I see many people on Twitter passing the link of a piece at Al Jazeera, Stigmatising feminism in Latin America and sure, the post makes some good points but since most people disseminating the link do not have the Latin American context (yes, yes, one of my favorite subjects to delve into), I thought I’d chime in with a few observations.
The article is centered around the fact that Latin American women in positions of power reject the label of feminism:
As encouraging as it may be to see women’s rights rise to the forefront of electoral campaigns, a closer look reveals there is less to celebrate than appears at first sight. The inclusion of women in politics has not yet led to an explicit feminisation of policy proposals in electoral campaigns. Paradoxically, it is easier for a male candidate to embrace feminist discourse because he is less easily defined as a feminist extremist, especially when he happens to be a former army officer focusing on “motherhood” issues. Rather, sexual and reproductive rights remain a taboo and the stakes of openly advocating feminist ideas remain high.
Whereas Bolivian President Evo Morales succeeded by making indigenous rights a core principle of his campaign and of government policies, female candidates still remain reluctant to advocate for gender equity. At the end of the day, feminist ideas are still perceived to be too radical, and women candidates keep women’s rights under wraps when running for office. When we recognise that gender equity is key to achieving social justice, perhaps feminism will cease to be stigmatised, and will become winning politics.
In Latin America, or at least in many parts of Latin America, feminism is a very disliked topic and, not for the reasons people might believe. It is not frowned upon because of machismo (ah yes, a word so many love to throw around uncritically when referring to Latin America) or because “Latinas are tools of the patriarchy“, but because feminism, at least the Western conception of feminism, is perceived by many, as inherently oppressive of minorities. Many Western feminists have gone to Latin America and have attempted to narrate Latin America’s history and realities with a lens that didn’t take into account the many vectors of violence affecting local women. Indigenous women, mestizas, women from rural areas, migrant women, etc, etc, all have been subject to gender violence that is pretty unique to our continent and when reading this violence, the Western feminist paradigm of non intersectional gender oppression does not necessarily apply.
Moreover, there are communities where they will openly refuse to be labeled as feminists and where anyone who approaches with a political agenda under the banner of feminism will be pretty much shunned. Many indigenous and mestizo women (and by many, I mean hundreds of thousands in the entire continent, -just consider that 300,000 were victimized in Peru alone!) were subjected to forced sterilizations, which means that when feminists come with proposals or programs to push for abortion rights above any other gender matter, they alienate these women for whom the idea of reproductive justice is not just on a different page, but it entails a whole different kind of justice and reparations.
In broad terms, our continent is deeply Catholic. However, the “right to life”, as it is presented in Catholic theology should not be considered in isolation. It is also vitally interconnected to the core belief of most Indigenous Nations who consider life to be sacred and an expression of the divine. As such, local views on abortion and contraception are not issues of religious subjugation but something perceived by many, as colonial practices that threaten their very right to existence. This might surprise many, but when Zapatista women in Mexico started to organize an activism centered on gender and politics, it was the Catholic Church, through priests and nuns who were part of the Liberation Theology, who facilitated the spaces that kick started the movement. As part of such work, these women have articulated their reluctance to identify as feminists due to the cultural hegemony imposed by many white, academic feminists (even Mexican ones). (link goes to PDF in Spanish).
Furthermore, in Latin America, feminism is considered by many politically involved and conscious activists to be fundamentally ethnocentric. One of the reasons for this is due to the fact that many indigenous and mestiza women who had to leave their rural communities behind to migrate to cities see the practice of feminism as specifically oppressive towards them, something that middle class women (who often employ them as maids or for service related labor) indulge in, but never contemplates their inclusion or their rights as working class rural women whose struggles for land and property are almost always overlooked.
Politicians like Michelle Bachelet (former President of Chile), Dilma Rousseff (current President of Brazil) or Cristina Fernandez (current President of Argentina) who do not openly identify as feminists or use the F word in their agendas are only following on the views of their voter base. Their massive appeal is precisely due to the fact that they know how problematic such label is for their electorate and how alienating it could be if they brought it up uncritically. Al Jazeera’s piece is reductionist in its conclusions because it doesn’t take into account the many reasons why feminism is stigmatized and while it would be certainly desirable to see more gender related matters in Latin American political platforms, those matters do not necessarily need to come under the flag of feminism as we know it in the West. Instead, Latin American women might as well be shaping an entirely different movement that could eventually come with a different name.