CHILE: Women in Arms

Tuesday, November 3, 2009
South America
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
Reconstruction and Peacebuilding

The official version of Chilean history renders women's political participation "invisible" and relegates them to a secondary or anecdotal role, says journalist Cherie Zalaquett, author of a new book, "Chilenas en armas" (Chilean Women in Arms).

"Women have played an important part in our history, but historians have failed to reflect this fact," stressed Zalaquett, who has worked for a number of Chilean publications, including the newspaper El Mercurio, and is also the author of the 2005 book "Sobrevivir a un fusilamiento. Ocho historias reales" (Surviving a Firing Squad: Eight True Stories).

Zalaquett placed particular emphasis on her belief that "Chilean society has ignored the role of women in recent armed struggle in the country as a result of prejudice."

The full title of her new book, published by Catalonia, is "Chilean Women In Arms: Testimonies and Stories of Women in the Armed Forces and Guerrilla Rebel Movements ".

Typically, said Zalaquett, "women are not regarded as political actors, but rather as victims of human rights violations."

Her book is aimed at breaking down this paradigm. "It goes beyond a strictly journalistic work by incorporating philosophical and gender theories as categories of analysis. This entailed a tremendous amount of reflection," she said. The result is a book that delves far deeper than mere anecdotes.

From her viewpoint, armed struggle in Chile, in which women have actively participated, began in 1974, following the Sept. 11, 1973 military coup that overthrew democratically elected president Salvador Allende (1970-1973).

The first Women's Military Academy was also founded in 1974, noted Zalaquett.

Viewed through a gender lens, women in both the armed forces and guerrilla movements faced similar difficulties. "In the case of the former, despite a government decree that allowed them to enter the military, they confronted a great deal of male resistance from within these institutions, where they were not accepted," said Zalaquett.

As for the armed rebel groups, very few women reached the highest echelons of leadership. "The top decision-making positions were generally reserved for men, despite women's demands for inclusion," she noted.

Without a doubt, however, one of the most problematic issues was and continues to be that of motherhood, which is why Zalaquett also decided to interview the children of some of the women whose stories are told in the book.

Despite all of the progress achieved, for example, the Chilean armed forces prohibits pregnant women from wearing a uniform, said Zalaquett, who worked as a war correspondent during the border war between Peru and Ecuador in 1995.

"If you view the uniform as a symbol of the identity of these institutions, this signifies that women's bodies are not fully accepted. Some women in the military have attempted to bring uniforms from other countries to be adapted for use by our armed forces, but to no avail," she said.

For women guerrilla fighters, becoming a mother marked "a breaking point" in their identity. This led some of them to develop a concept known as "motherhood in resistance," which implied embracing their role as mothers but leaving their children in the care of other people or institutions while they continued to fight.

Zalaquett's new book spans 345 pages divided into seven chapters, and draws on a wide range of sources: other books, academic studies, journalistic articles, and over 50 personal interviews. Its contribution to the field of gender studies has earned its inclusion in the UNESCO gender studies collection.

The first three chapters address women's relationship with the army, navy and air force.

Looking towards the future, Zalaquett believes it is "theoretically possible" that a women could be appointed as commander in chief of one of the branches of the armed forces in Chile, but this would probably take another 28 or 30 years given the current pace of progress in the military.

"A rather large number of women have been admitted into the regular military institutions, but from a gender perspective, there is still a long way to go before this inclusion is genuine and not simply ornamental," she maintained.

The fourth chapter of the book looks at the lives of a number of women members of the Movement of the Revolutionary Left (MIR), an insurgent group founded in 1965 by university students who sought to establish a new political, economic and social order in Chile through armed struggle.

After laying down its arms during the presidency of Allende and his leftist Popular Unity government, MIR rose up against the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), but lost over 600 members to the new regime's intelligence services, recounted Zalaquett.

The next two chapters focus on women's participation in the military arm of the Chilean Communist Party (PC) and the insurgent Manuel Rodríguez Patriotic Front (FPMR).

The highlights of these chapters are the stories of the late president of the PC, Gladys Marín, and Cecilia Magni, known as "Comandante Tamara", the only woman to reach the high leadership of the FPMR.

Tamara, murdered by the dictatorship alongside her partner Raúl Pellegrin, the top leader of the FPMR, played a leading role in the group's most significant attacks, including a failed assassination attempt on Pinochet in 1986.

The seventh chapter of the book is devoted to the women of MAPU-Lautaro.

MAPU (the United Popular Action Movement) was a leftist political party founded in 1969 as a splinter group of the Christian Democracy party. During the Pinochet dictatorship, a section of the MAPU membership formed MAPU-Lautaro to pursue armed struggle. Zalaquett prefers to leave the question of the contribution made by these women open.

"I couldn't provide a recipe. It's an issue open to discussion. From a philosophical-political analysis, power is masculine in nature. Therefore, you would have to reflect on whether the women who enter these contexts of 'androcentric' power genuinely succeed in breaking down male hegemony, or whether they ultimately incarnate this 'androcentric' power themselves," she explained.

"You would have to determine how it is possible, or whether it is ultimately impossible, for women to 'feminise' the power they achieve," she added.

For Zalaquett, "the book is an invitation to reflect on the subject of women's inclusion in the contexts of armed struggle."

"Today there are women who have taken part in the Mapuche resistance, which is why this subject needs urgent consideration: why women participate in violence and why there continue to be outbreaks of violence in a society that has supposedly been democratised," she stressed.

In their demands for land-related, political and cultural rights, the Mapuche people, the country's largest indigenous group, have seized private property and carried out other violent acts in southern Chile.

"This means there are still areas that have not been sufficiently democratised, sectors that have not been included and therefore continue to voice their demands through violence. I believe there is a need for deep reflection around this issue, instead of repression and the militarisation of the regions where these conflicts are taking place," Zalaquett concluded.