Where to go?
Being a woman, much of life is different for me and studying abroad is not an exception. From contemplating where to go, to actually studying there, there are extra considerations. As a strong feminist who is extremely critical of the United States’ gender issues I was intimidated about what study abroad would bring my way as a woman. At first I was thinking about Morocco but after talking to people who went there, I realized I would struggle too much in such an oppressive environment (as seen from a western perspective). I got a similar sense from people who went to places in India and Nepal. Being fluent in Spanish I set my sights on South America. I wanted a program with a high language ability requirement so I could challenge myself. Programs that interested me were in Chile, Ecuador, and Argentina. When choosing where to go I knew a few general things. My friend who studied in Ecuador said the transportation systems are extremely dangerous, especially for white women. Just from hearing the news there were always reports of exorbitant violence against women in Argentina. Chile had my first choice program, Valparaiso, and seemed to be the least dangerous. During my time there it felt that way. But just because there was less outward violence against women doesn’t mean there was no sexism.
Sexism at Home
The more subtle version of sexism in Chile was almost worse because the whole culture was submerged in it making it more difficult to recognize. During my time there I stayed with a host family which was absolutely incredible and allowed me to get to know a deeper side of Chilean culture. Inequality is very blatant in home life where women have little agency and are often stay at home mothers where their work is discredited because it doesn’t have a salary. Not only are women forced into these roles, but they are underappreciated for them.
Often my host dad would make sexist jokes about how my mom is acting like the dog, loud and misbehaved (when she was doing nothing). When I called him out for jokes like this he would just explain it away as him trying to be funny and that I shouldn’t take it so seriously. Jokes aside these statements were a reflection of his feelings and what he was raised to think. In the U.S. I am a very forward person who always speaks my mind and the first time I heard one of these jokes I accidentally (still respectfully) went off because that is what I would normally do in the U.S. This is unusual because in Chilean culture calling people out doesn’t often happen. My host dad quickly became very embarrassed and offended because I called him a “machista”. I realized even my older host dad recognized this as something bad and took offense to it. I apologized and it later became an inside joke but it was the beginning of a very honest and open conversation about it. I truly think I helped him see the significance of these small actions.
Another example of this at home was that my host mom hated cooking and thought she was bad at it but felt guilty for that because it was one of her responsibilities. My host dad loved to cook and was an amazing at it but he wouldn’t cook a lot, even when he had the time, because in his opinion that was a woman’s job, not a man’s. It gave me a lot of happiness to see him cook more and more over my time there. I think after talking about these topics with the whole family he realized cooking for the family won’t make us all think that he is less of a man. I would never not speak up if I felt something wasn’t right, but the reactions I got from people when I did were often very receptive and encouraged me to continue to have hard conversations.
Youth in Revolt?
While Chilean youth seem more progressive than the older generations and the current system, some things I noticed didn’t support that sentiment. When I went to the university in Valparaiso it was very male dominated, not that it isn’t in the United States. All my group projects were dominated by men as well as much of the participation. Luckily most young Chileans were willing to have a conversation about this situation and their behavior and in the end recognized the sexism in the action or situation. Sports is a good example. Chile doesn’t even have a National Women’s soccer team. In social situations with Chilean students, my knowledge and passion for soccer was dismissed and invalidated just because I was a woman. When I would go to the bar to watch a soccer game, I was in the very small minority of women in the bar. I played soccer all my life but my male Chilean friends would ask me to ask my American male friends (who were awful at soccer) to play with them in their casual pick-up game and not me because I’m a woman. It’s these microaggressions that can easily be excused away by the people doing them but eventually pile up on my conscience and made me feel inferior for being a woman. Not being asked to play soccer is trivial compared to the horrendous things women have to face in Chile as well as the rest of South America, but microaggressions are still sexism and are much harder to single out.
Could be Worse
Don’t get me wrong, Chile is extremely progressive as far as Latin America goes. They even just passed a law that legalizes abortion in three circumstances; if it endangers the life of the mother; when the fetus is unviable; and when pregnancy resulted from rape. This is a huge step for women in Chile, but with such a strong rape culture with deep religious ties there are so many scenarios that won’t be counted toward this law that should. This law is a great step in the right direction but women should have the right to choose no matter the situation. This law, which probably won’t change for a very long time, doesn’t include that. I feel like they are so close yet still very far.
Of course, microaggressions don’t compare to violence but it is a very deep-rooted issue that is difficult to identify or change when it’s easier to ignore. This is also a singular outside perspective from the United States. I met many extremely progressive amazing friends in Chile including my extremely independent amazing host sister. Chile has a long way to go but I’m impressed with its progress. It made me much more grateful for the female experience in the United States but also more critical of it as well.
Being back from Chile has made me more critical of how I see sexism here. The United States isn’t much better with sexism, I am just more comfortable with it in the U.S. because that is where I was raised. I realize that a lot of microaggressions I see here have just been normalized over my lifetime. Having gone to Chile and been immersed in a new culture it allowed me to see a lot of the nuances of sexism there that I have become normalized to here in the United States. I notice a lot I didn’t before. I experienced a lot of reverse culture shock coming home and it has been a difficult adjustment, because I finally figured out a way to work the system in Chile then had to leave. Being back has broken the facade of the United States being the most progressive place for women and that has left me more uncomfortable here. But this was a really important realization to come to and has made me a more open and well-rounded thinker. I also just miss my life in Chile. It was a great experience and I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
Mareka Tsongas is a student at the University of Denver and studied abroad with IFSA on the Chilean Universities Program in Valparaiso, Chile in 2017.