The vigils held in memory of Sarah Everard over the past week have sparked important conversations around women’s safety, and the issues surrounding gender equality – or lack thereof – in society. The protests could spark a turning point in protecting women and pushing towards making the public space safe for everyone, marking a potentially crucial point of change.
But women fighting for their right to occupy a safe, equal space in society has been happening throughout recent history, and it’s important that we keep in mind the protests of the past that have paved the way for the fights of today. Here are 10 influential protests spearheaded by women that you might not know much about, but which changed their society for the better.
Keen to learn more about a specific protest? Click to head straight there:
- 1903 and 1920: UK and US Suffragette Movement
- 1929: Nigeria’s Aba Women’s Riots
- 1960: Dominican Republic’s The Butterflies
- 1975: Take Back The Night
- 2003: India’s Gulabi Gang
- 2004: Liberia’s sex strike
- June 2011: Saudi Arabia’s right-to-drive
- June 2015: Argentina’s #NiUnaMenos
- 2015: Brazil’s Association of Female Indigenous Warriors from Rondônia
- 2019: India’s “women’s wall”
1903 and 1920: UK and US Suffragette Movement
Okay, so you’ve definitely heard of these. However, as monumental as Emmeline Pankhurst’s Suffragette movement and the US’s 19th Amendment were in the push towards gender equality, it’s important to note that there are many women missing from the narrative.
Women of colour and prominent Suffragettes like Sophia Duleep Singh and Sarah Remond are often left out of the mainstream story of UK suffrage, and it wasn’t until 1928 that young and working class women were given the vote. Over in the US, some experts argue that Black women were purposefully excluded from the 19th Amendment to appeal to the white Southern women whose support was so crucial for its success – African-American women continued on a suffrage movement (linked heavily to the Abolitionist fight) into the 60s, to remove the many obstacles that still dissuaded women of colour from voting.
1929: Nigeria’s Aba Women’s Riots
Protests broke out in colonial Nigeria when Warrant Chiefs were accused of restricting the role of women within government. Women from six ethnic groups then mobilised to organise the Aba Women’s Riots, communicating their plans for a strategic revolt to highlight their grievances by sending palm leaves across the country.
Their protest manifested in publicly shaming the govt officials through singing, dancing, banging on their walls and even tearing down roofs, which eventually led to successfully making the chiefs resign and the unfair tax impositions against women to be dropped.
1960: Dominican Republic’s The Butterflies
The Mirabal sisters – Minerva, María Teresa, and Patria – also known as Las Mariposas (the butterflies) created a protest group to oppose the dictatorship of Rafael Trujillo in the Dominican Republic. On November 25, they were assassinated, and their deaths sparked a huge public outcry against the regime.
The opposition successfully overthrew the dictatorship within a year, and the day of their murders is now marked as International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women in their memory.
1975: Take Back The Night
The 70s bore the first Take Back the Night marches, after an uptick in violence crimes against women. Women in Philadelphia took to the streets after nightfall with candles in 1975, and protesters in Brussels did the same a year later. The grassroots movements took off with more cities organising demonstrations to take a stand against gender violence, and in 2001 Take Back The Night became an official organisation.
The marches combine vigils for those affected by gender violence with protests calling for an end to the streets being unsafe for women, and are now held annually around the world.
2003: India’s Gulabi Gang
When a handful of women heard about a neighbour abusing his wife in the poor Banda District of Uttar Pradesh state in India, they took matters (and bamboo sticks) into their own hands. They intervened and forced the man to put a stop to his abuse – and their small protest to protect another woman snowballed into a statewide movement.
Now, tens of thousands of women in the state tackle injustices against women and have inspired others across the country to join in – and they do it all while wearing a lovely shade of pink.
2004: Liberia’s sex strike
With a mission to oppose the civil war ravaging through Liberia, women across the country took part in a movement led by activist Leymah Gbowee to pressure the men in their lives (who held the influencing power) to take part in peace talks. They went on a sex strike and sat in on peace negotiations, threatening to shame the male delegates by undressing if they tried to leave without reaching a resolution.
Their movement led to the end of a 14-year civil war, and the election of Africa’s first woman head of state Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.
June 2011: Saudi Arabia’s right-to-drive
It wasn’t until June of 2018 that women in Saudi Arabia could get a driving license allowing them to hit the roads, making them the last country to grant the right. But the push to make that happen dates way back to 1990, where a group of 47 women jumped into the driving seat and organised a convoy. They were stopped by traffic police, taken into custody and only released when a man came in to sign an agreement that they wouldn’t try to drive again.
Fast forward to 2011, and a second ongoing protest was organised with more women taking part. Their refusal to give up eventually led to an order issued by King Salman in September 2017. finally granting women the right to drive.
June 2015: Argentina’s #NiUnaMenos
Women took to the streets in protest following the murder of 14-year-old Chiara Páez, who was pregnant and killed by her boyfriend. They used the slogan #NiUnaMenos, meaning “not one less” which called for an end to women losing their lives to gender violence. In October 2016, 16-year-old Lucía Pérez lost her life in a harrowing attack, sparking tens of thousands of people to gather in a second protest against femicide.
Two days after the protests, the govt announced the formation of a registry of femicides. Activists have continued to pressure them to make more changes to protect women and have been successful in some cases, like the creation of a law that requires all govt workers to undergo gender sensitivity training. However, their work is far from over: the country saw gender violence reach a 10 year high in 2020 under pandemic lockdowns, with more than 50 femicides recorded in less than two months.
2015: Brazil’s Association of Female Indigenous Warriors from Rondônia
The Association of Female Indigenous Warriors from Rondônia (AGIR) was formed in response to the lack of female representation in decision-making processes within the indigenous community of Brazil. Made up of around 15,000 people across 50 ethnic groups, the decisions of the community were made mostly by men, so through demonstrations the AGIR hoped to combat the low participation and fight for their voices to be heard.
They now have over 500 members, and regularly hold meetings for women to have their say on the decisions that will affect them within the community.
2019: India’s “women’s wall”
Millions of women stood side by side on Kerala’s National Highway 66 to create a ‘wall’ of women stretching for around 385 miles. They planned the demonstration – which somewhere between 3.5 million and 5 million women took part in – to protest against gender inequality. It was also organised to specifically call out a religious ban that prevented women of menstruating age from entering one of the country’s sacred Hindu temples, as those who tried to enter were threatened with violence from men inside.
Right-wing groups responded to the protest by organising a strike, where mobs took to the streets in violence and one person was killed – but amid the counter protests, three women successfully entered the sacred shrine under police protection, generating hope that gradual social change could still come.