I have gotten pretty accustomed to living in El Salvador that most things that once seemed shocking to me now seem quite normal. Having water only a few hours during the day? Normal. Eating tortillas with every meal? Normal. Seeing kids beg for money on the streets? Heart-breaking, but not shocking. But I will never, never get used to the machismo, the culture of sexism and objectification of women. I see it every day, multiple times a day, and I hope I never get used to it.
On my walk to work this morning, for example, I received catcalls on five different occasions, sometimes by entire groups of men. They vary from the somewhat polite “que le vaya bien, mi amor preciosa” (I am NOT your precious love) to the lewd “mmm que rica mamacita” to the gross kissy noises that make me want to punch someone in the face. I’m fascinated by the culture of street harassment. The men know that almost every woman will simply ignore them and keep walking by. But whether these men know it or not, it’s not about getting women to talk to them. It’s about power. It’s about demonstrating that women’s bodies are objects to be gawked at, not respected as they walk by.
This weekend, the social worker Veronica and I led a workshop with the parents on gender equality. There were seven men present, and sixty-two women.
It was a beautiful conversation about the roles of women, what kinds of things women and men can do, how women are objectified in this social, political, and economic spheres of society, and what kinds of things women are doing to take opportunities for ourselves when they are not handed to us. I was just so honored and proud of all the mothers I have grown to love speaking up. After the workshop, so many women came up to me to tell me they had learned new things and thought it was such an interesting, worthwhile meeting.
In the end, though, it was mostly a conversation about gender equality with women whose partners will continue to treat them with the same sexist attitude and expectations as always. One mother came up to me and thanked me for the workshop. “It was so interesting! Que bonito!” she said with a huge smile. “I only wish my husband were here. He is… well… he is a little bit machista.”
We closed the meeting with a short video called Despierta, Raimundo, Despierta, (Wake Up, Raimundo, Wake Up) in which a husband is portrayed as the submissive, oppressed partner who is verbally and emotionally accosted by his wife, the bread-winner, because that is just how society is. He cooks, he irons his wife’s clothes every morning. He takes care of the children, he cleans, and he watches his wife spend all the money she earns at the bar getting drunk with her friends, only to come home and beat her husband when he asks how they are going to feed their children.
The parents laughed through the whole video – it was hilarious to see the reality that they see every day in their own homes inverted, the women the one with the power to treat her husband and she saw fit. At the end of the video, Raimundo wakes up to find that it was only a dream. His submissive, loving wife makes his coffee and irons his clothes for work, and he is relieved to know that everything will continue as it always had.
The parents enjoyed cake and coffee, stayed around to chat a little while, then went home. They’ve been working all week, most of them in minimum wage jobs or in the informal sector, earning less than $200 a month, which will barely cover the basic cost of living. Saturday is their day to go to the market, clean the house, wash the family’s clothes, and get ready for another week of doing it all over again.