Argentina: They are afraid of us

By Verónica Gago August 26, 2018
— Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Viewpoint Magazine — The contempt implied by the Argentine Senate’s rejection of the bill to legalize abortion rewrites – and makes us remember – a scene that we know well: the domestic scene, where all our effort seems to become invisible, almost as if it didn’t exist, as if it didn’t count. Thus the Parliament sought to repeat what, for centuries, the patriarchy has wanted us to get used to: an act of disdain to discredit us. Where our power does not enter into the account, where it does not count. But, this time, due to the unfolding of the feminist movement we cannot go back to that scene of submission and invisibilization ever again. Our fury comes from the certainty that there is no going back and that the power we have gained cannot be reversed. Based on that certainty, we also say that we will never return to a condition of clandestinity.

The contempt was overwhelming. It was targeted at the feminist multitude that overflowed the city: the massive, effervescent, popular, diverse, intergenerational mobilization that lasted for hours despite the wind and rain (there were 110 buses from Rosario alone!). We cannot deny that it felt like a mockery, an insult, a brutal attempt to discipline us. That is another reason for our fury.

The Senate’s rejection follows the same pattern of historically ignoring what is created by our labor, the ways in which we produce value, all the work that we do so that world is produced and reproduced, and our ways of weaving sociability and collective care, which have been systematically not counted in the accounts of any democracy. Because we are well aware of this method of humiliating and ignoring us and since in opposition to that we have created the common cry saying “now that they see us,” we will not allow them to make us invisible again. As we repeat that shout with conviction, our fury erupts  from our throats too. This invisibilization – that is a specific regime of visibility – is created by expropriating the very power [potencia] of our bodies while they “exploit” make a profit from, representing us. The senators continue to speak in our name, to legislate about our desires and our experiences of maternity, while they ignore the nearly two million bodies surrounding the Congress that continue to make themselves seen and heard. Our fury also arises from this attempt to continue controlling our vital decisions with the force of the elite’s power.

In this sense, August 8 depicts with historical clarity a power that is already inverted. There is no compliance to that contempt. There is no submission to that invisibility. There is no resignation to not being counted. There is no accommodation to, once again, not being included in democracy, or only being included as the infantilized part, under guardianship. The power in the streets that took over the cities on August 8 is the political power of bodies that are not infantilized and not domesticated.

This has a spatial dimension as well: we have already left the domestic enclosure. We built other domestic territories that do not force us to do unrecognized free labor or require us to promise fidelity to a husband-owner. We took over the street and we made it into a feminist house. On August 8, they were the ones who were enclosed, while we took over the city. Why is this an inversion that makes history? Confinement – the preferred alibi of domestic enclosure – remained on their side.

The senators were locked up, guarded by barricades, announcing that the vote needed to be sped up so as not to delay police repression. In other words, they issued a warning that their vote was expecting and relying on the backing of state repression in an attempt to discipline popular anger. Outside, the space of the political was reorganized and reinvented under the open sky by a tide that will be unforgettable to all of us who were there. The stronghold of the Senate – ancient and decadent – was a counterpoint to the encampment formed by those open houses and shacks, experiments in another form of domesticity, other types of care. This spatial inversion marks a new type of political cartography. It dismantles the traditional binary between the house as the enclosed space and the public as its opposite: we are building houses open to the street, to the neighborhood, to community networks, and a roof and walls that provide refuge and shelter without enclosing. This is a practical balance that emerges from the concrete reality: many homes, understood in a patriarchal sense, have turned into a hell; they are the most unsafe places, where the majority of femicides occur, along with innumerable other everyday and “domestic” forms of violence.

With this new form of doing politics it is even almost unnecessary to chant that they don’t represent us or to create a feminist version of “they all must go!” We have already passed that threshold. It became clear that the regime of representation that sustains itself turning its back to the streets has nothing to do with the feminist way of doing politics and making history. But even more, it was shown that politics is already being carried out in other territories, that have the force to produce a non-patriarchal domestic space.

I’ll go back to our fury. We felt nausea, disgust, repugnance upon listening to the ignorance and violence of some of the senators’ words. The claim that there can be rape without violence when it happens within the family, as Rodolfo Urtubey (PJ-Salta) said, is again a symptom of what I am trying to argue: that, even in Parliament, we are talking about a domestic scene. That what was happening in the Senate – supposedly the space of the public sphere – is neither more nor less than the desperate attempt to maintain the home as the patriarchal reign in opposition to the emergence of a politics that creates other forms and dismantles the division between the public and the private that creates hierarchies between spaces.

What does this mean? That Senator Urtubey (whose immediate resignation we must demand) explicitly and openly stated that the home, in the patriarchal sense, is the place where rape is allowed. The household is constituted as “private” when it legitimizes men’s violent and privileged access to women’s and feminized bodies (which includes children of all genders). Here the private is what legitimizes (what the senator calls the “non-violence”) the violence and guarantees that it remains a secret. It is also what enables the famous “double moral.” Here we are in the heart of what organizes, as Carole Pateman showed in a pioneering way, the patriarchal contract: a commitment to complicity between men based on that hierarchy, which is turned into a form of political right in our democracies.

In the patriarchal contract there is a sexual division of bodies: the masculine body is presented as the rational and abstract body, but it claims to be capable of gestating. What does it gestate? Order and a discourse to legitimize its superiority and expropriate the sovereignty over gestation from women’s bodies. What there is, then, is a dispute over the power of gestation, because the patriarchal political order is founded on that expropriation. That expropriation implies a specific form of subordination and is translated into power within the home: the power to violate the feminine or feminized body as the structure of the patriarchal order. This is the pact that the senators ratified in the early hours of August 9th and that functions as the cornerstone of all their privileges. It sanctioned masculine power over women’s bodies, the foundational scene of which, I insist, is rape.

The Theological Scene

But the parliamentary scene takes us directly to another scene. The negative vote confirms the Parliament as a space submitted to theological power: it was the Catholic Church’s theater to reaffirm its declining power. Senator Pedro Guastavino (Justicialist Block – Entre Rios) explained it in colloquial terms: the senators who spoke in favor of abortion did so “dodging crucifixes,” threatening phone calls and other messages from the mafia that calls itself “heavenly”. With the referendum in Ireland, with the mobilizations in Poland and the feminist tide in Argentina, the Apostolic and Roman Catholic Church – to which we dedicated various chants – feels under attack in countries that had been emblems of loyalty to it.

Today there is a distinctive feature about Argentina: it is the land of the current Pope. The Church’s political operations in opposition to feminism, headed by the figure of Bergoglio, attempt to divide social organizations and ignore the force of a movement that is being built from below, that is popular and anti-neoliberal. I have already discussed the type of conflict over political spirituality that the church – the Catholic Church and other types of religious fundamentalism – feels, as never before, with the current feminist movement in regards to the vote in the Chambers of Deputies.

After our victory in the lower chamber, the Church intensified its counter-offensive. In various places, the homilies in the patriotic festivities of July 9th (Independence Day) were declarations of war: thus, from above, they legitimized the attacks on the streets against girls only for wearing the green bandana, they gave impetus to fundamentalist groups that attacked feminist activists (like in Mendoza) and they drove the indoctrination of teenagers in confessional schools (we must remember the march of teenagers with blue handkerchiefs forced to do the military step in Santiago del Estero).

It is an intense chapter of the campaign against what they have called “gender ideology”, which takes specific forms in each Latin American country. This concept allows the church to identify feminism as its new enemy. The protests in Peru and Ecuador saying “don’t mess with my children” are part of this campaign. In Brazil, “gender ideology” is invoked as a threat to the family and as a promise of homosexuality by several types of fundamentalism (it was also mentioned last week in the first “anti-feminist” conference). In Colombia, it played a role in the campaign that mobilized the “gender threat” in support of the triumph of the “no” to the Havana peace agreement. In Chile, it is used by neo-Nazi groups against the feminist revolts . In Argentina, it has driven the offensive against the Law for Comprehensive Sexual Education and abortion.

Here again the debate’s intensity had a particular feature: it focused on the argument that “poor women don’t have abortions,” that abortion is “imperialist” or a “fad” imposed by the IMF. The battle intensified in the tutelage practiced by the Catholic Church, especially over poor women, led by the discourse of the so called “shantytown priests.” The interesting thing about the debate during these weeks was the enormous number of women from shantytowns and popular neighborhoods speaking out and sharing their experiences of having clandestine abortions. This was a political leap in the discussion in relation to previous years, since the mass debate took place in class-based terms, demonstrating that there is a differentiated price to the criminalization of abortion. That is, the transversality of the feminist politicization allowed for expanding it into spaces and sites where it had not reached previously even if abortions were a massive reality. The leaders of several social movements attempted to discipline the women from those groups, advocating in favor of putting a limit to the green wave in response to the Vatican’s requests.

The number of women from popular neighborhoods who populated the tents that filled the ten blocks around the Congress discussing these questions speaks of the failure of that internal disciplining. It speaks of the force of saying that we will not go back to having abortions in secret, even if the Pope dares to associate abortion with Nazism. But, above all, it speaks of a push by the youngest pibas to raise the issues, to their mothers and within their families, of an interpellation, a discussion, and a way of practicing sexuality that makes the patriarchal contract, which is also the ecclesial pact, tremble. This had a snowball effect that expanded into another discussion: the definitive separation of the Church from the State, which was convincingly performed by the boxes full of apostasy forms filled out in the middle of the encampment. It is not a coincidence that the Church’s reaction is so virulent at the same time as cases are continuously being uncovered of pedophile priests, sexual abuse against nuns, and public testimonies of children not recognized by their father-priests. Again, we return to the rape scene: it is this that is again and again being defended as the “private” and “sacred” space of the powers that maintain the patriarchal-ecclesial pact.

The Global Scene

The scene of the fight for abortion took place in Argentina, but it was already on a global stage. The repercussion and the weaving of resonances across Latin America and the world was a powerful feature of the campaign for the right to abortion. Cities around the world were painted green. Protesting in front of embassies, gathering in plazas, making green handkerchiefs in other places, occupying universities and schools were ways of performing a new type of internationalism.

The feminist strikes (October 19, 2016 and March 8, 2017 and 2018) nourished the feminist movement’s internationalist dynamic, which translates into coordination, swarming initiatives, exchanges of political lexicons, articulation of a common agenda, and a strength that is concretely experienced in diverse conflicts. Feminism as a new internationalism is producing a new type of proximity among struggles.

What was at stake in the vote in the Argentine Senate also demonstrates the strength of a scene that, as the back cover of the New York Times said, “the whole world is watching.” Today the conservative Catholic triumph appears in the news, but even so it does not manage to outplay the photos seen around the world: a green tide on the streets, endless lights in the middle of a winter night, a river of desire for disobedience.

This time the pressure of the political lobby in favor of the patriarchal-ecclesial pact maintaining its power over women’s autonomy and decision-making in regards to their maternity and desire has prevailed. However, the earthquaker of the feminist revolution leaves no room unmoved. In the street abortion is already the law. Our victory is here and now and in the long term. We are making history. They are afraid of us. The Senate’s contempt will not come without a price. We are full of fury and euphoria. We don’t have hope, we have strength.

Translated by Liz-Mason Deese. Verónica Gago is part of Colectivo Situaciones, teaches in the School of Social Sciences at Buenos Aires University, and is a postdoctoral fellow at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (CONICET). She is currently working on a project exploring popular economies in post-neoliberal contexts.