Saturday, January 21, 2017

Women’s March & the Social Movement of Change

Artwork by Amy Scheidegger,
By Ameena Mohyuddin Zia

"Our liberation is bound in each other's..."-Women's March Intersectional Policy Platform
Women’s March on Washington is expected to be the largest gathering of people collectively standing in solidarity for civil rights in the history of United States. The nature of the March in itself is unique as it has morphed from being pro-woman and or anti-Trump into a catch-all protest to include all who find themselves either on the outside of the current political environment or those who have historically been institutionally marginalized.

Organic and grassroots in nature, it has taken on a life of its own as over 57 countries have joined in issues in a non-partisan and non-political nature. Rooted in the backdrop of a global populist wave of hate, it responds to perceived xenophobia, racism, misogyny and homophobia.

Women’s March on Washington, unlike other marches in the recent past, claims it is grounded in intersectionality and deviates from the path of white-feminism. It’s diversity statement recognizes the collective identity of the march to include those disenfranchised from the decision-making process: Asian and Pacific Islanders, Trans Women, Native Americans, African Americans, disabled individuals. It further requests white participants to recognize their own privilege and to acknowledge the struggles of others.  The three-page policy statement calls for reproductive freedom, immigration reform, police accountability, union rights, economic justice, and reaffirms Hillary Clinton’s 1995 message in Beijing that women’s rights are human rights.

As participation has amplified in the last few weeks and large numbers of sister marches are announced around the country, social scientists find this phenomenon vague and the collective construction of identity rather fascinating. The question on everyone’s mind asks, will the March turn into a social movement of change?

Social movements in general are purposeful, organized groups with a common goal that may create change, resist change, or provide a political voice to those otherwise disenfranchised. As history reminds us, it is indeed social movements that create social change.

According to scholars, social movements include elements of change-oriented goals, organization, temporal continuity, extra-institutional collective action (like a March for example) and institutional activity. All social movements follow stages towards development or failure. We witnessed the preliminary stage as people became aware and or recognized issues that needed to be heard (following the 2016 presidential election) and leaders like activists Carmen Perez, Linda Sarsour and Tamika Mallory emerged. The second stage, the coalescence stage, is marked as people band together and organize to publicize the issue and raise awareness with public demonstration of the March in Washington & it’s sister protests. The Woman’s March on Washington stands at this juncture of the movement cycle. Onwards whether the movement reaches an institutionalization stage when it no longer requires grassroots volunteerism and maintains itself as an established organization is to be determined. Likewise, whether it moves towards the decline stage where people fall away, adopt new movements or the movement dissolves itself after successfully bringing change is to be determined as well.

Historically, social movements have been treated as variants of collective mobilization and action. Those excluded from structures of political bargaining have no choice but to turn to collective organizing and mobilizing to gain access and translate it into influence in the context of political decision-making. In order to understand collective action, it is necessary to examine the dynamics of collective identity. Collective identity is fluid in nature as the understanding of the goals and actions among actors reflects the possibilities and limitations within their actions. It is these shared commitments that give rise to the sense of oneness that we witness as the March rallies the disenfranchised under an umbrella of solidarity. 

What is yet to be determined is if the emergence of this collective identity constructed by multiple groups of shared opinions will translate into action and change. Organizers hope to create a social movement with a voice of empathy, compassion, diversity and inclusion. As the historical significance of the Woman’s March on Washington evokes sentiments reflecting powerful protests in American history, it continues to raise issues of equity, justice and freedom. And the success of this movement will depend whether it can sustain momentum long after the march itself and unify our currently divisive society.

Ameena Mohyuddin Zia serves as the UN ECOSOC Civil Society Representative and an Adjunct Lecturer. Her PhD coursework included political economy & gender politics and her work examines social constructs through both research and visual documentation. She is also involved in domestic advocacy and international philanthropic initiatives.