Resistance with the Scent of a Woman
“They’re afraid of us because we’re not afraid.
They think, act, are and are going backwards
as they stay behind their military armor.
They see us laughing, struggling, loving, playing
as they watch us from behind their military armor.”
This song by Liliana Felipe, an Argentinean, is sung
during many of the Honduran resistance actions.
It reflects the feelings of the women in resistance.
The protests against the coup in our country have been characterized from the outset by sizable women’s participation. We were the first to say with no self-interest: “We’re here and we want to fight.”
Women, who make up more than 50% of the Honduran population and are the main victims of poverty and violence, left their homes in the rural areas, mountains, cities and neighborhoods. Defying the cultural patriarchy of a system in which men occupy the public spaces and women stay home with the families, the women of Honduras came out into the streets. It’s a promising new development.
The majority of the women who have been defying the coup in the streets have no formal feminist training but they have masters and doctorates in the university of life. They explain that they’re participating in the resistance because they’re tired of so much injustice, violence, exploitation, poverty and unemployment. They’re fed up with the small group that takes the lion’s share while the rest die in poverty and abandonment.
Color, smell and tasteThe participation of these women—peasants, workers, professionals, black, indigenous, poor, religious, feminists—is evidence that Honduras’ shattered constitutional order has provided the opportunity to begin to write a new history. The women have given color to the protests, coming with their colorful sunhats of all sizes to protect themselves from the sun. They have also given smell and taste: in their handbags and satchels they always carry tortillas, bread and cheese to share with others. When it’s time to rest and eat, there’s always a tight knot of people around them.
Looking at all these women, I wonder how many of them had to get up at dawn, leave everything ready for their families and even defy their partners in order to come out into the streets. I see that some have smiling faces while others look sad. Some seem more liberated and others more hesitant. They are different heights and builds and from different generations. Some are wearing broken-down sandals, others closed shoes, some flip-flops and the most comfortable sneakers. What unites them is the desire to end the chaos brought about by the businessmen and politicians who have always shamelessly disregarded the well-being of the great majority of citizens and even more the well-being of downtrodden, violated and murdered women.
Coming to lightWomen have directed and encouraged many of the Honduran protests. Their voices are heard in many places as they tell us that it’s imperative to write a new history and to do it with the writing, voices and presence of women. To listen to Margarita Murillo, who coordinates the resistance movement in Villanueva, is to listen to hope. Hers is the voice of so many who aren’t receiving a cent to participate. They are convinced that democracy is everyone’s business. And there are many others like her: Esly Banegas from Aguán, Margarita López from Cortés, Araminta Pereirai from El Progreso, Bertha Cáceres in Intibucá, Marcia Mildred Vargas in Atlántida, Miriam Miranda who leads the Black women. The list goes on and on. They are in the leadership and on the planning committees. And most of them are anonymous.
In the two months of resistance, women have come into the light: some write, others sing or march or cook or organize or walk or pray and some serve as leaders. They all dream of painting Honduras with the colors of solidarity in which rights and opportunities are distributed also among the women as the fruits of a new democracy.
Networks of solidarityIn some places the women have formed solidarity networks, since they’re good strategists. They did this in Yoro, a barrio of Suazo Córdova in El Progreso. Those who don’t go to the demonstrations stay home to take care of the children of those who do. Others get up really early to make the tamales, drinks and chicken and rice and to collect the fruit that is shared among the men and women protesting under the hot sun, in the rain, in the presence of the mostly indifferent news media.
Since the patriarchal culture makes women solely responsible for the children, many women attend the protests with theirs. Men have it easier: they attend the protests unburdened, free to be with their friends. Appreciating women’s participation in the resistance means understanding the double and triple effort they must make to participate. The number of pregnant women in the protests is noticeable. They are thinking about their unborn children and fighting for the rights of the future generation.
“If you go to the streets!”As in all struggles for justice the poor have the most to lose, and among the poor the women most of all. From the first day the police and army sent the women a clear warning: “You’ll see what happens to you if you go to the streets.” We first heard this machista message in the violent raid in Comayagua. Crying with outrage and impotence, the women who participated in a protest against the coup told us that the soldiers put their billy clubs between their legs to humiliate and scare them and to show them what would happen if they broke the patriarchal cultural law that the home is the only place for women.
“He hit me with the billy club,” said one woman, “and then he put it between my legs. I shouted at them ‘You dirty bastards!’ and they laughed at me saying, ‘This is what happens to you in the street! Who’s sending you here?” That same day we heard a man who approved of what happened say, “It’s good what happened to them. Why are they in the street when they should be home making dinner?” Should only male faces fight for liberty, justice and our rights?
Time to cry and to fightIt’s August 17 and the clock chimes 6 pm. At this hour one of the coup-run TV channels is starting to show the soap opera “Ugly Betty.” In contrast, on Radio Progreso you hear the crying of a mother with her 25-year-old daughter who was raped by four policemen after the violent repression demonstrators suffered in Cholom, Cortés.
Tears are streaming down the cheeks of the young girl as she valiantly describes the horror she experienced after the police detained her and put her in their car. “Now you’re going to see what happens when you take to the street,” they kept saying to her. What “happened” was that the four of them raped her in a field, then pushed a police billy club into her vagina and left her abandoned in that isolated place. Sexual intimidation with billy clubs as a phallic symbol has been the brutal expression of the perpetrators of the coup, the batterers of democracy and of women, the heirs of masculine cruelty.
Another detail we’ve observed in the protests, which is an expression of the deeply-rooted patriarchy, is that when there’s conflict with the police or soldiers, the men usually arm themselves with sticks and stones for self-defense or to confront or attack. The women, however, are usually aware of the danger and of their vulnerability and run bravely and vivaciously. Their experience and connection with nature seems to give women the knowledge of when it’s time to retreat; how to resolve conflicts not with arms but dialogue: when it’s time to fight and when to flee.
“I can’t get rid of the pain”It was 11:30 in the morning and the sky in Choloma was clear and bright. The clouds formed figures that flirted with the demonstrators. Confident because they had reached an agreement with the police, they were waiting peacefully on the pavement. The harsh sun burned their faces. At midday they would clear the road. But suddenly they were hit with a shower of teargas canisters. Within minutes the sky darkened with teargas. The police and military kicked and struck the people with billy clubs. There were also gunshots. For over an hour the demonstrators were chased and struck at close range. The police dragged people by their hair, struck them with billy clubs and threw them into the police vans as if they were packages, not people.
“They were suffocating us and surrounding us with teargas bombs,” Carmen Suyapa Mejía, a participant in the Choloma demonstration, tells me. “Wherever we ran they threw teargas. Then they chased us to the park where a tank arrived and doused us with water mixed with chemicals.” Carmen Suyapa is a low-income single mother who works as a seamstress. With tears in her eyes she recounts how she escaped from the police after they drenched her and harassed her. “My skin felt cold and they doused me three times with this hot chili water that burned my skin. But what hurt me the most was that they beat a young girl with such cruelty and shouted at her ‘Bitch, this is what happens to rabble-rousers!’ Afterwards they threw her in the paddy wagon. All this has left me nervous and with terrible dreams. The marks on my skin will eventually disappear but the nerves, the fear and the pain I can’t get rid of. They’re inside me and I even feel the teargas as though it’s suffocating me again. Sometimes I can’t even breathe.” Her tearful eyes are like a window that I look into with admiration.
The resistance to the coup is tinged with the blood and the efforts of Honduran women who for the first time are bravely breaking the silences of centuries in order to tell their stories and be counted as participants.
A collective agreementEven as the coup snatched from us the crumbs of the fragile democracy we had, it has been leaving us women great amounts of bravery, courage, strength and unity. We’re planting the seeds, fertilizing and watering the harvest that other women will reap. By fighting against the coup we’re breaking the silence as we’ve done before by gathering the many stories of abuse and violence that are so familiar to us.
On Radio Progreso you hear the testimonies of women of different ages who recount how they were beaten, humiliated and illegally arrested while the police fondled them or made fun of them. The police have violated the rights of thousands of people, both men and women. It’s a challenge to break the silence and report what they’ve done to us. We need a collective agreement that this won’t happen again and that the complicity, wrapped in the cloak of impunity and male privilege, will disappear from the armed services.
Democracy in the homeAt this stage of resistance we need to build a democracy expressed not only in public spaces but also in the homes, which have become jails for thousands of women. It must reach into the marriage bedrooms, which are also places of violence for a great many women. And it must reach the churches where women aren’t allowed to speak without permission.
It must also reach into the minds of men, both those who support the coup and those who support the resistance. Many of them, abusing the power that the patriarchal culture affords them just for being men, continue to strengthen the concept of machismo with both words and actions. We are gambling on this: the true democracy in Honduras that we women are fighting for—not without fear or tears or a lump in our throats, but also with hearts filled with hope –-is beginning to be possible.
Alicia Reyes is a Radio Progreso journalist.