Decolonizing Women’s Bodies in Bolivia is Still a Challenge

Walking on the El Prado Avenue, under the defiant brightness and burning winter sun of La Paz, Bolivia, I heard something much more defiant than the strong sun. It was the voices of a group of women. The chants from the distance sounded closer as I approached the well-trafficked main street in front of the San Francisco Church. Curious people inevitably stopped their fast pace to look at the march organized by a collective group of women called Mujeres Creando (Women Creating), an autonomous feminist movement. Mujeres Creando is a collective group of women from a wide range of identities and commitments. Maria Galindo, one of the co-founders, was leading the march followed by a group of young women. They were carrying art paper silhouettes of women, representing a diversity of women (an indigenous, a bride, a pregnant woman, etc) with their arms open and tied into a cross.  Each figure had a message on the top, “the abnegation kills me” or “pregnant with ideas but without giving birth,” among other.

Mujeres Creando’s street performances or “creative actions” as they call it, are far from being only street protests. They are symbolic messages, incomprehensible or confusing at times for some people, that move and engage people in some sort of reflection. The streets performances open public debates from the everyday citizens either in plazas, markets or regional beauty contests and book fairs. I followed the march through the Prado Avenue crossing crowded streets where many peddlers and street vendors were selling red roses. As I walked, I overheard two young female students trading comments on the March. “No queremos rosas, queremos dignidad, no queremos rosas, queremos libertad” (“We do not want roses, we want dignity; we do not want roses we want freedom”). The chants were louder.  One of the girls immediately said, “I want roses”; the other one immediately replied, “I prefer dignity”. Both girls began a debate while they were walking and observing the march. These street actions create public debates that do not need a formal workshop, seminar or roundtable to trigger ideas, feelings and strong emotions.

Seven of ten women in Bolivia suffer sexual violence.

As the line of women were chanting and walking, they were leaving drops of red dye liquid, symbolizing blood. People were looking at the long line of fake blood behind the march with an inquisitive expression. “Mujer que se organiza no plancha una camisa” (“Woman who get organized  do not have to iron shirts any more”).  “We do not want roses, we want dignity, we do not want roses we want freedom”. The March was not to celebrate March 8th or November 25, the classic dates where worldwide groups of women march to promote and protect women’s rights.  Mujeres Creando instead went out to the street on Mother’s Day (May 27th in Bolivia). In many countries of Latin America, Mother’s Day just reinforces stereotypes on traditional roles of being a woman or a mother (abnegation, unconditional love and so on). It is a very “sacred day” for the patriarchal social imagery of many Latin American men. The only day in which some men cook for their mother or do household chores.

Each day Mujeres Creando’s “Women Seeking Justice” program receives five denunciations of women from all kinds of backgrounds that suffer sexual and domestic violence. On June 6, 2011, a couple requested their support. In a brutal fight, the husband pulled out a piece of his wife’s nose with a bite because he was jealous.

Mujeres Creando uses street symbolic acts, creative chants, graffiti (“I am not the woman of your dreams, I am the woman of my dreams”) or street marches for challenging and protesting not only the institutional modes that reproduce injustice, but also the hegemonic habits of everyday life that reinforce symbolic violence on various highly interrelated levels (race, gender, class and sexual orientation).  In its headquarters, “The Virgin of the Desires”, a colorful house where the collective and individual collude to build new paths for women, they also challenge politicians, intellectuals, and UN and international donor representatives who are invited to participate in its famous radio program “Barricadas” at its “Radio Desire” station. Maria Galindo wrote about Ex- President Gonzalez Sanchez de Lozada, “If Goni had a uterus, abortion would be privatized and capitalized”.  After 15 years ago of the so called neoliberal era in Bolivia and in a process of social change, she writes in her great article, There is Nothing more Similar Between a Right and Left Machista, “If Evo would get pregnant abortion would be nationalized and constitutionalized.” As the march continued, a woman sitting on a bench was reading out loud a red brochure given by Mujeres Creando entitled, “the Horrific Hymn to the Mother”, to a group of three men. Local and French TV cameras and journalists were following the march as well.

For the conservative Bolivian society, the irreverent messages from the paper figures and the symbolic blood on the ground was too much; however, they could not resist having a comment, an opinion, a look at each message on the paper figures. People did not resist reading Mujeres Creando red brochure. People were observing them with an ambivalent expression of admiration and rejection.  “Que no sepa coser, que no sepa planchar, que sepa usar la escoba para ir a volar” (“I do not want to know how to sew; I do not want to know how iron; I want to know to use the broom to fly”). The march finally reached the Plaza del Estudiante. A young boy passed near me, walking with his mother.  With big round eyes he watched Mario Galindo and heard the chants; he asked his mother, “what does it mean?”  With a fast pace and without turning her head at the march, the mother just said “freedom, it means freedom”.

Note: AJWS has been accompanying Mujeres Creando’s efforts.  Currently, Mujeres Creando is a cultural and political phenomenon in Bolivia.  Its work and political art have received many distinctions and it has been exhibited at the Pompidou Art Museum in Paris and the Queen Sofia Museum in Spain among many others, but most importantly its political art is displayed on daily basis on the walls and busy streets of La Paz.