Inquisition and Ownership: The Fight for Female Agency In Argentina

By Ava Rosato (COL ’20)

*This is a guest blog post by Ava Rosato, originally published in CIEE’s student publication, Common Ground*

In Argentina today, abortion is illegal. Pro-choice advocates are fighting to change current legislation in order to decriminalize and offer safe and free abortion.

As the debate surrounding the decriminalization of abortion grows and materializes in Argentina, it is vital to acknowledge the increasingly prevalent history of women’s sovereignty over their own bodies. The controversy surrounding women’s reproductive health stems from an antiquated tension between the agency of women and the power of the Catholic Church. From the 15th to 17th century, the tale of women in the New World was largely defined by the burning and killing of women who were denounced as “witches” for having a seemingly uncomfortable amount of power and control. As women began to gain more skills, they were able to steadily lessen the patriarchal grip that permanently controlled their role in society. Eventually, the patriarchy itself– the Catholic Church – felt the need to fight against this newfound agency. By employing the strategic tactic of associating independent women with the Devil and his malicious magic, the Church was able to convince its society that these “witches” were to be killed for such sins, and continue their patriarchal
control over women.

The extent of this control ran deep enough to convince some women to persecute others who were accused, provoking the “women against women” phenomenon that continues to plague politics today, especially in the realm of abortion. As the persecutions continued, women were more inclined to subject other women to torture in order to prove that they themselves were not witches. This self-perpetuation of the harming of women by women is a large aspect of the abortion discussion today. As we explore the narratives of all sides of this subject, we find that many of the voices protesting abortion are women, using their own decisions about their reproductive future to argue for criminalizing abortion. Their logic is founded on the belief that since they themselves would never partake in such a procedure, it should therefore be criminalized for all women. Their participation in the persecution of women undergoing abortions, according to an activist in the abortion movement here Buenos Aires, is deeply rooted in a similar logic that led the women of the past to persecute so-called “witches”.

While the persecution of women’s bodies can be traced back to the 15th century Spanish Inquisition and its witch trials, we have certainly not escaped this question of control today. Argentine women are forced to confront a State that sees them as commodities to be controlled. Any woman with the audacity to want a career for herself instead of a child is labelled a “mala madre” (“bad mother”) and is denounced by the state for straying from her traditional social role as a caretaker. This prototype is reinforced by the structures of capitalism, where women are meant to succumb to the role of raising the next generation of consumers within a male-dominated economy.

In the eyes of the State, “mala madres” claiming the right to an abortion are the equivalent of 15th century “witches” claiming to be innocent. Both are stripped of any sense of personal autonomy over their lives and their bodies, and are left to find alternative solutions if they wish to assert agency in spite of their state-controlled fate.

In respect to abortion in Argentina today, approximately 500,000 abortions, representing roughly 40% of all pregnancies, occur illegally every year. To proceed with a clandestine abortion in Argentina is to risk your life in unsafe and under-resourced medical conditions that most likely take place inside a home. Moreover, only women able to afford a clandestine abortion and pay medical practitioners to risk their license can do so. Others who cannot afford the service must face unwanted pregnancies. The only state-recognized exceptions are if the pregnancy was the result of rape, if the pregnant woman’s life is in danger, or if the pregnant woman was mentally disabled.

Such a narrow law has spurred huge resistance among women and feminists in Argentina today. During street demonstrations, many gather while wearing a green pañuelo (bandana) in order to symbolize a pro-abortion solidarity and overall resistance to the current legislation. The green pañuelo has become a symbol of the movement and advocates for law that will first decriminalize abortion and later legalize its practice altogether. It originates from the 1986 National Women’s Meeting (Encuentro Nacional de Mujeres) where the organizing committee chose the color SPRING 2019 COMMON GROUND WOMEN’S HEALTH green for its widespread availability in wardrobes regardless of class.

The National Women’s Meeting takes place annually and has become a staple of the proabortion movement, among others involving women’s rights such as the Ni Una Menos movement that seeks to end femicide and violence against women at the hands of machismo. The National Women’s Meeting began in 1986 with around 1,000 attendees and has grow enormously to see an average of 50,000 attendees each October. The conference is held in a different city in Argentina every year and attendees participate in workshops that grapple with the most pressing issues for women today, abortion being one among many others including sexual exploitation, sexual education, and mental health.

Instances of growing resistance, such as the National Women’s Meeting, are actively putting pressure on the Argentine government to confront the issues that plague women in today’s society. This pressure certainly threatens the capitalist structures that have controlled women’s bodies since the Spanish Inquisition and are absolutely necessary if Argentina is to dismantle the systematic oppression of women and allow them personal agency over their own bodies. Breaking these structures will allow for a more liberated woman and Argentina alike, where women are incentivized to seek education and a career with or without the intention of raising a family.

Click here to download the full publication of Common Ground, Women’s Health Issue.

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