Women and politics of Latin America

March 8, 2021 2:51 PM

By Dr Aparaajita Pandey,  Latin America and the Caribbean went from a region at the top of the World’s Female Leader Index in 2014 to a region with no female heads of state in 2019 and the situation hasn’t changed in 2021. As the region displays a major shift towards the conservative side of politics, […]

latin americaThe Latin American region has an intriguing relationship with gender relations, social capital and gender divide. (Photo source: Reuters)

By Dr Aparaajita Pandey, 

Latin America and the Caribbean went from a region at the top of the World’s Female Leader Index in 2014 to a region with no female heads of state in 2019 and the situation hasn’t changed in 2021. As the region displays a major shift towards the conservative side of politics, the gender, race, and class divide has never held more prominence in the politics of Latin America. The interaction between the gender, race, and class has meandered in interesting and unexpected ways; however, an overall diminishing the percentages of women in politics at the local, provincial, and central level has become apparent. As the politics of the region changes, women have also begun to make a mark among conservative leaders however; it is still unclear what their future would be.

The Latin American region has an intriguing relationship with gender relations, social capital and gender divide. The Latin American society, polity, and economy suffer from the same ailments as most other previously colonised nation- states of the developing world. The continent of ‘Latin America’ was largely colonised by the Spanish and the Portuguese who mostly remained limited to Brazil. While the Latin American countries were some of the first in the world to attain independence from their colonial masters, these are also countries that experienced not only colonisation and the socio-economic dismantling quite characteristic of the process, it also witnessed near complete wiping out of its native population and also an introduction of slaves from Africa. The region has been a witness to several waves of migration, while those from Africa were engineered by the colonial masters, the Latin American region has also received waves of European, Chinese, and Japanese immigrants who are now a part of the Latin American society.

However, this existence of multi-racial society must not be mistaken for an absence of racial conflict. Deep schisms between the European descendants and the non- white counterparts still exist. This divide became more apparent in the past half a decade. As the world took a turn towards conservative shades of politics so did Latin America. As populist leaders from centre right to the far right campaigned for a brand of politics that was rooted in conservatism, exclusivity, marginalisation, and religious and cultural orthodoxy; Latin America displayed the fault lines in its racial terrain clearly. It was also the moment when Latin America along with the rest of the world saw a widening gender divide in its society.

Gender an issue as complicated as race became the proverbial bone of contention not only between the conservatives and liberals fighting for the supremacy of their political ideology but it became intertwined with the fabric of a society that is rapidly changing. As the feminist demands evolve from the basics of being a part of the work force and the right to vote to more nuanced like wage parity and agency of their own reproductive rights around the world, Latin American women also find themselves in the midst of political suppression and a battle for equality and justice, along with parity and the final aim of a change of mind set.

The Latin American society has for long regarded gender as a polar dichotomy; echoing the patriarchal notion of an evolutionary difference in the roles of men and women. The region has built ideal images of men and women. This archetype of masculinity and femininity while originating in the concept of patriarchy has become a defining characteristic of Latin American societies across the continent. The word Macho or the term Machismo is often used to describe a somewhat overly masculine man.

The term is a collective term for all attributes attached with masculinity; aggression, flamboyance, physical prowess and perhaps most importantly a supremacy over others especially women. Machismo not only celebrates the masculinity of men; it cements their superior position in the social hierarchy as compared to their counterparts.The widely accepted ideology of machismo provides men of all sections of society regardless of racial or economic barriers an immunity from societal judgement based in morality.

While Machismo is the male archetype, Latin America also has a feminine counterpart to this concept. The archetype of quintessential female characteristics is defined by the term; Marianismo. Derived from the religious concept of the holy mother, Marianismo is a collective term encompassing the fabled qualities of a woman that are almost embedded in mythology. According to the philosophy of Marianismo, womankind is the earthly embodiment of purity and benevolence. The demure, submissive, chaste, and righteous aspects of humanity supposedly find manifestation in women. Marianismo needs to be understood in the context of its two-pronged approach about quintessential qualities of femininity.

The ideology of Marianismo places women on a pedestal that is supposedly, fundamentally above a decrepit, contaminated, corrupt, and polluted society. Such a pedestal of purity and righteousness however is unachievable in most circumstances, thereby setting most women up for an almost immediate failure. The ideology simultaneously manufactures labyrinths in social constructs that ultimately lead to traditional gender roles for women. An ideal of Marianismo would be women who follow traditional gender roles and usually any variation from the norm brings with it societal unacceptance and judgement based in morality. Women face harsher critique for their actions and fickle loyalties from their supporters. While Machismo provides men with a social security net often saving them social and moral verdicts and possible opposition from the society, Marianismo on the other hand exposes women to greater trials and ostracization. It makes women fragile depictions of unattainable values and sets them up for an eventual and proverbial fall from grace. The interplay of Machismo and Marianismo is often witnessed at the workplace and in such complex meanderings, men often are placed in a position of advantage over women.

It has been established that much akin to the rest of the world Latin American societies are also not egalitarian in terms of gender and gender representation. However, the semiotics of statistics often paint a much rosier picture. As mentioned before, the region has elected ten women heads of state in the past forty years. Even till 2015, the Latin American continent was home to four women presidents, a per capita representation of women in politics higher than any other region in 2015 and even later. The Latin American continent during the time was ranked in the highest positions in various gender equality scales mapped by international organisations. While the statistics were certainly favourable in till the end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015; the socio-political scenario of Latin America changed drastically and by 2018, it was a region with no women heads of state, as well as minimal women representation in presidential cabinets, senates, and provincial level governments. Though it has been established that the relationship between gender and politics in Latin America is estranged to say the least; the region has seen its fair share of women leaders. Names like Michelle Bachelet of Chile, Dillma Roussef of Brazil and Kristina Kirschner from Argentina are some of the most recent examples of women Presidents of the region. While women leaders have ruled in the past and have been wholeheartedly accepted by their people on occasion; it is imperative that their relationships with their voters, their peers, the media, their mentors, and their opposition be examined in greater detail.

Women even after becoming leaders tend to face harsher judgements, and fickle loyalties. Their own political parties and their own political allies are usually quick to abandon them at the slightest glimpse of political opposition. An apt example of such fleeting support and political surrender was demonstrated in 2016, when the former Brazilian President, Dillma Roussef lost the support of her own party amidst rumours of misappropriation of funds. She was later impeached from office.

It has also been noticed that women leaders and politicians tend to lose favour in times of politico – economic instability. Much of Latin America has been suffering from political instability catalysed by an economic slowdown since the middle of the ongoing decade. In these conditions, the society tends to find solace in tradition and convention almost immediately turning to male leaders who come across as aggressively masculine often embodying machismo and the stereo – type of economy and security being masculine domains of politics comes into play, and while the elections in the past year have seen a proclivity towards the left of centre, with Bolivia, Chile, and the legalisation of abortions in Argentina; we are yet to see a woman Head of State or in a prominent position in Latin America.

Latin America is a region that has interesting notions of gender and politics. This makes the dynamics between the two, complex to say the least. This complexity when juxtaposed on a rapidly changing society and social norms, it becomes unpredictable. But as the society moves forward, it would be interesting to see the changes it brings.

(The author is an Asst. Professor at the Dept. of Public Policy, Amity University, and has a PhD from the Centre of Canadian, US, and Latin American Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views expressed are personal and do not reflect the official position or policy of Financial Express Online.)

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