BUENOS AIRES — Victoria Zapata glides a finger topped with a glossy coat of emerald nail polish over a long, intricately woven, forest green quilt.
“We are knitting power,” she says, eyeing the two dozen women seated around her, listening attentively with spools of yarn spilling out of their laps.
Her jacket matches her nails, the quilt and the various pins and scarves tacked onto backpacks throughout the room — all the items are green, the de facto color of the country’s feminist movement.
On a bright afternoon in April, the 34-year-old activist and university student is leading a workshop inside a snug classroom in Buenos Aires’s Ex Olimpo — a cultural space that was formerly an underground detention, torture and death camp during the country’s 1976-1983 military dictatorship — explaining the origins of a feminist knitting project she co-founded just a few months prior.
In January, Zapata, her cousin Daniela and their friend María del Mar co-founded Tejiendo Feminismos (Weaving Feminisms), a weaving cooperative, to acknowledge and honor the more than 2,630 victims of femicide, or the intentional killing of women and girls, in Argentina over the past decade. Each participant weaves the name of a femicide victim onto a small green square and then sews the square onto a larger quilt. The group will unveil the quilt, which is 65 feet long and growing, at the 34th annual Convention of Women in October in La Plata, Argentina.
“We are weaving for something that connects us, that unites us, and we are weaving because we want to transform reality,” she says, then pauses before continuing. “And there is nothing more feminist than that.”
The mission extends well beyond Tejiendo. The group is just one face of a growing women’s movement in Argentina that has gained widespread influence over the past several years, seeping into everything from art to media, politics to sports. It’s a transformation that some have begun calling a revolution in the predominantly Catholic country; one that is challenging traditional gender roles, bringing women’s issues to the top of the cultural and legislative agenda and even mobilizing a mass movement in support of abortion rights.
Last year, in a turn of events that stunned the political establishment, an abortion legalization bill nearly passed Congress. That effort failed, but the group that lobbied heavily for the law, the National Campaign for the Right to Legal, Safe and Free Abortion (Campaña Nacional por el Derecho al Aborto Legal Seguro y Gratuito), has drafted a new legalization bill to be introduced in Congress on May 28, the 14-year anniversary of the founding of the campaign and five months before a general election in which abortion appears likely to come up in debates.
The changes have left a visual imprint on Buenos Aires, as well. These days, it’s hard to walk through some neighborhoods in the city without catching glimmers of green. The color crops up in activist street art and bookstores with new sections dedicated to feminist literature. Those who support the campaign to legalize abortion sport a green handkerchief — it’s common to see the green cloths knotted around wrists, bags and backpacks of scores of city residents. It’s even finding its way into the world of dance. Feminist tango nights are popping up, with all-female pairs decked out in green twisting through smoke-laced bars.
There’s also a visible countermovement. The legalization campaign has generated fierce opposition, particularly among religious groups, who have furnished a symbol of their own — a light blue handkerchief — and recently formed a political party dedicated to combating abortion.
The rapid pace of change has taken even some longtime observers of the women’s rights movement by surprise. Mariana Carbajal, an Argentine journalist who has written about gender for more than two decades, calls the changes that are unfolding in the country “historic,” with women’s issues regularly gaining a top spot in media outlets that used to ignore them.
“If you see newspapers or websites there is news about gender violence, abuse, femicide, discrimination in the economy.” Carbajal explains. “Unions are creating gender commissions. Women musicians are demanding a 30 percent quota in music festivals. Wherever you look, there are feminist demands being incorporated. It’s the political subject that has been making more changes in this moment than anything else.”
About a 30-minute drive from the Ex Olimpo, in the quiet Buenos Aires suburb of San Martin, a large, young crowd gathers inside a sun-dappled park for a rally. Friends lounge on blankets, passing around gourds filled with dried yerba mate. There are green handkerchiefs tied around dogs’ necks, green flags strung onto trees and knotted into ponytails. Green notebooks, green pins, green posters, green T-shirts with “feminist” scrawled across the front are folded neatly on vendors’ blankets on the grass. The event’s organizers, the National Campaign’s San Martin chapter, stand near a table at the front of the park, in front of a banner that is also green.
As a band finishes up its act, two campaign members walk to the front of the stage. They’re both holding the text of a new abortion legalization bill drafted by the campaign that, they explain, will soon be introduced in Congress.
It won’t be the second, third, or even fourth time the group has tried to move a legalization bill through the legislature. Since 2005, when the campaign was founded, the organization drafted six bills that were introduced in Congress but never made it out of committee. That changed last year when a record 72 legislators in Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies co-signed the bill and brought it to debate on the floor. The bill garnered the votes needed to pass the Chamber, but ultimately failed in the Senate, when 31 lawmakers voted in favor of the proposal, 38 opposed, and two abstained. It was a rapid shift after years of unsuccessful efforts to move a bill forward — and one that Carbajal, the journalist, says succeeded in “socially decriminalizing” abortion even if the law didn’t pass.
“Grandmothers talked with their granddaughters about their abortions, mothers talked with their daughters about their abortions, they talked in homes, during dinner, about what an abortion is. These discussions took place,” she says.
What changed? Although there has long been a women’s movement in Argentina, many trace the current wave of activism to a movement called Ni Una Menos. It began in 2015 as a campaign against gender violence, turning out tens of thousands of demonstrators to protest a spate of gruesome femicides. As the campaign garnered attention, protesters began calling attention to a broader array of women’s issues, including reproductive health and abortion.
The groundswell of interest in feminism generated by the movement attracted a new, often younger, media-savvy group of activists to the cause. Their efforts gained visibility on social media and in popular culture, with abortion making the rounds on daytime television and in the news, and in groups like Actrices Argentinas, a collective of well-known pro-choice actresses that teamed up with the National Campaign to rally support for legalization in Congress. When the bill finally came to a vote, it brought tens of thousands to the streets of Buenos Aires, supporters of the bill in green, and opponents in light blue. Although it ultimately didn’t pass, many activists, including Marcela García of the San Martin chapter, claimed victory from the rapid advancement of the bill and the cultural transformations the debate produced.
Fanned out across the rally at the park, volunteers with the campaign wind through the crowd, distributing print outs of the draft bill. García points to a young woman studying her copy closely.
“Sometimes people ask us how we experienced the rejection of the bill in 2018,” she says. “But we didn’t lose in any way. We gained historical visibility. I think this is an awakening in political awareness of a new sector of the population, the adolescents, who will become new voters in the next election. We see our potential in them.”
Supporters want to see the bill advance as rapidly as it did last year, but know the dynamics of electoral politics and campaigning could complicate their efforts. Passing a new law could face difficulty before, and potentially after, the October 2019 general election, which will see the election of the president and vice president, nearly half of Congress, and a number of governors and members of provincial legislatures. Some of the lawmakers who supported last year’s bill are expected to face tough reelection battles, and any successful effort that makes it through Congress before October would have to pass through the same group of opposition Senators. Meanwhile, the dismal state of Argentina’s economy — with soaring inflation, unemployment hovering around 9 percent, and an estimated third of the population living in poverty — is likely to dominate much of the political debate.
“It’s going to be difficult for it to be discussed and voted on in Congress because it’s an election year,” says Malena Lenta, a member of the National Campaign in Buenos Aires. “Most senators and deputies don’t want to discuss it because they know that taking a position so publicly can play against them, no matter what they vote. So it’s better [for them] to ignore abortion altogether.”
The election could be a litmus test of how, and if, the candidates and parties decide to integrate abortion into their platforms, and how they respond to outside pressure to take a firm position on the debate. Already, following the defeat of the bill in Congress, a group of politicians have launched the anti-abortion “Celeste Party,” named after the light blue scarves that have come to symbolize the opposition to the legalization movement. The group has declared itself the first political party defined by its position on abortion and already has some 35,000 followers on Facebook; on March 2019, a rally against abortion drew thousands of protesters to Buenos Aires.
Beyond activating political and social forces, Nadia Ferrari, a journalist who works in the press department of ELA, an organization that focuses on gender in Argentina and across Latin America, says the campaign generated a cultural backlash against women speaking out about gender issues, from sexism in the workplace to sexual assault. “I feel that women are really empowered right now and that men are reacting violently against women’s empowerment,” she says.
Back at the rally in the park, Rocío Sanchez of the San Martin chapter describes the youthful energy of the crowd — which could soon translate into a potent political force at the ballot box and beyond. Sanchez, a high school physics teacher, uses one of her students as an example.
“Last year, during the green wave and the protests, once the bill was rejected by the senate, one of my female students told me that in her first election — which will be the next election — she will not vote for any of the senators who voted against the bill. She made up a list!” Sanchez says. “Are we going to stop? There are no reasons to.” She laughs, pointing to the group splayed out on the lawn.
Reporting for this story was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation and the Women’s Equality Center.