its first season in 2020, which was the 20th anniversary of the Women's International War Crimes Tribunal on the Trial of Japan's Military Sexual Slavery in 2000. Researchers of various majors have come together every other week to read international law-related materials, and have studied gender-based violence, including the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue, from a new perspective in a contemporary awareness of the issue. Through this seminar, we learned that international law, which is still being developed, is an ongoing endeavor.
During the past three years, there were two rulings related to the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue in Korea. One became a pioneering precedent acknowledging the Japanese government's responsibility for reparation for the Japanese military “Comfort Women” system, which is a crime against humanity by the Japanese Empire. The other recognized the Japanese government’s state immunity and dismissed the lawsuit of the plaintiffs who were the victims of the Japanese military “Comfort Women” system. Our seminar team has read various reports, verdict statements, written opinions, and interrogations on prisoners of war on the Japanese military “Comfort Women” issue, and takes great interest in gender-based violence in armed conflict, the issue of impunity for gender-based violence in international war crime trials, as well as colonialism as a criminal act and the impunity for it.
We are delighted to be able to interview Ms. Staša Zajović in Women in Black Belgrade and Ms. Sue Finch in Women in Black London, as we have been reading various sources and thinking about what kind of issues could be raised in tangible history.
International Law & "Comfort Women“ Seminar Team members: Kim Sooyong, Kim Ellim, Sim Ajung, Lee Seulki, Lee Eun-jin, Lee Jieun, Jang Soohee, Jang Wona, Jang Eun-ae, Cho Sihyun, Hong Yoon-shin and Furuhashi Aya.