By Stephanie Willman Bordat
By Stephanie Willman Bordat
On January 21, millions of people participated in the Women’s March on Washington and sister marches worldwide. According to estimates, 3.3 to 5.3 million people took part in 613 events in towns and cities across the United States, and 270,000 to 360,000 people in 261 additional events in diverse countries around the world.
Saida Kouzzi, a Moroccan women’s rights activist based in Rabat, was present at the Women’s March on Washington DC. She shares her observations from the March, and lessons learned for mobilization on women’s rights.
How would you describe the Women’s March?
It was historic, such a large number of people coming out to demonstrate support for women’s rights.
I was struck by the dynamic in the days leading up to the March, how an entire people prepared for it. Even at the airport everyone was talking enthusiastically about the March, including the customs officers.
I also noticed how everyone was involved in preparing for the March. In homes, within families, friends, neighbors and relatives worked together to make signs, posters and other props. Someone told us how she went to the store to get poster board and they had already run out of stock! Another woman showed us photos of her young daughter who drew illustrations and slogans for posters.
What happened on the day of the March?
The day of the March was magic. Despite the large numbers of people present, everyone respected each other. There was no pushing or shoving; everyone tried to make sure that everyone else had space. I was touched by this culture of respect and the realization that yes, I am here to demonstrate, but I am not the only one.
What also struck me was the significant presence of all of the signs and posters people held up. People sent the message that, “It’s not me but my poster who is present at the March.” People stood behind their posters, as if to say, it’s not my person but my point of view on the poster that’s important. That was very powerful.
Do you have any favorite slogans from the posters?
All of the slogans were extraordinary. I was struck by their diversity, by their creativity, and how they were handmade with care. Each person reflected on how to express themselves. For example, one woman had a poster with a clock ticking backwards. Instead of having 12-1-2 and so in in order, the clock face went 12-11-10-9 because she wanted to express how we don’t want to go back in time, we want to go forward.
Each person was true to him or herself. People weren’t obliged to adopt other people’s slogans. There were women’s groups that had women’s rights slogans, there were people working on LGBTI rights that had LGBTI slogans, etc. This freedom of expression prevailed and this spontaneity was reflected in the posters.
How would you describe the people who participated in the March?
You can’t even describe it except to say that everyone was there. Children, adolescents, young people, old people, women, men… There were people who came from far away, like the couple in the metro who came from Colorado, a 5-hour airplane flight away.
There were also elderly people with their canes, in their walkers, their wheelchairs, and in bicycle taxis.
I was awed to see entire families marching all together and united, grandmothers all the way down to their great-grandchildren.
Starting at the metro early in the morning everyone arrived wearing the pink caps, men as well as women. Lots of people had knitted them themselves. It was impressive to see how there was diversity yet at the same time unity with the caps. The caps symbolized solidarity and participation in the March.
Once the actual March started after the three-hour rally, what happened?
You couldn’t tell when the March officially started. At a certain moment people begin walking but there weren’t any leaders who whistled the start of the March, it was very spontaneous. It didn’t start through any leaders with big signs at the front of the line in order to be on TV. You didn’t feel like there were any owners of the March. Obviously there were organizers who worked hard and made incredible efforts, but they were discrete and integrated themselves into the March with everyone. They didn’t try to take all of the credit.
What were some of your favorite moments?
Beforehand, on the way to the March. At 6 am waves of people started coming to the metro, which was full with people with the same destination, the March. It was if the demonstrators were even taking over the metro!
With everyone wearing the pink caps, everyone was talking to each other, there were no strangers. There was a sense that everyone knew each other, that we all have something in common despite our differences.
Lots of people were amazed that we came from Morocco for the March, even though for me it was totally natural for people to come from different countries in support. The women’s cause is global.
Was there anything that surprised you?
Yes, the near lack of a police presence. I only saw four police cars and the officers were calm and relaxed. I’m not used to such an absence of police at protests. I didn’t get the sense that people felt like they had to protect themselves. There was a feeling of safety. That really surprised me, especially given the large number of people.
I was really impressed by the quality of work that went into the organization of the March. It wasn’t about managing security or preventing people from bringing non-approved slogans. Instead, the organization focused on the well-being of the participants.
For example, I observed a pre-March briefing an NGO held for their members, and I was amazed by everything they did to make the March easier for participants. What struck me was the attention to detail. Among the things they distributed were hygienic products for women in case they need them. It’s rare to see people think about such things, but it’s attention to small details that guarantee larger successes.
The NGO’s attitude wasn’t, we’re gathering everyone here to brainwash you and tell you what slogans you have to repeat. We are here to help so that the March is not a burden for you. They saw their role as providing demonstrators with things like bottles of water to take and information such as where the public restrooms were located.
At the March itself there were tents where people could rest. Groups distributed maps with the March route and phone numbers to call in case of a problem. The organization of the March took into account the needs and well-being of the people participating, rather than focusing on trying to take all of the credit or to get oneself seen.
What would you like to share with women’s groups here in Morocco about the experience?
I learned a lot of things that I want to work on with people here. If you want an activity to succeed, you need to think about how to integrate the people who will be with you, make them appropriate the activity, feel that it’s theirs and not yours. For me that’s the secret for the success of any activity, even a training workshop.
Also, how you can transmit a message so that it becomes the property of others, who can appropriate it as they want. If I dictate to people what they should say, they won’t repeat it with conviction. But if I transmit the idea and the objective, and give them the freedom to express themselves like they want, they’ll defend it better than you can imagine. I don’t need to repeat lofty slogans that people won’t understand. I need to express the idea in a clear and simple way, and that’s what I saw in the March. You have freedom of expression that begins by saying, I have the right to…
How would you describe the ambiance at the March?
People were doing something that they were happy to do. Obviously people were angry, but they weren’t sad or a victim. People were there because they felt strong and to make their voices heard. Not to beg anyone to do anything or wait for the authorities to do something. There was no sense that people were trying to get out of assuming their responsibilities. Everyone was responsible for guaranteeing women’s rights, it’s us and our force that will guarantee our rights.
It was joyous, people were smiling, were kind and warm to each other….
There was also the feeling of power, power to prevent (the new administration) from violating our human rights.