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Chachawarmi: Silence and Rival Voices on Decolonisation and Gender Politics in Andean Bolivia


This article addresses the ‘coloniality of gender’ in relation to rearticulated indigenous Aymara gender notions in contemporary Bolivia. While female indigenous activists tend to relate the subordination of women to colonialism and to see an emancipatory potential in the current process of decolonisation, there are middle-class advocates for gender equality and feminist activists who seem to fear that the ‘decolonising politics’ of the Evo Morales administration would abandon indigenous women to their ‘traditional’ silenced subordination within male-dominated structures. From the dynamics of indigenous decolonial projections, feminist critiques, middle-class misgivings and state politics, the article explores the implications of these different discourses on colonialism, decolonisation and women's subordination.

Este artículo se refiere a la ‘colonialidad del género’ relacionada con nociones rearticuladas aymaras de género en la Bolivia contemporánea. Mientras que activistas indígenas femeninas tienden a relacionar la subordinación de las mujeres con el colonialismo y a ver un potencial emancipatorio en el actual proceso de descolonización, existen también defensoras de la clase media por la igualdad de género y activistas feministas que parecen temer que las ‘políticas descolonizadoras’ de la administración de Evo Morales abandonen a las mujeres indígenas a su silenciada subordinación ‘tradicional’ al interior de estructuras dominadas por hombres. Desde las dinámicas de las proyecciones descoloniales indígenas, críticas feministas, dudas de la clase media y políticas estatales, este artículo explora las implicaciones de estos diferentes discursos sobre el colonialismo, la descolonización y la subordinación de las mujeres.

O artigo aborda a ‘colonialidade do gênero’ em relação às noções de gênero indígena aimará rearticuladas na Bolívia contemporânea. Enquanto ativistas indígenas tendem a relacionar a subordinação das mulheres ao colonialismo e vislumbram o potencial emancipatório do atual processo de descolonização, há defensoras da igualidade entre os gêneros da classe média que parecem temer que as ‘políticas descolonizatórias’ da administração de Evo Morales abandonarão mulheres indígenas à silenciosa subordinação ‘tradicional’ no contexto de estruturas dominadas por homens. Exploram-se as implicações dos diferentes discursos acerca do colonialismo, descolonização e subordinação das mulheres à partir das dinâmicas das projeções indígenas descolonizadas, das críticas feministas, dos receios da classe média e das políticas de estado.

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1 A cholita is a young Aymara or Quechua woman wearing the ‘traditional’ outfit consisting of pollera (wide gathered skirt), bowler hat, manta (shawl) and two long braids connected by tullmas (long, braided hair bands).

2 The wiphala is the multicoloured banner that has been used since the early 1970s to symbolise Andean indigenous peoples on a pan-Andean scale. It is currently one of the official national symbols of Bolivia.

3 María Lugones, ‘Colonialidad y género: hacia un feminismo descolonial’, in Walter Mignolo (ed.), Género y descolonialidad (Buenos Aires: Ediciones del Signo, 2008), pp. 13–54.

4 The interviews were mainly conducted in Spanish, with occasional use of Aymara expressions and concepts.

5 Susan Okin (with respondents), Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women? (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), pp. 22–3. Emphasis in original.

6 McKerl, Mandy, ‘Multiculturalism, Gender and Violence’, Culture and Religion, 8: 2 (2007), pp. 195, 215.

7 For the Bolivian context, see Alison Spedding, ‘Investigaciones sobre género en Bolivia: un comentario crítico’, in Denise Arnold (ed.), Más allá del silencio: las fronteras de género en los Andes (La Paz: CIASE/ILCA, 1997), p. 61. For reviews of this debate see Fischer, Linda, ‘State of the Art: Multiculturalism, Gender and Cultural Identities’, European Journal of Women's Studies, 11: 1 (2004), pp. 111–19. See also Volpp, Leti, ‘Feminism versus Multiculturalism’, Columbia Law Review, 101 (2001), pp. 1181–218.

8 Bhabha, Homi, ‘Liberalism's Sacred Cow’, in Okin, Is Multiculturalism Bad for Women?, p. 82.

9 On decolonisation, see Burman, Anders, ‘The Strange and the Native: Ritual and Activism in the Aymara Quest for Decolonization’, Journal of Latin American and Caribbean Anthropology, 15: 2 (2010), pp. 457–75; and ‘Colonialism in Context: An Aymara Reassessment of “Colonialism”, “Coloniality” and the “Postcolonial World”’, Kult, 6 (2009), Special Issue: ‘Epistemologies of Transformation: The Latin American Decolonial Option and its Ramifications’, pp. 117–29. For debates on cultural diversity and neoliberal multiculturalism, see Phillips, Anne and Saharso, Sawitri, ‘The Rights of Women and the Crisis of Multiculturalism’, Ethnicities, 8: 3 (2008), pp. 291301; Hale, Charles, ‘Does Multiculturalism Menace? Governance, Cultural Rights and the Politics of Identity in Guatemala’, Journal of Latin American Studies, 34: 3 (2002), pp. 485524.

10 Ibid.; Nancy Grey Postero, Now We Are Citizens: Indigenous Politics in Postmulticultural Bolivia (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007); Jorge Viaña, La interculturalidad como herramienta de emancipación (La Paz: III/CAB, 2009).

11 It should be noted that the official Bolivian ‘decolonising politics’ still have a recognisable stain of ‘multiculturalism’ which the diverse strategies of ‘decolonisation from below’ – I am thinking here of the practices of indigenous organisations, trade unions, indigenous intellectuals and autonomous indigenous educational initiatives – do not have to the same extent.

12 In her intent to ‘lend a voice’ to rural Quechua women, I. S. R. Pape articulates a similar critique: Pape, I. S. R., ‘“This is Not a Meeting for Women”: The Sociocultural Dynamics of Rural Women's Political Participation in the Bolivian Andes’, Latin American Perspectives, 163, 35: 6 (2008), pp. 4162.

13 Mujeres Creando, Constitución política feminista del estado (La Paz: Mujeres Creando, 2008), p. 17.

14 Ibid., pp. 13–14.

15 República de Bolivia, Plan nacional para la igualdad de oportunidades: “Mujeres construyendo la nueva Bolivia para vivir bien” (La Paz: República de Bolivia, 2008).

16 Sian Lazar, El Alto, rebel city: self and citizenship in Andean Bolivia (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008); Alison Spedding, ‘“Esa mujer no necesita hombre”: en contra de la dualidad andina – imágenes de género en los Yungas de La Paz’, in Arnold (ed.), Más allá del silencio, pp. 325–43.

17 Ibid., p. 338.

18 See, for example, Olivia Harris, ‘The Power of Signs: Gender, Culture and the Wild in the Bolivian Andes’, in Carol MacCormack and Marilyn Strathern (eds.), Nature, Culture and Gender (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980), pp. 70–94; Susan Bourque and Kay Warren, Women of the Andes: Patriarchy and Social Change in Two Peruvian Towns (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1981); Aurolyn Luykx, The Citizen Factory: Schooling and Cultural Production in Bolivia (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1999); and ‘Discriminación sexual y estrategias verbales femeninas en contextos escolares’, in Arnold (ed.), Más allá del silencio, pp. 189–231; Pape, ‘“This is Not a Meeting for Women”’.

19 Forbes, David, ‘On the Aymara Indians of Bolivia and Peru’, Journal of the Ethnological Society, 2: 3 (1870), p. 199, quoted in Denise Arnold, ‘Introducción’, in Arnold (ed.), Más allá del silencio, p. 43.

20 Ibid., p. 47. Arnold's statement resonates with Gayatri Spivak, who argues that Western feminist critics pay their tribute to the advent of the Western talkative female subject without considering how this process was related to and even enabled by the European imperial expansion, and that these critics thereby reproduce the axiom of imperialism. Spivak, Gayatri, ‘Three Women's Texts and a Critique of Imperialism’, Critical Inquiry, 12: 1 (1985), pp. 243–61.

21 McKerl, ‘Multiculturalism’, p. 189.

22 Harris, ‘The Power of Signs’, p. 92.

23 Luykx, ‘Discriminación sexual’, p. 210.

24 Andrew Canessa, Minas, mote y muñecas: identidades e indigeneidades en Larecaja (La Paz: Editorial Mama Huaco, 2006), p. 117; see also Marisol de la Cadena, ‘“Women are More Indian”: Ethnicity and Gender in a Community near Cuzco’, in Brooke Larson and Olivia Harris (eds.), Ethnicity, Markets and Migration in the Andes (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1995), pp. 329–48.

25 Arnold, ‘Introducción’, p. 45.

26 Denise Arnold, ‘Making Men in her Own Image: Gender, Text, and Textile in Qaqachaka’, in Rosaleen Howard-Malverde (ed.), Creating Context in Andean Cultures (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), p. 100.

27 Arnold, ‘Introducción’, pp. 45, 51; see also ‘Making Men in her Own Image’.

28 See María Eugenia Choque, Chacha warmi: imaginarios y vivencias en El Alto (El Alto: CPMGA, 2009), p. 50.

29 Cf. Kay Warren and Susan Bourque, ‘Gender, Power and Communication: Women's Response to Political Muting in the Andes’, in Susan Bourque and Donna Robertson Divine (eds.), Women Living Change (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 1985), p. 271.

30 Arnold, ‘Introducción’, p. 45.

31 Indianismo and katarismo are ethnopolitical ideologies which have influenced the last few decades of indigenous mobilisations in Bolivia. In order to understand the rise of the Indianista-Katarista movements, one should scrutinise, firstly, the post-revolutionary Aymara experience of continuing socio-political marginalisation and second-class citizenship, and secondly, the collective memory of colonial serfdom and indigenous rebellion; cf. Silvia Rivera, Oprimidos pero no vencidos: luchas del campesinado aymara y qhechwa 1900–1980 (La Paz: Aruwiyiri, 2003 [1984]).

32 See Olivia Harris, ‘Complementarity and Conflict: An Andean View of Women and Men’, in Jean Sybil La Fontaine (ed.), Sex and Age as Principles of Social Differentiation (London and New York: Academic Press, 1978), pp. 34–5; Rivera, Silvia, ‘La noción de derecho o las paradojas de la modernidad postcolonial: indígenas y mujeres en Bolivia’, Aportes Andinos, 11 (2004), pp. 115; Ivonne Farah and Carmen Sánchez, Bolivia: perfil de género (La Paz: Viceministerio de Género y Asuntos Generacionales/CIDES-UMSA, 2008); Choque, Chacha warmi.

33 Harris, , ‘Complementarity and Conflict’; ‘The Power of Signs’. See also Billie-Jean Isbell, ‘La otra mitad esencial: un estudio de complementariedad sexual andina’, Estudios Andinos, 5: 1 (1976), pp. 3756.

34 Tristan Platt, ‘Espejos y Maíz: el concepto de yanantin entre los Macha de Bolivia’, in Enrique Mayer and Ralph Bolton (eds.), Parentesco y matrimonio en los Andes (Lima: Pontificia Universidad Católica del Perú, 1980), pp. 139–55.

35 Rivera, ‘La noción de derecho’, pp. 2–3; Canessa, Minas, mote y muñecas, p. 109; Choque, Chacha warmi.

36 See, for example, Olivia Harris, ‘Condor and Bull: The Ambiguities of Masculinity in Northern Potosí’, in Penelope Harvey and Peter Gow (eds.), Sex and Violence: Issues in Representation and Experience (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 40–65; and ‘Complementarity and Conflict’, pp. 34–5.

37 See, for example, Burman, ‘The Strange and the Native’.

38 See, for example, Lugones, , ‘Colonialidad y género’; Chandra Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes: Feminist Scholarships and Colonial Discourses’, Feminist Review, 30 (1988), pp. 6188; Gloria Anzaldúa, Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza (San Francisco, CA: Spinsters/Aunt Lute, 1987).

39 See, for example, Layme, Félix, ‘El género en el mundo Aymara y Quechua’, CDIMA Panel, 20 (2004), p. 30.

40 See, for example, Carlos Yujra, Laq′a Achachilanakan Jach′a Tayka Amuyt′äwinakapa: los grandes pensamientos de nuestros antepasados (La Paz: CAUP, 2005), pp. 11–25.

41 Interestingly, exceptions are made now and then for unmarried men, but not very often for unmarried women. Moreover, the female part of the married couple is often there to ‘accompany her husband’, who is the one who actually is the authority.

42 For subordination as an extension of colonialism, see Billie-Jean Isbell; ‘De inmaduro a duro: lo simbólico femenino y los esquemas andinos de género’, in Arnold (ed.), Más allá del silencio, p. 257; Lugones, ‘Colonialidad y género’.

43 Maldonado-Torres, Nelson, ‘On the Coloniality of Being: Contributions to the Development of a Concept’, Cultural Studies, 21: 2–3 (2007), p. 261.

44 República de Bolivia, Plan nacional, p. 32. Emphasis in original.

45 Ibid., p. 48.

46 Ibid., pp. 48–9.

47 Ibid., p. 30.

49 McKerl, ‘Multiculturalism’, pp. 202–3; see also Mohanty, ‘Under Western Eyes’.

50 República de Bolivia, Plan nacional, p. 34; see also Farah and Sánchez, Bolivia, pp. 89–91.

51 See Charlotta Widmark, ‘The Power of “Andean Culture” – Bolivian Debates on the De-colonization of Gender Equality Within and Outside the Framework of the State’, paper presented at the Congress of the Latin American Studies Association, Rio de Janeiro, 11–14 June 2009.

52 There was one significant exception, however: the author of the conceptual framework of the plan, who, as we shall see below, self-identified as Aymara.

53 Julieta Paredes, Hilando Fino: desde el feminismo comunitario (La Paz: CEDEC/Comunidad Mujeres Creando Comunidad, 2008).

54 Q'ara is the Aymara term for Bolivians of European descent. It literally means ‘peeled’, and its usage is often explained with an anecdote about how the Spaniards came to what today is Bolivia ‘without anything; no women, no belongings, no land’ – that is, peeled. The dominant group are culturally and socially peeled.

55 Doña Graciela is by no means unique in this sense. The last ten years have seen the rise of a new ‘ethnic pride’ among urban and rural Aymara people, and this process takes different material and ideological expressions.

56 See Andrew Canessa, ‘The Indian Within, the Indian Without: Citizenship, Race, and Sex in an Andean Hamlet’, in Andrew Canessa (ed.), Natives Making Nation: Gender, Indigeneity and the Nation-State in the Andes (Tucson, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 2005), pp. 130–55; De la Cadena, ‘“Women are More Indian”’.

57 It is of course a matter of fact that the pollera is an Andean version of nineteenth-century European fashion, but today the pollera is intimately associated with Andean indigenous women and serves as something akin to a marker of ethnic and class belonging.

58 On colonialism and coloniality, see Aníbal Quijano, ‘La colonialidad del poder y la experiencia cultural latinoamericana’, in Roberto Briceño-Leon and Heinz Sonntag (eds.), Pueblo, época y desarrollo: la sociología de América Latina (Caracas: Nueva Sociedad, 1998), pp. 139–55; Grosfoguel, Ramón, ‘A Decolonial Approach to Political Economy: Transmodernity, Border Thinking and Global Coloniality’, Kult, 6 (2009), Special Issue: ‘Epistemologies of Transformation: The Latin American Decolonial Option and its Ramifications’, pp. 10–38. For my argument, see Burman, ‘Colonialism in Context’.

59 Boaventura de Suosa Santos, Pensar el Estado y la sociedad: desafíos actuales (La Paz: CLACSO, CIDES-UMSA, Muela del Diablo, Comuna, 2008), p. 147.

60 Rivera, ‘La noción de derecho’.

61 McKerl, ‘Multiculturalism’, p. 189.

62 Reunión Anual de Etnología, MUSEF, La Paz, 21 Aug. 2009.

* My thanks go to those women and men of the Bolivian Andes who participated in this research, to Charlotta Widmark for inviting me to do the research, and to Silje Lundgren, Sylva Frisk, Mikael Johansson and four anonymous reviewers whose comments improved earlier drafts of this article. The research on which this article is based was supported by the Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency.

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