Topic 241 Update: The Gender Wars: Jan/Feb 19
nacla NACLA's "Report on the Americas" 9:53 AM Apr 2, 1996
Reprinted from the Jan/Feb 1996 issue of NACLA Report on the
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Jean Franco is the author of Plotting Women: Gender and Representation in Mexico (Columbia University Press, 1990) and a member of NACLA's editorial board.
In July of last year, several members of the Argentine planning committee that had drawn up the guidelines for a nationwide curriculum resigned when they discovered that changes to their proposal had been made, apparently by the Minister of Education under pressure from the Catholic Church. Mention of Darwin and Lamarck had been eliminated, references to sex education had been erased, and the word "gender" had replaced by "sex."
The Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, Hector Aguer, defended the removal of the word "gender," arguing that its use "intended to provoke an ideological shift and to generate a new conception of the human person, of subjectivity, marriage, the family and society. In short what is proposed is a cultural revolution." Using the word gender "as a purely cultural construct, detached from the biological," he warned, "makes us into fellow travelers of radical feminism." Bishop Aguer went on to quote well-known U.S. feminist Shulamit Firestone's The Dialectic of Sex to highlight the "dangers" of feminism. Firestone applied Marxist dialectics to the male/female relationship, said Aguer, "in order to reach the conclusion that Marx had not dared to make: namely to modify the sexual condition of woman to liberate her from maternity and her dependence on the family."
While it may be amusing to think of the Catholic Church hierarchy wading through feminist theory, its attempts to demonize feminism by associating it with communism should not be taken lightly. The fact that the debate over gender has surfaced simultaneously in recent months in many different Latin American countries suggests that this concern for semantics masks a surreptitious campaign against women's and gay rights.
In post-1960s feminism, gender refers to socially constituted differences between masculine and feminine. This definition of gender is considered a dangerously destabilizing concept in Latin American circles close to the Catholic Church, one that undermines the natural relations of marriage and reproduction. According to critics of "gender," once people accept that differences between men and women are socially constructed and hence modifiable, then the road is open for legalized abortion, the acceptance of homosexuality, the recognition of "irregular" families, and the collapse of family values.
The touchiness of the Church on this matter can be read as a reaction to the growing number and influence of feminist and women's groups. While only a handful of feminist organizations existed in Latin America two decades ago, today, there are some [GIVE NUMBER] according to [TK FEMINIST ORGANIZATION]. Women have also become prominent actors in grassroots social movements throughout the continent. While these two sectors of the Latin American women's movement have their differences, there is an ongoing effort by many groups to bridge the divide. In fact, some sectors within the grassroots women's movement have become increasingly receptive to feminist political goals, including the championing of reproductive rights. The Church views this trend with alarm. By challenging the word "gender" and alternative definitions of family, the Church hopes to strike a blow at the very foundations of feminism.
The Catholic Church's position appears to be out of touch with public opinion. For example, it continues to oppose birth control, even though most Latin American women favor-- and use--some form of artificial contraception. A poll taken in Lima after President Alberto Fujimori's recent decision to make contraception available to poor families is a case in point. The poll showed that 95% of the population believed in God, yet 80% also thought that Peruvians agreed with using contraceptives. Likewise, the Church considers abortion a "grave sin," yet it is widely practiced in the region. Given the difficulties of access to contraceptive methods, abortion has become a major form of birth control in Latin America. In Chile, there are an estimated 170,000 abortions a year. One out of every two pregnancies in Mexico and one out of every three in Peru ends in abortion. Since abortions are performed clandestinely and often in less than optimal conditions, this is also a pressing health issue for Latin American women. Abortion is the fourth most common cause of maternity deaths and the third most common cause of hospitalization in Mexico. In Colombia, 74.5% of maternal deaths are the result of botched abortions.
"Family" is the other sensitive issue, not only because of gay and lesbian households but also because the Church's ideal of a married couple as the pillar of society is unrealistic for many Latin American women. In the poorest sectors of society, women often bring up children on their own. In Chile for example, 40% of all families are not headed by a married man and woman. Of every seven babies born in that country, one is the child of an adolescent, and in 61% of those cases, the baby is the offspring of an unmarried mother.
Instead of recognizing these realities, the Vatican is trying to discredit feminism. In order to do this, the Church uses trendy-sounding rhetoric which equates feminist platforms with imperialism. The bishopric of Argentina recently argued that abortion is a form of "modern biological colonialism inspired by powerful nations that impose their decisions on those of weaker peoples who cannot make themselves heard," and he urged the faithful to stand up against this "colonialism." The Catholic Church's defense of the poor-- especially in these neoliberal times--is a praiseworthy goal, and the argument that the North is imposing population policies on the South is not without some validity. But for many women in the hemisphere, abortion is not an absolute good--it is, rather, a desperate remedy.
Precisely because its position is so rigid (neither abortion nor contraception) and has so little relation to reality, the Vatican must woo women by other means. In a clear fence- mending move prior to the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, Pope John Paul II addressed a Letter to Women in which he thanks them for their devotion, and praises their mission as mothers, wives, daughters, workers and nuns.
In his letter, the Pope recognizes that women have frequently been marginalized and even reduced to slavery, and he expresses regret that certain "sons of the Church" might have contributed to women's oppression. He refrains, however, from exploring the reasons for this situation on the grounds that "it would not be easy to attribute precise responsibility considering the strength of cultural sedimentations that, through the centuries, have formed people's mentalities." What the Pope does not seem to realize is that, when he refers to the obstacles that impede women's full incorporation into social, political and economic life, he needs the word "gender" in order to explain the "cultural sedimentations" that account for inequalities.
It is in the world conferences organized by the United Nations that the Vatican is most active in its campaign against feminism and reproductive rights. The Vatican's observer status at the United Nations gives it the right to participate in these UN conferences--a right not accorded to any other religious group. As Cecilia Olivares of the Free Choice Information Group (GIRE) in Mexico points out, "Despite its status as observer, the Vatican--a state that includes neither women nor children in its territory and whose members don't have sex and do not reproduce since they have a made a vow of chastity--places obstacles in the way of decisions on the sexual and reproductive lives of millions of people on the planet."
In the planning stages of the Rio de Janeiro Conference on Environment and Development (1992), the Cairo Conference on Population and Development (1994), and the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing (1995), the Vatican was vocal on questions of family, marriage, divorce and reproductive health. For example, the Church put pressure on Latin American governments to send anti-abortion delegates to the Cairo conference. Around the same time, Argentine President Carlos Menem was recruited to the cause, and tried to get a declaration affirming the sacredness of life from the moment of conception included in the Presidential Summit Meeting of Latin American leaders held in Cartagena just before Cairo. Once the Cairo conference got underway, the Vatican allied itself with Islamic fundamentalists in an attempt to scuttle documents favoring reproductive rights. When it was unsuccessful in its bid to erase certain clauses from the final documents, it resorted to insisting on bracketing phrases it considered controversial, including "family group" and "gender."
Harshly criticized for its heavy-handed approach in Cairo, the Church shifted gears in the preparations for the Beijing conference, initiating an all-out ideological war against the concept of gender. A key battlesite was the "Draft Platform for Action," a preparatory document for the Beijing conference. The platform is a complex document that deals with a vast number of women's issues--from population to the feminization of poverty to violence against women. One objection raised by Vatican spokesman Joaquin Navarro-Vals was that the word "gender" was used more frequently than the word "mother." Archbishop of Tegucigalpa and president of the Latin American Episcopal Conference, Oscar Rodriguez, asserted that the aim of the Beijing Conference was "to force society to accept five types of gender: masculine, feminine, lesbian, homosexual and transsexual." The preparatory document gives no evidence to support such a claim. "The differences between women's and men's achievements and activities," the draft platform states, "are still not recognized as the consequences of socially constructed gender roles rather than immutable biological differences." But, of course, this was precisely the definition of gender that the Vatican found perturbing.
The news that the word "gender" was unacceptable quickly surfaced in Latin American discussions prior to Beijing. In Chile, it began even before Josefina Bilbao, minister of the National Women's Service (SERNAM), had published the government position paper on Beijing. In an interview with Politica y Sociedad, she tried to wiggle out of the controversy by defining gender according to the Dictionary of the Royal Academy as "a group of beings who have one or various characteristics in common."
Once the position paper was published and being debated in the Senate, Bilbao attempted to sidestep the issue of gender altogether, focusing instead on the conference themes of poverty, education, and political participation, as she would do in the paper she presented at the Beijing conference. A group of conservative senators, however, challenged the document, centering their attack on the use of the word "gender." The senators complained that "many people use the word without further clarification, claiming that masculine and feminine respond merely to cultural and sociological constructions and not to biological conditions that constitute the psychology of woman and man. According to this conception, the difference between the sexes does not have a natural origin, a view that has consequences for the individual, for the family, and for society." These "ambiguous ideas" were declared unacceptable.
The alternative position paper that the senators came up with, although eventually defeated, is illustrative of what lies behind the struggle over the meaning of gender. Every Chilean, said the dissident senators, had the constitutional duty to preserve "the essential values of Chilean tradition." They claimed to be defending that tradition against "value- oriented totalitarianism" (read: feminism), which they argued would allow all kinds of unnatural practices. The family was defined by these senators as the stable union of men and women within marriage, and any term or action that threatened the family or "admitted that persons of the same sex might constitute a family" was deemed inadmissable. Senator Hernan Larrain Fernandez reminded Bilbao that she herself had declared that homosexual families were not "part of Chilean reality." Larrain also argued that reproductive rights implied a view of reproduction in a "purely animal context, dehumanized the concept of sex, and opened the door to the argument in favor of abortion." These rights were described as "highly inconvenient and dangerous." Clearly, the senators' position is an argument for the exclusion of gay men and women from citizenship and the criminalization of abortion.
The Catholic Church has also found itself pitted against multilateral lending agencies over population-control policies. The World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank see these policies as a way to reduce poverty and facilitate women's participation in the wage-labor force. Latin American governments are caught in a bind between this imperative to "modernize" and opposition to birth control and abortion coming from the Church and other conservative groups. As a consequence, Latin American delegates at Beijing tended to maintain a low profile.
Peru illustrates the hard choices that neoliberal governments face on this issue. In his inaugural address to the nation on July 28 of last year, President Fujimori unexpectedly broke ranks with other Latin American countries on the issue of birth control, announcing that the state would facilitate access to family planning for poor families. "We have been and shall continue to be a pragmatic government, without taboos or 'sacred cows,'" he said, in a pointed reference to the Church. "Peruvian women must be in control of their own destinies."
Fujimori was playing the modernization card, appealing to international lending organizations by promising that by the year 2000 poverty would be reduced by 50% and that 50% of social spending would be for women. A government document drawn up in 1993 and obtained by the Peruvian journal Oiga revealed exactly how large the population problem loomed in the government's scheme of things. The document forecast that, in terms of its current growth, within four decades Peru would have to support "a population of eight million hungry uneducated and unemployed people in a climate of absolute poverty and deeply inured delinquency." For those belonging to this "social surplus," vasectomies for men and tubal ligation for women were recommended. Not surprisingly, this language led to comparisons between Fujimori's population control and the Nazi's final solution. Church leaders denounced it as a proposal "for the 'mutilation' of men and women by the power of darkness."
Fujimori answered his critics in a speech at Beijing, where he characterized himself as "a blue-jeans President" in touch with contemporary problems. He announced that a "social miracle" which would boost women from mere survival into productive development would follow his "economic miracle." However, this claim to be protecting women rings hollow given that Fujimori has demolished workers' rights, including regulations that specifically relate to the health and safety of women in the workplace.
Meanwhile, the Catholic Church continues its virulent opposition to reproductive rights. The gender debate it has prompted in Latin America is clearly a smoke screen for a vicious attack on women's rights. Not only is the Church fighting a losing battle, but more seriously, its campaign has obscured the real issues. The Beijing conference, if it achieved nothing else, registered the fact that "women's issues"--including their human rights--have moved to the center of the world's political agendas. Both multilateral lending organizations and feminist groups are in favor of promoting sex education, making contraception widely available to women, and decriminalizing abortion. It seems clear, however, that these common stances rest on fundamentally different assumptions. While Latin American feminists see these issues as essentially about the rights of women to control their own lives, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank are primarily interested in population control. Illegal abortion, perhaps the most inflammatory issue, is a significant threat to women's health in Latin America, and criminalization only serves to perpetuate the problem. On the other hand, emphasis on birth control and abortion rights to the exclusion of women's education, development, and changing role in society is just as questionable. It is these debates that should have been foregrounded and not the struggle over the use of the word gender.