A feminism against the system

Pierina Ferretti on the unifying power of Latin American feminism.

A few days before 8 March, which will again be celebrated with a major demonstration in Chile, we are interviewing in Santiago Pierina Ferretti, the author of our Chilean diary, about the feminist movement in Chile and Latin America. We are sitting in the office of long-time medico partner CODEPU, a human rights organisation that was on the verge of dissolution when the uprising in Chile began, necessitating a continuation of its work. The office is located on Paseo Bulnes, in the heart of Santiago, the scene of heavy clashes between demonstrators and carabineros. Injured people were carried into the office and treated here. Since then, everything has changed. Feminism as well.

At the latest since the 2019 social uprising, Chile has been on the path to what may become a profound transformation: a new government with a high proportion of female ministers is to take office on 11 March. The Constituent Assembly is working on new norms and a new plurinational understanding of the state. What is the importance of the feminist movement in these processes?

Pierina Ferretti: The feminist movement has been the most massive political and cultural force in Chile since the return to democracy. This movement has managed to influence different sectors and strata in our society. It has stood for a particular spirit of revolt: encouraging people to rebel, to disobey, inviting them to say no and to set limits and rebel against certain injustices that are perceived as oppressive and unbearable.

Feminism is a cultural force that has awakened and radicalised Chilean society. Today, our society is no longer prepared to suffer certain things in silence, with citizens taking to the streets because they have realised that many ostensibly private evils have social causes and must therefore be addressed as social problems in the public sphere. Feminism has played a decisive role in all this, not only for women or sexual dissidents, but for society as a whole.

In contrast to European and North American feminism in the 1970s and 80s, does contemporary feminism in Latin America embody new currents while challenging the old?

In my opinion, there are continuities and ruptures, or let's say new elements, between the two. There are indeed demands that were first forwarded in Europe and the USA and only later in Latin America. These include, for example, the movements for women's suffrage or the legalisation of abortion. Here I see a continuity, as these demands have become universal in the feminist movement and can be found in varying degrees of intensity in the history and geography of feminism.

But feminist movements in Latin America have also managed to address specific problems facing our peripheral, colonial societies: problems that arose in the context of a specific trajectory in the historical development of capitalism and Latin America's position in the international division of labour. We have specific class-related issues and also specific problems with racism.

What do you mean by that exactly?

Feminism in Latin America has been able to address the conditions that neoliberalism imposes on majorities of the population. In many countries, this has a lot to do with the effects of extractive projects, which affect women the most. But they are also the first to rise up in opposition to such projects, risking their lives, because it is well known that Latin America is a very dangerous area for female environmental activists.

Feminism has been concerned with the relationship between patriarchy, extractivism and capital, and at the same time between patriarchy and sexual violence. Violence against women and femicide – and on this we agree with important Latin American feminists – are intimately linked to the intensifying precariousness of life in the region.

Because of these features characterising Latin America, these circumstances of oppression in our societies, Latin American feminism makes its own contribution to global feminism. But in doing so, it has also embraced the tradition and historical struggles of feminism. Here we still have to fight for things that have already been achieved in other regions. For example, abortion, which is currently still a criminal offence in Chile. This struggle unites us with other feminists worldwide.

In Argentina, Chile and many other Latin American countries, there have been impressive mass mobilisations on 8 March and other days for years. There is something explosive about this "feminist wave". Where does this power and size of the feminist movement come from?

Before the feminist awakening, no political movement had succeeded in bringing so many people out onto the streets. Neither the traditional organisations of the old working class nor other social movements. The feminist movement succeeded for different reasons. I would explain one of the most important ones like this: The social movements and the left have suffered tremendous defeats in Latin America's recent past. One of the few social forces that has helped restore the social fabric and thus contributed to the emergence of new political actors with the power to revolt was the feminist movement. This is key to understanding the impressive scale of the feminist protests.

But another reason is that the feminist movement has managed to strike a nerve in society, especially among the younger generation of women. Feminist demonstrations are mainly attended by very young women, many of them under 18, aged 12, 13, 14 or 15. This generation no longer feels the trauma of the dictatorships. They therefore have a tendency to disobey and also to question existing norms. Feminism incorporates this rebellious attitude and a willingness to fight against an oppressive and unjust order.

Another reason is the great unfulfilled promise of neoliberal modernisation to women, who integrated themselves en masse into the labour market in the 1980s and 90s. For many, this was associated with high hopes associated with the promise of freedom and independence. After more than 30 years, little of this has materialised: Gender inequality has worsened, there is a considerable income gap between men and women in the labour market, and there are still some subjects at universities that are only for men or only for women. There is growing unease about the unfulfilled promise of neoliberalism.

The last aspect is violence. Every woman is keenly aware of gender-based violence, either because they have suffered it themselves or they know other women who have been victims of this, not least in her own home. Domestic violence, toxic relationships ... Feminism has helped spark a public discussion on patriarchal violence, which is now recognised as a public problem.

In Europe and also in the USA, there is a very commonly heard critique of some feminist positions that – reduced to simple terms – emphasises their compatibility with neoliberalism. The US philosopher Nancy Fraser coined the term "progressive neoliberalism" in this context a few years ago. In Latin America, on the other hand, one gets the impression that the feminist movement is perhaps the most significant anti-neoliberal force. How do you explain this difference?

First of all, I would like to clarify some issues: It is not that there is no liberal feminism in Latin America. It does exist and it is also trying to bring women into leadership positions in companies or government authorities here. But it is not hegemonic and has a clear opponent: anti-patriarchal, anti-neoliberal feminism with a class perspective. The living conditions prevailing in Chile make an anti-neoliberal feminism necessary. This opposes liberal feminism with the aim of asserting itself as the most progressive feminism in an ongoing conflict. Many of the injustices we are fighting against have their origins in the neoliberal form of capitalism in Chile. An emancipatory movement that aims to eradicate these injustices must necessarily confront neoliberalism in Chile and, at the same time, ask the question of global transformation.

The interview was conducted by Katja Maurer and Mario Neumann.

Pierina Ferretti is a Chilean sociologist. She regularly publishes essays and analyses on current political issues and is a member of the foundation "Nodo XXI", a forum for an anti-neoliberal, feminist and democratic left. She was a speaker at the medico conference "The (Re-) Construction of the World" in February 2021.

Published: 06. March 2022

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