I have a lot more reading and writing to do on the subject of violence against women in Guatemala, but for starters, I can say: 1) that the state of fear women here face is historically rooted (thank you, colonialism, capitalism, and imperialism, for the destruction of a people and continued institutional corruption and violence) and 2) that the collective embracing of individual sexual liberation – of women, especially – can help dismantle the culture of fear (alongside policy change, of course, such as better sexual education and more transparent spending on public services and infrastructure).
A kiss on a cheek is a typical greeting here in Guatemala. A kiss on the edge of the mouth is not, yet I’ve gotten several of those. I’ve received lingering handshakes with a squeeze at the end, vivid stares, and pushy requests for my phone number. These experiences are not Guatemala-exclusive, though they have been happening to me more often and more audibly here. And while it is sometimes difficult to draw the line between cultural norms and abuse, there have been moments of obvious harassment. Whose business is it if I have a boyfriend? What do you care if I’m traveling alone? Why am I expected to respond to a ts ts ts from across the street? As a friend of mine and fellow Latin@ poet said, “words and actions can both be sexual violence.”
I typically move on from these uncomfortable experiences without much thought. However, a friend here described a recent and nasty verbal attack. She mentioned her resulting fears about where the line between words and actions is drawn. I reassessed my own emotions after certain experiences on the street, and decided that I, too, have been pushed to places of fear, tension, and distrust. Some of my experiences may be unique, being a foreigner, but I can confidently say that living in a constant state of fear is a very real oppression faced by all women here.
Many Guatemalans I’ve met have described Guatemala as having a culture of fear or a culture of silence. Anthropologists have used the phrases “death as a way of life” and “fear as a way of life” to describe Guatemalan existence. In her book Fear As a Way of Life: Mayan Widows in Rural Guatemala, Linda Green quotes Cynthia Enloe: “Wars don’t simply end / And wars don’t end simply.” While Guatemala’s Civil War ended over two decades ago, death and violence persist. According to the World Health Organization, 10 or more murders a day per 100,000 people is classified as an epidemic. Guatemala qualifies, along with 10 other Latin American countries. Violence has been normalized, as a legacy of ingrained intimidation, residue of the war, stubbornly persists.
What is the connection between a history of violence, current violence, and mindsets of fear? To be always afraid is to be truly oppressed. Seeing the fear that my dad manifests often evokes anger for me – I find his distrust unreasonable. But I must remind myself that he lived through a war. For him, distrust meant survival.
I hope that, through education, we can little by little dismantle the fear in which we live, replacing it with strong community ties and respect for women. Projects such as Colectiva Siluetas’ show AFUERA, about being a lesbian in Guatemala, and Rebecca Lane’s music (like this song about liberation and self love) are great first steps. Also check out this documentary about sex workers in Guatemala who started a soccer team and joined a league in order to call attention to the violence and abuse they faced. My friend also told me about a radio show on which Guatemalan women described their experiences masturbating. Revolutionary! Maybe we can even get a good burlesque class going here so women can go straight to positive pride in sexuality and self-confidence.