How To Be A Feminist Hero In One Of The World’s Most Dangerous Places To Be A Woman

Feminist Hero
Indigenous Mayan Mam-speaking cook Rosemary in Guatemala 12 February 2017 - Photo by Getty

Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. According to a 2012 report by the Small Arms Survey, the small Central American country has the third highest rate of femicide – women being killed just for being women – in the world, behind El Salvador and Jamaica. During the Guatemalan Civil War, which lasted from 1960 to 1996, rape was used as a weapon of war against women. Perpetrators of gender-based violence in Guatemala often quite literally get away with murder, bolstered by a “machismo” culture that treats women as objects. Amnesty International has called on the state to do more to protect women.

This cultural backdrop makes it even more remarkable that for the last 19 years, Guatemala has also been home to a proudly feminist free newspaper called La Cuerda (The Cord). First published on 8 March 1998, International Women’s Day, it has been distributed monthly across the country ever since and has given a voice to women who would otherwise have been ignored.

In Antigua, in the south of the country, I met one of the newspaper’s four founders, Ana Cofiño, at her home to ask her about the challenges they’ve faced and her hopes for planting the seeds of Guatemalan feminism.

Photo by Kevin EG Perry

Shevolution UK: How did La Cuerda first get started?

Ana Cofiño: “Before we started La Cuerda there was another daily journal, and we asked the editor to give us a page when the moon was full. Every full moon we had a page. It was four of us, friends, and we had meetings where we would decide what we would write about. After that finished, my colleagues and I shared the dream of having our own paper. “A room of our own”, as Virginia Woolf put it. We were writing for other magazines, but we wanted to have a paper that belonged to us. If you just put one article in a big magazine it gets lost. We wanted to start a magazine which said: ‘We are feminists and this is our position’. What we tried to do from the beginning with this newspaper was to open society to what women were thinking, doing and feeling. We wanted women to know each other, because war breaks everything. Our social fabric had been broken during the war.”

SUK: Where did your idea of feminism come from?

A: “We should define what we mean by feminism. Feminism is a philosophical theory. It’s also an economic proposal. It’s a way of living. It’s not like machismo. It’s not stupid actions. It’s an accumulation of knowledge and political changes made by feminism. That’s what we inherited. It’s theory written by feminists, and the story of women. That’s one part of it. We also became feminists because it’s easy to see how unfair it is. If you have any consciousness and intelligence then you can see that the situation is not fair at all.”

SUK: So you arrived at it independently, rather than from reading foreign academia?

A: “I think many women of my generation found feminism through their mothers or in school. If you studied in a public school you had more opportunities to be critical. Many women of my class from my generation were educated by nuns. I studied in a nun’s school. That’s what’s behind us as Guatemalan feminists, in many ways. Sometimes if they tell you something, and they impose it on you, and in your heart and in your skin and in your flesh you know that’s not true, you fight against it. You become a rebel. You don’t need to pick up a gun to be a rebel. You’re a rebel because you know what they are doing to you is not fair. I think that kind of spirit is something that comes in your blood. You don’t resign yourself to be what they tell you to be because it’s not fair. Fairness is also a matter of feeling. It’s not only what’s written.”

SUK: What sort of things were you publishing in La Cuerda at the beginning?

A: “We wanted to give a voice to women who didn’t have a voice. We collected stories about what happened to women in the war, and we supported processes by which women revealed all the sexual violations which had happened during the war, because that didn’t come out in the official reports. We were also collecting new types of images of women, not just women as Barbies. We were trying to change mentalities. We had very high aspirations, but that’s what we wanted: to change mentalities and teach people to be critical. From the beginning, La Cuerda was not just a paper or the digital version, it is an organisation that has a political goal. At the same time as doing the paper we were talking, and making alliances in some cases, with women’s organisations in different parts of the country. If you want to change the world and the society in which you live, you can’t do it alone.”

Photo by Kevin EG Perry

SUK: What do you see as the goal of the newspaper?

A: “We want people to see things, discuss things and think about the problems of our society from another perspective, because that’s the fundamental feature of a feminist paper. You have all these instruments, all these tools to see society, like the concept of patriarchy. They can give you a radically different perspective. We’re trying to construct a political platform for society. I know we’re crazy, I know it’s a dream. We’ve been talking to other women, other feminists, for seven or eight years now trying to coin the terms that describe what we want. Not what there is. What there is already has names. What we want is different. You can’t imagine it. Sometimes we laugh so much and say: ‘A world without machismo? How would that be?’ For us, that means no guns. No armies. In this country, the military, and the owners of the country, we’ve been saying for years and years that we should disarm.”

SUK: Do you think there’s a big difference between what feminism means in Guatemala and what it means in Britain or America?

A: “There are a lot of different points of view on this! People talk about ‘white feminism’, and now in Latin America many women are talking about ‘colonial feminism’. There are different emphases. There’s a feminism that has been working with the United Nations, with human rights, which is called ‘institutional’. There is more radical feminism, there is lesbian feminism, so I think every reality and every society has its own features. It’s different talking from the first world, like England, to here because you have your own democracy and parties and the way things function. People are not dying like they are here [editors note: Not with the same frequency, but two women are killed a week at the hands of their male partners in the UK, where gender-based violence is a systemic issue]. One of the main things that we discovered when we started this process is that Guatemalan feminism had to be conscious and marked, and to fight against racism. When we talk about women’s rights, we have to talk about indigenous women’s rights.”

Photo by Kevin EG Perry

SUK: What lessons have you learned from publishing La Cuerda that you would want to pass on to young feminists?

A: “I would tell them to confront power. When we’re educated, in schools and in our homes, we just learn that everything is as it is. They don’t tell you that it is a matter of power. Another thing that we’ve learned is that we need our history. We didn’t know about women. We didn’t know the names of the women who came before us. In the official stories that you study at school, it’s all about ‘Great Men’ – war and power and scientists, but never women. It was a beautiful adventure to go back in time to find what women had done before. For example, now there is a story of women in journalism in Guatemala and we are part of that, already. That’s very important. When you study history, newspapers are a good reflection of what is being said.”

READ MORE: School Classroom Note Proves Future Of Feminism Is Bright

First published 22nd May 2017