Indhira Libertad Rodriguez is a feminist researcher and sociologist. A member of the Araña Feminista (Feminist Spider network), she does human rights advocacy for women and sexually dissident groups. In this interview with Venezuelanalysis, Rodriguez discusses the specificity of the feminist struggle in Venezuela and the need for Bolivarian socialism to combat gender oppression.
There are some sectors of the Left which still argue that feminist and gender diversity claims can only be settled in a postcapitalist society and thus shouldn’t occupy much of our time now. The current situation, in which we are under attack by imperialism, might seem the best case for this viewpoint which is nevertheless mistaken. How can we show people the vital links between the anti-imperialist struggle and the anti-patriarchal struggle?
There is indeed a tendency that comes from the traditional twentieth-century Left, a traditionally which puts gender rights and women's struggles aside, apart from what is considered to be the main struggle. The idea is to separate these struggles – our struggles – from the anti-capitalist or anti-imperialist one. That was a tradition of the Left in the last century, both in this continent and in the West more generally.
But I’m not sure if it is very strong these days... What I’m seeing now is a surprising willingness to incorporate our debates. For instance, I have observed that Left parties are now forming offices and teams focused on feminist issues, and this has been happening even in communist parties. So I have seen these new openings. And it has all been very interesting to me precisely because there has been – as you mentioned – a very conservative tradition that descends from the traditional Left.
The truth is that now the Left cannot ignore the feminist Green Tide [the color green is associated with the abortion rights movement in Argentina and elsewhere in Latin America], the “Ni una menos” [not one woman less] movement or the 8M feminist strike. These movements, which have been massive on a global scale, have forced the Left to question itself. So now the Left has had to think and debate about feminist demands, and it has had to introduce such demands into the emancipatory struggle.
But it is also true that this conservative Left tradition has continued in some ways. For that reason, we need to remember that it’s not possible for an emancipatory process to succeed if half of the population is not taken into account; or if (even worse) the Left participates in the oppression of that half of the population. Socialism must be feminist. If it isn’t, socialism is not going to be libertory, it won’t have an emancipatory quality, and it’s not going to be socialism.
If we think about it, the struggle against imperialist intervention that is going on right now, is an anti-patriarchal struggle because imperialism expresses hegemonic masculinity. Imperialist subjectivity actually reflects and reinforces masculine domination.
An anti-imperialist struggle is, by definition, anti-patriarchal. The concept of “patriarch,” if we go to the original meaning, is the owner of the wife, the children and the household goods. Yet he also dominates the whole space of the family. The patriarch exercises power and domination not only over women, but also over younger men, and over slaves, of course.
I think it is important to remember this, because precisely in imperialism we find this masculine, patriarchal subjectivity reinforced. Imperialism is power brought together and imposed on those who are weaker, and it is power that is exercised through coercion and violence.
Imperialism also implies the negation of other beings. The process of colonization was exactly that: making other human beings into non‐beings. In other words, imperialism erases the condition of humanity from other human beings. It takes that premise to new lengths: imperialism is essentially masculine and patriarchal.
Caribbean societies may be sexist and homophobic, but they are also very flexible and dynamic. Additionally, among the working class, especially in the barrios, family organization tends to be matriarchal. How do these specific characteristics of Caribbean society affect the feminist struggle in Venezuela?
Well, I would put things differently. I would say that the Venezuelan family is actually matrilineal (what we find is, in fact, matricentrism [a society organized around the mother]). The concept of matriarchy is not necessarily correct, because a “matriarchal society” would be one in which women would hold a monopoly on power.
If we talk about matriarchy, we might also be talking about an exercise of power from the feminine standpoint. Frankly, we still have to think about how that would be done, what it entails, how it would differ from the patriarchal exercise of power. That means that matriarchy as a conception is “a construction in construction.” Also, in this open debate, we must avoid essentialist attitudes regarding the feminine.
This is a patriarchal, machista, and androcentric society [dominated by the masculine point of view]. It turns out that one of the most evident features of our revolutionary process in Venezuela is that it put women to spaces of power. That fact, for us, does not mean the end of machista organization. Women in spaces of power guarantees nothing. The best proof of that is the twenty years of the revolutionary process. We find women in decision‐making roles, in positions of power, and yet we find that they don’t defend our interests from a feminist perspective. That is because they exercise power with the tools at hand and replicate the existing model, based as it is on the exercise of power from the masculine standpoint.
Regarding Caribbean culture, it is indeed tremendously sexist. However, we could also ask where that’s not the case. But it is true, as you point out, that here there are spaces of flexibility in general and, in gender terms, and that is important.
Now, I believe that in Venezuela and in much of the Caribbean, matricentrality is very difficult to overcome. That is because the central role of the mother in our society actually reinforces the patriarchal system… The struggle against this system in a society like ours, and particularly in the popular or barrio sectors with their profound matricentric organization, leads to two important problems.
First, as I mentioned before, the mother’s role in our society is the reproduction of the [patriarchal] system. That reproduction has no masculine face to represent it; it is apparently a women’s affair. This means, as many class-conscious feminists have observed, that women are the ones who teach in our society, and so it is women who end up transmitting sexist values.
That’s not surprising, however, since the mother assumes the role of reproducing society as a whole: she does it because that is the role that the system gives her. Women are oppressed economically and sexually, and additionally, they are assigned the role of transmitting sexist values!
The other component is the identification of woman and mother and that, in general, happens throughout Latin America (where, by the way, there is also an identification between woman and nation). That identification makes it very difficult to untangle the web of oppression that affects women and mothers in our society. It includes the fact that we are denied the free development of our personalities, since the only legitimate role for women is being mothers.
Thus, non‐mothers are second-class women or aren’t exactly women in our society.
Then, there is a second issue that is very particular to the Caribbean. Women here are often forced into the stereotype of “the Atlas woman.” That is, the person who can hold the weight of the entire world on her shoulders: the woman who can deal with it all! We are talking about a woman who must work, deal with the house and children, be a community activist, and go to marches. The woman who can do it all! That may be an extraordinary strength and may reflect the toughness that women from the barrio often show. But still, it is not the same as women being in important decision‐making spaces in our society.
In Venezuela, there is still much to be done as far as progressive legislation is concerned, especially regarding sexual and reproductive rights and gender diversity issues. Are these struggles making any headway in the constituent process?
It is not going well. The constitutive process is very administered and controlled. The decision‐making processes and the possibility that the final text might include feminist claims and the claims of dissident sexualities is remote. So it’s not going well.
When the call for the Constituent Assembly went out in 2017, those of us in the Araña Feminista (which is part of the popular feminist movement) organized a big debate in what we called the “Constituent Coven” [Aquelarre Constituyente]. The “coven” had two large meetings geared toward making proposals for the new National Constituent Assembly.
Out of those meetings came what I believe to be a beautiful and rich text. That document has a range of proposals for the new Venezuelan constitution, from material to be included in the preamble, to a new chapter on sexual and reproductive rights. We also propose including new economic and social rights, environmental rights, political rights, etc. Really, the document touches upon all aspects of life and politics. That is because feminism today – after three centuries of struggle – has something to say about everything!
And I should add that the Araña Feminista’s text not the only one incorporated in the document. Yet all the varied contributions demand sexual and reproductive rights, the right to adoption by homoparental couples, the legalization of homosexual unions, the right to self‐perceived gender identity for trans people, just to mention a few of our key issues.
Nevertheless, I’m not very optimistic about the final text of the new constitution. When it comes out, it will have to be subjected to a popular vote. Then we will see what happens!
As you pointed out earlier, the last twenty years have brought with them an explosion in women’s participation in local, territorial organizations. Women often play leading roles in communes, communal councils, and the CLAP. However, women’s participation in spaces of power is very limited. What do you make of this contradiction?
If we have matricentric societies, then it makes sense that a revolutionary process aiming to overcome representative democracy, will logically bring women into spaces of organization, into spaces of participatory democracy. That is, in fact, what happened here. Women have been the most active organizers at the local, territorial level.
At the same time, the cadres of our revolution are not feminists. It took Chavez a very long time to connect with the feminist struggle. The first trigger, the event that made him recognize women as subjects was the 2002 coup, when he saw that it was working women, women of the “pueblo,” who most vigorously demanded his return. They were in the streets and they were ready to fight.
That made Chavez – who as a military person came from one of the most patriarchal institutions – recognize this struggle as legitimate. Also important was the fact that he was accompanied by women such as Maria Leon [longtime Communist Party member and former guerrillera who became an important colleague of Chavez] who taught him about the feminist struggle… Since Chavez had a great capacity to rectify, to rethink himself, he moved away from the machista framework that he had inherited.
That brings us to the 2006 World Social Forum where Chavez declared himself a feminist, and he encouraged Rafael Correa and Evo Morales to declare themselves feminists too. However that, of course, doesn't mean that all the cadres of the revolution are feminist. Far from it! Proof is how women's issues are so often dealt with by making them into mother’s issues, since that is the only role that our society’s imaginary assigns to women.
And so, we still have much work to do reflecting and verbalizing who we are as subjects, who we are as protagonists. We must go through a process of self‐recognition regarding our roles, who we are as community leaders, who we are as social leaders, and regarding our capacity to really exercise an influence in other spheres.
We also have to break with microsexism and the logic by which one woman is the chief of the UBCh [basic organizational cell of the PSUV], the CLAP coordinator, the leader on the street level, but then, when the party representative comes to the community, he talks to a guy and not the real community leader. Additionally, we have to wonder how it is that we can be protagonists in the political process, but when we get home, the tasks of reproducing life [homemaking and childcare] are not shared. Or the husband is jealous and violent. Why do these patterns remain?
We must break with all this; we must cease to take over the role of life’s reproducers. We must resist and creatively build other roles for ourselves, other paths. In fact, even if this struggle is one that takes place in small quotidian spaces, it must go hand in hand with government policies regarding education and broadcast media. The whole system must be transformed.
In Venezuela, the patriarchal state bureaucracy and the capitalist private sphere tend to co-opt the feminist projects, reducing the struggle to very limited demands, or interpreting it through a simplistic “woman equals love equals mother” framework. How can we fight against this tendency to appropriate and declaw feminism in our context?
In effect, the “woman equals love equals mother” formula has been used to subsume the feminist struggle... There has been, as Fernando Buen Abad would say, a process of phagocytosis [one cell absorbing another]. Buen Abad talks about symbols being absorbed by modernity, referring to how symbols become spoils in modernity. It could be compared to the process of making the symbols and struggles into a small enterprise, and it has happened particularly with the struggles that the twentieth century Left didn't take into account. I’m talking about the things that the Left excluded, marginalized and oppressed.
A good example of this kind of cooptation is the emergence [in the US] of the Pink Market in WASP society: the 1980s phenomenon of integrating gays into society as long as they were consumers. Similarly, there has been a process of co-opting women’s demands.
I think we have to be very leery of a feminism based on downloading [hashtags and slogans]. We have to ask ourselves if doing that will strengthen our struggles, or if it is instead about invisibilizing collective processes.
Here in Venezuela, to struggle against the “woman equals love equals mother” cliche, we need to mobilize on the street and we need our own symbolic production. We have to fight, collectivizing the struggle, collectivizing alternatives, and collectivizing solutions. Those are the tools that the feminist movement has at hand right now.