By Aliyya Swaby:
“…women are objectified constantly by the male gaze to the point where they believe that the purpose of their bodies is to be viewed, and that their bodies must meet a viewing standard at all times…” –bluemilk
I’m surrounded by men here in Lima. Most of my co-workers are male. Most of the travelers staying in my hostel are male (and European). My bus drivers are male and so are my taxi drivers, and often my waiters and baristas, as well as most of the locals who make any effort at contact (either well- or mal-intended).
It’s impossible to talk about this part of the world without acknowledging the machismo that permeates its culture. Men are encouraged to be masculine, a trait defined here by a limited range of actions and attitudes and in its extreme manifestation, male chauvinism. Though the above quote was taken specifically from a post about eating disorders, it is relevant for so many situations, and I’ve felt so in Lima more than anywhere else I’ve traveled.
Every morning I step outside of my hostel and my body no longer belongs to me. I know this because of the lecherous gazes and disturbing smiles from men of all ages as I hurry down the sidewalk to work. I know this because of the scattered car horns and whistles from passing taxis, no matter how covered up I am or how many layers I’m wearing or how tight or loose my clothing is. I wear the clothes I wear everyday because I like them, because I’ve created my wardrobe as a manifestation of an artistic vision, because they’re comfortable. But it’s hard to have a constant audience without feeling somehow like you’re pandering to them, too, even when you tell yourself you aren’t.
It’s harder to feel like my body is my own in an environment that’s constantly challenging that assertion. Last summer in Ecuador, I had a host family of three women to balance out the overwhelming traditional masculinity I experienced out on the streets. But this summer, I am alone and I’m having difficulty deciding when I should just accept machismo as a byproduct of the culture, and when I am allowed to be scared or even angry. This is only compounded by the fact that I’m a Westerner and don’t speak or understand Spanish perfectly, making me even more of a target.
But I also know that not everyone is out to get me. Today, generally exhausted and fed up with the catcalls and stares, I snapped at the money collector who came around to collect my bus fare, claiming he’d overcharged me. It turned out that I had confused my coins and he had charged me a fair amount, less than most other collectors I’ve come across in Lima. (I felt embarrassed when he looked confused at my harsh accusations. “No te entiendo,” he said softly.)
At my internship, my male co-workers are welcoming and friendly and I’ve never felt personally violated. But male dominance is manifested in other ways. Most ostensibly, in the fact that women’s issues are relegated to one small department (of course, headed by a woman) and don’t seem to permeate other, larger areas of the organization. (One department head I asked said jokingly, yet unabashedly, that he knew nothing about women’s issues.)
And I feel it in smaller instances, though whether real or imagined, it’s hard to tell. Today, I went to lunch with a new co-worker, who chose a restaurant, ordered my food for me (after I couldn’t understand the rapid-fire questioning from the waiter) and insisted on paying the bill after despite my protests. “Calm down,” he said with an infuriatingly smug smile in response to my obvious irritation. I don’t know if his condescension was merely because of my age or some conflation of age, language and gender — though in this case, knowing the truth would not have made me any less annoyed.
But studies show that attitudes about male and female roles are changing. For example, a 2007 Gallup poll of nine South American countries showed that residents are becoming more accepting of women in power and generally positioned in the workforce. I want to believe that studies like this are accurately foreseeing dramatic positive change, but it’s difficult when domestic violence is still prominent in Latin America and reproductive health reform and education still lacking.
Personally, I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the stares, and I don’t know if I want to — accepting the culture, eventually becoming apathetic to it, in this case feels like a step in the wrong direction. But I’m working on learning to take apart a stifling culture to find welcoming individuals and enjoy the genuinely kind actions scattered across its landscape. Not just to avoid constant paranoia, but because sometimes it can feel so gratifying to realize that the amount you paid for something was exactly right.
Aliyya Swaby ’13 is in Pierson College. Contact her at email@example.com.