8 de Marzo: Blog por el Día Internacional de la Mujer

Today is International Women’s Day (IWD), and women and their allies around the world are celebrating in a variety of ways.  On the blogosphere, Gender Across Borders, a feminist blog with an international focus, is hosting “Blog for International Women’s Day.” (Click here for a full list of participating blogs.)  This year’s theme for IWD is “Equal rights, equal opportunity: Progress for all,” and participants in Blog for IWD are being asked to write about what this phrase means to us.

To me, the phrase “equal rights, equal opportunity” immediately conjures up a number of important goals in gender equity that, in most countries, have yet to be met: gender parity in government and in other arenas of decision-making and power; equal pay for equal work, and dozens of others.  These goals are immensely important and, fortunately, many individuals and organizations around the world are working to realize them.  However, this is not what I want to write about.  After years of speaking with Bolivian women about their daily struggles with gender inequality, I’d like to address a different aspect of “equal rights,” one that likely underlies the majority of concrete inequalities in women’s experience: different ideas about and attitudes toward men and women.

If you were to come to Bolivia and ask any random woman on the street what the situation is like for women in the country, I would bet money that she would tell you that there is a lot of machismo in Bolivia.  Many men would probably concur.  And yet, I doubt you would find many individuals who would assert that there is a lot of sexismo in Bolivia.

To most Bolivians, it seems, machismo refers to those idiosyncratic, slightly annoying, but mostly harmless attitudes displayed by men who feel they are superior to women.  Although to your average western feminist, and probably to a lot of western men, the above definition sounds a lot like the stuff that sexism is made of, in Bolivia, these attitudes have become so normal and so normalized, that calling Bolivian men machista is something that even many men are willing to do.

Sexism, on the other hand, has another, slightly scarier, ring, and few are willing to pronounce the word.  Sexism, unlike machismo, is a word that carries political weight, that makes local women feel they are “complaining” about something, and that implies a call to action.  Sexism—a term used in Bolivia to refer to those more concrete gender inequities I mentioned at the top of the post, when it is used at all—is not really normalized, as machismo is, but neither is it recognized by society at large.

It’s time to wake up: machismo is sexismoUnequal ideas about appropriate male and female behavior, about who men and women are—psychologically or biologically, and about what men and women deserve, are what justify, legitimize, and normalize unequal rights and unequal opportunities for men and women. So, this is what “equal rights, equal opportunity: progress for all” means to me—it means recognizing that ideas about sexual difference are constructed, not natural, and it means exposing the lies that these ideas represent.

Below are a number of visions of what “equal rights, equal opportunity” might look like in Bolivia.  These visions are based upon the unequal ideas about and attitudes toward women and men that I have witnessed in La Paz and El Alto since 1999.

She can have multiple sexual partners, as he can, and not be considered a slut while he is considered a stud.  They can both just be considered sexually active human beings.

He can wash dishes, clean clothes, and help take care of his children without being considered a “sissy” by his male friends.

She can buy condoms and be prepared for sex, and not be considered “easy.”

She can run for political office without being considered laughable, nor facing violence or threats.

He and his female partner can chose to not have children without his virility being questioned.

She can have male friends and acquaintances without being accused of sexual infidelity by her male partner.

She can choose abortion without being considered a murderer, a bad mother, or a “cold woman.”

She can have sex with women, without being sexually exoticized nor labeled as politically extreme.

She can be considered just as capable as a man when driving or working in construction.

She can go out at night and drink with friends, and not be considered guilty or “asking for it” if she is raped.

She can go out at night, or in the morning, or at any time of day–and NOT be raped.

Thank you to the Bolivian women who have shared their experiences with me, and to all of the women around the world who make me wake up every day still believing that change is possible. ( The above photograph was provided by a guest photographer.)

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