Written by Day Moibi


What the women of Santa Marta taught me about womanhood

On International Women’s Day, Day Moibi shares the lessons she learned while working in El Salvador. If you think the fight for equality is over, she says, you’re wrong.

El Salvador 1

Carmen, one of the women interviewed by Day, with her daughter Ida.

As a kid I enjoyed running barefoot and climbing trees. My mother would have preferred me in hijabs or dresses but I insisted on dungarees. I remember clearly the rapid transitions I had to make to ready for myself for mosque. My hair combed, although hidden, dirt washed from my face and the ablutions I always forgot to do. In minutes I was transformed – dressed up and playing a part.

I always felt like an oddball in my mother’s eyes. I have not outgrown tree climbing, running barefoot or dungarees. I hope I never do. When we meet now, we meet as women as well as mother and daughter. One stuck in tradition and one willing to break any tradition in sight.

My mother faced the difficulties of immigration and legalised discrimination. If I grow to be half the woman she is, I will have achieved something great. It is her strength that I foster and build upon.

Nevertheless, there was a passivity that reigned over my house. My mother and aunties readily and silently accepted the limiting and negative views of themselves as women passed onto them by their mothers. It was their duty to prepare me for womanhood, to teach me the qualities of a ‘good’ woman so I could become a good wife.

Growing up in London, I found this silence in many of my friends’ homes. My friends and I would ridicule outdated customs and scream “women’s rights” as we stockpiled our money to buy Bliss magazine. Unintentionally, we pandered to the gender role we were fighting so hard to make obsolete.

At 16, I pondered the question ‘What is woman?’ I found refuge and meaning in the works of Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Robin Morgan and bell hooks.

“I could no longer escape my womanhood; I was 100 per cent aware men were the ‘seer’ and I was the other.”

Last summer, I had the opportunity to go to El Salvador as a bio-construction volunteer. During my stay, I met and interviewed 15 inspiring and thought-provoking women who would become my heroes. Not because they had a ‘rags to riches’ story worthy of primetime television. Rather, they held a resilient strength, wisdom and a lion-like courage against the backdrop of a country still experiencing the after-effects of a 12-year civil war which ended in 1992.

Challenging and fighting the historical difficulties and prejudices that came with being a woman, they also faced socio-economic disparities and a ‘machismo’ culture that still dominates much of Latin America today.

I became obsessed with hearing every woman’s story; I wished to know their lives, their history, their pleasures and their hates. Every time I tried to begin this article, I became riddled with anxiety, scared to write myself into a corner, scared to let them down. Simultaneously knowing it would be too easy to fall into the dogmas and definitions tied to womanhood. I did not want to embrace demure words and timid citations when it was time to shout.

“We should be equal, we have the same hands, if they can do it. We can too. Things have to change.” (Maria, 66)

My entry into Santa Marta, a small community amid mountains, brought me face to face with everything I had read. It was not the fact I was thousands of miles away from home which made me feel estranged but the fact I knew everyone I interacted with would hold ‘woman’ in mind when they spoke to me.

I could no longer escape my womanhood; I was 100 per cent aware men were the ‘seer’ and I was the other. My rose-tinted glasses fell off and I was standing side by side with the women who had fought and spoken about the prejudice of the female body and our ‘living doll’ mentality.

During my travels around the world, I succumbed to such ideology. I was young and others saw me as young so, in some warped way, I felt malleable under their will. It was easier for me to dismiss and justify constant harassment as something out of my control. I still considered myself a girl and this boxed ‘me’ into a self-fulfilling prophecy. If I shouted at every idiot who thought it a compliment to shout ‘sexy’ or ‘ hot buns’, I would get nowhere. So, I accepted my difficulties with a smile, like many women do.

“Many of the women repeated the same mantra: knowledge is power and men cannot be trusted. For them, it is safer to paint men with the same brush than be their victim.”

El Salvador made me realise how ridiculous it is that, no matter where a woman goes in a world, she has the label of victim rather than hero. Every woman should feel she has the power to change the world and it was only by meeting the women of Santa Marta that I perceived this reality.

“My life has been periods of suffering and some happiness.” (Susana, 68)

The people of Santa Marta are extraordinary: a community made up of survivors, fighters and unsung heroes. Forced to flee their homes by their own military government, they would find asylum in Honduras in refugee camps. Many were massacred before they could reach safety and many died before they could return to their homes. The war left psychological, physical and emotional wounds but, on their return, they hoped to begin anew.

The civil war changed many things; women became fighters as well as mothers. Despite the history, most women in the community were still tied to the kitchen and stereotypical ‘women’s work.’ The discrimination they faced only strengthened their tenacity and their knowledge, allowing a more winnable future to be passed on to their daughters and sons.

“I like to have prospects, I like to be prosperous.” (Maria, 66)

Maria, the last El Salvadorian woman I met, was unforgettable. We talked in her home, which she made herself with the help of the woman’s group . She told me to laugh and smile so hard my cheeks hurt. She is also an inventor, making ovens out of cow manure and dirt.

El Salvador 2 cropWhen Maria’s husband died in the war she was left alone with six kids, all under the age of eight. To feed them, she assisted the guerrilla fighters in the war and now works in the Milpa (field). Traditionally, this is a man’s job and it is very uncommon to see a woman doing fieldwork.

She is a rebel, refusing to let public consensus stop her and motivates young girls to do the same. Her rebellion is also fuelled by need. If she does not work she cannot eat. Maria gets $5 for four hours’ work so she has to choose between her vitamins and good food. You would not know though, because she has such fire roaring in her belly.

“There are not many of us, only a few but we like to fuck things up – we like to annoy. You have to try and motivate people and try and help them, to work to stand up to men. If they can do it, we can do it too. I am a woman and a man because I do it all. It is a burden but I do it. It is not fair that some work more than others,” she says.

Unlike many in the community, she has no one in the United States; with her kids gone, she feels alone. Like all the women I spoke to, their plight only made them stronger.

Every woman I interviewed was unique and distinct but all their lives were bonded by loss, adversity, pain and passion. I asked one woman to tell me her fondest memory; she could only speak of the war, how she was a nurse and had helped the guerrilla fighters. She lost her brother, her sister, her mother, her father and friends.

Carmen, a silent middle-aged woman who like many, finds solace in tapestry, said she had her fondest memory earlier last year. At the age of 44, she went to the beach for the first time and she talked and spoke to people outside of the community. But, most importantly, she did not have to work.

Opportunities and jobs are scarce in El Salvador, forcing the majority of men to illegally cross into the United States. There is a need to leave, rather than a want. Although there are great minds and entrepreneurs within the community working to better it, there is also the need for survival.

I saw this first-hand when my host brother left to go to America. He left wearing a Minion top, rosary beads and jeans. He was 14. He left casually after hugging us all goodbye; my host mum and sister did not cry till after he had gone. While washing our dirty clothes, my host mum held back her tears; her husband was also in the US. She knew all the facts, that he could die en route, that he would be travelling for weeks or months and that he could get sent back. She knew she would probably never see him again.

The nature of crossing the border into America is often made into a joke but the reality is stark. We are all born equal but we do not have the same opportunities. We do not see or feel the repercussions of our damaged system; we do not have to live it.

“If I shouted at every idiot who thought it a compliment to shout ‘sexy’ or ‘ hot buns’, I would get nowhere. So, I accepted my difficulties with a smile, like many women do.”

The women left behind in the community must maintain themselves and stay resilient, not only for self-preservation but for their husbands, nephews, sons and daughters who are compelled to risk their lives for the betterment of their family.

“A weakness of women is that they trust people who they shouldn’t. Women die at the hands of their husbands.” (Georgia, 50)

One does not just become equal, cultural change is slow, and the women of El Salvador are only now being faced with the beginning of their social change. Gang culture is rampant at the moment; last August there were more than 900 homicides. The violence has been going on for so long it seems almost inherited and part of the country’s history. The senseless violence coupled with the ‘machismo’ culture means El Salvador also has one of the highest rates of femicide.

“Impunity for crimes, the socio-economic disparities and the [machismo] culture foster a generalised state of violence, subjecting women to a continuum of multiple violent acts, including murder, rape, domestic violence, sexual harassment and commercial sexual exploitation,” a United Nations report said on violence against women in El Salvador.

Domestic violence did not seem like an immense problem in Santa Marta, although there was evidence it had not always been this way. Many of the women repeated the same mantra: knowledge is power and men cannot be trusted. For them, it is safer to paint men with the same brush than be their victim.

“The weakness of man is his thinking that he is better than a woman and their strength is the one society gives him.” (Susana, 36)

El Salvador 3Over recent months, the El Salvadorian government has created a special court to try violent crimes against women. Sexual assault and domestic violence means many women try and flee to America but a large number are caught in Mexico and forced to return.

The outbreak of the Zika virus has also shed new light on El Salvadorian abortion and contraception laws. In response to the virus, the government asked the women of El Salvador not to have any children till 2018. Women do not have control over their reproductive health or their bodies, abortion is illegal and women go to jail if they are suspected of attempting to cause a miscarriage. Yet contraception is expensive and inaccessible for the majority.

It’s a sad reality; however times are changing and we can help, by bringing light to these issues, and by caring. Female genital mutilation still happens across the world and the women of El Salvador, along with all women, still have a long way to go before equality is reached.

“Feminism, what’s that? Is it something from the north?” (Maria, 66)

We have come a long way, so far that many believe the struggle is over. For many girls and women, feminism has lost its purpose. Along the way it became a dirty word or a word solely associated with stars like Beyoncé. Femininity, however, has not; we tie our ‘womanliness’ to makeup and heels when we should bond it to strength and inner beauty.

“Every woman I interviewed was unique and distinct but all their lives were bonded by loss, adversity, pain and passion. I asked one woman to tell me her fondest memory; she could only speak of the war, how she was a nurse and had helped the guerrilla fighters.”

Feminism is not a buzzword or overrated but rather essential and necessary, for there is always the potential for oppression. I have my own patriarchal horror stories that both make me cry and laugh, but after I met and interviewed the local women these stories seemed naïve. Feminism is not just a word; it is the battle of every woman, in every country fighting for her equality. Feminism lives.

“I am really proud of being a woman. Every woman is so unique – she has her own way of thinking, being and beauty. We are so distinct. Yes there are disadvantages of being a woman, but nothing that we can’t overcome.” (Jensie, 25)

Girls all around the world are taught about what it means to be a woman, which unfortunately involves us being passive, beautiful and object-like beings. We become limited and mystified into accepting particular roles that limit our freedom but romanticise our constraints.

Every woman lives with a different set of privileges and life experience and there is no set definition of ‘woman’ or ‘feminism’. My fight is different from the women of El Salvador but we need to stand together. The technological age means we are all connected and thus can all support each other.

“Feminism means breaking the boundaries, breaking the expectations. To break the tradition, to break the conservative thinking we have got here. For me it means a fight, it’s a fight we have got to do for women and for me to bring equality between them.” (Ana Maria, 32)

There is an extraordinary woman in every country hoping to be heard. So we should listen, we should empower each other.

Pop culture informs us that a ‘real woman’ can use her body to get whatever she wants. She has the power of good looks and animal magnetism; she is dangerous because she can use this power, to make any man fall under her spell. Why do we still play to these ideals? We may not need to ask for permission or stay in kitchens but we are still safeguarded. A woman’s work is never done and we are far from finished.

Day’s time in El Salvador was supported by Progressio. She would also like to thank Amanda Cole for being her translator.

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Written by Day Moibi

Day Moibi is an aspiring philosopher who spends most of her time thinking about cheese, the absurdities of life and film.