Women: Tragic Encounters with the Left

September 25, 2007

For Maria Elena Moyano to which we felt so close for so many years, despite our differences? M ARIA ELENA MOYANO WAS MURDERED Despite our years of involvement with the parties, it by Shining Path on February 15-peppered with seems we were unable to change in any substantial way bullets and blown to pieces. It was a death foretold: for their authoritarian and exclusive character. In this mo- several months Shining Path had been threatening her, a ment of profound crisis they are so very out of touch with grassroots women's leader and vice-mayor of Lima's vast the people they claim to represent. Not only have they lost barrio of Villa El Salvador. Maria Elena continued fight- legitimacy, they have become the epitome of arrogance. ing the Maoist guerrilla movement, denouncing its pres- After having "monopolized political influence over the ence in the barrios, and demanding that the political mobilized masses in the 1970s," as historian Alberto parties of the Left close ranks to block its advance. From Adrianzen put it, they have become monopolizers of their the parties she got no response, no solidarity, no commit- own truth, retreating ever farther from the women and ment to anything but their image and their own version of men who struggle daily for their minimum rights as the truth. The result: my dear friend was murdered, citizens and as human beings. With Maria Elena's death so recent, I find it painful These fragmented and isolated parties, caught up in to write about the relationship between the women's their own internal conflicts, took too long to react to movement and the Left. What happened to the Left that Shining Path's terrorism, and they still hesitate to work for the women of my generation was the only place together to block its murderous advance. They take a where we could escape the traditional fate of women in skewed view of human rights, protesting only when the my country? What happened to that option that allowed victims are their own and practically justifying it when our rebelliousness to flower? What happened to the Left they are "others." For all these reasons, the parties were incapable of responding to Maria Elena's urgent calls. Peruvian feminist Virginia Vargas of the Centro Flora Perhaps her murder is the most harrowing barometer of Tristdn in Lima has written extensively on the women's the crisis of the Left in Peru. movement. Her most recent book is C6mo cambiar el To generalize is risky. Men and women of enormous mundo sin Perdernos (Lima: Ed. Flora Tristdn, 1992). value belong to the parties of the Left. And the Left does 30 REPORT ON THE AMERICASV collective action. in Peru tuis struggles of women in poor nei countries it grew out of human i of the Madres de la Plaza de Mal current grew out of women's public arenas, such as political ant federations. Women strugg tions for greater participation aspire, through traditional forr ing, to transform the oppress daily. 4 These currents continually from the political parties or the feminists, and some feminists : ties. But the women from each arenas and have different obji work at cross purposes, although learned a great deal about worki moving forward. Faced with the growing pc tance of the women's movem particularly those of the Left, ha at alliance. These attempts have inability to understand the dyi tonomy of the movement. Usu the notion that our forms of stru "pre-political," because they a toward the state. They are su autonomy of the women's move the traditional relationship betw not consist solely of the parties. Indeed, within the broad parameters of the Left, winds of democratic change have begun to blow. But is there enough momentum to trans- form ingrained authoritarian traditions? Above all, will we have the time to bring about such a change, now that all of us-women and men, parties and institutions-need to summon forth our most creative and expansive ener- gies, all our imagination and democratic hopes, to defeat the terror and death that threaten to tear the country from our grasp? T HE CONFLICTIVE RELATIONSHIP BE- tween women and the Left which I relate here is a story that every country of the region has experienced. The Peruvian women's movement is larger and more complex than most, reflecting a multi-cultural, multi- ethnic society that is a microcosm of Latin America. The movement is comprised of three principal currents: the feminist, the popular, and the current associated with traditional politics.' In the first, feminists seek explicitly to identify and denounce the system that, through different forms of oppression (race, class, ethnicity, age, and sexual prefer- ence, as well as gender), keep women subordinated. 2 "Popular" feminism is made up primarily of women engaged in "traditional" roles, who have transformed their fragmented and individual activities into the basis of 4r-- It tions in which the latter are an open or veiled extension of the former. I will focus on the feminist current, because it grew out of the Left, and because I can speak from personal experience. Peruvian feminism emerged with the broad upsurge in leftist activity at the end of the 1970s-a moment of great mobilization, general strikes, return to democracy, and the first signs of the devastating eco- nomic crisis to come. Many of us who founded the feminist movement came from the ranks of the Left, where we began our tentative questioning of the status of women: the conflicts within our families, the lack of women in party leadership, the lack of a strong stand against women's oppression. The very existence of a feminist movement did not fit into the narrow mindsets of the Latin American and Peruvian Left of those years, which stubbornly insisted on its grand scheme for universal emancipation, a revolution to be carried out by one party in the name of all the oppressed-a scheme which the populist and Marxist visions of modernity had propagated over decades. In the movement we began to realize that a profoundly different vision was needed. Toinha Lima Barros, a Brazilian feminist and community activist. For the parties of the Left, the word "women" is always qualified by the class, by the crisis, by the family. They can't conceive of women alone. 31Rept on e Amerc a The Left Of course, our vision did not emerge overnight. The many pillars of feminist politics-breadth of vision, sub- version of the authoritarian logic of our society, accep- tance of differences, encouragement of plural voices, and the politicization of daily life-had to compete against the elements of traditional leftist thinking: cause-and-effect explanations, exclusive logic, reductionism, the impulse to universalize partial experiences. Much of the Left's ways of thinking stayed with us for a long time, popping up in our own proposals and actions. Within the feminist movement there was always a tension-sometimes en- riching, other times impoverishing and paralyzing-be- tween the new thinking and the old. Our leftist beginnings gave the feminist movement an important political di- mension and reach, but for a long time they also held us back. This leftist origin also explains in large part why it was so difficult to establish the legitimacy of our struggle, in our own eyes and in those of society. During the first stage of the movement many of us abandoned the parties because we sensed intuitively that they were not the appropriate arena for the development of our struggle. But the influence of the Left's political paradigms was so great that we did not know how to move beyond the old ways, to build a new sort of commitment to our country and its transformation, born of the new arena we were creating. Our first struggles as feminists were not against our oppression as women, but against the exploitation of workers. Though no longer members of the parties, we continued to fight alongside our former colleagues. We understood that the struggles of workers, miners, and peasants were also part of our struggle, but we weren't yet able to take them on from a feminist perspective, nor to Alfonso Barrantes (center) was the United Left of Peru's 19 tial candidate. The derisory number of women In party lead reflected in the profoundly male-oriented campaign. negotiate with other movements whose demands we supported even though they did not support ours. Those were days when women took to the streets to support the strikes of miners, laborers and teachers. We were part of that spectrum of the Left, and the fact that we were women was nearly imperceptible. Guiltily hiding our middle- class origins, we focussed on the fate of poor women, with a stance that was clearly populist and vanguardist. The honeymoon with the parties of the Left came to an end at the beginning of the 1980s when we held our first demonstrations in favor of reproductive rights and the decriminalization of abortion. It was a rude awakening. Up to that moment the Left considered us competent, intelligent, progressive women, who supported the struggles of the oppressed. Suddenly for most of the men and women of the Left we became hysterical petit bour- geois females, filled with foreign ideas, who sought to divide the unity of the poor. Maruja Barrig, a feminist who at that time belonged to a party, called this episode, "the premature divorce of a marriage never consummated."' Yet it was the beginning of the construction of a real feminist movement, which became the precursor of the broader women's movement. MOST PAINFUL AND DEBILITATING WAS having to pull away from the women of the parties who had developed their feminist sentiments along with us. They continued to struggle within the parties, creating "women's commissions," which for the first time criticized aspects of party dynamics that had been considered "natural": that women worked to support their husbands so the men could dedicate themselves full- time to the party and to preparing the revolution; that women were "queens of the mimeograph machine" rather mtan rmnrianrs wlmh equal ngnrts anu ool- 85 pesien-gations.6Through these commissions they lership was questioned the party's failure to take into account me dinrerent rnymms and urmng of women's activities, the double work- load, and the exclusive responsibility for caring for children and the home. What emerged were two different styles of politics, two perspectives on women's oppression, two views of social change. As Julieta Kirkwood points out, each group of women viewed the other suspi- ciously, as a rival for the political space they had discovered together. In the pro- cess, the women's movement became an arena "to be fought over as booty." For the party women, that space was filled with women but empty of politics. They eyed it as fertile terrain to cultivate party loyalties.' For the autonomous feminists, the chal- lenge was to learn a new style of politics. For a long time, however, we remained in REPORT ON THE AMERICASauthoritarian logic of society and the politicization of daily life-clashes with the authoritarian traditions of the Left. the thrall of the premises of the Left. We took on adjec- tives-"socialist feminism," "popular feminism," "revo- lutionary feminism"--to make our feminist commit- ment or perspective more palatable for us and for the parties. Over time we learned several things: that socialism need not be the sole property of the parties of the Left; that the feminism we proposed was inseparable from the overriding need for justice and democracy; and that we could only broaden the impact of feminist ideas among women and in society at large by struggling for a radically democratic society-democracy as a way of life, not only a form of government. (Democracy was not a major preoccupation of the Left at that time.) Some of us decided to fight for a feminism without qualifiers. It wasn't easy. Even among feminists some felt we were committing "treason" against the Left and against poor women. From then on, the differences between the two visions grew. We began to see that in the parties, "the word 'politics' takes priority," as Kirkwood wrote, "and within that concept the word 'women' is clearly and definitively linked to the situation of the country, the family and children. There is a disdainful rejection of issues considered 'too feminist'....the word 'women' is always qualified by the class, by popular, by the crisis, by the family. It is a term that can't be independent. They can't conceive of women alone."' Indeed the Left continued to analyze the women's movement and women's demands according to predeter- mined ideas about what women's activities and con- sciousness should be. They tended to homogenize women from a class viewpoint, analyzing women's acts of struggle in quantitative rather than qualitative terms. They defined women's activism not as a complex, ambivalent process that enriched the search for new and multiple identities, but rather as a certain capacity to struggle against the state, to support general struggles, and to provide for the needs of the family. Although these aspects are certainly present in women's praxis, they are by no means the only ones, nor necessarily the most developed. This quantitative vision also ignored the potential of certain currents of the women's movement, or the poten- tial of others like the gay rights movement. The gay movement has opened up new frontiers in Latin America by questioning one of the most repressed of human attributes: sexuality. By confronting the authoritarianism, repression and silence to which we are all subjected, the movement encourages democracy and a climate of re- spect for diversity. Time and again over the years, sarcas- tic laughter, veiled accusations of being lesbians or "machonas, " and the open refusal to adopt gay rights as human rights or civil rights reminded us that the parties of the Left were just as conservative and authoritarian as the rest. VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 5 (MAY 1992) 33 I 33 VOLUME XXV, NUMBER 5 (MAY 1992)Rqier4 ont Amecda The Left O UR DISTANCE FROM THE PARTIES WAS clearly a boon to the movement. We learned how crucial it is for social movements to risk a "moment of excision," as Gramsci suggests, to take the time for intro- spection, to isolate oneself from outside pressures and influences in order to build one's own agenda and to achieve a certain autonomy. During this "break" the first feminist consciousness-raising groups were founded, as well as the first collectives focused on particular themes. And we undertook a process of personal reflection and critical review of all our political and cultural baggage. Only then could we distance ourselves sufficiently from the conventional ways of politics to develop a feminist political perspective based on our multiple realities as women. Following this period of "looking inward," we felt an urgent need to establish channels to connect and relate to other women and to society. As I wrote soon thereafter, "We became increasingly aware of the fact that we could not pretend to be at the center of women's struggles from the vantage point of a privileged vanguard....[We had to] develop public visibility along with our collectives and consciousness-raising groups, and become part of society so that we could negotiate with parties, institutions and the state." 9 This was the thinking that led two of us, Victoria Villanueva and myself, to run for Congress in 1985 as independents on the ticket of the United Left (IU).'o We understood that we were placing at risk the autonomy which we had so jealously defended over the previous few years. But allowing autonomy to become isolation or an excuse to hide our fear of stepping into the public eye was an even greater risk. The Left viewed our candidacies with a great deal of mistrust. The men with whom we each lived at that time also happened to be running for Congress, on party slates. Word got around that our independent ticket was simply a front, since we couldn't possibly have different politics from our husbands! The parties that put forth women as candidates-all of them low down on the lists-saw us as Johnny-come-lately's who, after showering the parties with criticism for their failure to take up women's issues, sought to use the parties' prestige to get ahead. The women candidates saw us as disloyal competition, in a field that was not ours and with rhetoric that was not theirs. Our campaign slogan, "Vote for Yourself Woman: Feminists to Congress," was well received among women, but was severely criticized by the Left-for excluding men. This climate prevailed during most of the cam- paign, transcended only by a few of the party women with whom we established a more human and less "political" relationship. All in all our candidacies were an island in a profoundly male-oriented campaign. The IU made only isolated and fragmentary references to women, invoking cliches to maintain a facade of concern without any commitment to their real mean- ing or any appreciation of all that women had built over the years. Cornered and uncomfortable at rallies-where we would be thrust to the fore to show that IU had women candidates, then hurried to the back for the rest of the event-we chose to campaign on our specifically feminist platform. It was a question of principles, since the IU platform on women was never adhered to. Independent and party feminists had worked together for months to achieve a consensus on that platform and the demands to be raised. The final version we handed over to the plat- form committee included two key positions: decriminal- ize abortion and defend the right to sexual preference. In the published version, however, both demands were struck from the text. 1 " The crowning moment of this electoral drama came from Alfonso Barrantes himself, IU's independent presi- dential candidate, at his final campaign rally. Before an astonishingly large crowd in downtown Lima, he af- firmed categorically that, now more than ever, he was convinced that women's oppression had nothing to do with their sex or gender, only with their class. A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since then. The feminist movement has grown, broadened its per- spective, and learned from the developmentof the women' s movement as a whole. It has attempted to modify its vanguardist precepts and simplistic proposals on gender issues, recognizing the diversity of the move- ment and the legitimacy of the many roads that women take to confront the multiple ways in which they are oppressed. Feminists have grown closer to the other currents of the women's movement, especially the popular current, but bridges are also being built to those women who struggle in much more adverse conditions inside the parties. Our efforts have won the support of a number of male party militants, but after so many years the results seem embarrassingly small. Some of the knots in the relationship between the feminist movement and the parties have gotten worked out; others remain stubbornly tied. The murder of Maria Elena forces us to confront our feelings of anger and powerlessness toward Shining Path. But it also forces us to confront the same old authoritarian, exclusive, reduc- tionist and vanguardist paradigms that the Peruvian Left has yet to exorcise, and that have such nefarious conse- quences both for women and for the alternative vision that the parties might offer society at large. The lack of real dialogue, the absence of language that could incorporate the richness of feminist debate, is but the tip of the iceberg of a much deeper dilemma: the Peruvian Left' s loss of democratic horizons. I don't know where the Left is heading after so many failures, espe- cially after the death of Maria Elena. Perhaps the depth of the current crisis, and the fact that people's urgent needs can't be postponed, will impel the radical transformation the Left requires. Women: Tragic Encounters with the Left 1. At the beginning of the 1970s, the great upheavals in the world-May 1968 in France, the Vietnam War, Cuba, Latin American guerrilla movements, etc-began to influence the political and cultural climate of Peru's cities, especially Lima. People began to question predominant ideas about social change. Many women from different social classes, but primarily from the middle class, felt that joining the political parties of the Left was a way to rebel against the stereotypes that determined their status. During the 1980s other circumstances transformed the direction of Peruvian women's lives. The grave economic crisis gave enormous stimulus to women's ingenuity, but also lengthened their work-day; they had to seek income outside the home, however inadequate, or to improvise miracles to satisfy their families' basic needs. This led them to organize, and to seek collective solutions. 2. Over the past 13 years, feminists have made their presence known. There are a number of groups in Lima and elsewhere, linked up in national networks around specific themes. Some publish magazines and diaries, or produce videos. There are groups of feminist poets and journalists, as well as feminist researchers and institutions (inside the academy and out), who keep the nation abreast of the complex situation of women in the country. 3. This current is by far the largest, including organizations for basic consumption (communal kitchens, etc.) at local, regional and national levels; health and education committees; and women's clubs. They have built net- works, such as the Women's Federation of Villa El Salvador which Maria Elena Moyano led for many years and which has 13,000 members. 4. Obviously, not all women in the parties, federations or unions could be considered part of this current, because they don't recognize their own oppression, or because their actions only reinforce the status quo. The most extreme expression of the latter case are the women of Shining Path, whose views on politics and women are very authoritarian and traditional. 5. Maruja Barrig, "Democracia Emergente y Movimiento de Mujeres," in Movimientos Sociales y Democracia: La fundacidn de un nuevo orden (Lima: Desco, 1986). 6. These accusations made abig splash at first, but were soon marginalized as "women's issues," without substantially changing party dynamics or mentality. This occurred, according to Maruja Barrig, because "...the very structure of the Left parties blocked the emergence of a dialogue that could integrate issues of daily life into party militancy." Ibid. 7. Julieta Kirkwood, SerPolitica en Chile (Santiago: Editorial CLACSO, 1986). 8. Ibid. 9. Virginia Vargas, "Vota por ti Mujer: Reflexiones en torno a una campafia electoral feminista," in El Aporte de la Rebeldia de las Mujeres (Lima: Editorial Flora Tristdin, 1986), p. 55. 10. The IU presidential candidate, Dr. Alfonso Barrantes, did not belong to a party; around him emerged a group of "non-party" or independent leftists. On the congressional slates proportional slots were set aside for the parties and the independents. 11. Interestingly, defense of the right to sexual preference was maintained in IU's program for culture and education-perhaps because a man proposed it, and probably because its inclusion there had a different connotation than it would have had in the program for women.

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