March 8 was International Women’s Day. Whether in Germany, Mexico or Chile, women all over the world took to the streets. With about 2 million women on the streets of Santiago de Chile, the women’s strike was also one of the largest in the country’s history.
In Chile there have been nationwide protests against the government and the neoliberal constitution since October last year. The feminist movement in Chile, which has been gaining in importance for years, very quickly took on an important role in protests and had a lasting impact on the expression of the demonstrations. At the latest since the performance “Un violador en tu camino”, the protests have also attracted more attention internationally outside the radical bubble. We went to Santiago de Chile on 8 and 9 March and spoke to Mónica an activist and student at the Univerdad Diego Portales.
What role do the protests against the government and the neoliberal system play for feminists in Chile? What makes the situation in Chile special and different from other countries?
In Chile, since October 18, there have been protests against the neoliberal system, a system that precarizes our lives, i.e. a system that puts health, education, work, pensions and even basic goods like water at the service of the market. On the other hand, the government of Sebastián Piñera (Acting President of Chile – BE) has not yet found a solution to these problems and has responded to the social revolt with brutality and police repression against those who demonstrate and legitimately take to the streets.
Therefore, this March 8th had a different character than in previous years. Firstly, because of the context in which we live. The feminist struggle is embedded in the context of the popular rebellion, that is, the massiveness that this march – with more than two million people demonstrating in Santiago and other marches throughout Chile – is a demonstration of the strength that has been acquired by taking to the streets.
It also showed us women and queers from our feminist perspective what has grown in this social movement. It’s a social movement that reached its massive size not only with the social uprising, but years before, and is the work of many people and many circumstances that have contributed to its spread, gradually rooting it in Chilean culture.
Furthermore, this whole context is unfortunately marked by systematic violations of human rights. The government has taken it upon itself to criminalise the protest. Laws have been enacted that allow the perpetrators of the massive human rights violations committed in connection with the protests to go unpunished. There are many cases of state violence, in which no investigations are underway to date that would point to the possible perpetrators. There is no justice on the part of the state, let alone reparations. There are many families whose loved ones have been mutilated, tortured and even killed without the state reacting to their suffering or taking care of them, and the necessary measures have not been taken to stop this state violence, which creates a feeling of impunity. That is why our struggle in Chile is special, because October 18 marks a before and after in political history and from our position as women and queers we condemn the actions of the government and seek a different way of life. There have been many cases of sexual, political violence by the police and military, mostly against women. There is a specific violence against us that neither the government nor the Ministry of Women’s Affairs has taken into account. During the march on International Women’s Day in Chile, the current human rights violations committed in our country were clearly condemned. We know that there are responsible politicians who are responsible for this whole situation and that there must be justice. And these condemnations will come, one of the slogans that was heard most during the marches is the call that equates Piñera and Pinochet. It equates them in the sense that both are responsible for the widespread human rights violations in our country.
Can you say something about the history of the feminist movement in Chile in recent years? Were there catalyzing events like the abuse cases at the universities two years ago?
In 2018 Chile experienced what is later called “Feminist May”, a month in which a large part of the country’s public and private universities were mobilized and occupied by female students. We demanded an end to gender-based violence in our educational spaces, such as not allowing teachers, assistants or students who have abused a colleague to continue working in the same rooms. We also demanded that the institutions have protocols to regulate and punish such cases, as well as a non-sexist education from primary school to universities. This was the fourth wave of the feminist movement, which ended up not as a wave but rather as a tsunami that flooded our country culturally.
Before this feminist May, there was little or nothing about feminism or the word harassment or shelter on television, in the morning, in the newspaper, in public space. After that, these issues became a daily topic of conversation for many sectors of society where it had not been an issue before. It was a taboo subject and it was not a welcome topic. It definitely had consequences for the political world.
In the past conservatives refused to talk about gender equality, feminism or women’s rights, today they talk about it and make a name for themselves because it is politically correct. Although it is a topic that still does not have the importance and priority it deserves, it is a topic that has been installed as such on the political agenda and in our society. That is why this movement of female students, which was born in 2018, was a harbinger of what could happen years later with the spread of the feminist movement and with the identification of many women and queers in our country with feminism, which brings together not only academic women but also people from different realities and different ages who feel recognized and connected with the slogans and the struggle of this movement. It is a diverse movement because there are different understandings of feminism in it, but it is a movement which is ours and which has been built on the basis of our experience and that of others.
The current protests began when students called for fare dodging and occupied the metro stations. The women’s movement and the unions first showed their solidarity, when there was massive violence by the police. What is the contact of the women’s movement with the other movements?
The women’s movement is profoundly heterogeneous in itself and that is where its strength comes from. There are feminists who are workers and professionals in different fields, students, there are immigrants, queer, indigenous or antiprison feminists and so on. The connection with other movements is very close, because we feminists are fighting on different fronts and therefore I think it is fundamental that we write calls and mobilize for demonstrations that bring us all together and where we demonstrate our strength and our potential.
Although there are many areas, especially trade unions, where feminism still seems to be a less relevant issue, there are feminists who are fighting for feminism to advance in spaces that historically have been and continue to be dominated by men.
From the outside, demonstrations and actions often appear quite spontaneous. However, one often reads about many assemblies. How did these gatherings begin and how can one imagine such a gathering?
After October 18th, these neighbourhood assemblies started spontaneously, which was an unprecedented event in our country. I personally believe that it was necessary to meet at that time because there was anxiety, uncertainty about what was happening.
We had to listen to each other and, of course, also talk, talk about how we experienced this social explosion or popular uprising, as we call the situation. It was also necessary to talk about how we experienced the violence that began immediately after Piñera sent the military to the streets. And above all we had to talk
about the reasons that led us to this situation. About what had happened in all the years that we have been silent.
In the past, Chile was a sleeping people that just accepted things, that was indifferent. But after October 18th they “woke up” (“Chile despertó/Chile has woken up” was the motto in the first weeks of the protests -BE) and could see themselves as what they really were. During the meetings and in conversations with our neighbours we became aware that we all live in similar realities. Most of our life, our health, our pensions, education, even water was in the hands of the market and others. People began to wonder why we have endured so many years of abuse and injustice while a very small part of our country has retained all the wealth. This is how it was in the beginning, shortly after the protests started. After that, many of these spaces began to mutate as they periodically evolved as a space for collective reflection and organization, that were spread among neighbors for cultural activities and self-education. It was also a space of hope. The people also wanted to participate in the building of a new Chile, based on everything that the people did not want or perceived as injustice. Proposals were made to reflect on this new country. For example, there were many rooms for self-education with regard to the demanded new constitution, lawyers or law students contributed their information and knowledge for the coming constitutional process. So these organizations or neighborhood assemblies were collectively led to distance us from this individuality and isolation. To go out, to take public spaces and to feel part of something much bigger, a community.
Of course, feminism has a lot to say in these spaces and even in the face of the fact that there were so many issues to deal with, not only were neighborhood assemblies created, but assemblies by issues were created: Environment, mental health, animal rights and also many feminist assemblies. In this way, different topics were addressed, which people wanted to talk about, who wanted to make proposals, who wanted to reflect.
I remember the first feminist Cabildo (neighbourhood council) in Santiago, which was attended by many people. The square where it was convened was full. You can see that even then there were many women and queers who were interested in talking, reflecting and contributing to this process from our position, because we have a specific oppression
The performance “un violador en tu camino” by “La Tesis” from Valparaíso has spread all over the world. In the performance, the police and the state are accused, among others. Do you see sexism as a structural problem in connection with the capitalist state?
It’s a good question that is related to the previous points. Feminism has succeeded in advancing and positioning itself as an important struggle. However, by becoming a mass movement, it runs the risk of being monopolized and used by the ruling classes to integrate it into the capitalist or neoliberal system. Therefore, bourgeois and liberal feminism tends to lose its sharpness as it comes to terms with the cruelties of the current system, the exploitation of women and people, the immense inequality produced by capitalist society and the destruction of our planet.
This feminism is dangerous because it is “beautiful and pleasant”. Because it speaks of physical liberation, self-knowledge, self-esteem, but only for women who have access to positions of power (business women, professionals, etc.). All these are important aspects for feminism, but I personally think that our struggle must go much further and that liberal feminism is not enough for our feminist project, which tries to transform and radically change society and the world.
The capitalist system makes our lives precarious, puts the market and its profits above our rights. It does not recognise the important tasks such as the daily housework of women and believes that while some women can come to power, there will be many others who will not even have the opportunity to obtain a professional qualification or a salary that is sufficient to live in dignity. Today, women and queers are discriminated against in various areas of society and there are some who are doubly exploited or discriminated against. Not only because they are women, but also because they are black, because they are immigrants, because they are poor or because they are indigenous.
When we talk about the fact that the capitalist system is compatible with feminism, I frankly believe that this is not the case, that it is not possible. It would only be possible if we understand feminism as a struggle that only (!) stands for the liberation of the white, privileged and upper class women. That is why I believe that patriarchy and capitalism as systems of domination and exploitation from which we must liberate ourselves are deeply connected and rooted in each other.
The Chilean Congress announced that the Assembly for a new Constitution will be composed of 50% women and 50% men (if the vote is won). This would make Chile the first country to have an equal gender representation in the drafting of a constitution. Do you think that the women’s movement has contributed to this success and what do you predict for the vote on April 26th?
I think that parity in the constitutional body is indeed a success for the feminist movement, behind it there is a great work of feminist political scientists, specialists in the field and women who have worked hard on this issue.
They built this proposal together with women parliamentarians who were also willing to fight for it to be adopted in Congress. During the sessions in Congress in which this proposal was voted on, there was a lot of pressure from the feminist movement both inside and outside on the streets and even in the social networks, urging a vote for this initiative. Since the feminist movement in Chile had been forging or rebuilding itself for some time, it had already taken a relevant position in the political arena, and therefore parity was a minimum lower limit for this body that will draft the new constitution to be democratic, representative, diverse and incorporate our vision. Parity represents the possibility of voices that have always been invisible being heard and of feminism challenging the existing power that has never considered us and that has always ousted us. It was therefore our minimum demand. We must be represented, and this new Charter must also be a feminist constitution that takes up our historical demands and allows women and queers to participate in the debate and the reception of ideas, contrary to what has happened historically.
The plebiscite will no longer take place on April 26th, as agreed in Congress, but on October 25th. The truth is that the predictions are that the process will be open. There will be an information campaign that will reach many people and I personally believe that the votes for a new constitution and a constitution made up of elected representatives will be in the majority. This is also the only option that allows for gender parity.