Women in Black and the danger in peaceful protest

Edinburgh Women in Black speak out

We stand in solidarity with all victims of conflict.
We stand to bear silent witness against the futility of war
and its destruction of human rights.

In October 2001, women came together in Scotland to protest against the UK going to war in Afghanistan.

By 2002, a chapter of the international Women in Black (WIB) had been formed in Edinburgh, and since 2003 WIB have stood silent vigil from 1-2pm every Saturday without exception on Princes Street outside Register House.

Not apparently dangerous perhaps, and after some initial encounters, unchallenged by the police, this non-membership group of women with no formal structure or leadership holds up banners saying Women in Black Stand for Peace and Women in Black Say No to War. More targeted placards are regularly created – some soul-searching, some witty, others emphasising the heartless nature of conflict.


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Women in Black Edinburgh through the years. You can find out more about the group here.

Since 2001, the UK has expanded its military activities in the Middle East and Africa in the name of democracy, freedom and defence of its own citizens at home. WIB collect alternative news from sources beyond the mainstream media, and along with the visual impact of a line of women dressed in black in all weathers, a leaflet is offered to all passers-by – informative, provocative, encouraging, and thoroughly researched.

While the women are impressive in their silence, one or two stand out from the line open to conversation, even defence of WIB and their messages. All the women are subject to the full range of public responses from approval and appreciation through to dismissal, disinterest and disgust. In the line, women will generally maintain their silence referring people to one out front for conversation. This is not always possible, however, when an agitated member of the public wants to argue with as many women as possible.

We stand vigil in solidarity and sisterhood – our ages span three generations – and each woman brings her own story, each one is an activist in her own chosen field beyond WIB, supporting organisations as diverse as Stop the War Campaign, Movement for the Abolition of War (MAW), Greenpeace, Amnesty International, Campaign Against Arms Trade (CAAT), Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) and many others.

Collectively we are judged by the public in terms of politics, faith and affiliations, or simply ignored. Despite frequent assumptions that we are Quakers, the Edinburgh vigil is remarkably diverse in religious and non-religious as well as political persuasions. All of this is challenging, and yet the unity of silence and contemplation provides a safe place to show up and stand up for our principles of universal peace and justice.

We have been called disgraceful, shameful and traitors, even accused of treason – our peaceful presence being perceived as a danger to the common good.

We are also greeted with gratitude even applause, sometimes tears, frequently questions or stories of shared activities and support, and often prove interesting subjects for personal or professional photographers. Foreign visitors frequently show particular interest (even when language presents a challenge), and occasionally envy of our freedom of expression along with amazement at the stamina of the Edinburgh WIB’s 14-year commitment.

Rather than threatening or exclusive, women passing by are encouraged to join WIB for as short a time as a few minutes before resuming their activities.

What we don’t know is the thoughts of the throngs of people who might be too busy or complacent to be curious about the vigil, although often there is a cursory glance towards the women without a pause. Maybe some are cautious, possibly afraid to get involved; maybe others feel awkward or afraid of the unknown.

Are WIB dangerous women?

Some people would seem to think so – tossing insults, comments or sexist jibes as they pass, unwilling to engage in conversation or discussion.

Others take a more aggressive approach and it has been a challenge to improve our responses to such issues as the inevitability of war, hopelessness of peace, need for a nuclear deterrent, and being an all-women group. This is the point at which the perceived dangerous woman needs to hold her ground with conviction while listening to the views of others. A woman presenting with calm confidence despite her quietly concealed passion, and sometimes anxiety, could appear threatening to someone who wants to convince her she is wrong. And that woman always knows her sisters in WIB are right behind her – she is not alone.

Are WIB a danger to others or indeed themselves?

We may cause discomfort, even distress to others, but what we have as a legacy through the women’s line of activism is solidarity, strength and commitment with an ability to see the humanity, even the ridiculous, in some situations.

The Israeli and Palestinian women who came together in Jerusalem in 1988 protesting against Israel’s occupation of Palestine are the original WIB. They are still there, in Hagar Square, every Friday, although the Palestinian women are no longer permitted to join the vigil. The inspiration of the Jerusalem women came from two sources: the women of the Black Sash movement in South Africa demonstrating in silence outside government buildings for an end to the apartheid regime, and the Madres de Plaza de Mayo in Buenos Aires, Argentina silently holding photographs of the ‘disappeared’.

This is our legacy, and WIB vigils have spread around the world where women stand for alternatives to aggression and oppression, for peace and respect for human rights, and for women to be part of peace processes wherever and whenever they take place.

Women are powerful and if, like WIB in Edinburgh, they are a threat to the status quo, these are values worth showing up for and standing up for over and over again – values of compassion, fairness and peace.

If silent protest is challenging, even threatening, then we are dangerous women, which is good.