A Short History Of Women In Black

"Women in Black" was inspired by earlier movements of women who demonstrated on the streets, making a public space for women to be heard - particularly Black Sash, in South Africa, and the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo, seeking the "disappeared" in the political repression in Argentina. But WIB also shares a genealogy with groups of women explicitly refusing violence, militarism and war, such as the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom formed in 1918, and the Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp in the UK and related groups around the world opposing the deployment of US missiles in the eighties.

Beginnings in Israel
Women in Black as we know it today began in 1988 in Israel. In 1987, 20 years after Israel occupied the West Bank and Gaza, the Palestinian intifada began. In response Israeli Jewish women began to stand in weekly vigils in public places, usually at busy road junctions. Starting in Jerusalem, the number of vigils in Israel eventually grew to almost forty. In the north of Israel, where the concentration of Arab communities is greatest, Palestinian women who are Israeli citizens were also active in Women in Black groups. Many local WIB groups made contact with women across the Green Line engaged in support work, e.g. visiting Palestinians in Israeli prisons.

Establishing a formula for action
At WIB vigils, women carried placards saying "End the Occupation" and closely related messages. The focus was quite precise, in order to be able to draw in a wide group of women. The vigils were predictable: same site, regular intervals. The women wore black. Although they were not particularly silent in most Israeli locations, as they have become in some countries since, there was no chanting. They were seen by, and provoked reactions from, many passers-by on foot and in vehicles, some of whom heckled and abused them, both in sexualized terms ("whores") and for their politics ("traitors"). Their policy was not to shout back but to maintain silence and dignity.

In other countries, including Canada, the USA, Australia, and many European countries, Women in Black vigils soon began to be organized in support of those in Israel. In Berkeley, California, for example, Women in Black has been standing weekly since 1988. In the UK at this time, women (mainly Jewish, with Palestinians and others) picketed the offices of the Israeli state airline, El Al.

Italian women pick up the theme
In Italy a group of women had started a project they called "Women Visiting Difficult Places" which aimed to promote dialogue between women on different "sides" in countries where there is conflict. They visited Israel and Palestine in 1988, and gave support to Women in Black there. They returned to found their own WIB, Donne in Nero, which soon had weekly vigils in Roma, Milano, Bologna, Torino, Ravenna, Padova and Verona. Large numbers of women from Italy have maintained a programme of visits to Israel/Palestine for more than a decade. In 1989 they helped promote an event "Time for Peace" in Jerusalem, involving a great human chain around the walls, and in 1996 shared with Bat Shalom in organizing the event "Sharing Jerusalem".

The Gulf War
At the time of the Gulf War (in 1991, following Iraq's invasion of Kuwait) it became more difficult for Israeli women openly to support Palestinians because of Arafat's public support for Saddam Hussein. Later (1994) the Oslo Accords between the Israeli government and the PLA suggested progress towards peace, so that protest seemed less necessary. Women in Black vigils ended in all but four locations in Israel. However a number of women's peace conferences in Jerusalem between 1994 and 2001 involved many of the original WIB network, some of whom remained active in this interval in Bat Shalom, TANDI, and other women's peace organizations.
In contrast to the situation in Israel, in many other countries the Gulf War stimulated women to oppose the US-led bombardment of Iraq.For instance, in London a group of women demonstrated as Women Against War in the Gulf. Later some of them would rename themselves Women in Black.

Women in Serbia respond to war
Soon after, when Yugoslavia began to disintegrate and war broke out between the former Yugoslav republics, some of the Italian women visited feminist activists in Belgrade, which led to a similar form of organization and action there. Women in Black in Belgrade (Zene u Crnom) was formed on October 9 1991. Explicitly feminist, they have been actively opposing nationalist aggression and masculine violence ever since.
Zene u Crnom had a strong and challenging street presence, with regular weekly vigils in Republic Square in Belgrade from 1991. They work in partnership with men refusing to serve in the military, and have maintained an extensive programme involving public statements, writing and publishing, educational workshops and seminars, and organizing international visits and meetings.

A strong group in Spain
A Spanish WIB network, Mujeres de Negro, were by now strong and active. They helped find refuge, respite and a public platform in Spain for women from the Yugoslav region. It was with an important input from Mujeres de Negro and Donne in Nero that the women of Zene u Crnom in Belgrade organized a series of ten annual international encounters at different locations in the former Yugoslavia, which have been an important force creating and expanding the international network.

Women in Black spreads to other countries
During the sequence of wars that began in 1992, in Croatia and Bosnia., Women in Black groups sprang up in many more countries, supporting Zene u Crnom Belgrade in their opposition to nationalist aggression. Women got together in Belgium (a French-speaking group Femmes en Noir in Brussels and Flemish-speaking group Vrouwen in het Zwart in Leuven). Women in Black London took its name at this time, starting to hold weekly or monthly vigils in Trafalgar Square, in central London.

It is impossible to name all the separate groups in the various countries that emerged since the middle nineties, but the reader is encouraged to look them up on their individual pages on this website. Some groups adopted the formula of silent vigils, wearing black. Others (for instance the Bay Area WIB in California and WIB in Tokyo) have found it more effective, for instance, to process in single file, silently, through shopping areas, or to use masks, giant puppets and drums. Many women from these groups took up the practices of visiting war zones in support of women there. There were many visits to Belgrade, Zagreb, Sarajevo and other towns and cities of the region.

As always in women's movements, and especially perhaps in groups opposing violence, there are many lesbians active in Women in Black. It has been productive to make connections between violence in war and in everyday life, including the violence of homophobia, misogyny and racism. A particularly strong and supportive relationship was formed between lesbians in the Leuven Vrouwen in het Zwart and Zene u Crnom.

And other continents
Women in Black in India began in 1992. When the Babri Masjid, an ancient mosque, was torn down by Hindu fundamentalists and violence engulfed India, women were the main victims. WIB in the city of Bangalore have stood every Thursday in silent vigils on the streets, in the market squares and in the Gandhi Peace Park, protesting the wars against women.
Women in Black in the Philippines began in 1995. The Asian Women's Human Rights Council and the Lila Pilipina, an organization of former comfort women, gather often in front of the Japanese Embassy in Manila, dressed in black, demanding compensation for the wartime crime of sexual slavery by the Japanese army in World War II.

A landmark occasion in the nineties was a massive Women in Black vigil (an estimated 3000 women) in Beijing on September 4 1995 that was organized by the Women in Black of India and the Asian Women's Human Rights Council, at the time of the UN World Conference on Women. They called for "a world safer for women" and an end to wars and armed conflicts.
From 1996, Women in Black in Nepal have stood in silent vigils around the issues of trafficking and violence against women in public places in Katmandu.

In 1998 and 1999 Women in Black groups everywhere had occasion to demonstrate against a sequence of military engagements by the USA, sometimes partnered by the UK, or in the context of NATO. These included continued sanctions and bombing raids against Iraq, the bombing of Sudan and Afghanistan, and the bombardment of Belgrade and other Serbian cities.
Creating an electronic network

It was the Spanish women of Mujeres de Negro, who first saw how crucially important information technology was going to be in linking WIB groups in antiwar action. They were the ones to take the step of setting up an electronic list-serve for Women in Black, at first in Spanish, eventually in English too. Later, in the year 2000 they set up a system of "country coordinators", thus effectively turning WIB into a worldwide net. The information now circulating by e-mail mainly comes from, and goes to, WIB groups. But women with similar aims though using different names and organizational approaches (for instance in Afghanistan and Colombia) are also linked through the list.

Intensified conflict in Israel/Palestine
The renewal of the Palestinian intifada, in late September 2000, after the Al-Aqsa mosque incident, restimulated WIB in Israel. By mid-November women were standing at six sites (Nazareth, Acre, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Nachson junction) and this activism continues today in 15 simultaneous vigils, some calling themselves Women in Black and others not.
November 2000 also saw the formation in Israel of the Coalition of Women for a Just Peace, which brings together all the Women in Black vigils in Israel as well as 9 other women's peace organizations. Dressed in black, these women have carried out direct action (e.g., placing a "closure" on the Israeli Defence Ministry by blocking traffic to it), in addition to holding mass Women in Black vigils twice a year, with thousands of women participating.

Groups of women, primarily from Donne in Nero but also from London WIB and elsewhere have been visiting Palestine and Israel since the start of the al-Aqsa intifada to support Palestinians and strengthen links between them and Israeli women peace activists.

The Asian Women's Human Rights Council and El Taller International, two networks of women's human rights organizations in the global south, have held seventeen Courts of Women in different regions and vigils of Women in Black have been held before each Court. There was a very intense and creative demonstration of over 5000 women in Cape Town, South Africa, on the eve of the World Court of Women Against War, For Peace (March 2001). The Women in Black in South Africa stood against war and for peace.

As the Israeli oppression of the West Bank and Gaza intensified, Israeli WIB and the Coalition called, in June and again in December 2001, through the worldwide e-mail coordination, for a day of simultaneous protest. Through this and similar international actions it is estimated that there are more than 150 WIB groups in at least 24 countries.

September 11 2001
After the attacks on US targets on September 11 2001, WIB as an international network speedily agreed and issued a statement. Women in New York and other US locations (as well as other groups worldwide) were quick to stand with an appeal for "Justice not vengeanc". Many groups have subsequently protested against the pursuit by the USA and allies of a "war on terror" in Afghanistan and elsewhere. When the bombing of Afghanistan ended, Italian Donne in Nero went to work with women's groups in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

During 2002 WIB groups everywhere have been actively opposing any extension of military action by the USA and allied governments to attacks on particular states, notably Iraq. But militarism and violence that is less in the international headlines has also been a continuing focus for different Women in Black groups round the world. For instance Mujeres de Negro in Spain coordinated a worldwide action to protest the drug-related war in Colombia, where they have strong connections with women's groups.

The most recent vigil at an all Indian level was held at the Asia Social Forum (in preparation of the World Social Forum at Porto Alegre, Brazil) in Hyderabad on January 4 2003. There were over three thousand women dressed in black protesting Israel's Occupation of Palestine, the war on Iraq and the war crimes of the USA, and other situations of war and armed conflict.

Recognition of WIB's work for peace
Women in Black locally and internationally have received a number of awards in recognition of their work for peace. The worldwide network were awarded the Millennium Women's Peace Prize sponsored by the NGO International Alert and the UN agency UNIFEM, and the following year the network was a nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize. Donne in Nero were awarded the Gold Dove of Peace, an Italian prize, in 2002. The Network was honoured by Church Women United, USA.

Israeli Women in Black won the Aachen Peace Prize (1991); the peace award of the city of San Giovanni d'Asso in Italy (1994); and the Jewish Peace Fellowship's "Peacemaker Award" (2001).
NB: We are painfully aware that this history is far from complete, and is most probably biased due to imbalance in the regions and vigils that have volunteered information. Please help us to build towards a proper history of Women in Black by putting up information on your own web pages.

See here for details of how your group can maintain a page on this website and how you can become a contributor.