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Al Jazeera shocked because female politicians in Latin America do not identify as feminists. Here’s some context

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.


  1. Ailatan wrote:

    I have noticed, at least in the discourse of Cristina Fernández, the emphasis placed on women (Madres y Abuelas de Plaza de Mayo, working women, housewives, etc) these were usually people not traditionally addressed to in speeches, not in a feminist context, but quite close to it.

    The “F” word is difficult to take for many people, and many people still see it as a threat on the values of society. Also, let us not forget, some of these women are in power through their association with strong male politicians.

    Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 5:28 pm | Permalink
  2. Lindsay Miller wrote:

    Love this. Just because someone doesn’t identify as a feminist, doesn’t mean they’re not working for the rights of women. Thanks so much!

    Thursday, August 4, 2011 at 6:05 pm | Permalink
  3. aravind wrote:

    All of this – yes. Feminism is just a word (an important word for many of us), so let’s look at whether their aims and ideals actually match *ours* which we might describe under the broad category of “feminist”.

    Friday, August 5, 2011 at 1:51 am | Permalink
  4. Catherine wrote:

    I have heard of the Mujerista viewpoint, but I don’t really know much about it. How does it fit in? (My understanding is that Mujerista is different from Feminista.)

    Friday, August 5, 2011 at 10:09 am | Permalink
  5. Mujeristas are mostly linked to the Catholic branch of Liberation Theology. They advocate for gender related policies and matters but from a Catholic perspective. And many of them are also pro abortion, but they have integrated those beliefs within their overall Christian faith. I think this is a pretty good article for an overview of what the movement entails. However, I think I should clarify that the mujerista movement is not a monolith and not all of them are in the movement because of their Catholicism.

    Friday, August 5, 2011 at 10:44 am | Permalink
  6. I should clarify something else: the term mujerista is mostly used by Latina women living in the US (and to a much lesser extent in Mexico). It is not pervasive throughout all of Latin America.

    Friday, August 5, 2011 at 10:51 am | Permalink
  7. Amelia Jane wrote:

    I never understand why people get so worried about whether other people are ‘FEMINISTS’ or not. I was in Peru around the time every town seemed to be having a demonstration against domestic violence; outside the Town Hall in Arequipa people were hanging posters, lighting candles, shouting through megaphones – all very ‘feminist’ but I didn’t think to demand how these people labelled themselves, it seemed pretty clear from their actions what their standpoint was.

    Friday, August 5, 2011 at 3:05 pm | Permalink
  8. Nadia wrote:

    “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.”

    Like equality or justice or no name at all. I don’t understand why it’s so important that it be *called* something. As long as people find ways to incorporate women’s rights and look after women’s interests in their own countries in the way that best suits their own cultures, who cares what we call it?

    Saturday, August 6, 2011 at 8:44 pm | Permalink
  9. Amy wrote:

    Thank you so much. You always make me think. From this post: I have no idea how I’d respond to American Pro-Choice language if I had personally experienced forced-sterilization in any form. And then I realize that there were forced-sterilizations here in the US, and wonder how the rhetoric is received in terms of American kyriarchy. And then I wonder why this isn’t already a dialog. One that I’m exploring.

    I have a bit of a knee-jerk tendency to say, “well, call it by another name… feminism is still the same.” But that’s not true. I really appreciate that you’ve explained why Cristina Fernandez has different reasons for not identifying as a feminist than, say, Hillary Clinton (who is very much a feminist, but would never say so for political reasons). I don’t think I’m doing a good job of explaining myself, but thank you. I don’t comment that often on this site, but your articles always help me examine my privilege.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011 at 9:52 pm | Permalink