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“In Chile Every Day is a ‘March 8’ Interview with Rafaella Lamberti,” a Look Back

Today marks the 108th year that women and men around the globe celebrate International Women’s Day. There is so much to celebrate: the rise and rise of the #MeToo movement, a greater participation of women leaders in society and government, among others.

And yet for some parts of the world, this has been accompanied by the return of authoritarianism, something that we thought we had conquered in the past.

Once again, we are faced with the need to address the “double struggle, against the dictatorship and for women’s rights.” This is how Maria Eugenia Jelincic, a Chilean member of Isis International Rome described the fight of Chilean women to help free their country from the bloody hands of Augusto Pinochet. She wrote these words in 1986, a full four years before the dictator finally stepped down and democracy in was restored in Chile.

Preserved on the pages of the 5th issue of Women’s Journal (The Latin American Women’s Movement) is her conversation with Rafaella Lamberti on how women across Chile have come together not just to fight tyranny but to also forge a “…a strong link between social issues and feminism…” It also documents how Chilean women from all manners of persuasion overcame the difficult process of being united for a common cause. The title of the piece says it all. It’s a timely reminder for us who are in the midst of yet another attack on our hard-won democracies and human rights. May the strength, persistence and diligence of our sisters in the past give us the fortitude as we gather strength to fight our current battles.

In Chile Every Day is a ‘March 8’ Interview with Rafaella Lamberti

by Maria Eugenia Jelincic

Since the coup which overthrew the ruling alliance of Popular Unity in 1973, Chile has seen 13 years of dictatorship. During this time the average income per capita has fallen by 73 percent provoking, among other things, a rise in social injustice. Any opposition to the current regime is brutally persecuted – between August 20 and September 11, 1985, 1500 people were detained, 14 were assassinated and 35 banished to prison.

In this climate of extreme repression women’s movement has grown around a double struggle, against the dictatorship and for women’s rights. “For democracy in our country and in the home” is one of the movement’s most popular slogans.

This kind of political women’s movement had not been seen in Chile for many years. Many women have realized that authoritarianism is something that goes far beyond the dictatorship; that its roots lie deep down in the structure of society. They recognize the need to revise the whole traditional concept of politics and the subordinate position of women within parties and within society.

Rafaella Lamberti, Italian feminist and coordinator of the Women’s Center for Documentation, Research and Action in Bologna, was in Chile in March 1986 as part of a European delegation invited by the Coordinating Committee of the Chilean Women’s Movement. In the following interview with Maria Eugenia Jelincic, Chilean member of the Isis International collective in Rome, she speaks about the current situation in Chile and the impressions she had of the women’s movement during her visit which was planned especially to coincide with events taking place on and around International Women’s Day on March 8.

Rafaella, how long were you in Chile and whom did you meet during your stay?

We were there for only ten days, but it was a period of great activity. Within an hour of arriving at the airport we found ourselves at an assembly of some 3(K) women in one parish.

The three of us in my delegation must have taken part in about 50 meetings altogether, with Christian-Democrats, women from the Communist Party and Socialists. However, our aim wasn’t to meet up with political parties. Chilean women are engaged in an extraordinary task of unity and we had been invited to the country by a United Coordinating Committee of Chilean women made up of women from many different organizations; some were militants from political opposition parties, but others were simply linked to the women’s movement. We met women from poor neighborhoods, peasant women and professionals, women from organizations for the detained, the disappeared, murdered or exiled, prisoners… In one afternoon we had a meeting with 11 feminist groups at La Morada, the women’s house in Santiago.

Had you been to Chile before?

No, but I am especially interested in nonviolent roads to social change and have closely followed events in Chile ever since the experience of Popular Unity. I was deeply shocked by the coup which had a similar impact on my generation in Europe as the pain our parents lived through during the Spanish war against fascism.

What was your impression of the state of the women’s movement in Chile?

It struck me as a very large movement. People ask me if I merely had this impression from all the activity which took place around March 8, but International Women’s Day lasted for the entire time I was there. For so much to have been happening – demonstrations by professional groups, mass demonstrations, protest by political groups from the Christian Democrats to the Revolutionary Left Movement (MIR) – women had obviously been organizing themselves for some time. I had the impression of a strong autonomous movement, eager to lead in the national fight against repression but with its own slogans and its own specific demands.

I wonder if you were able to grasp the climate in which people are living in Chile whereby, in spite of all the repression, so many are still prepared to go out onto the streets to protest. It’s not easy when you’re likely to risk your life or at least imprisonment. When I was at the March 8 demonstration in Santiago in 1984 the police were brutally beating up women and I was really impressed by their bravery. Fifty women were detained, some suffered fractures from being beaten and a girl of 17 was raped in a police compound. This year detainees on March 8 numbered around 110.

One of the many unexpected things we encountered was the atmosphere of death alongside a tremendous affirmation of life which is hard to express. Women when they are together sing “Gracias a la Vida” (Thanks to Life) by Violeta Parra [a popular Chilean folk-singer who committed suicide soon after the coup] as a way of reaffirming life in the face of all the individual sorrows they have suffered, like the problems of the disappeared. The coup, representing the rupture of an allembracing social transformation, has also caused a form of ongoing collective suffering which doesn’t relate to any one specific moment. The dictatorship has affected personal relations, destroying not only the fabric of Chilean society but trust between people.

There is also a feeling of fear which has never been overcome – people just carry on in spite of it. When we visited San Miguel prison the political prisoners, distinguished by a red star on their shirts, took advantage of our presence as foreign delegates to sing protest songs. Two women among them, Miriam Ortega and Cecilia Radrigan, have been condemned to death, leading to the urgent need for an international campaign to save their lives. When we went out onto the street we’d come across dozens of groups of people clapping their hands as a signal of protest against the regime as passing drivers hooted their car horns in support. Every day more people seemed to be joining in the fight.

As you know, the first groups to go out and protest on the streets were organizations formed by the relatives of the detained and disappeared. Mainly consisting of women, in 1977 these were the first to break the silence imposed by martial law. The conscience of the population was touched by their questions – “Where are they? Where is my father, my brother, my daughter?” – demanding a reply from the dictatorship. Every one of these women used to receive daily threats by telephone and in writing. They were offered pensions as a bribe to keep quiet and allow their disappeared relatives to be incorporated in the official lost persons list, and had to suffer the regime’s rage at not being able to buy their silence. It would be interesting if you could say something about your meeting with some of these women.

During the coup and the period immediately afterward, the repression hit men above all and, as you say, it was women who had the courage to start weaving a new social, civil and political fabric. Women from families of the disappeared or exiled and all those other categories created by the emergency were the first to march, saying “I won’t allow my dead to be insulted. I won’t let it be said they are lost.” You could call it a defensive period. Families needed to prove that their relatives were dead and to know where they were buried.

That’s how so many mass graves were discovered in places like Lonquen.

Exactly. We asked one of the mothers of the disappeared if she had been political before and she replied: “Most of us were wives of political leaders, housewives. After the coup we used to form long lines outside the doors of the autopsy building and outside council offices to find out how to recover our dead, to know where they were…” It was under these dramatic conditions that they got to know each other and decided to organize.

What do you feel are the differences between this early period and the movement today?

The present women’s movement seems to be more on the attack. Women are no longer simply preoccupied with exile, the assassinated, the buried and the disappeared. No, today’s movement is concerned about women’s representation within political organizations. It’s concerned with confrontation.

This was illustrated by several of our experiences, for instance by a debate we attended about women’s participation in a peasant trade-union organization. The leaders were all men. At one stage a woman who had been in the union for many years stood up and emphatically declared that she wasn’t a feminist, only to provoke the following statement from a younger woman: “To have this debate and achieve official female representation we have to fight with male union leaders; they must understand that what we are doing is positive and recognize the justice in women’s struggle for a platform within the union.”

Something similar happened with leader of one of the political alliances of the opposition who told us that his organization had already established a women’s platform. In response one of the women from the Chilean women’s movement who was accompanying our delegation asked: “If that’s so, how come we send you proposals month after month without ever receiving a word of support in reply?”

What did you find most striking about the kind of struggles being waged by Chilean women?

We noticed that their political approach was quite different from that of the men. The male party representatives I met were always keen to explain their particular line whereas women were much more inclined to discuss problems, even in meetings of women with diverse political tendencies. Only in this way, through open discussion about specific issues, has it been possible to achieve the kind of united action which I saw being carried out. At the moment party women act as a bridge between political groups that are often strongly divided.

Women told us that they managed to attain this unity through a system of consciousness-raising, confronting each other and saying “I don’t have confidence in your party for the following reasons…” which went on for months. Unity was clearly difficult but women said they knew how to achieve it as the only possible road to democracy. I had the impression that in terms of social mobilization and the slogan “Pinochet Out” unity was complete, but there was a lot of agreement about the importance of women maintaining a protagonist position as well. Unlike women in our movement in Italy they believe in keeping up a presence in parties where quite a few women are militant.

Did you come across other aspects which you found especially interesting?

Yes, I was also struck by the strong link between social issues and feminism which is something we have sadly lost in Europe. In Chile there seems to be a common search among women of different social sectors.

For instance the work which professional women are doing with women in poor neighborhoods is very much approached as a joint project rather than feminist groups imposing their own ready-made plan of action. Training courses are being run in areas such as health, relations between women and men, sexuality and relations with children, themes which demonstrate an advanced state of debate and reflection. This is also evident in the amount of documents being produced.

As you know, there are working-class women’s groups who call themselves feminists, for instance the Movimiento de Mujeres Pobladoras MOMUPO (Movement of Poor Women), disproving claims from certain sectors that feminism is merely the concern of a few privileged groups. In fact one of the most interesting aspects of the present women’s movement in Chile, as in other Latin American countries, is the merging of two strands of thought – the socio-political and the feminist. Although many party militants from the Center to the Left don’t call themselves feminists, they have slowly been experimenting in the area of cultural transformation and are beginning to take steps toward asserting women’s demands as part of their struggle for democracy. In relation to this development and to conclude our conversation perhaps you could briefly compare your experience of the movement in Chile with the Italian movement.

The situation in Europe is very different. In Italy at least there has been a strong tendency toward separatism since Italian feminism believes, in general, that political parties ignore women. In Italy we have chosen to work outside on the understanding that separatism provides a necessary specific space for women. I am thinking in particular of women from the Left who used to be much more dedicated to party politics than women’s politics. The movement in Italy continues to work a lot towards the development of feminist theory, which I think is very important. I think it’s vital for women to consider and formulate their own autonomous theory based on the concept that there are two ways of thinking, two genders.

In Chile there is a great task of solidarity and of exchange between different social sectors within the movement. It is necessary to have both strands. Today we are beginning to think precisely about how to transform theory into practice. We need to evaluate the position of women in society, in school and in political organizations, going far beyond class arguments in relation to our struggle for social change.