OTI Online
Winter 1994

Seizing History In El Salvador
by Besty Morgan


On January 16,1992, peace accords were signed in El Salvador, ending a dozen years of civil war that pitted the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) against a rightwing military government. Both the rightwing military government and the left-wing FMLN presented plans for restructuring Salvadoran society.

FMLN guerrilla with rifle poised in town of Chalatengo, El Salvador, 1988
FMLN guerrilla with rifle poised in town of Chalatengo, El Salvador, 1988

Nearly one third of the FMLN guerrilla forces, who fought for 12 harrowing years in the mountains, were women. But neither of the restructuring plans directly addressed women's issues: equality in education, health care, job opportunities, and legal justice in instances of rape and domestic abuse. The explanation for this was bureaucratic: Plans for families are plans for women. A conservative view of the role of women might well have been expected from the right, but coming from the left it was a betrayal; many of the women - the fighters, camp aides, and civilian supporters - had harbored hopes that they were fighting for an inclusive liberation.

For the women of El Salvador the question, at this critical juncture, is whether they can articulate their agenda in such a fashion that the "new" state will recognize them and render their physical, sexual, economic and political violation unlawful. For feminists worldwide, El Salvador raises the compelling questions of how an oppressed female population can participate in the political process and whether the guerilla experience can be a training ground for feminist awareness.

Salvadoran women have been extremely active in liberation movements. In the 1930s, women took to the streets denouncing the policies of General Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez. In the 1950s, they lobbied for the right to vote. In the 1960s, they finally began to make inroads into university education. And in the 1970s, women were the first to organize against the brutality of army and security forces - they did this in their parishes, among relatives of the disappeared, and in student groups.

They did this despite the fact that, as in most third world countries, the women carry a heavy double load of work, needing to bring in income, as well as having to carry the full weight of household work. Rosa Elia, a campesina from the province of Morazan, fully recognizes this double burden when she says that what the women in her community need more than anything else is a laundromat.

"A women gets up when it is still dark, three or four. Maybe she'll have time to make herself a cup of coffee. She'll leave her house while it's still dark, walk the half kilometer to wash her clothes in a small stream, then walk back home with the wet, heavy clothes, and make breakfast for her kids by seven a.m. She has to take them to school or a day care center, then go and work her eight hour day. And then back home to make dinner and fall asleep. So you see it's a double load for women."

Political activity has emerged from the traditions of Salvadoran women, who have drawn their strength from their maternal identity and devotion to community. During the extended power plays that have marked Salvadoran history, women have always been the mainstay of life; for they are the caretakers of their families. The traditional Salvadoran woman has been raised in a strictly Catholic environment, and remains profoundly Catholic culturally, even though she may have joined one of the evangelical sects. Typically, she is deeply spiritual; she is from the countryside, comes from a long line of landless farmers, and is poor. She may not be able to sign her own name. She is a mother and a servant. Her primary emotional relationships are often with her children. She gives birth without medical help. In imitation of the respect given to Mary, the Mother of God, motherhood is worshipped.

 Near Usulutan, morning exercises last from 5 to 6 AM each day.

Salvadoran women, who engage in "productive" as well as "reproductive" labor, work primarily in the poorest paid sales and service sectors of society. As in many third world countries, the labor code prohibits unequal pay based on gender, but only one-tenth of the women work above the minimum wage, and no case has ever been brought to court contesting unequal pay. The Ministry of Labor has a' 'Women and Minors" sector, thus bracketing women with children in their treatment and benefits. Women are protected from allegedly "dangerous" work situations by restrictions that often keep them out of high paying jobs.

Legal marriage and its protection under law are rare in El Salvador. Church and state weddings are reserved for the elite. The abandonment of mothers with children is, therefore, all too common. However, male interests are legally protected in marriage. A married woman can be divorced by her husband for the mere suspicion of adultery, while her husband can be legally divorced by her only if adultery leads to public scandal and abandonment.

Rape is a crime in El Salvador "if the rapist uses force"; and a third party witness is necessary to prosecute. There is no law against rape within marriage nor is there official policy against sexual harassment. Domestic abuse occurs, by admission of family members, in at least half of Salvadoran households. In short, a combination of folklore, religion, and a history of conquest has left women the most oppressed sector of Salvadoran society.

It is this seeming contradiction between the traditional oppression of Salvadoran women and their abiding commitment to their country and communities that makes them a compelling model for feminists worldwide. For this seeming contradiction may well provide a key to their eventual liberation from systemic "machismo."

Morena Herrera, ex-combatant in the FMLN and currently an organizer in Women for Dignity and Life, explains that the very responsibility placed upon women for the survival of their families is what causes them "to make demands, and to work to establish communal networks of support." Otherwise their children die. Their political participation during the war, she explains, often led them to leave their restrictive, traditional families to work in guerrilla camps - or even camps for war refugees. The war pushed back the political and social horizons for many of these women: "We proved ourselves," she says, "and don't have to go back to the roles we occupied before. We want to struggle for power for women, not just in the popular movement, but nationally."

Herrera s is a credo of guarded hope, but like all credos, it needs to be critiqued. Were the guerrilla camps, in fact, training grounds for feminist awareness, or were they, in spite of the seeming freedoms they offered, a reconfiguration of the old patriarchal system - a reconfiguration rendered dangerous both by its attachment to a liberationist ideology and by its inevitable validation of violence? Were the women who joined the FMLN joining a movement that had their liberation in mind, or were they trading in their traditional roles as peace-keepers and life-protectors in order to imitate male aggression? What is to be the future of these women?

A moment's respite for FMLN guerrilla in town of Morazan, El Salvador.

Robin Morgan, feminist and former editor-in-chief of Ms. magazine, is skeptical about just how much female liberation can take place within a military structure, either of the left or of the right. In her book, The Demon Lover: On the Sexuality of Terrorism, she holds with the assumption that when it comes to the use of violence, men and women are different. Men have historically operated, she believes, according to the principle of thanatos - a love of death that is perpetuated by a belief in the necessity of violence. Women have operated according to ems - a love of life perpetuated by the avoidance of violence. But, like all polarities, the differences bleed into one another in complicated ways, and Morgan sees this as a source of particular danger.

She holds that "terrorism," gratuitous violence - both state and anti-state - results from an erotic pursuit of death - thanatos - at its most sexually potent level, promoted by men but possessing an assumed, and often all too actual, erotic appeal for women. Women may not share the "phallic excitement'' that enshrines toughness, but they are vulnerable to the political and social power that validates this excitement, and they pay their allegiance in culturally reinforced erotic desire. The hardened hero, in pursuit of his cause and vicious to his enemies, is both desired by women and envied by men. This object of desire may be "demonic" in his aggression, but the "demon lover" promises safety - as long as the woman does his bidding.

This is the way of power and the hierarchies established by the powerful. Acts of love, community, and care for the planet simply cannot compete for ultimate emotional release with the "transcendence offered by vengeance."

Women are the primary victims of the misuse of power. The vulnerability of women is in itself not complicated - women are pregnable, rapable and, because their upper body strength is less than the average man, beatable. But the suppression of one half of the species by the other has - expectably - complex political implications. Throughout history rape has been a distinct military strategy; thus Dan Rather could, with impunity, make the on-air assertion during the Gulf War that "the United States had had its way with Iraq." In many countries patriarchal violence within "normal" families has made the traditional patriarchal state and its violent acts possible.

Such a critique of the patriarchal state is, of course, quite popular with the political left. But Morgan and others claim that the "demon lover" is all too prevalent in revolutionary movements as well, a phenomenon which accounts for the fact that few revolutions truly transform society but, rather, allow one patriarchy to replace another. Morgan sees this as the case in the Palestinian movement, where "educated Palestinian women, sophisticated in the ways of patriarchal politics, [have] risen as far as possible within the PLO only to hit the glass ceiling of male supremacy." She sees it to have been the case in the U.S. civil rights movement where manhood often became synonymous with black power, and matriarchy was accused of having destroyed the black family. Morgan is arguing for, but does not yet see, total revolution - a transformation of society in which the negotiating strengths of the physically vulnerable are valued, and in which the cycle of violence is judged to be insufficient to save sentient life, and the planet itself.

While Morgan's view seems all too true in the industrialized countries, El Salvador may be able to find a way out of the death conquers love theory. It may be unfashionably optimistic to suggest that Salvadoran women could be moving toward an inclusive revolution, but we've seen that they have learned things from their participation in the civil war that will make it impossible for them to return to a life of traditional submission. We find their participation in the FMLN to be more than mere susceptibility to the lure of the "demon lover," to the old, tired, eroticized assumption that only guerrilla violence can combat state violence (and vice versa). It became clear when we visited the guerrilla camps that their participation was deeply connected to their sense of themselves and their own, unique oppression.

Gladis "Elizabeth" Melara, ex-commandante and official in the FMLN foundation for ex-combatants, says, simply: "When mothers see children starve, they seek change. When survival becomes impossible, women too seek revolution."

Morena Herrera agrees with Melara, but goes further in terms of articulating state oppression that expressly targets women. "There were no alternatives when we chose to react violently against the repression of the '70s. For example, there was a time when a woman risked arrest just for wearing pants, tennis shoes, and a baseball cap. You had to wear a skirt and a pair of pumps just to move around the city." She recalls a time when she was at a bus stop in downtown San Salvador with her two-year-old daughter and a male colleague: "A death squad pulled up in front of us. They tried to get all three of us, but I was able to escape with my daughter. I remember thinking that it would be better for them to kill me running away from them than to have them torture my daughter in front of me."

Taking a stand on hospitals and meaning it by Lois Uttley
Life in a guerrilla camp, more varied than imagined, in FMLN controlled zone, Chalatengo, El Salvador, 1988.

Our surmise is that Melara, Herrera and many other Salvadoran women who joined the guerrilla movement did not in that time of widespread violence simply abandon their traditional eros for male-centered thanatos. Their stories suggest to us that for the sake of defending the right to life against a state determined to crush that right, they concluded that an armed stand needed to be taken. At best, this was neither a love of violence, nor of the violent. For over and over we have heard the stories of women for whom love of life itself forced active defensive measures against the powers of death.

Furthermore, we have come to believe that in some significant ways their choice to join the FMLN helped to transform a predominantly male guerrilla army into one more respecting of life and of the equal rights of all of its members, although many issues of sexism prevailed. From the beginning of the armed conflict in the late 1970s and early 1980s, guerrilla forces were at least a third women, women who had been student and union organizers in the 1970s and who were relatives of the killed and disappeared. Most often, guerrilla women dedicated themselves to support work such as staffing the field hospitals, preparing food, maintaining radio communications, assembling explosion devices, and organizing the civilian population.

Former women guerrillas acknowledge that it was more difficult for a woman to make it as a combatant than a man - that a women had to demonstrate extreme steadfastness and toughness to attain a position of leadership among combatants - but it was possible. Ultimately one in every five active combatants was a woman.

Morena Herrera was sixteen in 1981, when she joined the guerrillas. She moved from the city to the countryside to organize rural women. They harvested sugar cane, prepared food, took supplies to the field hospitals for the wounded and even built a small hospital for the civilian population. Later, she took on military responsibilities and moved into a position of power within the fighting forces. But she realized that the power she had attained was not available to most of the other women. "It was space for certain women who were able to work within male parameters. There was the sense of having to compete with men and having to pay more to reach a position of power than men." For Herrera this was high cost, indeed. It meant abandoning her three daughters for long periods of time.

Nevertheless, the fact that a third of the FMLN forces were women greatly affected the character and success of guerrilla operation. They were an integrated, often familial group. On one of our visits to the camps, the men prepared dinner over an open fire, while the women sat on the hillside to speak with us.

Compared to other guerrilla movements in the third world, the Salvadoran guerrilla power structure had many women in prominent positions. But Salvadoran feminists point out that many of these women did not at first work from a gender understanding. They dedicated themselves to issues of justice, but did not see the women's movement as necessarily having anything to do with them. As the war went on, they began to recognize that they had common issues that made them different from the men they fought with, and they began to talk about these issues among themselves.

In the late 1980s this more reflective population of women in guerrilla camps encountered the civilian women's movement. "Women in the cities reached out to their sisters in arms. Joint workshops and celebrations were held. This coming together facilitated a new stage for the Salvadoran women's movement during the peace process. But were women heard in the process itself?

The scales of war turned in November, 1989, after a successful major FMLN offensive. The Salvadoran Army finally agreed to meet the FMLN at the negotiating table. Two female commandantes from the FMLN were on the negotiating team. However, when the peace accords were signed on January 16, 1992, all the signatories were male. The subsequent reconstruction plans called for demilitarization, but neither the government nor the FMLN addressed the hidden violence - domestic abuse, rape and incest - that invariably accompanies a military climate of violence, and neither side made provisions for the fair treatment of female ex-combatants, particularly in terms of land tenure. It can only be concluded that for all of the women's influence during the war, at the point of peace, the women's movement was still seen as a thing apart from the arena where real decisions were made.

The historic dynamic of the fascist father who turns power over to the victorious, revolutionary son, while mother and daughter wait for their (nonexistent) turn, would seem to be firmly and dismally in place. But there is a difference here; there was no military victory in El Salvador, no simple transfer of power. The identity of the new state is currently being forged. President Cristiani, who represents the right-wing ARENA party, is still in office, but the High Command of the Salvadoran Army has been subject to findings of the United Nations Truth Commission about military crimes. The left-wing FMLN has become a full-fledged political party and shed its military dress. Presidential, assembly and municipal elections are scheduled for March, 1994, and there is much to be settled in the meantime.

Salvadoran women make up over 50 percent of the potential voting population. The war has made them see their oppression and sense their political power for perhaps the first time. But do they have the force and stamina to insist on a reconfiguration of the state so that it acknowledges them? What might they do to arrest the transfer of power from one patriarchy to another?

Herrera explains that women are trying to turn their new awareness into a unified political platform. "This is why so many of us women are talking about the 1994 elections. We're saying that it is important that a national platform include the needs of all the discriminated sectors of our country. In this way, we serve as an example for other groups to demand inclusion in the platform."

Taking a stand on hospitals and meaning it by Lois Uttley
Top: two guerrillas pause In a doorway of rebel controlled barrio of Zacamilin in San Salvador. Bottom: an old woman takes pot shots with a toy rifle, 1988.

Many of the women organizers speak with hope about the concertacion de mujeres (coordination of women's groups) now taking place in El Salvador. In this coordination effort, women from the left and right meet to discuss common issues. Pacita Munoz report that women in the FMLN have been accused by FMLN men of having betrayed the revolutionary process through their work in the concertacion, so they are strategically walking the tight rope, concentrating on unity within the left, and trying to stay in dialogue with women on the right.

Zoila Innocenti, head of the Sociology and Political Science departments of the Jesuit University of Central America, reports that the Women's Studies program now offers classes to students, administrators, staff and professionals in the community, focusing on a new vision of gender and the "role that women can play in their country." UNICEF and UNIFEM from the United Nations are funding the university's gender outreach programs, including work with the comandanda (the high level commanders) of the FMLN. According to Innocenti, "they themselves have recognized that they have been proposing plans that keep women in their traditional roles," surely a milestone - maybe even a millennial stone! Under her direction, the university is organizing monthly meetings which bring together representatives from non-governmental organizations, international organizations and the government to develop a national plan for women.

Likewise, Isabel Asencio, a chief organizer of women's conferences, has been instrumental in setting up a series of debates between women on the left and the right to work out "an agenda for women - an agenda of health, human rights and sexuality - leading to the elaboration of a political platform." They will work to get this agenda adopted by the various political parties for the 1994 elections.

If women vote as a block in that election, there's no question but that they could make a considerable impact. But that will require a massive effort, for many women are still unregistered and others have had their ballots annulled because they "weren't filled out correctly." Literacy and civic training are proving to be essential for women traditionally left out of the political process, and Maria Zamora's institute for the political education of women is addressing exactly that problem. Should her husband Ruben Zamora run for and win the presidential election, he will owe much to the female vote.

It is perhaps foolish of Salvadoran feminists to think that institutional sexism can be unseated in a single historical era, or to imagine that complicity with the "demon lover" during those twelve years of armed struggle has not inevitably made them the handmaids of an emerging patriarchy. But it is also possible that what they learned when they joined the war will allow them to make systemic changes. It is too early to tell for sure, but not too early to give the women's movement of El Salvador our absolute support.

Robin Morgan is clearly correct that women's participation in national liberation movements is often utilized by patriarchy for male ends. But while third world women need to be wary of this "demon lover" in his pseudo-revolutionary dress, first world women need to be wary of cross-cultural judgments. One woman's demon may be another's necessity, in that what is at stake for women trying to practice a life-giving avoidance of violence is, to some extent, always situationally unique. In El Salvador, women's participation in the "thanatotic" cycle of violence was certainly an insufficient means of bringing peace and transformation to that beleaguered country, but it may have been a necessary choice for many. And who can deny that even with the inherent sexist contradictions within revolutionary ranks, many Salvadoran women took the opportunity to come to a new feminist consciousness that could - just could - change the course of Salvadoran history*


Special thanks to Laura Jackson, on assignment from Monitor Radio in January 1993, for collaboration on interviews and for general insights, and to Robin Braverman, writer and consultant on women's issues in El Salvador, for helping us to make all-important contacts. We also thank Ms. Pacita Munoz for her insights into Salvadoran culture, and Ms. Morena Herrera for an extended interview on war and sexism.

Betsy Morgan is Professor of Literature and Social Renewal at Eastern College in St. Davids, PA. Recently she co-produced, with Laura jackson, the television documentary "El Salvador: Portraits in a Revolution." They are presently working on a new film, "From Selma to Salvador," that deals with voter registration issues.

Serena Gosgrove has been a writer and consultant on women's issues in El Salvador for the last five years. She is a graduate student at Northeastern University. With Robin Braverman, she co-authored The Faces of Maria, due to be published in 1994.


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