Women at War

September 25, 2007

In June of 1986, I meet with a leader of the Communist Party of Peru (PCP), the movement known as Sendero Luminoso or Shining Path. As we sat in the comer of a small restaurant in a middle-class residential neighborhood near the center of Lima, I was intrigued to see that a leader of this movement commonly characterized by outsiders as "enigmatic," "vicious," "despotic" and "dogmatic," was a soft-spoken young woman, articulate but unpretentious. I'll call her "Lucia."

I had discovered in the course of researching women's organizations among Peru's poor that Sendero Luminoso had, since its inception, attracted women in much larger numbers than men. In fact, its best-known military commanders have been teenage women, such as Edith Lagos, whose oratory inspired peasants throughout the southcentral sierra, and whose funeral in the highland town of Ayacucho attracted a crowd of some 30,000 people.

I asked Lucia why a movement that brought so much risk to supporters was gaining its most ardent adherents among women. Did it reflect, perhaps, a reclaiming of female power in this society where village life was once characterized by dual governance by women and men? Our conversation was interrupted by a voice booming over the restaurant radio. It was a spokesman for the armed forces, announcing that uprisings were underway in three Lima prisons, Lurigancho, EI Fronton, and Santa Barbara, where a number of suspected Senderistas were held.

A day later, it was revealed that nearly 300 prisoners died in the uprising. Most of these had never been formally charged or brought to trial, though they had implicated themselves as Senderistas by literally taking over sections of the prisons and turning them into schools of revolution.[1] Eventually, the government admitted that many of the prisoners had been summarily executed, after they had turned over hostages and given themselves up. Among those killed at Lurigancho was a young man who had lived with our family for eight months ten years earlier - one among many who over the years had lost faith in "politics as usual."

While the foreign press and foreign academics for the most part avoid the subject of female leadership and predominance in Sendero, the Peruvian press, with its penchant for sensationalism, plays it up constantly. Edith Lagos was Shining Path's first military commander in Ayacucho. She escaped from prison several times before being killed by the military at the age of nineteen. Laura Zambrano Padilla, a former schoolteacher known as "Meche," was arrested with great fanfare in 1984, accused of being the head of Shining Path's military operations in Lima. Brenda Pérez Zamora was identified by one source as the second-in-command of the organization since late 1988. Maria Parado is said to have directed the assault on a prison in Ayacucho that freed hundreds of prisoners. Marina Loayza, Sonia Rosas, Violeta Quispe, Haydee Cáceres, Filipina Palomino, Hermelinda Escobar, Emma Frida, Patricia Zorrilla, Carla Carlota Kutti and Clementina Berrocal are among the dozens of others cited as "cruel and bloody" guerrilla leaders by the mainstream press.

Eighteen of the 30 people arrested in a government roundup of "party leaders" in Lima, the day before last June's run-off presidential elections, were women, including Sybila Arredondo, the widow of novelist Jos6 Maria Arguedas. Female schoolteachers, lawyers, health workers, college professors (including the president of the faculty of San Marcos University), artists, journalists, and union activists - all have been sought in police raids and accused of "terrorism," "apology for terrorism" or "conspiracy to commit terrorist acts." As many as 600 women have been arrested in a single day.

Sendero's appeal to women is only understandable in the context of the breakdown of traditional Peruvian society, particularly in the highlands over the last thirty years. Large numbers of men have been recruited to work in factories, mines and farm cooperatives oriented toward export, leaving women alone for the most part to defend communal lands and the cultural integrity of rural life. Even those women and children who have entered the money economy are effectively excluded from joining the established avenues for political participation and protest.

Peru's male-dominated legal Left has failed miserably to draw the "marginalized" and disenfranchised female majority into a movement for change. In fact, the Left's apparent inability to resist corruption and cooptation in office, especially at the municipal level, has reinforced women's distrust of all mate political posturing. Recognizing this, Sendero's leadership has made special efforts to prepare women to assume positions of responsibility. The party's consistent adherence to the idea that all existing governing structures must be destroyed in order to rebuild society from the grassroots up seems to have special appeal for women,

In the countryside, traditional authority structures that date from post-conquest reducciones (settlements) established by the Spanish often overlap with municipal governments that date from the Republican era. Municipal governments are almost always entirely male and tend to represent the commercial interests of the better-off members of the community. (While indigenous community meetings are attended by males and females, women usually sit on the ground in a group and only participate when discussions are conducted in Quechua.)

A central feature of Shining Path's program is the overthrow of village governing structures that promote commercial interests, and the establishment of "peoples' committees," ostensibly to promote reciprocal rather than competitive relations among villagers. It is in these “committees” that women's predominance is most evident. In effect, this has meant the overthrow of male-dominated local governments and the establishment of female-dominated structures, which has allowed women to "settle accounts" in their own fashion as well as to reorganize social life in a manner they view as more equitable.

Besides redistributing land and promoting collective planting and harvesting, peoples' committees have put an end to delinquency, prostitution, drug addiction and domestic violence, Widows and the elderly receive necessary assistance from the community. Education is made available to everyone. Barter replaces buying and selling in local markets, and ancient rituals connected with the cycles of life are observed by the entire community.[2]

Peruvians have always been adept at surviving by establishing relations of cooperation at the community level; traditions of respect for nature and concern for future generations resonate within communal structures. Such practices are undermined, however, in times of extreme hardship and social dislocation. Through "criticism and self-criticism," Sendero encourages villagers to regain confidence in communal values. Government corruption and the breakdown of social life has brought so much frustration to women that many yearn for a dependable authority that can arbitrate disputes and restore continuity in daily life. An alternative such as the Communist Party of Peru - no matter how autocratic - that is understandable, that substitutes actions for words, and that requires unbending discipline and faith, is greatly appealing.

My first awareness of the existence of the PCP student federation, "in the shining path of José Carlos Mariátegui," came when I was a teacher at the Universidad Nacional del Centro in Huancayo in 1974. I read the early publications of this movement, based among students and teachers in Ayacucho. These included a translation of "Love in a Communist Society," the classic statement by Russian revolutionary Alexandra Kolantay, and a booklet written by Shining Path leader Catalina Adrianzén, "El Marxismo de Mariátegui y el Movimiento Femenino." I also heard about students' efforts to organize among women in mining camps; I read reports from a national conference on working women organized by the PCP in 1975; and I attended a forum at which cadre debated other Maoists, defending the primacy of "the woman question."[3]

Alone among political parties of the Left in the 1970s, Sendero's Movimiento Femenino Popular insisted that "the woman question" was not a "secondary contradiction" that could be put aside until after the revolution. They published feminist booklets and tracts, and a magazine, Rima Ryna Warmi (Women Speak Out), in Quechua and Spanish. While adherents never saw themselves as the vanguard of a class struggle against men, the movement appeared to be a radical response to the super-subordination of indigenous women in what its representatives described as a "semi-feudal, semi-colonial" society. Abimael Guzmán, the university teacher who became Sendero's undisputed leader, and his wife, Augusta de la Torre (credited with pushing her husband to move beyond armchair theorizing about revolution), never abandoned the emphasis on gender equality within the organization - even when the development and implementation of military strategy began to take precedence over public propaganda.

A crucial difference between Sendero and what they call the "revisionist Left" is the former's emphasis on self-reliance and the development of the subsistence economy, as opposed to one based primarily on export fueled growth. This is particularly relevant to Sendero's appeal to women, because Indian women are the primary participants in Peru's subsistence economy, and are for the most part excluded from the benefits of "development. "

A majority of Peru's people have roots in Quechua speaking communities of the Andes mountains, where Spanish conquistadors defeated the Inca empire, but never succeeded in destroying Indian culture. Only since the 1950s, with the penetration of capitalist economic "development," has rural community life been consistently threatened. Efforts to develop export industries have disrupted local subsistence economies and stimulated out-migration from the sierra, particularly of men. This separation of men and women by wage-work left women without traditional support systems to maintain subsistence agriculture. In some cases, production and sale of food items traditionally under the control of women, such as meat and potatoes, were displaced by industrialized livestock-raising and mechanized farming controlled by men.

This economic "development" did not increase the standard of living of Indian families. Although overall agricultural production may have increased, the amount of food and other products and services available to poor families, especially women and children, did not.[4] Development did bring massive dislocation of peasants, and peasant mobilization against the usurpation and despoliation of communal lands, forcing the government to initiate agrarian reform in the 1960s. As in a number of other nations, the agrarian reform efforts only sharpened class divisions and accelerated political conflict in the countryside.

One-third of Peruvian families are now headed by women, and this statistic is much higher in most rural areas.[5] Besides assuming the primary burden for maintaining subsistence agriculture, many women are entrepreneurs or contract workers in the "informal economy," or have some income from wages but not on a regular or full-time basis. Neither the government nor the country's major union federations have offered women consistent support in any of these roles. Many poor women, therefore, tend to be skeptical about the possibilities for real change short of rebuilding social and economic life literally "from the ground up." Shining Path provides them with a vehicle for pursuing such a radical vision and has welcomed women's leadership in the process.

While women's economic interests have become sharply differentiated from those of men in many communities, cultural traditions of mutual aid and reciprocity, combined with the instability of export markets and the exploitative nature of work relations in capitalist industries, have made collective resistance possible. No one advocates a female revolt against men as a solution to economic and social crisis, least of all Sendero Luminoso. Nevertheless, as male-dominated efforts at reform have faltered, and as Sendero has begun to challenge the power of the state, the struggle sometimes takes on such an appearance. For example, female members of a pro-Indian group based in Lima leafleted and picketed the male leadership several years ago, accusing them of misappropriating funds and of failing to support their own children. The men lost favor with Sendero and were discredited among their constituents.[6]

The “over-representation” of women in Shining Path is not only based on ideology. It can also be traced to the social independence of women in the region where the movement began. In most of the Peruvian sierra, villages are composed of an upper part and a lower part, allowing for the herding of hardy animals such as alpaca in the higher altitudes, and the cultivation of corn and potatoes below. Under the impact of Spanish conquest, many upper villages in the Ayacucho region became havens for women who were persecuted for "idol worship" (idolatría) and subject to rape, concubinage, and forced marriage at the hands of priests and hacendados. Cooperative work relations between the women who lived a semi-nomadic life in the higher altitudes and the men who lived in the more stable agricultural communities below allowed women to develop a certain social and economic independence, while at the same time benefiting from the support of their husbands and older male children.

Women lived in temporary huts and were visited regularly by the men. Even though the distance between the two villages necessitated an all-day walk, men often made the trek every weekend. Women also participated in planting and harvest activities in the lower villages, and took part in community fiestas. Although life was extremely hard, the worst effects of feudalism were resisted by men and women together, and mutual respect generally prevailed.[7]

Some have suggested that Peruvian women are reclaiming an aspect of their "historical personalities" through assertion of political and military leadership in Sendero, drawing on an Andean tradition of women occupying the first line of battle.[8] Iconographic representations found in pre-Inca tombs show female deities with teeth in their vaginas. The fifteenth-century female warrior, Mama Huaco, companion of Inca leader Manco Cápac, was so ferocious, according to legend, that she caused the original inhabitants of Cuzco to flee the advance of the Incas.[9] A number of writers have compared Sendero's female leaders to Micaela Bastidas, the eighteenth-century Indian woman who commanded troops in the rebellion against the Spanish led by her husband, Tupac Amaru II. She reportedly sent him a message shortly before their defeat and death in Cuzco, warning that he had sealed their fate by disobeying her orders and delaying the assault on the city.[10]

Peruvian anthropologist Daniel Malpartida makes what he calls an "ethno-psychoanalytic" analysis of female leadership in Peruvian wars: "Mama Huaco, woman warrior, is the mythical representation of female aggressiveness that is latent in the consciousness of Andean women .... Women react aggressively because they suffer a double repression, that of their own sexual companion and of a society governed by men. [Sendero leader] Edith Lagos, like so many other women, is an expression of this drama .... Micaela Bastidas, on the other hand, saw more clearly than Túpac Amaru the need to take Cuzco. Her education and her ideology were different from his. She was more Indian and more sensitive to the needs of her people. Putting it more bluntly, Túpac Amaru was afraid of the ‘dentured vagina.’ Unconsciously, he was unable to free himself from the fear of castration. Above all, he was afraid of losing masculine hegemony. Otherwise, the two would have marched on Cuzco together and, needless to say, our history would have turned out quite differently.”[11]

In a similar vein, journalists in Peru have drawn attention to the writings of Flora Tristán. the French-Peruvian revolutionary feminist who wrote about the “rabonas,” young women who accompanied male regiments resisting the Chilean invasion in the 1880s. "Indian women embrace this life voluntarily," she wrote, "and confront danger with a courage of which the men are incapable."[12]

While alluding to such historical antecedents, Peru's middle-class feminist publications generally stop short of drawing overt comparisons with Sendero Luminoso. Most denounce all forms of violence and do not consider Sendero to be a friend of "the women's movement." When La Tortuga, Peru's most conservative feminist magazine, published an interview with well-known Sendero sympathizer Sybila Arrendondo in 1986, it caused quite a stir. Arredondo had been accused of cooperating with the guerrillas and was released after fifteen months in jail when no evidence was presented to support the charges against her.

In the course of the interview, she continually attempted to draw attention to the terrible conditions suffered in prison by young Indian women accused under Peru's "anti-terrorist law." The women were refused contact with lawyers and family members, deprived of medical attention and food, and subjected to torture and rape by officials. When asked why so many women join Sendero, she declared that women are attracted to revolution because they, along with children, are the most oppressed, and because Sendero Luminoso "has a 'correct line,' as the politicians say, and they carry it forward effectively, so it's only natural that these women join the movement with great passion."[13]

In the poor urban neighborhoods, Sendero uses guerrilla theater to educate people about the sources of their misery. The plays often depict family squabbles, ridiculing men who strut around, quarrel with their neighbors, drink, and cheat on their wives. Women who gossip and who try to imitate upper-class Peruvians or characters from soap operas are also ridiculed. Typically, the heroine is a woman who rebels, joined by her children or by other youth. In the end, all chant together the Maoist slogan: "Rebellion is justified!" Sometimes the chanting turns into rounds of gunshot fired into the air, accompanied by shouts of "Shining Path is in the trenches! Long live the Republic of New Democracy!"

Social changes in recent decades have made adultery endemic, and this is a source of acute anguish for women. Sendero has been known to threaten husbands who have abandoned their wives and children, and who are habitual womanizers. I asked one of my informants how he thought striking fear into male family members could be reconciled with Shining Path's desire to recruit them. He simply responded, "The men are shaping up."

In 1984, I had the opportunity to live for a time in Apurímac (adjacent to Ayacucho), where I accompanied a female leader of the peasant union, Confederación Campesina del Perú (CCP), Large sections of Andahuaylas (a province of Apurimac) had been taken over by members of the union in the mid- 1970s, but as agrarian reform faltered, many peasants left the CCP to join Shining Path. Brutal and arbitrary repression by the government followed. I talked with relatives of prisoners accused of terrorism and with a woman who participated in Sendero's "popular education" programs, directed mainly toward people of high school age. They told me that nearly all the students in these clandestine schools were young women, many of whom had grown up in the high altitudes where life had become too difficult for survival. They saw no hope for reform, either through union activity or government largess, and certainly not through the charade of elections.

I recall being told often by women in the farm workers' union that they were tired of listening to endless speeches and promises, followed by retreat and betrayal. I had seen women in the union stage a kind of "cultural revolution," insisting (without much success) on female representation. The difference was that they had no arms in hand to guarantee respect, as Senderista women do.

I asked a female leader of Shining Path how she, as a well-educated professional, could submit herself "blindly" to the authority of a powerful individual - and a man at that. She was certainly not submissive in relation to her husband, who was unaware of her clandestine life in Sendero. She said that under the leadership of "El Guia" - or "Presidente Gonzalo," as Abimael Guzmán is also known - the party had made great strides, achieving what no other political organization in Peru had ever been able to achieve: a sustained attack against "bureaucratic capitalism" and the "comprador state." She said the entire organization engaged in self-criticism as part of its ongoing commitment to “cultural revolution.” But most importantly, she insisted that having overall leadership that was dependable, not vacillating, was an inspiration.

Shining Path cadre see the centralization of political authority in "Presidente Gonzalo" as a guarantee that grassroots power will not he subverted. Disgusted with the "posturing" of electoral candidates and with the seemingly unproductive rivalry among them, the vertical leadership of "El Guia" appears as a welcome relief. Paradoxically, the existence of hierarchy in the party is regarded as an assurance that selfishness or egotism on the part of local cadre will not prevail over the common good.

On the other hand, local cadre seem to have great latitude in carrying out ajusticiamientos (settling of accounts), sometimes by execution, against those who are considered to be enemies, spies, or traitors to the movement, including men accused of rape. Many women, who perhaps have more accounts to settle than do men, do not seem to find this disturbing. In reaction to media reports about seemingly wanton violence committed by Senderistas, I have heard women find ways to justify the action, by declaring the reports to be false or expressing confidence that those who committed errors or excesses will be brought to judgment by the party. They know they will not be raped by a Shining Path soldier; they will not be humiliated and degraded for being poor, for being Indian, or for being female. Lack of formal education will not be held against them, and their interests will not be compromised for personal gain

The latent political energies of Peru's poor Indian women have been tapped by a movement that supports them in their drive to recover land for community use and to reclaim unity between women and men in the rebuilding and development of their communities. There is no guarantee that these characteristics will continue to define the organization if it achieves state power. Women have always been active participants in revolutionary movements, especially peasant movements, but their power has always been undermined in the end. It is unlikely that Sendero's "New Democracy" will be democratic enough to permit independent grassroots movements to flourish (given the persistence of counter-revolution worldwide). So the women of Shining Path will have to make sure they don't relinquish their arms.

Lucia, the leader I met with on the day of the prison massacres, told me that "El Guia" asked revolutionary cadre to envision constantly the kind of society they would like to achieve, and to be ready to overcome every obstacle in the realization of that vision. Whatever the outcome of the present political crisis in Peru, Sendero Luminoso has presented an enormous challenge to its detractors. An understanding of the movement's social history and of its peculiar attraction for women is important in developing a critique of political forces at work in that country and in many other places where the impact of "development" on women is particularly severe.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR Carol Andreas teaches sociology at the University of Northern Colorado and edits Peru Scholars News and Notes. Her When Woman rebel: The Rise of Popular Feminism in Peru was recently reissued by Lawrence Hill.

NOTES (forthcoming)

Tags: Peru, Shining Path, Women, marginalized, self-reliance

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