The women looked like my grandmothers, at least as I remember them. Every Thursday, they would sit on benches in the square, white headscarves covering their hair, and together they would wait or march. The scarves represented nappies, as if their children were still babies, whatever their age. They were the mothers – and later the grandmothers – of the Plaza de Mayo, in Buenos Aires, Argentina, in the 1970s and 1980s. Once strangers to each other, they occupied the square to wait. They met at police stations and churches, where they went in search of information about their children. What exactly were they hoping to find? Their children – young men and women, students and workers – who had been disappeared by the military dictatorship, which lasted from 1976 to 1983. What they found instead was an unbearable truth: their children had been tortured and killed by the government.
Only later did it occur to me that I must have looked like their disappeared granddaughters, orphaned soon after birth inside the dictatorship’s prisons. These women searched for the truth in the Argentine style of politics from below: they took to the street, occupied the square, made their own bodies into a monument to the struggle.
I grew up far from glamorous Buenos Aires, in a rural town in Córdoba. My father is a Catholic deacon there. I was baptised, took first communion, and was confirmed; later I got married – a Catholic woman from the interior of Argentina. In the faith community where I was raised, not much was said about feminism or the sexual revolution ignited by the pill.
In the early 2000s, as an immigrant to the United States, I met women who challenged the Catholic faith based on the lived experience of everyday women. They were Catholic, like my mother, grandmothers and aunts, but they talked about sexuality, contraception and the equality of men and women. One of the movement’s leaders was Marta Alanis, a Catholic who told the story of her own clandestine abortion. In 2003, at the close of the National Women’s Meeting in Argentina, she tore off a piece of green cloth and put it on her head. Reviving the legacy of the mothers of the Plaza del Mayo, these feminists were the ones who went on to fight for the legalisation of abortion in Argentina. It was the dawn of the Green Wave, a movement of millions of girls and women of all ages and faiths in the streets of Argentina.
On Wednesday 30 December 2020, Argentina’s national congress decided that abortion should no longer be a criminal matter. Women will be allowed to terminate pregnancies up to 14 weeks – for free in public hospitals – with exceptions made after this point for rape and situations in which a woman’s health is endangered. After 17 years of waiting and 13 draft bills, girls who look like my own daughter are occupying the streets to celebrate this transformative moment for such a sensitive issue in Latin American politics.
I was in Argentina when a bill nearly passed in 2018; while lawmakers proclaimed their votes in the form of long-winded statements, the mood outside the building was one of joy. As I walked the streets around the congressional palace, where Argentina’s past wealth is on display, I revelled in the immoderate hope of women who could have been the granddaughters of the mothers of the Plaza de Mayo. Like their forebears, they too donned handkerchiefs, now hope-green and sported anywhere – around necks and wrists, hanging from backpacks.
The Covid-19 pandemic kept me from joining the women on the streets last week, but I have watched from abroad as the Green Wave swept across Latin America. The green handkerchief has been used in pro-choice mobilisations in Oaxaca, Mexico, Brasília, Brazil, and Santiago, Chile. If the scarf has long been the symbol of women’s fight against abusive political power in Argentina, now it is also a symbol of hope and feminist transformation. Abortion has already been approved by women; it is something we practise regardless of a country’s criminal code or our own faith. Abortion has already been approved in the streets, by generations of women. And now it is law.