WASHINGTON ― As my taxi approached the Tavern on the Green’s parking lot in Central Park at 5:30 a.m. on Saturday, the New York City cab driver turned around and smiled at me.
“Walk four steps for me, too,” he said.
This was one of the many encounters I had experienced throughout the week leading up to the Women’s March in Washington. Like a lot of other minorities whose reaction to the election of Donald Trump I had been observing for the past two plus months, this immigrant gentleman, a father, had told me that he was concerned about the future for his children in this country. He thought education to be vital to ease this challenge.
“Some may suspect that the march will prove unsuccessful ... or constantly accuse my own country of lacking the democratic values that allow for like-minded protest. But they're wrong on both accounts, and I simply choose to ignore them today.”
Having recently witnessed the country’s celebration of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement, I considered the march to be an education of sorts for me, a Muslim Turkish reporter from Istanbul living in New York, as well. I decided to participate in this trip to Washington with Upper West Side mothers (and one or two fathers) to observe democracy at work.
Some may suspect that the march will prove unsuccessful in the end and amount to nothing or constantly accuse my own country of lacking the democratic values that allow for like-minded protest. But they’re wrong on both accounts, and I simply choose to ignore them today.
I got out of the car and was surprised to see around 100 people already gathered in the lot. We were two busloads of mostly girls and women aged eight to 70 plus, and ours was one of the thousands of buses and other forms of transportation headed to the march that morning.
At the front of the bus sat Jenna Katz Segal, a 40-year-old producer and an activist mother of three. She organized this trip from scratch after waiting for similar actions from bigger advocacies she is part of, like Planned Parenthood, which never seemed to fully transpire.
“Women (and men) share the same concerns about gender inequality and sexual harassment ... regardless of if they live middle class lives in Manhattan or face discrimination on the subways of Istanbul.”
Just like the march itself, Segal’s activism is organic and grassroots. A quick talker with two cornrows, she looked every bit as energetic as the giggling girls that filled our bus, including her 8-year-old daughter and her 11-year-old son, who accompanied her. Segal sported a bright yellow T-shirt with the slogan, “I AM HERE. I HAVE A VAGINA. GET USED TO IT.” and a trademark pink “pussy hat.”
I have always believed that many women (and men) share the same concerns about gender inequality and sexual harassment irrespective of their economic and social status and regardless of if they live middle class lives in Manhattan or face discrimination on the subways of Istanbul, for that matter. And witnessing this historic moment only confirmed that.
The bus buzzed with feminine energy. It was refreshing to have a female driver on this trip, effortlessly steering a 40-foot vehicle in the dark ― something I had never seen in my life. It exemplified part of why we were all there ― the independence and equality of women.
I was especially struck by how all these women had decided that there was a real need to march together and stand in crowds for hours that day. What kind of a strong threat made so many women feel the urgency to get up at 4 a.m. and travel five hours each way between New York and D.C.?
“'I’m glad that I’m actually doing something positive.'”
For Sarah McLoughlin, who was participating with her 8-year-old daughter, the Women’s March represented a moment of optimism in a pessimistic election season with negative rhetoric.
“I’m glad that I’m actually doing something positive,” she told me.
Her husband and her other daughter planned to attend a sister march in New York on the same day.
Equally noteworthy was that for many on the bus, this was their first rally in so many years.
One mother, a Columbia University alum, said she last marched against the South African apartheid. Another, a Brown University alum, remembers marching for Anita Hill, who testified about the sexual harassment she said she had experienced by Clarence Thomas, who was waiting to be confirmed by the Supreme Court in 1991. I can’t imagine what it must be like seeing, after 26 years, the same “Justice” Clarence Thomas swearing in Vice President Mike Pence just the day before.
Hearing anecdotes such as these gave meaning to signs like this one: “Why is This Still an Issue?”
“It seems ridiculous that a superpower like the U.S., a country that prides itself on being modern and a role model, is lacking so much in something so simple as women’s rights.”
I didn’t have my own sign, but being in this atmosphere made me ponder what I would write if I was planning to protest and not to just observe as a curious journalist. I think my sign would say, “All these years, has nothing really changed in America with regards to women?” I’d choose to highlight this because for me, it seems ridiculous that a superpower like the U.S., a country that prides itself on being modern and a role model, is lacking so much in something so simple as women’s rights.
While watching the Disney movie “Brave” on the bus, I couldn’t help but think that every little girl riding that day felt a bit like Merida, the red-headed young princess who defies the rules her clan in medieval Scotland expects women like her to follow.
Like Merida, these girls expressed their frustration at the lack of justice and equity for women, and showed a beautiful camaraderie with their handmade banners, sashes and placards with messages like these: “Sexism is not a Side Issue”, “Girls Just Want to Have Fun-damental Rights“, “Respect Existence or Expect Resistance”, “Hear me Roar”, “Hope, Not Fear”, “March Like a Girl” , “Stronger Together” and “Stop saying I’m someone’s sister, mother, daughter. I’m SOMEONE. That should be enough.”
In addition to the signs they brandished during the march, they also kept a group notebook in honor of the day that served as a way for them to collect their thoughts and share their purposes about this initiative.
Segal’s mother, Leslie Katz, 68, was the first to write in the notebook:
“I have marched since Kent State in 1970 when I was in college,” she wrote, referring to the shooting of unarmed college students by the Ohio National Guard at Kent State University in Ohio. “I marched for women’s rights, against the Vietnam War...” She finds it incredible to continue to march alongside her grandchildren to stand up for rights she believes in.
Some people in the group said they were genuinely concerned about the future of this nation. One wrote, “I march because I have lost track of what America is. I thought we all loved each other, wanted the best for each other, and were united.”
“'I march because I have lost track of what America is. I thought we all loved each other, wanted the best for each other, and were united.'”
It was at this moment, while reading this message, that I received a similar message from thousands of miles away in Istanbul, my hometown. My friend, unaware that I was on my way to the biggest women’s march of recent times, texted to say jokingly that she was offered a seat on the subway that day. Another Turkish friend texted shortly after the first, saying that these days, thoughtful men offer their seats even to young women on the subway because of the harassment risk.
I was gobsmacked to receive these two messages just minutes apart as if to prove my point in observing this march: women still face the same challenges around the globe. I don’t think a simultaneous march was organized in Turkey, but it’s poignant that if it were, the issues voiced in that one wouldn’t have been any different from the one in D.C., judging from the creative variations of the “Pussy Grabs Back” slogan all around.
I was proud to be there in a sea of women ― some of them from marginalized groups like the LGBTQ and the Native American communities. For me, the moment that stood out was when we all chanted, “This is what democracy looks like.” And it was.
Many women I suspect had thought they would be in Washington this month for a different reason. Segal had supported Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in the presidential race, and I, too, had planned to come here to see what would have been the historic swearing in of the first female president in American history.
Being here with these women felt satisfying and hopeful even so. I could easily have felt like an outsider ― a foreigner, an expat and a journalist ― all things the new U.S. president has made clear he isn’t a fan of. Yet in spite of my “otherness,” I embraced the power of the unity and the commonality of everyone in the end, which was especially nice given the more divisive speech we had heard from Trump in recent days.
I spoke to Segal again after the march to get her take on how the event had gone.
“'I accept that he is my president. But just because he is my president, I can’t say I agree with his views.'”
She, like many others there that day, was bothered by the fact that women are still treated like minorities even though they aren’t in the minority. And the swearing in of a leader who seems to have a different value set than what she believes her country stands for is what got her out there on the streets of Washington and what continues to inspire her to protest.
“I accept that he is my president,” Segal said of Donald Trump. “But just because he is my president, I can’t say I agree with his views.”
A remark like this, I thought, could only be uttered in real democracies.