Women and revolution

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International Women's Day, 8 March, was established by socialists to celebrate the struggles of working class women. We look at how the fight for women's liberation and revolution has gone hand in hand with three great revolutions - in Russia in 1917, Spain in 1936-37 and Egypt today


Egypt 2011-2012

Socialist Review spoke to Dalia Mostafa about the role of women in the revolution in Egypt today

Before the revolution many women were poor and illiterate like many Egyptian men. In the last generation huge numbers of women have entered the workforce and they now make up a quarter of all workers. Alongside this the proportion of women who are heads of their households has also increased. Much of this is because of the migration of men from rural areas towards the cities. There are many cases where it is much easier for women to find work than men because they will accept lower wages.

Since the outbreak of the revolution women have taken leading roles in struggles in workplaces and in street protests. Women have always been organising, but the revolution has made them far more visible. It is as if women have found the space to express themselves in a way that they didn't have before.

On lots of the demonstrations we see women who have never been on protests before. Young women in particular broke with convention and defied their families by going out on the streets. Women account for 49 percent of students in university and students made up an important part of the protesters.

There is a long tradition of feminism in Egypt that began in the 19th century. The women's movement was always at its most militant when the struggle for national liberation was strongest. The fights against colonialism and the monarchy always went hand in hand with the fight for women's liberation. But this is not feminism in the stereotypical "Western" sense. Many Islamist women have been at the forefront of the struggle too. The Western media has often perpetuated myths about Arab women being submissive because they wear the veil or are not educated, but not being educated isn't a result of being a woman - it's a result of being poor!

The occupation of Tahrir Square had a lot to do with the new sense of freedom that women have. Before the revolution Tahrir Square had become a symbol of sexual harassment. In the previous ten years the streets of Cairo had become impossible for women to walk along without harassment. And then during the revolution there was a pivotal moment when we succeeded in expelling the pro-Mubarak thugs from the square. Women led the popular committees that kept Mubarak's forces outside the square. Consequently men and women, Muslim and non-Muslim, veiled and non-veiled, began to stay together in the square overnight. Women brought their children to stay too. For the first time we were not ashamed of our bodies. For the first time there was no sexual harassment in Tahrir Square.

But central to all of this was the idea that it was the revolution that would bring us true liberation. When we were chanting "the people want to bring down the regime" we also meant the overthrow of the values that oppress women.

The forces of the counter-revolutionary forces have tried to use misogyny to undermine the role of women. During the revolution the ministry of the interior sent the central security forces (thugs in civilian clothes) specifically to sexually harass women and to try to drive women away from the protests. Now the old Mubarak camp and the more conservative forces say that women have played their role in the revolution and should just go home. Women are an easier target in society, much like the attacks on Coptic Christians. It is easier for the counter-revolutionary forces to attack women than men - just as it is easier for them to attack Copts than Muslims.

But since the setting up of the new independent trade unions women have had a leading role nationally. They have fought alongside men for better wages and conditions. One of the leaders in the new independent union of doctors and nurses that has led strikes is a Coptic woman.

As a result of the revolution certain concrete demands have been raised.

Women are fighting for full divorce, custody and family rights. There are demands for more women in parliament and for more participation in public and political life in general. Women make up half of the population and yet have only gained eight out of 508 seats in the parliament. There is clearly a long way to go and it will not happen overnight. But the revolution has made us realise that it is through collective action and struggle, rather than just through ideas, that attitudes change. The revolution has brought this potential to the fore and socialists have to grasp it.


Russia 1917

International Women's Day (originally International Working Women's Day) was first proposed by the German socialist Clara Zetkin in 1910. Seven years later the protest on International Women's Day in Russia marked the start of the February Revolution. Arguments about women arose sharply after the first Russian Revolution in 1905. Looking back Alexandra Kollontai wrote, "In 1905 there was no corner in which, in one way or another, the voice of a woman speaking about herself and demanding new rights was not heard."

Middle class women and the intelligentsia attempted to organise through the Women's Equal Rights Union which grew rapidly. They campaigned for legal rights such as the right to vote, but didn't set their sights much higher. Many of the women maintained maids and servants and were not interested in raising the rights of working women.

When working women called on the Union to demand the minimum wage, those leading the group said they were "disappointed" and withdrew from organising women workers. They feared being forced to increase their maids' pay. The most militant the Union ever became was in the height of the 1905 Revolution and by the start of 1906 it had reached 8,000 members.

In contrast the Bolsheviks fought for equal pay, for universal suffrage and for full rights for women. Kollontai, a Bolshevik, was fervently against an alliance between socialist and liberal women. Their interests were opposed, and on occasions when they did unite, middle class women would always dominate working women she insisted. Some Russian feminists actively opposed strikes. One, Dr Maria Ivanovna Pokrovskaia, said "Who bears the chief burden of the strike? The wife and mother!"

As Russian society polarised, any form of alliance between rich and poor women became harder. In the lead up to 1917 women's confidence had begun to grow through their rising industrial power. Several key strikes in factories where the majority of workers were women fought for wage increases and paid maternity leave. Unlike in Britain or Germany, the doors of the unions were wide open to women from the beginning in Russia.

By 1917 women made up half of the labour force. On International Women's Day in 1917 women textile workers and others came out on strike. Strikers sent elected delegations around other factories to bring them out and rally support. On the protests, women argued with soldiers and convinced some to disobey orders and join the demonstrations. The February Revolution had begun.

In the following months some factories introduced minimum wages, five roubles for men and three for women. Deep seated prejudices, although eroded, still remained. It was only after the October Revolution that there was a serious attempt to address this. After October new laws established equal pay for equal work.

The October Revolution led to the biggest milestone in women's liberation: granting the full right to vote, equal pay and paid maternity leave. The traditional family was transformed. Marriage became a civil relationship, the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children was eliminated and abortion was entirely legalised. The state took over "women's work" which had enslaved them in the home, setting up communal laundries, nurseries and communal dining rooms.

Nonetheless, the lack of political confidence among women was reflected in the way women still voted men into the soviets rather than women. To combat this Lenin argued for greater political work among women. Women had to be brought into the workings of the Communist Party.

Inessa Armand, a leading female Bolshevik, argued that "if the emancipation of women is unthinkable without communism, then communism is unthinkable without the full emancipation of women". Several conferences for women were held by bringing together delegates from trade unions, workshops and factories. The first in November 1917 brought together 500 delegates representing 80,000 women factory workers.

In 1919 the Zhenotdel (Women's Section of the Party) was created. It was attached to every layer of party organisation to increase female party membership. Women were elected to the organisational body, developed communal institutions such as dining halls, hospitals and schools, and served as judges. The Zhenotdel campaigned to encourage women to take part in the Civil War by providing medical aid, communications and working in the political departments of the Red Army. Critically it aimed to spread literacy, not just to learn reading and writing but to spread cultural, political and general education.

However, the onslaught of the Civil War left the Russian working class in tatters as the country faced unparalleled economic collapse. The gains women had made were eroded. The failure of revolution to spread elsewhere, above all in Germany, left the Russian Revolution isolated by the mid-1920s. This paved the way for Stalin's counter-revolution and the re-establishment of class rule, even if was the state that now acted as the capitalist, driving exploitation forward. Along with this, the old family structures were reintroduced and women were forced into often back-breaking work and domestic servitude.

The experience of the Russian Revolution, both in the victory and defeat, demonstrates more than anything that the struggle for socialism is central to women's liberation. As Krupskaia, Lenin's wife and a leading Bolshevik, explained, "that which unites the working woman with the working man is much stronger than that which divides them."

Regi Pilling


Spain 1936-37

One of the most striking images of the Spanish Civil War is that of the Communist party leader, Dolores Ibárurri, known as "La Pasionaria" with her fist in the air, proclaiming "No Pasarán!" during the siege of Madrid by Franco's fascist forces in 1936. But the role that women played in the Civil War, and the revolution it triggered, goes far beyond iconography.

Women held few political or social rights in Spain in the early 1930s, with little provision for women's education and the denial of women's right to vote. A powerful Catholic church ensured that in all areas of life women were sidelined as solely wives or mothers, and were controlled by their fathers, husbands or priests. The Spanish Constitution of 1931 brought in by the newly elected Republican government represented a fundamental shift. It introduced universal suffrage and the right to divorce, as well as beginning to unravel links between the church and the state. But the introduction of these radical reforms precipitated a huge backlash by right wing forces and a period of unrest. This culminated in the fascist coup of 1936. But workers refused to submit and rose not just to defend the Republic in a civil war against Franco but to launch a revolutionary assault on the old order.

In Catalonia, where support for the Republic was strongest, industry was increasingly collectivised, with workers taking control of their workplaces and city-wide collectives of various industries springing up to organise and coordinate production. This transformation was reflected in other areas of everyday life. Women made gains with the legalisation of abortion and the availability of birth control and they played an increasingly equal role to men on neighbourhood committees. The revolution saw the position of women in society advance beyond that of any other country in the world at the time.

Female combatants in militias, the "milicianas", played an important and highly visible role as part of the Republican forces during the first eight months of the war. This was not necessarily due to a deliberate attempt to include them in warfare, but rather because of a desperate need to defend the Republic. The spontaneity and urgency that were bound up with the revolution meant the whole working class was thrown into the war. Attitudes towards women fighting at the front differed depending on which faction had control in a particular area, with the CNT's Mujeres Libres being most active in defending women's right to fight.

Milicianas on the front line were, with few exceptions, integrated into the Republican fighting force and often participated in combat equally with their male counterparts. One miliciana, Conca Perez Collado, notes that "exactly what the men did, well that's what we women did...we went into the attack equally with the men."

Soon, however, Republican women were subject to a propaganda campaign under the slogan of "Men to the front, women to the home front", and were prevented from wearing uniforms and participating in fighting.

This process was bound up with a wider counter-revolutionary shift within the Republican side, as bourgeois supporters of the republic sought to first contain and then dismantle the revolution. A key role was played by the Communist Party which advocated a popular front strategy, arguing that war had to be won before there could be any thought of socialism. Along with workers' control of industry, the emancipation of women was now also postponed. Women had played a central role in the fighting but gradually female militants were forced back into traditionally feminine roles.

The defeat of the Republic in 1939 meant the complete withdrawal of the social and political gains won for Spanish men and women. Along with the abolition of democracy and banning of independent trade unions, all Republican legislation relating to women and the family was abolished under Franco's fascist state and replaced with a return to the "1889 Civil Code". Divorce, abortion and contraception again became illegal. In line with Franco's policy of "National Catholicism", birth rewards were introduced to promote women's role as mothers. Women were legally barred from certain jobs, in the judiciary or in the diplomatic service for example. Married women were restricted from any kind of economic activity without their husband's permission, including buying property.

The memory of the Spanish Civil War is an important and relevant reference point for our anti-fascist work today. But the memory of the revolution itself is often lost and so too are the gains won by women. The period of the Second Republic from 1931 to 1936 transformed the lives of women, but it was only during the revolution that women were thrust forward and played a role on an equal footing to men.

Their militancy, comradeship and support were central to the Republican effort and their efforts deserve to be remembered.

Siobhan Brown