Popular feminisms in Latin America

In much of Latin America struggles in defence of life have brought women into popular politics, and enabled an insurgent popular feminism.

In recent years, across Latin America, hundreds of struggles have taken place against mining companies in defence of water; against fumigation with glyphosate and the other poisons used on the genetically modified crops of the new colonial plantations; and against the destruction of public or common space for the construction of highways and real estate projects. This constellation of struggles in defence of life has been an intensive school for many women who strive to ensure the immediate reproduction of their own lives and those of their loved ones.

The massive presence of women in these struggles has been understood as a resurgence of reinvigorated popular feminisms, given that, by deploying their actions in defence of life and quickly politicising themselves, the protagonists confront the historical articulation between patriarchy and capitalism. Women fighting in defence of life have had to face increased domestic violence in their homes and aggression in public spaces by “comrades” who attack those women who dare take the floor and defend their points of view. They see their positions ignored and have a deaf ear turned to their words.

New constellations of popular feminisms

This is why we can speak of a renewal of popular feminisms: old problems of women being disciplined and contained by their supposed “peers” have reappeared with great intensity. And, a reinvigorated debate about these questions has sparked a discussion about the need for a specific articulation of women to engage their struggles. The apparently ancient issue of women’s “specific and autonomous organisation” to guarantee the conditions for their own participation in the “general struggle”, as was discussed at length in the 1970s and 1980s, has made itself present again in multiple and diverse concrete experiences.

Several years ago, the resurgence of these popular feminisms, or feminisms from below, started to defy and overflow the practices of containment of women’s insurgence, organised by the two major institutionalised agendas of official feminism: the agenda of equity and the agenda of social and reproductive rights. By no means am I saying that those agendas have become useless because their proposals and demands have been met. Social life, despite differences in some of the features of the sex/gender structuration, continues to be as inequitable and harsh for women as it was decades ago, despite the presence of some women in positions of power or representation; women who, most of the time turn into “honorary men”, behaving as such. In turn, the question of sexual and reproductive rights has managed to inscribe some, always negotiated, rights into law, while there has simultaneously been a generalisation of social and institutional violence that seeks to discipline women.

Varied constellations of popular feminisms have overflowed and challenged institutionalised feminism and, in the process, have given birth to an enormous enterprise of collectively producing meaning. Recently, we have seen the unfolding of a rainbow of struggles in defence of life, in which thousands of women play a key role, and sometimes lead. We have also seen hundreds of groups of young women emerge and return to older methods of gathering among themselves to name their shared discomforts, creating all types of “women’s spaces”, which have slowly rehabilitated the radical critical practice of rebellious feminism from decades ago: the among women.

The among women

The among women basically consists of the everyday and intentional practice of generating bonds of trust between diverse women to generate force and clarity, with the goal of challenging the many forms of violence and negation through which everyday patriarchal domination is exercised in private and public spaces. The practice of the among women enables the exercise of self-awareness: it allows each of us to reflect on others’ experiences and understand that the unease that we feel and inhabit – which is always distinct, but also similar – originates in the violent negation that makes us into a world organised around a dominant masculine rationality that structures the economic order as the negation of the world of the reproduction of life, and structures political life as the practice of representation.

The process of self-awareness that springs forth in the among women, calling us to “start from ourselves” – that is, to express what we ourselves perceive and think – reaffirms our different ways of feeling everyday social events and assigning them meaning. It pushes us to name the varied modes of mistreatment and hierarchisation that are invisible and “insignificant” from the perspective of another rationality.

The formal and informal among women has spread recently, in thousands of reiterations of that practice that are never identical, although they always share some similarities. It has named the violence experienced in private, defying the heteropatriarchy’s rules of silence. It has clearly distinguished the constant aggression experienced in formal and informal workplaces, in the comfortable masculine confusion between the public and private spheres, which can be separate or overlapping depending on the situation. We have reflected at length on the irritating disparity between the tasks to be completed, on the institutional violence that hides how difference becomes inequality and denies the everyday violence created by the absence of spaces of equality. It is in that breeding ground and with those tools that rebellion has been cultivated and sparked off.

We inhabit a time of rebellion against violence, against all forms of sexist violence and against the capitalist violence that negates and attacks the sustainability of life. It is a time of rebellion against violence, against all the violence felt in bodies and endured in everyday life and public spaces: homes, schools, streets, markets, factories, offices and universities have turned into sites of dispute.

Revolt against the negation of life

The revolt does not only take place in cities, it is also fuelled by the millions of women who live in the countryside: in the immense plantations of products that will not be daily food but rather export goods listed in distant stock markets, in territories attacked and degraded by toxic substances for the obtainment of minerals, or around rivers that are dammed to impose uses of water determined far away. Therefore, the struggle against all of this violence is a struggle against capitalism and its social order; against the negation of life as a whole and of dignified life in contemporary societies. That is its practical scope that does not fit into any platform of claims, that cannot be expressed as manageable demands to some institution. Although it does require, of course, the opening of paths and signalling of steps that allow for its continued deployment.

The multiple protagonists of this rekindled wave of revolts do not always inhabit women’s bodies, although they tend to be placed in the feminised places of the world that are territories of aggression, threat, and, frequently, death. Not without difficulty, through the among women that strives to achieve equilibrium between emotion and reason, we have produced harmony between women, lesbians, and trans women learning to (re)weave bonds between young and old, among those who inhabit diverse feminised bodies, among formal and informalised workers, between those living in cities, urban peripheries, and the country. On cultivating closeness without homogenising, distinguishing ourselves and retaining distance in what we do not share, regenerating relationships of respect and opening us up to possibilities for friendship, we are creating strength among us all.

We are expanding our capacity to politicise the discomfort nested in our bodies in all of the places we inhabit. We set off a massive repudiation of the systematic violence that we suffer, because among ourselves we are enabling the regeneration of unexpected and unusual relationships: the sex worker with the teacher, the indigenous woman with the informal worker, the lesbian with the mother with a daughter in prison for having an abortion, the domestic worker with the doctoral student who will not find work when she gets her degree, the journalist with the prisoner, the union activist with the young punk, the trans woman with the overwhelmed housewife in a heterosexual marriage, the secretary alongside the worker in a clandestine workshop or maquiladora … and so on.

Creative insolence

Looked at in this register, it is the brutal threat of the very possibility of ensuring the material and symbolic reproduction of life that has put many of us in a state of alert. The negation of that guarantee is fomented by the voracity of capital and by the hollowing out of political life and its sclerotic formal-democratic mechanisms. We are collectively opening a time of rebellion, while brutality seems to turn into the everyday norm: we repudiate all types of violence that destroy us. Millions of us – who, I insist, are not only women, although we are mostly women – experience the everyday brutal difficulty of guaranteeing life, our own and that of those close to us. We are fed up with enduring increasingly intense exploitation and extreme violence, in streets, in homes, in formal and informal jobs.

Over the past 40 years, the exploitation of all of our activities, the dispossession of almost all our creations and the barbaric and multiform violence against life as a whole, regularly travel those same dark streets, enter our homes, and make existence oppressive and dangerous. In this context, the feminist cry, in the form of creative plebeian insolence, has reappeared en masse after a period of our anger being captured by agendas that were as ordered and “decent” as they were impotent and useless.

Life in all of its noisy and exuberant variety has returned to the streets with us, shouting, again and again: “We want ourselves alive.” It has done so, additionally, in a time when the “progressive cycle” seems to have exhausted itself and the government of the country that has the most capacity to kill, to produce war, to crush freedom, is occupied by a millionaire who is also a caricature of the patriarch. It is now, in this threatening time, when our uprising reappears in defence of life, against all forms of violence, to protect and expand autonomy over our own bodies and over those of our sons and daughters.

The scope of this subversive and transformative force is immense. It suddenly alters hierarchies in homes and at work, in public space and in bedrooms. How do we express that collective clarity in words that will continue to make sense? These are questions that are beating in our bodies, connecting us in order to persevere in the effort to renew paths of social transformation in all planes of existence.

This is a lightly edited excerpt of a lengthier essay translated by Liz Mason-Deese and first published in Viewpoint Magazine.

Raquel Gutiérrez Aguilar is a professor of sociology at the Autonomous University of Puebla, Mexico. Her book, Rhythms of the Pachakuti: Indigenous Uprising and State Power in Bolivia, was published by Duke University Press in 2014.

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