I’m currently in Barcelona after an unexpected turn of events. I had been in France for a month or so, doing a cultural program with the Lions Club and living with friends & their family when the family for whom I had worked for last summer as an au pair in Antibes called me and told me that I had enough credit with Air France for one aller-retour to almost anywhere within Western Europe. Our return to Paris last summer had been overbooked and they had remboursed the entire value of the tickets. So, I decided to come here to Barcelona.
I’ve been here for about two and a half weeks now. To come here from France is just mind-blowing. No one in France speaks to you in public, unless you’re female and it’s a French guy coming up to you from behind (always from behind! this is perturbing) to hit on you. My very first day in Barcelona, I went to Biblioteca Miró to try to learn a bit of Catalan, the more-loved of the two official languages here. I stepped out to the park afterwards to get some fresh air, and sat on a bench to people-watch, as usual, when two little girls came up to me. They were very giggly and shy, yet bold in that way that little kids can be. We started talking about the summer program that they were doing, and after about 5 minutes of talking with me, they said goodbye and went back to join the other kids. Ten seconds later, they came back and joined me on the bench. They invited me to play with them and I literally became the star of the program within a half hour. The guys who were working as camp counselors were concerned that the kids were bothering me, but I explained that I was honored to just be included. One of them, Lluis, and I began to talk. He’s actually a musician
working a summer tempjob in the program. As I had as of then not made any Spanish friends there, I hung out with him and his friends later. I ended up staying in his friend’s apartment later that week, as they had some guest rooms and I felt comfortable with them.
One of the guys living there, Sebastian, is from Colombia and was delighted to talk about his country and dance salsa. One day we had cooked a
traditional Spanish dish, arroz al horno – it’s similar to paella except with a lot more meat and the rice is baked – and he invited a Colombian friend with whom he is doing his Master’s in Architecture to the house. His friend then introduced me to his wife, who is working with an NGO in Africa. She just finished a Master’s in International Relations in Barcelona, and she had some free time, so she was assisting a course on 20th century conflicts at an NGO. She invited me to the course, which is what motivated me to write this post and share my experience/views with you all.
The course was only for 5 days, and therefore was appropriately titled: Introduction to 20th century conflicts. There were three different lecturers, and the talks ranged from “The state of the world” to “Social activism & technology” to “Through a woman’s eyes: patriarchal society”. There were also interactive activities. I remember vividly the simulation of a totalitarian state. We were given responses for possible situations, and cards labeled Tranquility, Health, Money, Freedom. The lady who was directing this activity read out the situations, we made our choices, and based on our choices, sacrificed or gained one of those four options. At the end of the simulation, everyone was psychologically spent. One of the things about life is that every action has an effect and has consequences; decisions are stressful and hard to make because we cannot easily foresee those consequences. The stakes are much higher in a totalitarian state, and I felt morally sick making some of the choices that I did in that simulation. I was astonished to find that every case in that exercise was taken from a real case in history. Peace Brigades uses this exercise as part of their training to prepare men and women for their work in Guatemala, Colombia, Mexico, etc.
Maria del Rosario Vásquez Sepúlveda directed the last three days of the course, including the simulation of repression, and is a woman whose gentleness, intelligence, optimism, and powerful indignance struck me. She has a fine sensibility for the smaller, important things of a functioning society, such as the sense of involvement and community, but speaks out intelligently and forcefully about the larger issues as well. She is Colombian and has seen repression, violence, and machismo growing up.
I was struck by an article that she wrote for La Red Nacional de Mujeres de Colombia. It is titled: Con Ojos de Mujer: Una Visión Crítica del Patriarcado (With Eyes of a Woman: A Critical Look at Patriarchy). I have read about matriarchal societies and how patriarchal societies socially evolved in anthropology courses/books, but this is the first article that I have read directly comparing the two and what exactly was lost in the process of transformation. Historically, women and men have had different functions in society. This was the case in much smaller groups, such as hunter/gatherer and tribes. However, as human groups grew bigger and more complex, more roles were dilineated and men controlled that delineation. Men controlled the value of these roles as well. This is why today, stay-at-home mothers are not valued by society. Their “work” is not included in the national GDP of a country. Indeed, how has prostitution evolved? Because men have created a society where women are valued for their appearance and sex appeal. Capitalism and patriarchy are interrelated. Liberated women of my generation try to ignore or genuinely do not see this connection, and they believe that their key to empowerment is money. In truth, capitalism is not the answer either.
It sometimes seems as though women are “liberated” and “modern” only if they are professional. This has become such a movement in the developed world that there are articles about the “fertility crisis” – women are waiting longer and longer to have families because they feel that they cannot develop themselves professionally if they have families earlier. This is not not true – employers have been known to discriminate against hiring marriage-age-appropriate women because they think that they will leave the company as soon as they get married to have children. The real reason for this however, is that society does not esteem motherhood. There is no “income”, there is no inclusion of being a mother in any job category, as I had mentioned, it is not included in any national GDP, and I have heard, more than once, comments from men saying that “All women are prostitutes” because these men believe that women want to marry the richest man that they can find and then not work.
Maria writes about the other side of that equation, about this path that women like me want to take to become respected by society: “Pero de otro lado, al menos a mi me pasa, al cabo de una vida trabajada en el mundo de lo público – no lo digo en tanto sector publico, sino como lo contrario a lo domestico – entre otros saldos me queda una profunda decepción en la medida en que si me preguntan: allí tampoco estaba la felicidad ni la realización plena. Y el mito del trabajo afuera es al final de cuentas, como el sueño americano, que termina muchas veces en pesadilla. Entonces, es posible pensar en una sociedad justa y equilibrada que tome en cuenta: La reproducción; Lo domestico; El cuidado; Lo local. Una de las contribuciones del feminismo a la teoría social ha sido justamente el reconocimiento de que las relaciones de poder operan dentro de las relaciones sociales primarias y secundarías. La conocida consigna de “lo personal también es político” pone en cuestión los límites de lo público y la privado. Coloca las relaciones en el ámbito íntimo de la familia y de la sexualidad como relaciones de poder, producto de una construcción legal y cultural. Con esta consigna se reivindica el derecho a debatir públicamente sobre aquellos temas que por íntimos estuvieron vedados”. (On the other hand, at least this happens to me, at the end of a working life in the public – not in the public sector, just as the opposite of a domestic life – in between other things, I have been left with a profound disappointment in this path. Happiness nor fulfillment is there. In the end, the myth of work away from the home is like the American Dream; it often ends in a nightmare. Therefore, it is possible to think of a fair and equal society that takes into account: Reproduction, The Domestic Sector, Care, The local. One of the things that feminism has brought to social theory has been the recognition that the relations of power operate within primary or secondary social relations. The well-known phrase “the personal is also political” puts into question the boundaries between the public and the private. It places the relationships in the realm of the family and sexual relationships as relationships of power, products of cultural and legal construction. This phrase vindicates the right to debate these subjects publicly, that for being intimate, were formerly considered private.)
We’re living in a post-feminist world. When people think about feminism, they think about the radical feminists of the 60s/70s, who fought with clenched teeth against patriarchy and institutions such as marriage and family. That is not my generation. Most of my female friends are generally indifferent to the new liberties and rights that they have. Meanwhile, girls and women in developing countries dream of these rights and possibilities. Women/girls/feminists of my generation need to see the difference between the past and the present; the inequalities between the developing world and the developed world for women. I hope that feminists of my generation become like Maria del Rosario Vásquez Sepúlveda. I hope that these women educate themselves, respect themselves, work to support themselves, but at the end of the day, understand that the path to empowerment and fulfillment is not to act like a man nor to work 70 hour weeks. I hope that they understand the importance of motherhood, and the importance of family. I hope that one day the entire world realizes that positive, lasting change will only come when women are treated with respect and dignity, given the opportunity to develop themselves intellectually and professionally so that they can contribute politically and economically to the world, and that healthy families and communities will not come into existence unless women feel that their role in these families and communities are important and necessary. We already recognize the problems that have developed with capitalism: the large inequalities, the extreme poverty, the violence, the corruption. Why do we not also make the connections between these greater social problems and the repression/capitalization of women? It is treated as a separate issue, and yet, I believe that it is this that is at the root of the vast majority of the problems in the world today.