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Gandhi and Mandela Would be Proud: What’s Next after the Women’s March?

January 29, 2017

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It was a surreal moment. It was a big enough shock on November 8th when the election results came in and Americans reeled in horror as a reality show host became the leader of the free world. The shock finally set in on January 20th when Donald J. Trump stood in front of a modest turnout on Capitol Hill (less than half of the estimated 1.8 million people who attended President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009). TV and online viewing was estimated at 31 million, in contrast to Obama’s 38 million viewers in 2009).

Place January 20th in context with what took place the next day, Saturday, when what’s been billed as the Women’s March on Washington drew over an estimated half a million people. In Trumpian speak it was YUGE!

It’s not as much an issue of exact numbers that attended the inauguration and the Women’s March (the US National Parks Service ceased doing crowd estimates years ago following a lawsuit) but more importantly that so many people rallied together under a common vision. And of particular importance was that Americans in some 500 U.S. cities marched, making it likely the largest protest in U.S. history. Marches were held in dozens of other countries, in such cities as Vancouver, London, Nairobi, Singapore, Rio de Janeiro and Sydney.

And they were peaceful!

The various factions of feminists came together for a march that was not, of course, the exclusive preserve of females. Men joined as well. Gays participated. LGBTQ people attended. Little girls held signs with their moms. One 13 year-old Canadian teen who was interviewed on CBC Radio’s Cross Country Checkup talked about the amazing experience of marching with her mother. I thought the teen was 18 years old because of how articulate she came across.

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As much as the United States has been the epicentre of attention because of the foul comments made by Donald Trump, first as Republican Party candidate and then as Presidential candidate, fueling racist and xenophobic behaviours by his supporters, peaceful Canada to the north has seen a surge in similar actions. Take a moment to read Giving Permission to Canada’s Racists. Canada’s challenge is to stamp out the emergence of hate-filled mysogynistic and racist behaviors. It has no place in my country.

The big question post-march is what next? It’s far too soon to intelligently predict just how a Trump administration will affect the rights of women and minorities, though on January 22nd the president signed an executive order withdrawing funding from NGOs that sponsor abortion overseas.

One emerging concern, as reported in some news outlets, is the introduction of legislation in five states that would criminalize peaceful protest and in one state allow motorists to run over protesters in certain situations. One of these states is Indiana, home of Vice President Mike Pence. To be fair, President Obama signed a bill in 2012 that was perceived as an attack on free speech. And lest my fellow Canadians are feeling a bit smug, my country has a sad history of repressing free speech.

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The January 21st Women’s March was a celebration of sorts. The strength behind the March was that it was peaceful. The worse thing that could have happened (or happen in the future with marches) was civil unrest, including violence. This would have played into Donald Trump’s hands. And this is where the focus from January 21st needs to be: peaceful marches and protests. Doing so will: a) draw more support from people who have been hesitant to support this new movement and b) give it more legitimacy.

Two prominent individuals come to mind on the practice of civil protesting using non-violence.

Mahatma (Mohandas) Gandhi was the 20th Century’s leader in non-violent protesting, and the pivotal leader in India’s independence movement. Gandhi, born on October 2, 1869, in Porbandar, studied law and advocated for the civil rights of Indians. As a key leader of India’s independence movement, he helped organize boycotts against British companies, using peaceful forms of civil disobedience. He was killed by a fanatic in 1948.

Gandhi’s civil disobedience work began as a young lawyer in South Africa, where he lived for 21 years. Working as legal rep with Muslims, he experienced first hand the racial intolerances inflicted upon people of color. And it’s where he developed his leadership skills that he would put to use when he returned to India in 1921. While he wasn’t the first one to use non-violent forms of protest, he was the first to apply it on a large scale.

As a quiet and modest man who took on the British Empire and its institutions, Gandhi came to rely on his faith, beliefs and courage as the bedrock of his leadership.

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The other individual is Nelson Mandela, who spend 27 years in prison for his resistance to South Africa’s repressive and brutal Apartheid regime. Born in 1981, Mandela was a member of the Xhosa-speaking Thembu tribe in the village of Mvezo. His father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa was chief. Although his name was Rolihlahla, once he attended missionary school one of his teachers dubbed him Nelson.

Mandela was the first in his family to receive a formal education, and during his university education he began getting involved in protests, starting with university policies. He became active with the African National Congress in the early fifties, and in 1955 was arrested with 155 others for committing treason. The trial lasted until 1961 when they were acquitted.

Upon being released he formed Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation), a new armed wing of the ANC. As the wing’s leader, Mandela ran afoul of the Apartheid regime, resulting in his arrest for sabotage against the government. He was to have been executed, but narrowly avoided that sentence, instead being given a life sentence. Mandela was eventually released in 1990 by newly elected president F. W. de Klerk. However, it needs to be told that Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney lobbied relentlessly to have Mandela released from prison.

Nelson Mandela, while not a devout practitioner of non-violent as with Gandhi, later became a champion for peace and social justice in South Africa. He created a foundation and organizations advocating peace, and is known for his strong emphasis on reconciliation and forgiveness following the collapse of Apartheid. Continuing violence would serve no one. As a sign of respect, many South Africans referred to Nelson Mandela as Madiba, his Xhosa clan name. He died in 2013 from a recurring lung infection.

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Herein lies the lesson for the Women’s movement. Three key elements have emerged:

— Faith
— Belief
— Courage

If this nascent movement is to have legs and become a sustained global movement, then a fourth key element is essential for its future:

— Perseverance

Much can be learned from the Occupy Movement, which fizzled quickly. There were too many competing interests and no common vision. The focus needs to be kept on why the Women’s March was organized in the first place. As organizers of the march have stated, “Women’s rights are human rights and human rights are women’s rights,” with the goal “…to affirm our shared humanity and pronounce our bold message of resistance and self-determination.” As such, the march was open to people of all ages, gender, race culture and political affiliation.

We face a very uncertain future over the next four years. This is not just a big issue for Americans but Canadians, their northern neighbour and Canada’s close historical ties on economic, cultural and security grounds. It’s also a big issue for Mexico and that country’s future trade relationship with the U.S.. And it’s a big issue for the rest of the world when it comes to America’s past global leadership.

I hope that as the father of three daughters and one son and six grand children (four of whom are girls) that the Women’s March movement develops traction and moves forward in a change-invoking manner. Following Gandhi’s and Mandela’s examples of collective leadership, in which people come together under a common vision, would be wise and prudent—and, in the end, strategic.

You must be the change you wish to see in the world.
— Mahatma Gandhi


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