Chávez on Gender – Advances and Challenges

President Chávez's article in Sunday's edition of respected Venezuelan Daily, Ultimas Noticias, titled "Woman, Woman, Woman" demonstrates not only his incredible skill at creating an emotionally powerful narrative, but many of the contradictory dynamics in which the struggle for female liberation in Venezuela is located.

The following extended extract comes from President Chávez’s article in Sunday’s edition of respected Venezuelan Daily, Ultimas Noticias, titled “Woman, Woman, Woman”. It demonstrates not only his incredible skill at creating an emotionally powerful narrative, but many of the contradictory dynamics in which the struggle for female liberation in Venezuela is located.

“The extraordinary thinker and great writer Simon Bolivar, left it said for all posterity in the following way, “…The woman is much superior to us (men)… God has equipped her with great insight and sensitivity and has placed in her heart delicate fibres, chords sensitive to all that is noble and elevated. Patriotism, admiration, love all play on these chords resulting in charity, selflessness, and sacrifice.”

Today I dedicate these lines, with all the force of my patriotic passion, with all the fires of my love, of my ideals and dreams for a better world, to the selfless, fighting, Venezuelan women. To the woman-grandmother, the woman-mother, the woman-companion, woman-daughter, woman-grandchild, to all women.

I was a very young child, in the Sabaneta in the late 50s, not even yet an alter-boy, simply “the little nipper” (as I was called by my Father and almost all his friends) when I declared that I had “three Mums”. The first was mummy Elena, my adoring mother; the other was mummy Sara, the beautiful girl who one day arrived from a mountain far away, even further than “La Marqueseña”, in order to work in the village as a nurse; and the other was my old mummy, the grandmother Rosa Inés Chávez, the mummy Rosa, in who’s humble log cabin with palm leaf roof we were born and lived that unforgettable childhood.

From then on, half a century ago, until today, I declare that my life has been signed, profoundly marked by the presence, the stimulation, the impulsion of the magical force of the Woman, the superior human being.

And I have said it. And I still say it. Without the true liberation of women the full liberation people is impossible and I am convinced that an authentic socialist should be also an authentic feminist.

This Sunday afternoon, International Women’s Day, I will be with María Leona and the legion of Bolivarian Women!! How specially and how deeply I love them! Man, Woman, Compatriot that reads my words, don’t even forget it for one second: we initiated last February, the third historical circle of the Bolivarian Socialist Revolution, that will span the coming decade, until February 2019, the bicentenary, of not only the Congress of Angostura,[1] but also the Constitution and birth of the Third Republic, the great Republic, that which nested in Bolivar’s mind and dreams as “the Mother of Nations and Queen of Republics”, that is reborn today, two hundred years later: The Bolivarian Republic, The Socialist Homeland…”

Chávez’s open declaration that he is a feminist has done much to advance the struggle for gender equality in Venezuela, as has the location of female emancipation inside the process of realising greater social equality. Indeed the last decade of Bolivarian process has done much to address the material inequalities faced by Venezuelan women: providing micro credit through BANMUJER, recognising housekeeping as productive economic activity in Article 88 of the 1999 Constitution and attempting to realise this commitment through Mission Madres del Barrio (which via the community councils provides a weekly stipend of ¾ the minimum wage to housewives living in poverty), and comprehensive legislative initiatives against gendered violence and discrimination.

Yet Chavez’s narrative betrays his failure to question certain broader cultural forms of domination, this may largely result from his identification of feminism as internal to socialism and hence its location as a necessary and just, but secondary struggle.

Deifying images of an “ideal” woman, with unlimited caring capacity have long been recognised by feminist scholars to be a source of oppression: creating standards against which to judge real women, and the generally imposed nature of these standards by men upon women; notice the opening quote is drawn from Bolivar and not any of the prominent women involved in the War of Independence. Likewise having used the term “selfless, fighting, Venezuelan women”, Chávez proceeds to define woman through all the possible positions she may hold in the nuclear family.

These are indeed some of the contradictions in which the struggle for female liberation is caught in, creating powerful popularly intelligible campaigns for greater gender equality often seems to require the use of socially resonant symbols that are themselves embedded in gender inequalities; whether they be the colour pink, the romanticisation of women, or emotionally powerful images of motherhood. Use of such language should not be condemned out of hand, it must be evaluated pragmatically and with a vigilant self criticism.

An interrelated problem, acutely felt in some of the struggles for national liberation of the 50s-70s, was where female participation was urgently required and mobilised yet normally emerged without an effectively institutionalised and mass based parallel movement for female emancipation. The result was often a failure to achieve major gains in terms of gender equality. In Algeria following the mass mobilization of women in the long, bloody, but eventually successful campaign for national liberation any kind of a feminist agenda was subsequently sacrificed to cement an alliance between Nationalists and Islamists in a brutally repressive family code (a similar pattern emerged in the 1960s in the PLO).

As women participate more than men in almost every level of the Bolivarian movement, and yet 5 are killed a week in domestic violence and the mass media is saturated with images of white, cosmetically altered, faceless women, there may be legitimate worries that such a pattern could be repeated in Venezuela – that mass participation of women in a struggle the primary focus of which is not gender equality will not prove enough to successfully enfranchise women as social equals.

Fortunately there are strong signs in Venezuela of explicitly gender focussed mobilizations, and the institutionalisation of an impressively radical feminist legislative agenda. If the specific focus on female emancipation can be maintained, and recognised (as by Chávez) as a complement to the broader struggle for social justice, yet while not being subordinated to another project, we have every reason to hope that the material conditions of female domination will continue to deteriorate while even broader cultural domination will itself be challenged in an increasingly powerful and effective movement for women’s liberation.

[1] Which, convened by Bolivar, saw the merger of Venezuela and New Granada in what’s termed by modern historians Greater Colombia