Women*Strike Committee Berlin – “Does anyone really believe that equality exists in Germany?”

“The more of us there are, the better we are protected” – Interview with Sophie Obinger from the Women*Strike Committee Berlin

Since 2017, we have seen a strengthening of women’s movements all over the world, and throughout the world women have organised strike days on March 8. In Germany, the Women*’s Strike Committee in Berlin called for a women*’s strike and organised various protest actions. The strike alliance is a union of different interests, actors and groups. This can be seen in the range of demands, which deal with issues of sexual self-determination, demands for change in migration or labour policy, or general socio-political matters. How different issues such as sexism, racism or precarity affect one another and how their profile has been raised through a strike was the subject of an interview with Sophie Obinger – an activist in the Women*’s Strike Committee.

This year, March 8, 2020, they called for strike again: https://www.frauenstreikaufruf.de/

The interview was conducted by Jana Adam.

Jana: The past two years have shown that there is a trend for women’s movements to spread from national to global level. There were mass mobilizations in Germany in 2019. So, the question arises why is it necessary to have a women’s strike in Germany?

Sophie:  As activists, we called for a women*’s strike for the first time in 2019. The women*’s strike movements that emerged in Argentina and Spain can be explained by the fact that these countries were hit extremely hard by the financial crisis of 2008. The recessions that these countries experienced hit women particularly hard.

The defining feature of women*’s strikes in these countries is that they are also anti-capitalist movements.

In my opinion, the women’s movement is only just beginning to emerge now. The strike as a tool for the working class, but also as a way of opposing capitalism is very important in order to redefine feminism and to make it distinct from elitist feminism. It also demonstrates the power that we women have – to withdraw our labour from the capitalist system and to go on strike. 

Jana: What would you say are the biggest problems in Germany that feminists must strike against?

Sophie: Among the most significant problems, I would single out growing insecurity, poor working conditions, as well as, for example, rising rents, inaccessibility of housing, repression against the poor, especially poor women, lack of places in kindergartens and so on. This is a huge problem not only in Berlin, but in the whole of Germany. Also of course, the brutal persistence of sexism.

Does anyone really believe that equality exists in Germany?

My own experience and that of many others proves that the situation is quite the opposite. As long as these problems exist, especially violence against women, I believe that a new women’s movement is absolutely necessary in Germany. I also have the impression, as we saw at the women’s strike and everywhere else, that many young women have had enough of daily sexism and violence, and they want to take action against it.

Jana: Why are you calling for a strike specifically as a form of protest?

Sophie: The goal of a strike is, first of all, to make sexual violence visible. For us it is important to strike not only about wage labour but also about housework and care work, which is done predominantly by women. I hope that someday the strike will become a general mass strike. That at some point the class issue will move higher up the agenda and that working men will see the fight against sexism as in their interests too, rather than opposing it. This is what a women’s strike means to me.

Jana: As for the strike itself, how was it organised? Was it a classic strike where the workers withdrew their labour?

Sophie: Prior to the strike, March 8 was officially declared a public holiday in Berlin. There are people who are in favour of that but I’m not one of them. Of course, it should be emphasized that we as working people like to have more holidays, however March 8 is International Women’s (fight) day and it should not become like May 1. Of course, even on a public holiday, not all employees have a day off. Particularly those who work in shifts, which includes nurses in hospitals, who are primarily women of course. So, on March 8 we started an action at the Robert Koch Platz in front of the Charité, joined by employees from the hospital. There we arranged a “sit down action five minutes before noon”. That action consisted of taking pictures, writing placards explaining our reasons for going on strike and sitting down in public on chairs to show our discontent. We decided this would be a good option for people who could not spend all day striking.  The fact that not all people can join strikes is also true in Germany, because the unions did not call for a strike and so the workers were not protected. 

Jana: What are the specific challenges are you currently facing?

Sophie: I think the biggest challenge right now is getting unions to call for a strike.

The legal situation is a bit vague because it is often claimed that political strikes are prohibited in Germany.

This assumption causes many controversial debates and various legal judgments have been made. The law does not say that it forbids “political strikes” – it only names strikes that are allowed, such as wage disputes or strikes that formulate concerted demands of the so-called “employees”. The vague legal situation enables some people to argue that the women’s strike, a feminist strike, is just a political strike and that’s why the unions cannot call for it officially. But then you actually have to ask the question “what strike is not inherently political?”. In German history there have been very many political strikes, for example during 1968. Therefore, we should not allow ourselves to be intimidated by such false rhetoric, telling us that a political strike is forbidden and that we become liable to prosecution. Recently in Switzerland, two museum employees were going to be fired, because they took part in a women*’s strike. In reaction, massive protests were held, and finally they did not lose their jobs, because the museum was concerned that its image would be damaged. The more we are, the better we are protected. If more people go on strike and more quit working, that will be effective with the support of the unions. It must be said very clearly that the unions should call for a strike, that they should follow the example of Spain and Switzerland. 

Jana: If we look back at 2019, what did you achieve by striking, through the official women’s strike day, on the women’s day of protest (Frauen Kampftag) day?

Sophie: I think it is positive that the global women’s movement is on the rise and I think it gained in strength before 2019. I would say that it has been getting stronger since 2014.  It has been more like a decade-long fight that we have to continue in the future. Especially if we want to affirm that the women’s movement is on the rise, that patriarchal structures are publicly denounced, that many women call themselves feminists again and  that they support  feminism. At the same time, however, questions about the wider system are being asked again including questions about capitalism itself. And yes, we can no longer be ignored or remain invisible.

Jana: But could you specifically name a cause that influenced the women’s strike in Germany?

Sophie: Yes, that’s a really good question. I think, since it’s been just a few months (since March 8) it’s still too early to see some big societal or political changes. What motivates a lot of women to take to the streets is the right to safe and legal abortion. The abolition of paragraph 219a which prohibits the advertisement of abortions has been of questionable success, because it still restricts access to information and criminalizes abortions resulting in the most absurd court decisions.

Jana: What unites women in the strike? Would you say there is one political issue or can you identify specific groups within the women’s strike movement?

Sophie: We have lots of different people in our organization, including refugee women and migrant or non-white women. I think the next few years will be challenging for the movement – we will have to discuss which issues to focus on   as well as our approach in order to appeal to different women, and not just white German women or students. I think it’s all about content. It should be driven less by issues of identity but driven more by political content. To answer your questions about what unites us in this women’s strike?

I believe it is the fight against patriarchy that unites us, to put it simply.

There are mutually reinforcing systems, alliances of sexism, racism and capitalism. And these systems must be fought together. It’s not enough to adopt the right words, make speeches or to call yourself an anti-racist. But through our actions, in a common struggle, we will show that we can really succeed in achieving our joint demands. 

The interview was conducted by Jana Adam in German on June 17, 2019 in Berlin, Germany. Translation into English by Jana Adam. The full version of this interview is available in English.

Women*Strike Committee Berlin: https://frauenstreik.org/

Photos © Estefanía Henríquez Cubillos.