Gathering several tens of thousands of women every year, the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres (National Women’s Meeting) is a crucial event for many in Argentina. Analía Cid tells us more (with words and photos) about this annual gathering, its important political successes, but also its internal challenges.
Since 2015, year of the first #niunamenos (“Not one [woman] less”) uprising, Argentinian women’s movement has been globally looked upon as an example of commitment to women’s rights and lives. With mass urban demonstrations, such as the last International Women’s Strike on March 8, 2018, or those demanding the legalization of abortion on June 13 and August 8 in the same year, images of women’s struggle quickly become viral. Why Argentina? By January 31 in 2019, a total of 32 (cis and trans) women have been killed in the country since the beginning of the year. Additionally, 2,679 femicides were committed in the country between 2008 and 2017 (La Casa del Encuentro, 2017). The amount of violence directed at women of all ages manifests in many forms, yet the consequences of so many deaths speak to structural injustice embedded in a society. Although it is clear that women are at risk, the actions taken by feminist collectives have remained hidden until recently, and so come as a surprise to the general public. This text focuses on a landmark event in Argentinian women’s movement which in many ways relates to its actual integrity and power: the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres (National Women’s Meeting – ENM).
Since 1986, the Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres is an event that gathers tens of thousands of women from all over the country once a year, in revolving cities. With a growing number of 50,000 women and non-binary identities attending yearly, the ENM has become a major event for feminists living in Argentina. The historical context of how these meetings came to be is broadly recognized first in the United Nation World Conference on Women which took place in Nairobi, Kenya in 1985, despite the many Latin American and Caribbean Feminist “Encuentros” that were organized in different Latin American cities since 1981 (Alma and Lorenzo, Mujeres que se encuentran, 2009). Nevertheless, the idea of women-only meetings arose earlier: it emerged during the late 1960s in the United States with links to the second wave feminist movement, giving birth to the Consciousness Raising (CR) groups. Consciousness-raising was born as a mass-organizing tool for the liberation of women at that time, in that it exposed the reality and diversity of women’s experiences and lives. As it was said in a 1975 text from the Women’s Action Alliance: “These groups should not be thought of as therapy or encounter sessions, but as forums for mutual self-discovery. In them, away from the influences of home, work or traditional social settings, we have found ourselves freer than ever to explore our roles and our lives.” Due to the weight given to women’s voices, CR groups were adopted by several movements during the 1980s and has turned into a crucial element in the consolidation of the ENM as a national event.
The ENM takes the form of a three-day meeting with more than 60 thematic workshops, cultural activities taking place in public squares, as well as a final demonstration that goes through the city and covers around 5 kilometers. Every year, a group of women and non-binary identities compose what is known as the Comisión Organizadora (organizing committee), some of them belonging to political parties or grassroot organizations, while others join as individuals and without institutional representation. The Comisión Organizadora undertakes everything needed for the event to happen: to list a few, they make the necessary agreements with local authorities, obtain permissions to use public spaces such as parks and schools, manage the online and on-site registrations, as well as organize social media announcements and publications in regional and national newspapers. The Comisión Organizadora changes every year because the meetings never happen in the same place. Indeed this decision of changing cities is of accessibility: it presents the opportunity for women from different cities to not only host the event, but also make localized struggles visible. The cities are also chosen in recognition of the political and social issues that have been important for the country in the former year. Every woman who decides to attend the ENM has to make an economic and personal effort to travel, bearing in mind that many of those women come from poor contexts and sometimes have to confront their partners and families to be able to go. Those women are usually not left alone: many activities (such as festivals, fairs, lottery draws) are made during the year by political organizations and feminist groups in order to assist with funding for travel costs.
In 2018, the ENM took place in Trelew, a small city located in the region of Patagonia, 1,400 km away from the City of Buenos Aires. With a population of 100,000 people, Trelew is the city with the highest unemployment rate in Argentina. It was chosen to host the meeting due to escalating violence of the Argentinian state against indigenous peoples, especially against Mapuche communities. Over three days (October 13-15) more than 50,000 women and non-binary people arrived in the city. The photographs that accompany this text focus particularly on the spatial dimension of the meeting. With their bodies flowing across the city, the participants suspended everyday uses of many urban spaces, their presence recreating and proposing another city. Classrooms became bedrooms, schools were turned into spaces of workshops and discussion, and squares were filled with exchanges and cultural events. The final demonstration, through the energetic and colorful movement it embodied, consolidated the feeling of a “feminist invasion.” This feeling was reinforced by the presence of a large group of indigenous women belonging to the Movimiento de Mujeres Indígenas por el Buen Vivir (Movement of Indigenous Women for Good Living) who had expressed their disagreement with the traditional structure of the ENM. Even though these women acknowledge the importance of the meetings for the feminist movement, they considered it a time for change: with the support of a considerable number of participants, they asked the name of the meeting to be changed from “National” to “Plurinational.” This name change aims to recognize the 36 Indigenous nations inhabiting Argentinian territory and ultimately led to the presence of a live translator for non-Spanish-speaking women in every workshop. Their proposal can be seen as a way to combat the invisibility imposed upon these women by the Argentinian State since its foundation — especially in the southern provinces — something that the feminist movement has not been able to fully recognize so far. As these women wrote in a statement published in social media: “Assuming that Argentina is white, Spanish-speaking and metropolitan, perpetuates denial as a policy of extermination.” The 2019 Comisión Organizadora has not yet made a public statement about whether or not they accept this proposal; something that speaks to the slowness and resistance of challenging power dynamics within internal and established orders, even the ones proposed by feminists.
As Christine Hudson and Malin Rönnblom argue in one of their essays, the city can be recognized as a gendered space. If we consider that Trelew was originally designed (as most of the towns and cities located in the provinces) by the former colonial authorities to reproduce capitalist and patriarchal orders, the subversion of urban structures provoked by the ENM makes us feel that the “feminist utopia” of a woman-made city has become real. In turn, the invisible becomes visible, alive; the “forgotten” can shout aloud: “we exist, therefore we resist.” To recognize and celebrate this act of collective re-appropriation can be a step towards what the urban historian and architect Dolores Hayden once expressed as a solution to the physical, social and economic constraints that dwellings, neighborhoods and cities exert on women: to develop a new paradigm in which the design of human settlements would support the activities of women and their families (“What Would a Non-Sexist City Be Like?,” in Signs vo. 5 no 3, 1980). That would not be thinkable without experiences like that of the ENM, which functions as an example of what can be achieved if oppressive orders are challenged.
The accumulated experiences from 33 years of Encuentros Nacionales de Mujeres is a fundamental aspect for the widely admired feminist movement in Argentina. Remembering that it is in spite of the violence to which they are subjected every day, women and non-binary identities are still prepared to defy everything, even their own expectations and beliefs. It is undeniable: our revolution is no longer silent. ■