Would you say we have “womanism”?
Years of fighting for and gaining woman rights by Cuban women has not exorcised the patriarchal ghost that still rears its head
By Alina Perera and Yailin Orta
March 8, 2009 00:39 GMT
A CubaNews translation.
Edited by Walter Lippmann.
To be a woman with spread wings; to be One and not to lose the charm and tenderness inherent in one, in this island…it’s a tough job. Don’t be frightened, reader: the authors of this article are no hard-core stubborn upholders of women’s liberation excluding indispensable male companionship. We do not uphold the statement: “foolish men who accuse women without reason…”
If we look at things more profoundly, more justly, we have to admit that despite everything, Cuban women have gained, in the maelstrom of a revolution that has never stopped thinking about them, there are still bonds that tie them down. From these bonds, as old as the human species, a patriarchal vision stems forth, silent as a ghost.
“To run on a par with the wolves, they have to pay the price”, confessed an anthropologist who studies the history of feminism in Cuba. And now, in light of the Congress of the Cuban Women Federation (FMC), we wondered about how women in our society, where discrimination against women is not legitimate, face a cultural challenge. Granted women and men are different, But, why do they have to assume life’s responsibilities so inequitably?
This is a fascinating issue that concerns us all. Hence, we went in search of voices to help us think about the reality of women in Cuba today. And, on the path walked by the Federation; born in 1960 when huge gaps between men and their partners had to be closed.
The cost of advancement
“Living in these times is difficult, both for women and men,” said Ivette Vega Hernández, editor of the magazine “Muchacha”, published by “Editorial de la Mujer”.
She could not ignore the impact of the distressing blockade that gravitates over our daily life: “The FMC has denounced it in international forums. It has done so, thinking about the great toll it is for women to assume roles historically assigned to them. When a woman occupies minutes from her working time worrying about the food she needs to cook, it is time taken from her work. Besides being good professionals, they feel they must also be good at home”.
And, this is not wrong. What’s wrong is that only women are concerned with such issues. The pattern seems cloned in the younger generations, said Ivette Vega: “It is common in high schools that girls, to meet the expectations of their partners, take on the responsibility of managing and taking care of the weekly groceries, or washing clothes. Disparities are not changed by a stroke of a pen; they pass through the individual conscience of each human being. Change is costly because it means getting rid of more than five or six hundred years of patriarchal culture.”
In the eyes of specialists, women continue to function compelled by very old triggers. It is obvious that in many households, the times when the “weaker sex” requested permission to work “outside the home“ are over. But, Ivette Vega reflects, “now, there’s a deep silence when we get home, or there’s a disapproving expression on their faces when we open the door.”
There are other, more blatant, discriminatory signals, such as we find in “popular songs” that brand women as heartless thieves or greedy. As long as there are people that see us in this way, equal opportunity and social justice will not be achieved“, said the director of the magazine “Muchacha”.
And she gave us other examples to ponder: “If I have a brother and he works less than me at home simply because he’s male, justice has not been achieved. If I’m the one who has to be careful about having sex, and not him, the point of view is still lopsided. Because, becoming a father is something as serious and responsible as becoming a mother. “
There is a trend Ivette did not overlook: ‘When you move up the social pyramid, the number of women in leadership positions diminishes. Is it because they are no longer bold, decisive, and intelligent? No. Life changed them, and those that “get there” … What have they lost, what have they gained, what makes them suffer? And, if apparently they have not lost anything, what do they feel guilty of? What is the cost to pay if they fail to conform to the mother or wife cultural pattern expected of them? A truly revolutionary change is needed, because it is not enough for me to be present: we must be really there, without it being considered a heresy. “
To run or to flirt, with the wolves?
Without including the male point of view, this journalistic expedition would be incomplete. That is why we invited Julio Cesar Pages, Ph. D. in Historical Science and anthropologist, to contribute his point of view on this complex and sensitive issue. It’s an issue that triggers the most diverse views, and there’s always the risk of not being able to balance them.
“We are a country with high expectations, we have a large population of women with university and pre-university studies, we have achieved a great professional level, but ‘machismo’ survives as a cultural and educational label.
“Whereas our women have grown in their spiritual universe and in the professional world, our men have not done the same. We remain a gallant, but discriminatory society. I’d like to make clear that the ‘machismo’ discourse includes everyone. It is not just superficial, it’s a set of ideas profoundly embedded [in our consciousness].
“The challenge to overcome it can not be left solely to the FMC. It seems to me it lacks responsibility, if only those who are most vulnerable face it. It needs a social synergy in which all the institutions must work. The Federation must be the generator, but not the custodian of all the problems. “
Julio Cesar wanted to remind us that absent mothers and fathers are judged differently. Mothers who turn away from their children are downright disqualified. On the other hand, [absent] fathers are seen as wayward or judged simply as abiding by tradition.
“If a woman decides to run at a par with the wolves, it will be very difficult for her. She will probably be disqualified. Similarly, if a man isn’t dominant, he will definitively be disqualified and even run over by the competition,” stated the anthropologist. For him, it’s not easy to make educational talks coincide with day by day reality, among other reasons, because “we keep sticking to women without involving men.”
The mirage of equity
There are many traps, sometimes subtle snares, set on the road to equity. To sustain this idea, Julio Cesar Gonzalez suggested we examine how, when some women occupy positions in which they have to make important decisions, they tend to use certain communication codes used by men.
In this reflection, the Doctor of Historical Sciences says that “we cannot bring about equity without working on men’s perception of their masculinity. When we talk to some men about changing, they associate change with being weak.”
When referring to the history of women struggles for liberation, the interviewee noted that, due to their public success in the nineteenth century, men made progress. But, women went further because they questioned their essence. “For me as a social activist, the great challenge of the twenty-first century is to work with men and get them to influence others [men].”
– How do you feel people see you for studying issues such as masculinity?
-Sometimes I provoke skepticism. Some doubt me. “This man is missing something,” they sometimes think. But later, during the debate, people become passionate [with the subject]. So, I get a lot of solidarity. And many people come to me to tell me their most intimate conflicts.
Significance and dreams of a federation
To get to know the intricacies of the Federation, to get to be part of its National Directorate, was for Ivette Vega an opportunity to discover the transformative dimension of the Revolution on women. It’s a change that has been “much more inclusive than what might be dealt with in books. We speak of a job that has been difficult, systematic, and not always well understood.”
– What do you consider are the most immediate tasks the organization has to perform?
– I think the first challenge facing the FMC is to make the girls of the new generations understand fully, that conquered goals do not last per se, and if we fail to defend them, they can be lost.
“In the ’60s, most women had to the community as their sole political and social participation space.
Fifty years later, many young girls study in boarding schools; others work and have different responsibilities in other organizations. So, I think the biggest challenge for the FMC lies in getting the [Federation] to vibrate and to be felt strongly at the lower echelons. “
According to Ivette Vega, one of the weaknesses of the Federation is that few of the lower echelon delegations are headed by young women, who, incidentally, must be called upon attractively. They tend to have a greater presence at middle or higher echelons.
But despite all challenges, the objectives of the FMC are still valid because the primary purpose is to keep up the work of the Revolution. “
To make the organization look increasingly similar to the new generations is one of the cardinal horizons outlined by Lisa García Gayoso, legal adviser to the national FMC Community Work field and executive coordinator of the National Group for the Prevention and Treatment of Domestic Violence.
“We are privileged to have close to us women who were in the Federation since its inception. We have learned from them. There are objectives, laid down when the Federation was found, that are still valid, and that need to be transmitted to young women today in the language of 2009.
“We must make sure that young people see the organization as theirs, not only as the one born in 1960; that they see it as one that is fighting for what must be conquered now. Some equity has been achieved, but there are still dilemmas. We still have, for example, violence in some homes. And, I dare say that after the special period, with the intensification of economical difficulties in Cuban families, tensions have not diminished. ”
Moreover, according to Lisa, the organization has to divulge more and in a better way what it does, and work in specific ways with young women. The way it’s run is another key factor: “We have delegations that work very well, others not so much, and others that do not work at all. The latter ones are those in which people say, “The Federation [representatives] only comes here to collect fees “.
It is a weakness that must be corrected, because good performance guarantees our being able to attract the younger generation, especially in the communities where all kinds of women live: housewives, workers, students, and retired women.”
– What is the most exciting thing the organization offers to young women?
– There are things that have interested me a lot and that I first heard of when I arrived at FMC: they include humanity, simplicity and sensitivity. The Federation has been involved in many beautiful endeavors in this country. Few people know, for example, the great impulse given by the Federation to the current Family Code. It was created, partly because of the impetus given it by Vilma and the FMC, to restructure the concept of motherhood and fatherhood. And so that men could share all family roles equally with their wives.
”The FMC participates in programs that help those who neither study nor work. It helps in schools, day care centers, and homes for children without parental care. There are many social endeavors unknown to the young people. There are the Counseling Houses for Women and Families where we can ask for counsel in any kind of situation. “
Julio Cesar Gonzalez has no doubt that the Federation is “an important organization, which needs and deserves the solidarity of other social organizations. It is badly needed, because until we have equity between women and men, many federations will be needed.
“The FMC reaches the most distant and difficult places; it travels into the family, and it does so by activism. Women are the ones who mobilize for any public good campaign. “
Norma Vasallo Barrueta, president of the Women’s Chair at the University of Havana, Ph. D. in Pedagogical Sciences and Senior Professor of the Psychology Faculty, said that the Federation needs to diversify the work it carries out today. It should be diverse corresponding to the different interests of its addressees. “If it were more active and rewarding, it would achieve plenty of results.”
Maité López Peña, a promotion and media official of the FMC in Havana, is confident that the organization must “work more with young women at the lowest echelon, and also be more operational. We must do more to reach housewives who have no other links. The work must be individualized, because all young women do not have the same interests. We must find areas where they feel motivated. “
The difficult art of existence
”No one can doubt,” Norma Vasallo said, “the rising significant presence women have in the public world of Cuban reality. But, parallel to the evolution of their social involvement, a partial stagnation of their private and domestic life has resulted. And this not only happens in Cuba.
“The feminist movement has had significant achievements in the twentieth century, meaningfully expressed in labor market participation and different levels of education. But, women are still the ones mainly responsible for household tasks and in Cuba these tasks require more time, more dedication. “
This specialist said Cuban women, because they work in the social and domestic fields, have a double shift. Because of everyday shortages, it often turns into two and a half shifts, which means a 20 hour work day.
“The other thing that is a reality in Cuba is the need to care for the elderly at home. This is another task that tradition has assigned to women. In our country, we already know, population is aging. Therefore, it’s peremptory to think about creating institutions that help women. So they don’t have to give up their professions, when they are still in full possession of their faculties, to care for their loved ones full time. “
The Ph. D. in Psychological Sciences touched yet another abrasive issue, that of gender violence; the one, women suffer in social spaces. She recalled how some institutions prefer to hire young and beautiful women; and that harassment on the street is such, those of the “weaker sex” will wind up needing space suits to go out.
“Violence against women is also emotional, -she added- psychological, and even economic. Economic violence can be enforced when women are dependent on the man’s salary, or when it’s his house, and he uses this as blackmail. These are realities that are with us, which we must be disassemble and denounce, because if they are seen as natural, we are at risk of making them almost legitimate.
There are women who, as a result of years of patriarchal culture, can be more ‘macho’ than men, said Lisa Garcia Gayoso. The social authority we have gained sometimes cracks when we cross our front doors inwards, and we limit our partner’s help with domestic chores. For example, were we born with a sign in our foreheads saying ‘I’m the one who cooks’? How many times do we come home at night to find our husband watching TV and our son hasn’t taken a bath yet?”
Thinking of the future, we can not expect our society to be better tomorrow, if at home the son is seeing that Dad is doing nothing and Mom is the orchestra- woman. When that child grows up, he will repeat the pattern he has learned.
Let’s meditate together on this. Without having to experience arguments like the following, this is a true story:
– There is a lot of ‘machismo’- says the female subordinate to the male boss. And he says: “What we have is a lot of ‘womanism’.” She is struck dumb at the new word. And he continues: “Yes, a plague of women who want to boss us around.” And so, in this case, it’s a dialogue between two deaf persons, biting its tail, without hope for solutions that would provide wise balance.