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#50years of resistance and insistence. The threads of feminist memory
13 September, 2023
La imagen muestra dos fotografías paralelas. En ambas hay mujeres sosteniendo banderas de la AFEP. La foto de la izquierda es de 1986 y está en blanco y negro. La de la derecha está en colores y es de 2021,

As we commemorate the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Civil-Military Coup, historian and feminist activist Kimberly Seguel spoke with four women organizations that for years have been at the vanguard of human rights advocacy Chile. They spoke about the legacy of resistance, solidarity, the search for truth and justice, the collective action of organized women and, above all, the tireless activisms that break through the barrier of time and endure to this very day.

Feminist memory is woven with a thread that entwines the struggles of women organizations over the last 50 years, and that goes back to even before that. Throughout the 20th century, women have taken a strong stand in Chilean history. From the conquest of the right to vote, to their eligibility for public office, women have constantly strived to further the recognition of their rights and ensure greater presence in the public circles of society, overcoming the country’s record of attempting to socially and politically silence them.

This explains why the dictatorship – conservative and patriarchal as it was – held such a hostile attitude towards them as a group. This hostility ranged from the persecution of political activists; the implementation of employment policies which deprived women of their labor rights; to an extermination policy on their very bodies. Additionally, it had repercussions on the lives of the thousands of mothers, wives and daughters of those tortured, executed and disappeared during the Pinochet regime, leaving deep-cutting wounds in their families and their communities.

However, women responded quickly, defying the horrors of State terrorism. Despite Pinochet’s attempts to appeal to women as ‘allies’ and ‘saviors’ of the nation, various women's groups offered an anti-dictatorial response mere months after the September 11th coup. One notable example case was the Group of Relatives of Politically Executed Persons (AFEP), which despite being a mixed-gender organization, was spearheaded by women who took up key roles in its activities.

That’s how Raquel Roa – current General Secretary of the group – tells it: “The first people to take to the streets were women, mothers, daughters, granddaughters. Because, it must be said, the executions or disappearances, in cases like ours, mainly affected the husbands, fathers and brothers. For this reason, women began to rise up and denounce what was happening in our country.”

This way, starting in October, 1973, and in full force by 1976, the families of the victims organized themselves to seek justice, demanding to know the truth about what happened to their loved ones, and publicly denouncing the abuses committed by the dictatorial regime of Augusto Pinochet.

Another example of this political rearticulation was observed among the working class, where women began to take action. In the beginning, this was at the initiative of progressive sectors of the Catholic Church and some women organizations from the academic world, though there were also some independent movements. Regardless of their origins, all these women, bit by bit, began to lose the fear of the military regime. They grew stronger gathering around the heat of ‘communal stoves’, and bonding in their self-taught workshops. This process encouraged women to take to the streets with great determination.

As the 1980s advanced, Chileans left a significant mark of their resistance against the military regime. 1983 was a particularly important year, since the economic and political difficulties the dictatorship faced led to a series of protests and mobilizations that marked a turning point in the country’s history. Another momentous year was 1987, known as the "decisive year", a key moment in the ongoing struggle against the regime. Through this process, women played a fundamental role in encouraging the Chilean people to shed their fear, and allow themselves to dream of democracy once more.

Resueltas 95

Urdiendo memorias

The courage that persist

In the first years after the end of the dictatorship, the fight for democracy in government discourse adopted a "justice to the extent possible" approach, which in truth ensured neither truth, nor justice nor reparation, be it for the survivors or for the families of missing detainees. A mantle of impunity covered the crimes of the dictatorship.

Faced with this reality, organized women overcame the fears and the pain inflicted by the regime, and the organizations endured in their struggles. In this vein, the collective ‘Resuelta Feministas Populares’ continues to this day the work that they began in the 80s.

María Stella Toro, a member of the organization, has this to say: “Resuelta is a collective that stems from the working-class women workshops in the southern area of Santiago (...) The collective had its beginnings in the fight against the dictatorship, but even early in the 90s, the need to continue our work was evident, as many of the problems that women and the general populace were experiencing persisted.”

Human rights with a feminist perspective

The small advances achieved in recent years in terms of justice and human rights are in a large part thanks to the endurance and persistence of these women, and the bridges they have continued to build between different organizations. Particularly, the feminist movement has become a space within which women have been able to resist attempts of impunity and to silence them, leading this constant struggle and continuing to find new ways to analyze and address the challenges posed by the politics of forgetfulness that limit our democracy.

In that sense, during the 2000s, after a persistent but little-recognized struggle, many women survivors of Pinochet's extermination centers began to form collectives and women associations. These women, through a feminist lens and standpoint, began to denounce the violence they suffered during the dictatorship and which, until then, had remained invisible, hidden from the public eye. Along these lines, the Colectivo de Mujeres Sobrevivientes Siempre Resistentes (Always Resisting’ Collective of Women Survivors‘; CMSSR) was created, composed mainly of women who survived different political detention and torture centers in Santiago. This organization became a key factor in understanding the patriarchal element of the military regime repression, that remains integrated to this day in the prevailing neoliberal model.

Beatriz Bataszew, member and founder of the organization, explains it as follows: “The key issue that we wanted to bring attention to was sexual political violence, an element which was not incorporated by any of the human rights organizations which we worked with. Therefore, we decided to form a collective that was both feminist and transgenerational. The recognition of the existence of sexual political violence during the dictatorship did not exist as human rights demand, or if it existed, it was viewed as a collateral damage that women of the time had suffered".

The Women Survivors collective became an example not only for other survivors, but for hundreds of feminist women of younger generations. By creating their own feminist and transgenerational collective, these women were taking actions to highlight the importance of placing sexual political violence at the center of discussion, as an issue that deserved attention and demanded specific actions. This interpretation entailed a significant advancement towards the recognition of the victims’ dignity since, at the time, the issue of sexual political violence was not considered a human rights priority, but rather was reduced to this idea of mere "collateral damage".

As previously noted, the CMSSR served as inspiration for other organizations, as highlighted by Ester Hernández, former political prisoner and member of the feminist collective Urdiendo Memorias of the city of Concepción. For Ester, collaboration between feminist organizations has played a key role towards the endurance of their collective demands, in addition to contributing to the recovery of collective memory within the feminist movement, on the basis of the experiences of unrelenting women continue to strive for radical change in society.

The activist arena of all these organizations has been varied. Such is the case of the Urdiendo Memorias collective, as Ester Hernández describes it when referring to their advocacy: “We have moved from the intimate to the private, and from the private to the public, through theater, mural paintings, books, conversations, and the documentary 'Living Memory’.

On the other hand, Raquel Roa from the AFEP also highlights the importance of feminist perspectives in human rights organizations: “Our organization has experienced huge changes, especially in our language, which is now more inclusive by recognizing the different forms of violence that women face in all circles of society. We call on society and the people to recognize the struggles of women that have allowed for important changes, and that we must continue to work together for the creation of the society for which so many of our sisters and brothers have fought, and which the dictatorship tried to take from us”, she said.

Feminist strategies as a legacy for the future


Resueltas Feministas

Despite the resilience these women have shown, the struggles of their organizations have been incredibly challenging. As mentioned, these last 50 years have been decades of perseverance and ongoing resistance. Most of the groups mentioned in this article have faced State violence, impunity in the judicial system, and the misappropriation of their demands by political actors, among other obstacles. However, thanks to their unwavering determination, Chilean society has made great strides towards the recognition of their historical demands.

According to Beatriz Bataszew of the CMSSR, these social advances serve as symbols, mainly in women and the younger generations, that represent some degree of social reparation for the victims of the military regime. In her opinion, the survivors of the dictatorship have themselves promoted a sort of "self-reparation" through collaborative reflection with younger generations, strengthening the autonomous and collective memory of the people, especially of women.

However, in a country where impunity and the outright denial of human rights violations during the dictatorship prevail, and where "victims" have been forced to seek justice and reparation by their own means, the challenges that lie ahead are considerable, even today. Raquel, from AFEP, believes that, to face these challenges as a society, 50 years after the coup d'état, we must rely on solidarity and on the preservation of memory.

"Regarding the future, I believe that all we need as a people, in order to move forward and continue fighting to avoid being crushed by the economic powers that be, is unity. 50 years after the coup, we are dangerously close to once more validating a Constitution written for the people, without the people. It must be stressed that it was also written by force, with the fear of the population, and the blood of our comrades," she emphasized.

In the opinion of Ester Hernández from Urdiendo Memorias, the challenge that the commemoration of this 50th anniversary poses, must be undertaken with perseverance and without fear: "The call is for women to be able to denounce with no fear and without being hurt, and for us to bury this unseen transgenerational damage, but that has been so difficult to deal with for all the families and the women who have experienced these situations."

On this road to the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the 1973 Chilean coup d'état, María Stella Toro, a member of the Resueltas Feministas collective, provides us with a closing thought on the importance of preserving memory and keeping the resistance alive: "For us, it is important to resist, remember, share, speak, and also to laugh, dance, think of ourselves from our bodies, think of ourselves from the point of view of this long history that woven by feminism. It is still key to enable these spaces of conversation, of visibility, and that no history, none of our stories or those of our companions – be they here with us, or no longer – are forgotten".