Deeper herstory of WiB Leuven
(and a bit about the Flemish part of Belgium)
by Lieve Snellings
The women's peace movement started in Leuven around the beginning of the 1980s, inspired by the Women's Pentagon Action where women were protesting in a new language in which protests went hand-in-hand with art, ideas and emotions.… We learned and showed that, after mourning deaths and violation, our energy could grow into resistance, standing up; we found other ways to do actions so that grief and anger could find ways to express themselves constructively.…
We formed an anti-militarist women's group in Leuven, most of us lesbians, and besides doing actions and going to demonstrations, we discussed the links between domestic violence, homophobia, racism and war...
Most of us also went to Greenham Common, the women’s peace camp in the UK. Identifying yourself as a Greenham Common Woman was saying you were a non-violent feminist peace activist and you made all these links. Peace is possible only when everybody has basic human rights, when there is no racism, homophobia, abuse or rape of children and women.... War is an extreme extension of violence against children, women, people who are “different”....
The Danish Peace Academy has written an article on the history of the Women's Peace Camp at Greenham Common in England, including a reconstruction of one of the rare songbooks the women made in 1987[?]
In 1983 a woman worker of the Women’s Refugee House was raped and another threatened. This was the beginning in Leuven of Women against Rape.
We made a petition against rape and proposed some concrete things the City Council could do. Then we did a women’s action. (We asked the men who wanted to join us, to do their own action against rape.) With five or six drums in the beginning of the procession, all dressed in black, in silence, we went to the City Hall where the City Council held their meetings. We sat in the public room, dressed in black and in silence. Our plan was to give the petition to the mayor and then leave. I read out the “mourning letter” and our demands and then we went out one by one, in an orderly and disciplined manner. While we were going down the stairs, the policemen came running up the stairs for us. They were not used to this sort of action. Then we went in procession, again in silence except for the sound of the drums, with a coffin to the “Fiere Margriet” to bury her. De Fiere Margriet is a statue in honor of a “proud” servant girl in the 13th century who was raped and killed. The legend says that her body rose up out of the river, surrounded by a bright light. The townspeople built a chapel and she did miracles in favor of unhappy people. Anyway, the statue looks more like a woman who enjoys being raped, and drunken students had organized mass rapes on the statue -- that’s why we wanted to bury it....
In 1983 at the Flemish Women's Day: Novemer 11th, which is also the date we celebrate the end of the Great War, we did an action at the military rememberance celebration in Hasselt. That day we started also a new group: AMKK (anti militaristische koffie klatsh - anti militarist coffee clatch.
Our banner said: "every 3
seconds a child dies of hunger, every 3 seconds 3 million BF are spent by weapons".
This group became later Women Against Militarism" and took active part of many non violent actions as the embracing of the military basic in Florennes on April 29, 1984. And when one of us, together with 17 others were arrested while they did non violent direct actions and were held in jaril for one month, we organized support manifestations near the prison.
In 1985 the nuclear missiles were scheduled to be installed in Florennes, a little village in the French part of Belgium. Together with other peace groups, we bought an house just opposite the police station and renovated it so we could use it as action base (women rebuilt the attic, put in a new floor turned it into a sleeping room) and from there we did lots of actions against the missiles and militarism….
In 1985 the pope (John Paul II) scheduled a trip to Belgium. With the Women’s House we planned a demonstration in Leuven.
We were only 32 women. Remembering the big power and the new feminist actions full of creativity of the Women Pentagon Action and the Greenham Common women, we used our voices, but spoke no words. It was very impressive and empowering, especially for ourselves, and I think everybody in the city who passed by noticed us that day. (They don’t pay attention to other demonstrations anymore.) My friend carried a poster saying “liever lesbisch dan paus” (I much more love to be a lesbian than being pope), the police told her this was insulting a Head of a Friendly State. When she crossed out the words “als paus,” then it was okay....
Several months before the pope's visit, three friends were arrested because they were suspected of writing the grafitti “zij komt” (she comes) on several places in town. Immediately we organized “Vrouwensolidariteit” (women's solidarity), a new group to get them freed and to change the laws about detention before trial. Every day we had a silent vigil at the courthouse; in one month we organized three big demonstrations in Leuven with international delegations. We were a group of 30-40 women, some of us very political, some very spiritual. Our different approaches weren’t always easy, but we succeeded in cooperating with and enriching each other. After that month, our friends were set free and the laws changed....
In the early 1990s, when the U.S. was bombing Iraq, Belgian Women for Peace and Women against Militarism made a first platform of Women Against War. We organized demonstrations, some of us went to the international Women’s Peace Conference in Tunis, and we went to the prime minister with a report telling what we had heard, wanting the Belgian government to pressure the U.S. government to stop the bombing.
When the first war in what was then Yugoslavia started, this Belgian Platform of Women against Militarism, Women for Peace groups and individual women was organized as “Vrouwen Aktie Kollectief” (Women Action Collective) or VAK. One of our members was in the first convoy to reach Tuzla in Bosnia, they took about three months to do this. She made connections with the Women's Association of Tuzla and then we joined a new convoy to Tuzla to bring a truck full of stuff for women which the Women's Association of Tuzla had requested. I was in that convoy and made a photo and text report of this trip to Tuzla.
We had also heard about Women in Black in Belgrade: Every week they stood for an hour in the street of Belgrade, saying this ethnic cleansing had to stop. As VAK we wanted to support these women too. Ria Convents went different times to Belgrade, and she also went to the conference of Women in Black every year. Leen Vandamme, another VAK member, went a couple of times. And so women of the VAK started to feel ourselves as Women in Black and we started to organize vigils and demonstrations as Women in Black.
There were also some French-speaking women of Brussels at the conferences of Women in Black and we started to go to each others' demonstrations.
In 1994 some women of Leuven decided to start a weekly vigil of Vrouwen in het Zwart (Women in Black) in Leuven. So every Wednesday between noon and 1:00 pm, Ria, Mieke, Chris, Carla and women who could only come occasionally (myself among them) held a silent vigil, dressed in black and in silence. This went on from the March 2, 1994, till the Dayton agreements were signed in 1995 and then for a couple of months in 1999. The banners were "in solidarity with the women in Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia." Later another was made "in anger and sorrow - against injustice and violence."
Not only in Leuven, but also in Gent, Antwerp, Brussels, Brugge, Ieper en Herentals, and Overjise, vigils of Women in Black stood during the wars in the Former Yugoslavia.
In Tuzla I met Christiana Lambrinidis; she was there with a Greek women's delegation and conducted workshops doing creative writing in a refugee camp in Tuzla. "Go and tell our stories," the women had urged her afterwards. Later we talked about this and the VAK decided to invite Christiana to write a theatre play about it. Christiana wanted to enrich the Tuzla testimonies with autobiographical descriptions of refugees-in-exile. Five refugee women from Sarajevo and Mostar who lived around Antwerp wanted to do this, and started a theatre project with Christiana Lambrinidis. The performance would start from their own experience and be enriched with the Tuzla testimonies. In that sense the refugee experience was enlarged to include issues of racism, difference, homophobia etc. For this reason we were happy that a lesbian who was out was there to "perform" the Tuzla testimonies. "A more humane world for refugees is a more humane world for inhabitants, because we all are inhabitants and we all are, and women are, displaced from inner selves," Christiana Lambrinidis said.
I photographed the workshops, rehearsals and performance of "Women of Tuzla, Sarajevo and Mostar: a mythography of courage." I witnessed these women were bringing their own story and how they more and more inhabited their own stories and came in contact with their own strength, a strength they always had and now recognized. It was touching to see how these refugee women could come close to each other, support, comfort and feel well with each other without losing themselves. Acceptance of differences in themselves, of others… it seems so important. I am so lucky I have witnessed such a Mutual Empowerment!
The play was performed in 1996 in the Bourla Schouwburg in Antwerp (Belgium), and in Athens (Greece).
In the spring of 1996 Lepa Mladjenovic was guest speaker at the Lesbian Day event in Belgium. She said: "During war so many lesbians and gays came with solidarity convoys to Former Yugoslavia, but no one was out. We couldn't do this, but it would have been so important for us" I was one of these lesbians who went there and didn't said "I'm a lesbian" even when a woman asked me why I wasn't married. I had nothing to lose. Was I afraid they wouldn't like me anymore if they knew?… Lepa's words were very confronting; I understood very clearly how important it was to be out, especially in war zones and when you are supporting in peace movements.
http://www.lolapress.org/artenglish/mlade3.htm and http://www.womenngo.org.yu/Labris/sajt/english/site/lesbian_stories/lesbian_stories_index.htm
In 1999 when the next war in the Former Yugoslavia started, Women in Black Leuven resumed weekly vigils in Leuven till the agreements of June 6th and the end of the war. We also participated in national demonstrations against war.
In honour of Women in Black in the Former Yugoslavia, we were asked to open the national peace demonstrations in 1999.
Hours before the U.S. and UK started bombing Afganistan, we were again in the streets in solidarity with victims worldwide, demand that the cycle of violence be broken and calling for peace and justice and not revenge....
Together with Artsen voor Vrede (Doctors for Peace), Voor Moeder Aarde (in benefit of Mother Earth), Vrede (Peace) and Moeders voor Vrede (Mothers for Peace) we wrote a statement .In Solidarity with the worldwide victims of violence (October 2001)
And at the national demonstration against a new war with Iraq in Brussels (November 17), a representative of WiB Leuven gave a speech on behalf of the Belgian Peace Movement.
We worked further on our network for information and calls for actions and did vigils in cooperation with Femmes en Noir Bruxelles and members of the feminist movement. We took care the text were in Dutch, French and English.
With all this violence in Palestine and Israel, we feel compelled to show our solidarity with Palestinians and Israelis who call for a Just Peace. We condemn the suicide bombings, but the first thing that has to happen is that the Israelis stop their occupation now. Women in Black and the Women's Coalition for a Just Peace (Palestine and Israeli women together; now called Coalition of Women for Peace) called for a world-wide action on December 28, 2001, to support them. Together with Femmes en Noir (French-speaking Women in Black of Brussels) , we organised a vigil in Brussels and called for it in Dutch, French and English.
We participate as Women in Black in various peace actions and when there is an international call for Women in Black to do worldwide actions, we join as often as we can. So, on International Women's Day on March 8, 2002, we organised another vigil of Women in Black in Brussels. We did this together with activists from the feminist movement and Femmes en Noir Bruxelles.
We also participated when the Women's Coalition for a Just Peace sent out another call for actions worldwide for June 2, 2002. It was then the sad 35th anniversary of the occupation of Palestine by the Israeli government and army. That day also started the campaign to boycot Israeli agricultural products in Belgium. It was organised by the Belgian ActionPlatform Palestina, a co-operation between different peace, north-south and women's groups, unions, and NGOs... Different Women in Black members took part in this action in 23 cities across the Flemish part of Belgium.
On November 11, 2002, the Belgian Women's Day was organised in Leuven. The theme was "violence and violence against women." This was the begin of our new start of Women in Black Leuven, and since November 13, 2002, we have been back in the streets again, every Wednesday from 12:30 to 1:00 p.m., at the entrance of the City Hall in Leuven.
2002, finished June 2005
Profile on WiB Belgium by Cynthia Cockburn
for our herstory from here on : go back to herstory