A group of about 20 South Asian women, many in red hijabs or sporting red headbands, gathered in Washington Square Park for yesterday’s Women’s Strike. All were members of Desis Rising Up and Moving, a grassroots organization that works primarily with low-income South Asian immigrants. Earlier in the day, I had met with them at their office in Jackson Heights as they made protest signs in Hindi, Urdu, and Bangla, and there, I spoke with Nawshin Islam, a lanky 25-year-old in a red-and-black plaid buttondown. She’s juggling a job at Red Lobster while attending LaGuardia Community College.
“I notice the politics that take place due to race and gender. I see white male managers make $60,000, while women of color are offered $45,000,” Islam told the Voice, adding that, “If I had to work today, I wouldn’t be able to be here. At the end of the day, we have bills to pay. A lot of us feel that we’re one paycheck away from being on the streets.”
Islam says she is motivated by a broad range of issues — the wage gap, Islamophobia (“It’s very difficult being in the sixth grade and having people call you a terrorist.”), the defunding of Planned Parenthood, deportations — her own father was deported after 9/11. “White privilege is a thing. White feminism is a thing,” she said. Still, “It’s important for white women to show up, it’s important for everyone who can to show up.”
It is a revealing truth that actions led by women are often held up to a higher level of scrutiny than others, due in large part because they are women. Yesterday’s Women’s Strike, planned to coincide with International Women’s Day by the organizers of the Women’s March as well as a separate constellation of organizations in countries around the world, did not escape the sort of critical navel-gazing that has dogged the feminist movement almost since its conception.
It was derided by some women writers as “a protest of the privileged” or more bluntly as “self-parody.” The feminist writer Sady Doyle, while acknowledging the potential usefulness of the strike, added that “it’s still worth noting that protest itself can be a luxury.” (It’s also worth noting that these are not the concerns posed by women of color and immigrant women, who called for those who could strike to do so, and who have been, as many have pointed out, protesting and striking all along for higher pay, immigration reform, and an end to police violence, and for whom striking often feels not like a privilege or a luxury but a necessity.)
Yet strikes, and political action more broadly, serve many purposes beyond just swaying public opinion in your favor or winning concrete change — they are meant to build solidarity and momentum; in short, they are part of the necessary work to build a movement. As The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino put it in a rebuttal to those who fretted over the lack of specific demands and its seeming contradictions, the “fundamental idea of the Women’s Strike” was to “help forge solidarity between women with favorable working conditions and women who have no such thing.” The strike organizers themselves described their goal as building a “feminism for the 99%.”
Yesterday afternoon, a crowd of several thousand gathered at Washington Square Park at an action with a decidedly intersectional and radical bent (speakers regularly chanted “feminism for the masses, not just for the ruling classes!”). It was not the only protest that took place — at noon, a smaller group at a separate event planned by the women behind the Women’s March marked the day in Midtown, where several of the lead organizers were arrested after attempting to encircle Trump Tower.
Back in the park, Shahina Parveen Siraj, dressed head to toe in red, told me she went on strike and refused to do any housework. “I didn’t cook, and I told my husband that it’s a day off for me. The work in my house is also work,” the 60-year-old Siraj said. “My husband was very nice. He said, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll buy food from outside.’ And I said, ‘No, today we’re fasting!’ Women should actually be paid more, because we take care of our children and our homes and our husbands, and we also go outside and work.”
Siraj was once undocumented, and was detained for a time in 2007 with her family, where she was shocked to see how women were treated at the detention facility. “I saw women crying, an officer pushed a pregnant woman into the wall,” she remembered. “I’ve seen how women are treated in workplaces, and they’re paid very low. It hurts me to see the struggle of women.”
The issues that compelled women to gather in Washington Square were, like women themselves, many and varied. Gloria Weiss, 58, who teaches GED classes for members of the healthcare union 1199SEIU and was wearing a knitted pussy hat she had just bought from another protester, ticked off what brought her out: Trump, yes, but also pollution, Flint, and economic injustice. While she didn’t strike, going to work as usual, her husband, she noted, would be “doing the dishes tonight, and he’ll do the cooking!”
Sitting on a bench were two retired friends, Jeannie Segall and Nancy Garcia, red scarves around their necks and pussy hats perched on their heads. “I try to go to two demonstrations a week and make calls, and it still feels like it’s not enough,” Segall said. Garcia, who is a caregiver for her father and grandchildren, has also been attending as many actions as possible. “We’re from an era where [protest] was common,” she said.
“In high school, we fought for abortion rights in Albany,” noted Segall.
“We had to fight just to wear pants to school!” Garcia said. “I slacked off for a while, and I feel guilty about it.” Did she strike? I asked her. She did. “Today was a me day!” she said.
On the lawn a distance away from the main stage, I found Jahnique Nguyen, 22, leaning against a tree, along with her sister Alecia Massiah, 19, both holding handwritten signs saying “No weapon formed against the pussy shall prosper.” Their family is from the Caribbean island of St. Vincent. “Just banning immigrants when half the population is immigrants, it doesn’t make any sense to me,” Nguyen said. Yesterday was her first action; she had found out about the strike by Googling “protest NYC.”
“At the end of the day, we all have the same struggle as women,” Nguyen said. “I’m not gonna lie, I wasn’t expecting to see certain things” — she was referring to the group of women behind us engaged in some form of interpretive dance — ”but the energy is great.”
Standing in the middle of the crowd was a group of three white women who had all gone on strike from their jobs at Metric Collective, a tech company, to protest the lack of equal pay and women at their workplace (only five out of 20 staff are women, and there are no women in top positions, one told me). “We’ve all kind of been loud and obnoxious about it for years. This was a really important break from just sitting in the office and complaining about it,” said Anna Flowers. “It’s nice to see that there’s not just five women who would like to be taken seriously.”
Before I could ask her about solidarity, about intersectionality, she continued: “We’ve all been kind of worried that as the five women we have in the company, we’re all white and relatively privileged, and we all felt pretty comfortable striking. We have to push ourselves to remember that that’s not the case for everybody, and that, these movements start on the backs of the women who can’t strike, and it’s on us to be here even when they can’t be here.”
It’s difficult to gauge how many women participated in yesterday’s action, but it’s clear that many chose not to strike for all of the reasons that continue to make a women’s movement feel so necessary: the inability to lose a day’s pay, fear of repercussion from their employers, the need to care for their families.
While some may point to these choices as proof of the failure of the strike, in my mind they represent an important, albeit imperfect, advance. That more of us are having this conversation at all — about women’s labor in the workplace and at home, about our differing levels of access to power and wealth, about how we can show up for those of us whose lives are more precarious than our own — speaks to the success of women of color, immigrant women, queer women, and working-class women in forcing the feminist movement to continue broadening its tent. As the march began streaming from the park and into the streets, and joyous chants filled the air, it began to feel, however foolish, that a feminism for the 99% may, in fact, be possible.