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A Women's Place


new internationalist
issue 174 - August 1987

A woman's place
With men out of work or imprisoned or dead, women have
moved nearer to centre-stage in Chile. It is they who are often
earning the money to feed the family. It is they who run the ollas
when all else fails. And it is they who can be seen at the
heart of many protests and street demonstrations.

One odd effect of a macho dictatorship is that it has given strength to women; Chile's women are the backbone of the resistance.

This is partly for economic reasons. The Government's monetarist ideology has been so unsuccessful that hundreds of thousands of men are now out of work. And it is often easier for women to find jobs, whether in domestic service or as casual labour picking fruit.

'Women have grown a lot,' says Maria Antonieta Saa, one of the leaders of the women's movement in Chile. 'They have become the family providers. Now they realize what they are capable of.' And since women always have the direct responsibility of feeding the family, it is they who organize the ollas and many of the community activities like child-minding that have sprung up around them.

But la repre has also pushed women more directly into the firing line. From the first days of the coup, with the men disappearing or imprisoned, it was the women who were left to shout in protest And a whole host of organizations grew up demanding justice: 'The relatives of the disappeared'; 'The relatives of the exiled'; 'The relatives of political prisoners' and many more.

Each new atrocity seems to bring yet more women to the fore. The execution of three communist leaders in 1985, the 'beheaded', has left three combative wives whose protests and street demonstrations have never ceased.

The Government is only too aware of the strength of Chilean women. It was the protests of middle-class housewives that helped prompt the coup of 1973. 'These women demonstrated in the streets,' says Saa, 'banging their saucepans, accusing the military of cowardice for not intervening'. So General Pinochet's wife Doña Lucia has taken on the task of nurturing their support. Through the national women's organization CEMA she helps finance handicrafts production, for example, but at the same time promotes the traditional role of women as wives and mothers. 'Many women have said to me,' says Saa, 'that they don't agree with what CEMA is doing. They have to join it because they need the money.

But there are middle-class women opposed to the dictatorship as well. In a church in one of the wealthier suburbs of Santiago I visit a meeting of the Association of Democratic Women. Smartly-dressed and business-like, they could have been organizing a cake sale or a whist drive.

'Oh, a man!' says one of the members, slightly shocked, as she comes through the door. She has to be reassured that I, the interloper, have been invited through 'friends of friends' to observe their meeting.

They do talk of cakes - but not in the way you might expect. 'The best thing to do' says Gloria, 'when you bring a cake to the prison is to bring a knife along too. Otherwise the guards just poke their fingers into it. If you offer a knife they can at least use that to check it and leave most of the cake intact'

Visiting political prisoners is just one of the women's tasks - taking gifts in and messages out. 'The messages have to be folded right down to the size of a Tafi sweet and then we stick them in our underwear.'

The Association of Democratic Women was formed, says Gloria, on the steps of the National Stadium in 1973. While the men inside were being tortured the women were getting together to share information and offer mutual support. And the group still survives 14 years on, helping both prisoners and their families - sometimes with funds from abroad.

The first item on today's agenda is producing a report for an Italian group who want to send money. Then there is information to share on the problems of individual families. One child, both of whose parents are jailed, was born in prison three years ago. Now living with relatives, he has to be taken to see parents in separate prisons. 'Mama, do you know Papa?' was one question on his last visit.

Many of the original members are still active in the group but there is no shortage of new recruits. They meet in small groups so as not to attract too much attention. And each of the women at this leaders' meeting has another group of her own. 'It's all illegal' says Ana, 'but you get used to the fear - just to have stayed in our houses would have been even worse.' Now she has the problem that her own teenage children are politically active. She is worried for them. 'But I can hardly say "No" when I am involved in all this myself.'

The major discussion point today is the 1st of May - usually a day of protest against the regime. The women are incensed by the decision of the trade-union federations that this year there will be no street marches, only an indoor conference. So they have been out leafletting in a shopping centre. And they have drafted a letter to the trade unions pleading with them to change their minds. 'During the hardest years of the dictatorship,' it says, 'facing the most brutal repression, the Chilean workers and women have never been afraid to protest on the streets.'

The women themselves are determined to demonstrate and plans are made as to where to meet and when. The president of the group reminds each member of the precautions. 'Everyone is to go "clean", no address books, just your identity card and 2,000 pesos to pay the fine. For the tear-gas, you should remember to keep low, carry a handkerchief soaked in vinegar with salt and lemon and don't have any breakfast or you are likely to throw up.' Then the meeting is finished. In Australasia or North America or Europe these women would possibly have devoted their spare time to voluntary work for the Church. In Chile there are more demanding options.

The 1st of May dawns bright and clear and since this is a public holiday the streets are almost deserted. I look for the women but they are not at the street corner they had mentioned. So I head for the Cariola cinema on a side street off Santiago's main avenue, the Alameda. This is where the trade unions are to have their meeting.

The area has been cordoned off by the carabineros. They stop me to check my credentials. But as I pull out my passport I drop a copy of the leaflet that the women had been handing out 'BREAD, WORK, JUSTICE AND FREEDOM - EVERYONE ON THE STREETS ON THE FIRST OF MAY!' The carabinero stiffens at this. Where did I get it? What am I doing? I say that I found it on the street. He's not impressed and passes me on through various levels of officer - the boots shinier and the uniform smarter, the higher up I go. Eventually the Chief decides to let me pass.

A crowd is gathering outside the cinema. Attendance at the meeting is by invitation only. I could have gone in, I suppose, but things look more interesting outside. As each new group arrives with their banner a cheer goes up. Some are let through the railings into the cinema but most remain in the street.

As the meeting starts the sound is relayed to the crowd outside. But no-one seems that interested, Every couple of minutes there is a release of energy with chants and hand-claps: a roll-call of heroes and martyrs 'Salvador Allende - present!' Then one of the 'beheaded' is saluted: 'Manuel Guerrero - present!' Confetti-like showers of leaflets fill the air. Out come the cans of spray paint to decorate the walls.

'He's going to fall! He's going to fall!' is one of the more hopeful chants for Pinochet's demise. Those inside the cinema are asked to come out - 'When's the strike? When's the strike?' A rhythmic pogo-like jumping animates the crowd every so often to the sound of: 'Let's go Chile, caramba! Chile won't give in, caramba!' Children riding on their parents shoulders and waving their fists in the air add to the carnival atmosphere.

A few of the union leaders do come out to speak to the crowd and defend themselves for their private meeting. 'The enemy isn't inside the Cariola, he's in the Presidential Palace!' There are other speakers too, taking their turn to give speeches standing on a bench. One of the most striking is a boy in school uniform. 'Salvador Allende said that all students were revolutionaries - and I'm here to say that he was right!'

After two hours the meeting in the cinema is over. The union leaders stream out to join those in the street and the cry goes up: 'To the Alameda!'. So most of the people and banners move off towards the main avenue. The carabineros watch silently and wait The crowd brings the traffic to a halt Suddenly there's a wailing siren and a couple of water-cannon trucks come careering round the corner. These are the guanacos, nicknamed after the wild Andean llama that spits at its enemies.

These large black and white guanacos can spit with some force and volume. We all get pretty wet and the crowd scatters.

Squads of carabineros follow up with truncheons, cracking the skulls of as many people as they can catch. A woman shouts: 'How can you sleep at night with all that blood on your hands?'

'My hands are clean, Señora,' he replies. 'We are only here to protect you.'

There's a practical problem now: where to stand if you want to take photographs? With the crowd - getting buffeted by the guanacos and risking arrest? Or behind the carabineros?. I'm with neither of them at the moment but wherever I am it's the wrong place. A large stone flies through the air and hits me squarely in the body. Fortunately it's only the body of my camera, which now has a large dent This marks the end of the NI photographic coverage of the event.

In any case the action has moved on. The boys doing the chanting (and throwing the stones) have moved up to one of the pedestrian precincts - where the shops have now opened to cater for people looking for a quieter way to spend the day's holiday. It's time for guerrilla tactics. One minute all is calm as they mingle with the shoppers and then that rhythmic handclap surges from all sides. The youths move together as they clap. Then the carabineros wade in with their truncheons to pick off individuals. Two or three youths are dragged by their hair into the waiting police bus.

The afternoon shoppers watch with a mixture of dismay and resignation. One young man standing on a street corner and watching a particularly savage attack is quivering with rage and has to be restrained by his girl-friend. An older woman with her young daughter is screaming abuse at the carabineros who are bearing down menacingly on her. The daughter is in tears and drags a short bush from one of the flower beds in the middle of the street and flails at the carabineros with it. Eventually they decide it is more trouble than it is worth to arrest her.

The youths, wearing handkerchiefs over their faces shout:

'Let's see, let's see,

who'll hold the stick

The people in arms

Or that son of a bitch'.

Clouds of tear gas waft through the air. Every so often the guanacos come charging down the street - breaking up the demonstrators and the shoppers. I start to run out of the way to avoid getting knocked over.

'Don't run, you cowards!' shouts the woman next to me. 'You have to stand up to them.' After that we all stay where we are and one youth is dragged off screaming with pain while the carabineros deal him a series of blows in the groin with their truncheons.

And this was by general consent a relatively quiet May Day. The women did have their own demonstration, I learn later. It took place just before the gathering outside the cinema. Thirty of them were arrested.

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New Internationalist issue 174 magazine cover This article is from the August 1987 issue of New Internationalist.
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