I’ve mentioned in previous posts that race and how people interact with me because of my race has greatly shaped my life and worldview. In addition to being aware of racism in U.S. society, I have always been aware of the other “isms” that exist – ageism, ableism, classism, so on and so forth until everyone can find themselves categorized… And then there is sexism. Sexism that plagues our society and the same “ism” that I probably thought the least about before coming to Peru. It was one of those things that I paid so little attention to that it almost seemed like it was something that happened to other people – never me (ridiculously silly, I know). It was this abstract “ism” that I knew existed but, in my mind, was secondary to racism. It showed even in the way identified myself – always as a Black/African American first and as a woman second. I probably have been subject to sexist actions, institutions, and people countless times without having even realized it and it has taken a move half way across the world with Peace Corps Peru for me to realize that I am not immune to sexism.
To be frank and to the point, Peruvian society is riddled with sexism. Social structures, political structures, individual men and women, often function within rules and attitudes driven by machismo. And for those who have never heard of the term, machismo quite simply refers to strong or aggressive masculine pride. This includes intricately woven cultural ideas of what it means to be a man or a woman – essentially clearly defined, often rigid gender roles that all too frequently limit social, political, financial, and educational opportunities for women. Here is a quick snapshot of some revealing statistics from the Peruvian Institution for Statistics and Information:
76% of the illiterate population in Per are women
A Peruvian woman’s income is 35% less than men
87% of the victims of sexual and domestic violence in Peru are women
94% of sexual violence victims in Peru are women and of those women 77% are under 18
The national average of pregnant girls between the ages of 15-19 is 12%, in rural areas its 19%, and in amazon jungle region its 25%
In regards to my own experiences, I see it played out in my host family dynamics everyday. The women (my host mom and host sister) always cook and serve food. My host father, cousin and brother sit at the table with the expectation that they are to be served. When they need their cup to be refilled – they hold their cup out and my host mom or host sister won’t hesitate serve them. When it’s time to wash the dishes, only the women (including myself) do it and the men can go on about their business because to serve is the job of the woman. In the case of my site mate who is a male, his host mother does not allow him to wash his own clothes or help out in the kitchen because he is a man and would actually be upset if he attempted to do any of these things because in a way, he is insulting her ability as a caretaker of the home and thus her womanhood.
These ideas not only affect volunteers in their host family life, they also affect our life outside of the home. Whenever I am out and a municipality worker sees me without my white male site mate, their first question is always, “Where is Jon?” As if he is my keeper and it is abnormal for me to be out without him. I often have to correct people when they make the mistake of calling Jon my boss or me his employee because many people assume that because I am a woman, I couldn’t possibly be working alone with my own goals and objectives. And when my site mate and I happen to be together and we are talking to a Peruvian man, they almost always address Jon instead of me. Many times, they’ll even be asking questions about me, in front of me, but addressed towards Jon – because as a woman in the presence of men, I should defer my power and agency to them.
All of these things are frustrating and annoying but the thing that bothers me most is how often times I am viewed as an object. I can’t go one day without hearing various cat calls from men in the street. Outlandish comments or the classic kissing sound or whistling men do when I walk by – it is incessant and relentless, really. Now, they tell us that this is the reality for many female volunteers during training and having lived in North Philadelphia and been subject to the ridiculous cat calls of the Philly Bouls who frequent the street corner, I brushed it off and thought that it would be something I would have no problem ignoring. And some days I can let it roll of my skin but other days the last thing I want to hear are the dirty old men who feel they are entitled to comment say, “Aye, eres una morenita linda.” And so the days I can’t ignore it are the days it makes my skin crawl and unfortunately because I am a woman in Peru, it is something I have to accept as a “normal” part of my life here.
After being here for just about 7 ½ months, I now know that I’ll come back to the States being more aware of how society interacts with me not only for my race but for my womanhood. In this aspect, Peru has sucker punched me and forced me to ask myself, “Ain’t I a woman?” just as Sojourner Truth did in 1851:
Ain’t I someone who will probably get paid 77 cents on the dollar compared to a man? Ain’t I someone who has always had to deal with the street harassment of men? And ain’t I someone who is constantly bombarded by the media with images of objectified women?
I can answer yes to all of these questions without hesitation and although it has taken a service in the Peace Corps to shake me up and wake me up, I’m grateful and happy to be “woke” and I can honestly say that I’ll continue to carry this lesson for the next 2 years and beyond.
Hope Ya’ll Enjoyed This Years Women’s History Month.
Disclaimer: The goal of this was not to say that every Peruvian man and woman are machista because that couldn’t be father from the truth. And because it is easy to villainize machismo while looking at it through an American lens, I also don’t want anyone to think that I am saying if you have machista attitudes, you are automatically a bad person. My goal here was to show how these attitudes affect me as an American woman and how they affect my service.