Friday, May 14, 2010

“Progresista no quiere decir pro-mujer, or, Progressive does not mean pro-woman”

image Eugenia de Altura is a female graduate student conducting research on issues of women and gender in the cities of La Paz and El Alto, Bolivia. Bolivia is the poorest country in Latin America with the exception of Haiti, and over 60% of the country’s population is of indigenous descent. Eugenia’s postings explore women’s rights, sexuality, and reproductive health in Bolivia and in Latin America as a whole.


Since the historic ascendance of Bolivia’s first indigenous president to office in 2006, there has been much discussion and debate over the meaning of Evo Morales’ administration for the country’s disadvantaged groups. On the one hand, the rise of Morales, an Aymara Indian, is a vindication for Bolivia’s indigenous groups, which represent over 60% of the country’s population. In addition, Morales’ anti-capitalist policies appeal to many in Bolivia, where pro-capitalist governments have often sold off the country’s natural resources to powerful foreign nations. (The silver that was removed from the Cerro Rico mountain in Potosí, Bolivia, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries financed the entire Spanish conquest of Latin America.)

For feminist and women’s rights groups in Bolivia, however, Evo’s presidency has represented something of a mixed blessing. While the past four years have witnessed a re-valorization of indigenous women’s clothing, culture, and identity, many complain that Evo’s administration has reproduced the gender inequalities that characterize the country’s indigenous communities. While Andean cosmology ostensibly contains an element of gender complementarity—wherein each aspect of community and nature comprise male and female parts—in practice, community leaders are male, women work a “double day,” and domestic and sexual violence against women are the norm.

Defenders of Morales’ gender politics point to his recent decision to place an equal number of men and women in his government cabinet. Dedicating this move to his sister and mother, last January Morales carefully hand-picked several women to serve as Ministers in his new cabinet.

Although in general, gender parity in government is a positive development, critics have noted that Morales overlooked many intelligent, experienced female candidates in favor of pro-government women who are poorly prepared for these high-profile positions. Placing unprepared women in office reinforces stereotypes that women in general are inept at politics. Bolivian activist Dunia Mokrani Chávez also points out that Morales accompanied his decision to place women in his cabinet with a statement that women are now equal to men and should cease organizing. This March, in a speech for International Women’s Day, Morales chided Bolivian women for being “envious” of one another and condescendingly argued that, if women want more positions in government, they need to “work hard” and “prove themselves” (ostensibly, to him).

It should not be surprising that a supposedly progressive, leftist president has questionable ideas about gender. In Latin America, as Mokrani remarks, “’being part of the left doesn’t mean you don’t face machismo.’” As journalist Estrella Gutiérrez notes, leftist governments in Latin America have rolled back important women’s rights in the past several years, particularly abortion rights. Although in early 2010 eleven Latin American governments could be described as progressive, two of these—Nicaragua and Uruguay—passed new legislation against abortion.

For politically progressive individuals, the fact that Latin American leftists hold dubious gender politics is an important lesson, and the lesson is this: in a continent that has suffered centuries of exploitation from foreign capitalists, the battles of the left are largely economic. Even in Bolivia, where ethnic vindication is an important platform of Morales’ movement, the particular concerns of indigenous women are still overlooked. As hooks’ Ain’t I a Woman taught us for the U.S., Morales’ ambivalence to truly consider indigenous women’s concerns is an important lesson that, far from obsolete, indigenous women’s organizing is absolutely necessary—perhaps now more than ever.