Guatemalan Masculinity and Feminism: A Happy Marriage?

Update of PBRC Summer Stipend | Professor Sarah England

Assessing Educational Campaigns against Gender Violence in Guatemala

The primary objective of this project is to observe and analyze educational campaigns carried out by NGOs in Guatemala City targeted at deconstructing cultural ideologies that perpetuate gender inequality and specifically violence against women. My aim is to understand how these organizations conceptualize gender, how they present their material to the intended audience, and to what degree the audience responds to these ideas, especially men. I am also interested in understanding how the members of the organizations themselves have arrived at their own analysis of gender, gender inequality, and feminism. I am especially interested in what has led men to be involved in these campaigns and what strategies they use to get other men to rethink the fundamental premises of patriarchy.

In the summer of 2009 I traveled to Guatemala City with funding from the PBRC summer stipend and began preliminary investigations on the questions listed above. Through the collaboration of the Costa Mesa-based organization Mujeres Iniciando en las Americas (MIA), founded and run by activist Lucia Munoz, I was able to contact several different women’s organizations, observe gender equality workshops designed and carried out by MIA, and interview men and women involved in the campaign for gender equality in different capacities. From this preliminary set of observations and interviews I gained several insights into the way that Guatemalan activists think about gender and gender inequality, and also came up with some new ideas for theoretical and methodological approaches for further investigation of the topic.

The two gender equality workshops that I observed were initiated and carried out by MIA based on a manual designed by the Canadian-based White Ribbon campaign. One of the workshops took place in a primary school in Zona 18, one of the poorest neighborhoods of Guatemala City with high rates of violent crime, and the other took place with university students and activists at the University of San Carlos, the largest public university in Guatemala. During these workshops students were asked to list basic ideologies about the traditional roles of men and women and to question their reality, origins, and validity as models of social comportment. What I realized from observing these workshops is that both the primary school-age students and the university-level students were quickly able to list the stereotypical gender roles and characteristics of men and women that make up what scholars call “the patriarchal bargain” in Latin America-that is the model of gender relations in which men are the heads of household, financial providers, and sources of authority while women are responsible for domestic duties, child rearing, and sexual fidelity. The university students were also quick to recognize the sexual double standard in which men are sexual subjects with a large degree of autonomy over their sexuality and sexual behavior whereas women are meant to be the objects of men’s desire and control. However, upon further discussion it became clear that despite everyone’s ability to recite the model of patriarchal gender relations and roles, the reality of their own lives was much more complex than the model suggests. Children mentioned mothers who work, fathers who do some housework, changing ideas about the ability of girls to get an education and so forth. The university students and activists also questioned the sexual double standard and its role in controlling even women who are students and public figures. Some of the male students also questioned women’s roles in perpetuating patriarchal ideologies in raising their sons and talked about the way that gender ideologies have also limited their ability to act outside of patriarchal norms. I concluded that these workshops are excellent avenues through which to gain an understanding of the models of gender that men and women grow up with and learn through their parents, peers, school, the media, etc. but also to see how their realities are more complicated and how, through various avenues, they are learning to rethink these models. However my preliminary observations suggest that this rethinking has mainly taken place in relation to the gendered division of labor, that is questioning whether women should be able to work, men’s role in the household, and so forth. What I saw less of was questioning the way that the social construction of male and female sexuality plays a large role in limiting women’s spatial mobility and justifying gendered violence.

The second method, interviews with activists, was also very fruitful in beginning to understand the various processes that have led certain men and women to rethink standard patriarchal models of gender and the barriers that they have faced in trying to act outside of those norms. Though the men’s pathways to becoming conscious of gender inequality were various (participation in the revolutionary movement of the 1970s/80s, being raised by single mothers, living with abusive fathers, having to take over domestic duties in the home), one commonality was that all feel that there are still enormous social pressures to enact machismo such that it is very difficult for men to promote and enact a feminist ideology, even within the activist community. This is a topic that I would like to explore in much more depth in future research. What are the models of masculinity that they have been exposed to? How did they develop an “alternative masculinity” and what have been the barriers they have faced in trying to enact that masculinity? Though all of the interviwees clearly articulated a belief that gender inequality is a complex set of social structures and beliefs that disempowers women and make them vulnerable to violence (structural, physical, and symbolic), a few also recognized that gender inequality not only structures power relations between men and women but also between men. Rather than seeing patriarchy as a privilege that attaches to all men, they expressed the idea that patriarchy (in the local form of machismo) not only harms women, but also harms men in that it encourages violence, power struggles between men, abusive relationships, and so forth. This is also an avenue that I would like to explore further as it aligns with much of the recent scholarship on masculinity that questions the degree to which it is a privilege or a liability both for men as individuals and of course for society as a whole.

Based on the insights I have gained from this preliminary research I plan to apply for the Wenner-Gren Post PhD Research Grant, the Fulbright Scholar Program, the American Council of Learned Societies Fellowships, and the Latin American Studies Association “Other Americas Project.” I plan to continue with the two primary methods of observing gender equality workshops and interviewing activists. My primary focus will be on extending feminist theory and methodology to the study of masculinity in Guatemala by 1) recognizing the social construction of gender and sexuality and the ways that these are linked to but not completely congruent with sex (in other words both men and women can be discriminated against for enacting what is perceived to be feminine behavior– being a biological male does not guarantee male privilege) 2) recognizing the way that gender ideologies are always linked to power 3) recognize multiple masculinities, cross-cut by race, class, and generation 4) separating out the models of gender and their actual enactment in people’s lives and 5) trying to understand all of this from the point of view of the subjects themselves, that is from the emic point of view of men and women who both live these ideologies and social structures and are trying to deconstruct them to form a more equal and peaceful society.

In August 2009, Professor Sarah England of Soka University worked with MIA on “Guatemalan Masculinity and Feminism: A Happy Marriage? Assessing Educational Campaigns against Gender Violence in Guatemala” funded by Soka University’s Pacific Basin Research Center. The idea behind this project was inspired by MIA’s work with the White Ribbon Campaign in Guatemala City which seeks to talk directly to men about issues of gender inequality and gendered violence.

Through my research on these issues in Latin America I have realized that the majority of work being done in this area, both among activists and among academics, seems to still frame gendered violence as primarily a woman’s issue that is discussed among women about how women can cope with it. However, since men are the main perpetrator’s of gendered violence it is very important that they be a part of the conversation about how to resolve the problem alongside women. But in order to do this it is important to understand how men think about the issue, how they conceptualize gender and gender inequality, the role that their own sense of masculinity plays in the construction of gender, and how they think that educational programs can be designed that will get men to think critically about these ideas of gender.

For this project I attended several workshops designed by MIA in collaboration with local Guatemalan NGOs and educators and interviewing facilitators and participants in order to gain insight into the questions posed above.

MIA is a wonderful example of an organization that has this as its explicit goal and has been very active in creating gender equality workshops among different sectors of the population. I first came to know about MIA in 2008 when Lucia Munoz visited the Soka University campus as part of a mini-conference on violence against women in Latin America. I then traveled with her on the summer 2008 delegation to Guatemala and was overwhelmed by the wealth of information, personal stories, and contact with activists that the delegations provide. It was truly an amazing experience both intellectually and emotionally to meet so many people dedicated to improving women’s lives and hearing the personal stories of suffering but also strength. I immediately recognized that the work of MIA aligned perfectly with the goals and missions of Soka University to create engaged, global citizens and asked Lucia to help me organize a Learning Cluster (4 week intensive course) with students from Soka to travel to Guatemala for two weeks to study more intensively the question of gender violence in the country.

The trip was very successful and the comments from the students were extremely positive, stating that the trip had been a life changing experience, opening up their eyes not only to the Guatemalan reality as a whole, but also cementing their resolve to become politically engaged in issues such as gender equality. I hope that this research project will foster continued collaboration between Soka University and MIA specifically, and between academia and activists more generally to tackle such a pressing social issue as gender violence.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy this password:

* Type or paste password here: