The “Unknown” Feminism of the Amazon 

Uchunya Women as a New Conscience for Latin America 

By Luis Miguel Hoyos Rojas

The Uchunyas are an indigenous community belonging to the Shipibo tribe in Ucayali, Peru. Like any Latin American society, they face diverse problems, including the threat of neoliberal economic development, as they confront a palm oil company that operates in their ancestral lands, However, as they recounted to the world on the German television station Deutsche Welle (DW) in 2019, the Uchunya recognized their native culture; they did not look down on the gender role was linked to that culture and the concept of gender, distinct from the Marxist feminism that refers to mutual aid and egalitarian cooperation. 

“(…) every evening, when I finish my work, we organize games with the neighbors, the women play volleyball, although some men also join them and the women can play together with the men.” 

The Uchunya women have a different concept of equality which, although it can be understood (or we can understand) is from the vantage of roles and distribution of responsibility, does not denounce the suppression of women in social and productive processes because  they say, “It has been this way for centuries” and for now at least, do not insist on structural change: “They believe they are, and indeed they are, equal to the men.” 

“(…) A Uchunya woman can do what she wants, there are several who do other things,” (Judit Zangano, a community elder)

In spite of many transformations since 1970 that recognized women’s equality as a principle, women continue to be humiliated, raped, murdered, rendered invisible and erased from historical memory throughout much of Latin America. 

An ambiguity remains: “equality in the eyes of the law,” the gains of “liberal feminism” and the supreme value of liberalism, “autonomy” do not reflect women’s daily reality. This context spurred feminist struggles against regimes and movements that, grounding themselves in the “equality” of women were equally repressive. An example is the “FARC-EP” (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), that defended social equality from a Bolivarian Marxist-Leninst perspective, but controlled the sexuality of the women who fought along with the men. 

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ONAMIAP has set up A School for Political Formation for Indigenous Women. Photo courtesy ONAMIAP

Unintentional Absence

Although the women’s struggle in Latin America of the 1970s was directly influenced by liberal feminism, it was not a strict imitation of the U.S. and European experience. In Latin America, two special contexts prevailed, the identification of an ideological type of “modern woman” and the integration of two types of “modern woman,” that is intellectual and middle-class women who were totally visible through political movilization. The union of these women, who were for the most part socialists and radicals, with activists against repression from the peoples’ movements, gave birth to popular Latin American feminism, understanding “popular” in the Latin American sense of mass movements.  

 Thousands of leftist youth and intellectuals militating for equality in Brazil, Peru, Ecuador, Mexico and Chile became the fervent feminists of the 1970s, often adopting a double militancy. They were active in party politics, as well as in women’s groups, as happened in Colombia with the leaders María Cano and Betasabé Espinosa. Their struggle was an important one, but the existence of other women was often forgotten, for example, the indigenous woman. At the time, the indigenous was not identified with the idea of the modern, athough the indigenous woman was a collective although hidden presence in the Amazon. 

With this observation, we are not denying the narratives that explain that even before 1970, indigenous women were activists as part of the feminist struggle. The “organizing processes of the Ecuadoran Amazon,” was led by indigenous women between 1960 and 1970, for instance. But to affirm that the influence of indigenous women was as present and visible as the suffragist movement in New York, for instance, or as popular feminism is to ignore the great context of the Latin American indigenous woman. Before 1970 and in the watershed year of 1970 itself, indigenous women in six of the nine countries of the vast Amazon basin did not speak Spanish or Portuguese. As is the case today, they had another perception of the world and were not aware of political theory imported from Europe and the United States. Indigenous women did not integrate into the feminist struggle of 1970 not because they were passive or invisible, but because they did not identify with the ideological stance of the period. The monoculture of law, poltical theory and the development model of the time, most concerned with understanding the relationship of the subject with the modern state, were a type of knowledge that was far from their reality, becoming nonexistent processes of translation and intercultural dialogue.  Put this way, it cannot be denied that the feminist struggle had a different, but not mistaken, historical objective: to reclaim political ideas and rights granted by modernity to women, which because of its very nature did not encompass the indigenous reality of the Amazon. 

 

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Photo courtesy of derechosinfrontera

The Indignation of Uchunya Women

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor Boaventura de Sousa Santos explains that “indignation” is a movement that allows the identification of something new, but absent, and encompasses demands made by people who are not activists in any social movement.  It is a type of hidden but present protest, which when made visible is almost always without the intervention of traditional political structures such as parties and movements and by people who are not usually considered poltical actors. 

If the feminism of the 1970’s managed to denounce women’s oppression and inequality, this struggle does not fit in with Boaventura’s concept of “indignation.” The feminist voice of 1970 was aimed at pointing out inequalities through organized politcs, which achieved significant and timely changes. In this sense, the movement of the 1970’s differed from the experience of the Uchunya women of the Amazon. 

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Luisa Mori González, leader of the community of Santa Clara de Uchunya. Photo courtesy of DW/E, Anarte 2019

Machismo is a social problem, and indigenous people are not exempted. Unlike in the case of the feminist struggles, the indignation of the Uchunyas does not arise from resistence to machismo as the motor for social exclusion, nor because of their weakness within the present feminist culture. Their indignation does not make the same demands of modernity, but protests that their rights are not lumped together with what is dubbed “inclusive citiizenry” to which they were unintentionally relegated by previous feminist movements. That is, that the models of domination—economic, political and social—that arrived in the process of modernization—should get out of the Amazon.  They protest that Latin America must understand that their current demands, legitimate for the consciousness of other women, are not appropriate for understanding indigenous identity. Because the longed-for equality, the culminating point of a liberal state in which the patriomy, property and work are key aspects and even taken up again by modern economic constitutional law, does not have the same meaning for them. The Uchunya appear to have transcended from the concept of equality to the consciousness of autonomy, without the mediation of the modern state. 

“(…) We indigenous women have always been united, we accompany [our] men. We have only one voice. In the past, our grandparents, aunts and uncles fought [for this unity]. If we had not done this, we would not have so much territory. At that time, colonization was arriving in our territories. We managed to legalize the territories in Pastaza. Today we women play an important role. Some compañeroswho had organized marches changed their minds and tried to negotiate the territory, something that is at odd with our ancestral beliefs.  But we women kept up the fight and we have the belief system of defending our pachamama [Mother Earth], so that she will not be sold or exploited.” (Zoila Castillo Tuti, indigenous woman from the Ecuadoran Amazon, Gender and Political Participation Workshop, Puyo, Ecuador. September 25, 2018).

Thus understood, equality (at the moment) is not discussed in the same terms we understand. The indigenous women have a distinct concept, definitely “strange’ for modernity. Doubtlessly, the concept of equality stands our feminist conceptions on their head, including the struggle of 1970 that did not teach this community the sense of “equality.” Their experience does not seem to have been reached by any classic feminism, but the conceptual model they use to understand “equality” is the object of desire that modern feminist theory has not achieved as a universal reality.  In this community, there is also another silent indignation, the voices of women who—like the feminists—denounce violence:  

“(…) Sometimes there are men who still have ‘this machismo’ and when they start drinking, they abuse women.” (Luisa Mori, community leader)

Women experience the struggle against this scourge in the Amazon, using their own customs, among them the resort to dialogue and communication “among equals.” This is a revealing fact since “absent from modern society,” far from the distinct constructions Italian  philosopher Antonio Gramsci called “organized society,” these indigenous women understand that do not need social movements to construct a civilizing consciousness among community members capable of mitigating violence. 

“(…) The head of the uchunya community can be a woman, there is no prohibition, {but] such a situation would provoke a punishment from the spirits of the ancestors.” 

“(…) There are women “chiefs or municipal agents, but for this, we have to organize and know how to do the job well.” (Luisa Mori, community leader)

From the depths of the Amazon, voices are raised not to denounce economic invisibilty otr to do away with “a model of normality” that generates dependencies.  These women want to be heard in protest to erradicate violence and the indigenous prejudices against women through organizational processes. These women do not want external agents such as NGOs, important in the formation of leadership, to become an instrument that intervenes in their historic consciousness. This type of protest is quite controversial because the feminism of the 20th century is viewed through modernizing perspectives. Gender mainstreaming in Latin America has been the principal focus with which to measure and evaluate the modern changes that require gender equality. 

 

Another Feminism? Another Consciousness for Latin America

The Uchunya women seek the preservation of social and historic self-determination. 

"I cannot get all the women out. The geographic situation of isolation is also an obstacle for collective movilization. But we have to get out there,” proclaimed the woman leader. “If they can’t do it by themselves, others will come to help.” 

This is a new feminist experience. By taking away the focus from inequality, because they perceive equality as something natural, they are reframing the focus of feminism: if the paradigm of discrimination is eliminated as the most important element of the genders in conflict, and is replaced by a consciousness that accepts and permits (without great conflicts), difference as the fruit of diversity, and in turn  allows that men and women can do the same things, we can see what is really important and it appears that the Uchunya have always perceived this: to identify that in social levels one is exercising one’s autonomy. In other wors, autonomy as a principle of equality of both genders is being fulfilled in this individual way of being. It is similar to the concept of liberal feminism, but different because the focus is not on the necessity of negotiating the differences between men and women, but to put forth a model that reframes the access to equality. The greatest injustice is the lack of women’s autonomy because equality is a given. Thus, the Uchunya protest with indignation the macho violence of the Amazon, but from their own standpoint, because their problem is the loss of autonomy that is at times threatened by the modern struggles that (sometimes) try to impose the mold of “feminist subject.” The Uchunya with their feminism of indignation struggle for their independence and autonomy, but never lose their equality. The Uchunya, who only recently began to be known to the rest of the world, present a new constitiutonal consciousness for women with their innate understanding of equaity. 

“(…) I do the same work as my husband: I go to the chacra[small farm], I fetch my yuca and my plantain, I go to cut my wood, I think that my husband and I, there, [are equals] and I am not the only one who stays at home with the children.” (Pamela Espinosa, an indigenous woman)

The silent struggle of these women puts a limit on political theory, because it bears witness that the great problem is not simply the articulation of political parties with social movements, which are channeled so that the state grants certain rights. Rather, it is the inclusion of a third concept of “collective presences” of subjects like these women, invisible in traditional politics, but evolving behind our backs. This feminist experience detracts from the modern constitutional egocentrism because the experience of Uchunya women builds civilizing changes that our modernity has not produced. For example, the fact that gender equality is not yet a global reality is still the driving force of feminist discourse, theorizing that equality is one of the most basic liberties for women. The Uchunya women, on the other hand, understand that nature is part of our consciousness and the role of gender in productivity. 

"(...) Most of the men in this community are engaged in hunting, fishing and farming the land, but we can do it too and do it when we want to. We just enjoy the care and custody of our children and home.”

We need to develop economic consciousness in which property and land, realities present in our constitutions, should not be understood merely as capitalistic aspirations, but as means that permit an access to development, but not taking precedence over men and women themselves. The Uchunya women also give lessons to the theories of economic development because their consciousness is coherent and respectful of the natural resources that are objects of exploitation. For example, they defend  “Sumak Kawsay,” or simply “good living,” a simple paradigm in which a fully lived life maintains a balance between harmony and development, a concept that has already been incorporated in the constitutions of Ecuador and Bolivia. The experience of indignation of these women or “the feminism of indignation” redefines our perspectives because it present a distinct definition of social assets and does not sacrifice the equality of men and women. Here we can ask: But how can this life and development of gender coexist peacefully? How is equality a path for development? How can one construct autonomy as important as the water, the air and the earth to which they attribute great importance? 

“(..) The women on the other hand keep on struggling and we have the mentality of defending our  ‘pachamama’ [Mother Earth], which cannot be sold or exploited.” (Zoila Castillo Tuti, indigenous woman).

To understand this experience requires a change of consciousness, including another way of knowing and this cannot be, as Boaventura observes, a  “monoculture of law and politics.” The experience of the Uchunya women is an invitation to revise our perspectives, to think of new horizons, but also to revise our socio-political canons. Like these women, we should arrive at a level of knowledge that there is no greater right than that of being autonomous and free, that equality does not need to define who we are and that no social truth can substitute for our differences. It would be interesting to learn from all that is hidden in the Amazon, but also to overcome the dichotomy between equality or autonomy, and how the two become the maximum expression of what it means to be a human being. 

 

Luis Miguel Hoyos Rojas is a Ph.D. student in Law at the Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, Spain. He received his LL.M  from Harvard Law School in 2012.  Contact: hoyoslm@gmail.com