When I Look Into the Mirror and See You: Women, Terror and Resistance Rutgers University Press, 2003

Chapter 1 The Prism: Women’s Human Rights

Language evokes, describes, communicates. But language can also be used to obscure and mislead. It can be used to kill. Today’s political discourse, cynically manipulated, often does just that. Nowhere is this more evident than when speaking of violence. How do we define violence, who do we see as perpetrating it, which acts of violence do we condemn and which do we justify?

We call the Islamic fundamentalists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2001 terrorists. But when our government launches all-out war against the civilian population of the nation harboring other members of the terrorist group, it is routing out evil. Thousands of innocents are murdered, yet a co-opted use of language deems the attack an act of terrorism, the war a justified response.

The same is true in other scenarios. A man who rapes a woman may be said to be acting on natural instinct. Boys will be boys. If he knows the woman he may be giving her what she asked for. When a father sexually abuses his daughter it is often called a family issue, not warranting interference by the state. When an individual willfully causes another’s death, it is murder; when the state executes the murderer, justice has been done. In some countries, young girls are routinely genitally mutilated; the practice is seen as time-honored tradition rather than an act of terror.

Violence, like all other human interaction, is gendered: women and children are most often its victims, men or male-controlled states their victimizers.

Terrorism may be defined as the unwarranted attack upon one human being or group by another human being, group or state. Governments, organizations and individuals all perpetrate acts of terror. In modern times these have ranged from the mass genocide of the Nazi Holocaust, the United States’ dropping the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, or the years of apartheid in South Africa, to incidents in which an abusive husband murders his wife, a frustrated worker guns down his office colleagues, or a couple of deeply troubled high school students open fire on other students and teachers.

Those who hold the power name the act; they may define (and excuse) it as solving the Jewish problem, ending the war, keeping the race pure, seeing that justice is done, shooting up a school, or exercising control over a piece of property. Governments almost always define their own actions as just and necessary, individual acts of rebellion or frustration as terrorist.
In our societies men have traditionally held the power. Women’s lives are shaped and manipulated by male power, male laws. In the context of violence and terror, women are targeted in specific ways. Women also respond to this targeting with our own profoundly female insights and strengths. The human rights arena is no exception. Until quite recently the movement was defined by those who proposed working in the area: white men from western cultures. Today women—and women and men from other cultures—are broadening these definitions. The previously rigid separation between the public and the private is also beginning to break down.

In recent years there has also been some discussion about which laws, policies and acts should be considered terrorist. Is it only the sudden violent attack, the individual kidnapping, murder, battery or rape? Is it justifiable (or even legal) to terrorize an enemy? Are political policies that indenture economies and starve whole populations, mass lay-offs by companies whose CEOs make seven-figure salaries, and the denial of medication to those who are poor and suffer from AIDS not also forms of terrorism? Are millions of women and girls, brutalized in the home, any less deserving of human rights protection than their sisters who are more visibly victimized by repression or war?

While most will agree that acts of individual lawlessness are terrorist in nature, the policies that keep communities or nations of people poor and hungry are rarely seen as such. At least not by the governments and corporations that promote these policies. On the other end of the spectrum, what fathers and husbands (and sometimes also mothers and grandmothers) do to female children and to women, is too often considered personal—not subject to public scrutiny.

There is state terrorism and the terror perpetrated one on one but by vast numbers of people. And there is the random terrorism carried out by individuals. The former affects much greater numbers of people, making it infinitely more dangerous and destructive. The more power the perpetrator wields, the greater the potential for damage. And yet most official and media attention is focused on the lone act—perhaps as a way of diverting our attention from the root problem.

The 1970s and ‘80s in Latin America were decades of tremendous social unrest. From Guatemala to Haiti, from Bolivia to Argentina and Chile, people rebelled against years of impoverishment and injustice. Cuba had managed to sustain its successful 1959 revolution; the Sandinistas took power in Nicaragua in 1979. There was enormous fear, on the part of the United States and its allies, that other countries would choose similar ways out of ever-worsening poverty and despair.

Governments—many of them dictatorships installed through military coups—used increasingly violent methods of repression against the forces of opposition and the populations that supported them. Even when civil governments were voted into power, the military often retained behind-the-scenes control. The cold war mentality continued to nurture an obsessive anti-communism, and in almost every case, local armies and paramilitary groups were funded, trained, and supported by the United States. A succession of U.S. administrations backed terrorist governments that slaughtered, captured, disappeared, tortured and murdered important segments of their own populations—regimes, in short, that practiced mass genocide.

In Central America, during this period, military governments (notably in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) were guided by a Doctrine of National Security. This doctrine labeled as the enemy any person or social or political organization that called for social change. Even today, most of the Central American military establishment continues to be shaped by this doctrine.

These regimes went after members of the opposition and those they perceived to be sympathetic. Armies, police and paramilitary death squads massacred whole villages and towns. The death squads’ sinister reach extended even to foreigners suspected of having links to those involved in these struggles for social change. In Guatemala and El Salvador, several dozen foreign priests and religious sisters were murdered. In the latter country, in March 1980, a beloved archbishop was assassinated while saying mass in the national cathedral. In December of that same year, four U.S. churchwomen were raped and killed. The victims of these years of state-imposed violence include women and men, priests and religious, labor leaders, peasants, students, academics, even children and the old.

All this—along with a new consciousness of human rights abuses throughout the world—provoked a reexamination of how those with power violate those without.

Perceptions of the rights of social classes and individuals have changed throughout history, and are diverse today depending upon the particular culture. Only in the twentieth century have we spoken of a distinct category called Human Rights: rights considered basic and that every human should be able to take for granted—to life, personal safety, freedom of movement, religious belief and political opinion.

At first these rights were said to apply to all men, and it was assumed that the term mankind somehow included women. This assumption is no longer being made, at least not by feminists and others who see women as human beings in their own right.

Class, race, ethnicity, religion, regional situation, and the existence of specific conflict were once the guidelines for looking at the issue of human rights. Only in the past couple of decades did it become clear that the issue of human rights, like most others, is also gendered. That is to say, women are viewed through the prism of our gender and discriminated against in particular ways. This understanding spawned a powerful movement specifically for women’s human rights.

The patriarchal objectification of women has a long and complex history. It affects literally every aspect of our lives. Throughout Central and Latin America the image of woman as virgin or whore is deeply woven into the social fabric of societies oppressed by the patriarchal dictates of the Catholic Church. Notwithstanding the differences inherent in distinct national cultures, Latin American women who do not conform to the traditional roles of dutiful daughter, obedient wife, caring mother and long-laboring grandmother have been targets of derision, disrespect and a broad spectrum of violence.

Over the past quarter century, individuals and groups of women throughout the continent have broken from these strictures in a variety of ways. Many joined with their brothers in the political struggles of the seventies and eighties. Their early roles were often limited to the traditional female spheres: hiding and feeding combatants, running messages, providing logistical support. Quickly, however, they began to challenge their male comrades’ notions of what they could or could not do. Women themselves became fighters, took part in military operations, and not a few became political leaders (although very rarely among the top echelons).

In Nicaragua, where I spent a number of years and wrote extensively about women’s revolutionary participation, older women took risks and assumed roles unequaled by their male counterparts. There, too, I was witness to the many different ways in which women were beginning to challenge gender assumptions—even those presumably made with their best interests in mind.

An example of one such challenge can be seen in the case of a young woman captured during the Somoza era and raped in the dictator’s torture chambers. She became pregnant from that rape. Although Nicaragua is a profoundly Catholic country, and even during the decade of Sandinista rule abortion remained illegal, this woman’s male comrades arranged for her to end the pregnancy; the child, after all, had been engendered by a torturer.

But this rape victim defied her comrades’ plans for her unborn child. She saw the child not simply as a product of having been raped in torture, but as a new life growing within her. It would be her child as well, primarily her child she felt. And so she refused the abortion, confident that she could raise her son or daughter without shame for the baby’s origin. As I spoke with this woman, now in freedom, her healthy happy young daughter played at her feet.

The objectification of women, the particular roles they are assigned, and male assumptions about their abilities, honor, needs, fears, weaknesses and desires, leads not only to the discrimination of over-protection or abuse in normal social situations but also to gender-specific treatment when they are captured and tortured. Rape and other forms of sexual abuse are often central features of women’s torture.

In Latin America, women captured when pregnant were kept alive until their children were born, and those children delivered for adoption—often to childless families within the military apparatus. The mothers were then murdered. More than a quarter of a century later, heroic efforts are still being made to reunite these lost children with the generation of their grandparents.

Repressive forces used women to try to compromise male leaders. In the clandestine prisons of Central and Latin America, cases of extreme gender-specific abuse have been documented.

In almost every culture a particular set of mores exists around women, and these are always taken into account by the repressive forces. Women also seem to respond differently than men when their human rights are assaulted.

Once it became apparent that women’s human rights must be considered as a category apart, progress towards defining the concept was determined and international in scope. The Rwanda Tribunal’s recognition of rape in war as an act of genocide is an example of this progress. In a patriarchal world, however, opposition is also strong. The terrible oppression of women in Afghanistan, although decried by feminists for a number of years, was not really noticed in any palpable way by the U.S. government until it had another reason to object to the Taliban: its support of El Qaeda, the terrorist network that attack our country in September, 2001.

The 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna strongly affirmed the universality and indivisibility of women’s rights as human rights. It explicitly recognized that violence against women and girls, in public and private, constitutes a serious human rights violation. After Vienna, there was the Conference on Population and Development in Cairo; and then the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing. Both reaffirmed the Vienna commitment.

The problem, of course, has been how to turn commitments on paper into a reality for women throughout the world—where so many live in misery, subordination and fear, and where patriarchal belief systems continue to keep women and girls isolated from their own potential. Charlotte Bunch, Executive Director of Rutgers University’s Center for Women’s Global Leadership, says not only have we not advanced nearly enough, we have fallen back: “Globalization for many women has so far meant that their rights are being narrowed by economic transitions, crisis, and cutbacks; growing numbers of women and girls are falling prey to international trafficking for purposes of economic and sexual exploitation. The past five years has brought an erosion of many women’s right to health, education, freedom of movement and expression, and for some, even subordination to gender apartheid.”

Among a series of recommendations, Bunch urges the United Nations General Assembly and the governments of the world to take high level action to ensure women’s right to live free from violence. She points out that: “Women and men who support women’s human rights are being threatened, often violently, throughout the world – whether by killings of reproductive health care providers in the USA or attacks in the streets of Afghanistan,” and emphasizes the fact that “women’s rights are human rights,” indeed that “human rights depend on women’s rights.”

This story of two women, from two Central American countries, explores and highlights some of the gender-specific methods used with female prisoners, and also the creative forms of resistance they were able to develop—forms of resistance that helped them survive and ultimately led to their release.

Disappearance was among the most heinous of the weapons wielded by state terrorism in Latin America during the 1970s and ‘80s. Of all the strategies for terrorizing individuals, families, entire populations, disappearance may be the most psychologically damaging. In processes of political struggle, prisoners are removed from their loved ones. Families left without members—especially those members who provided economic support—must find other ways of surviving. The tortured, alone and cut off from their communities of support, suffer unimaginable agonies before they are murdered and their bodies relegated to unmarked graves. Remaining family members spend months, years, sometimes lifetimes, searching in vain for loved ones; their lives are forever changed.

Disappearance not only affects its victims in terrifying ways; it also provides an almost impermeable cover for those who perpetrate the crime. Denial is the order of the day. Trails leading to the whereabouts of victims end abruptly. Few mutilated bodies point a finger at the guilty. Mass graves are unearthed, if at all, many years after the fact—when statutes of limitations have run out or the murderers are safely ensconced in another life. In only a tiny percentage of cases, have the guilty been charged, much less punished. Other dead are buried and may be grieved, but disappearance—a particularly Latin American twentieth century form of terror—denies this necessary closure.
Now it is time to hear from the protagonists of this story.
By its very nature, there are few testimonies from the disappeared.

This is an exception, a story of disappearance that found voice. It belongs to the women who lived it, but in a larger sense to all those committed to justice and concerned with creating a world where justice thrives. It is important, among much else, for what it reveals of the brutality of repressive orders and of a people’s resistance to that repression; and for what it tells us about the phenomenon of disappearance itself.

This is also a story about women’s fortitude and courage, brilliance and decision—women’s space and voice both during the events described and since. Nora’s and María’s stories open windows on the realities of two Central American countries, Honduras and Costa Rica, and within those countries on two women’s extraordinary powers of resistance.

Fourteen years separate the living from the telling. During that time each of the protagonists developed her own coping mechanisms, her own recipe for survival.

For a time, survival was posited upon silence.

Now it demanded voice.

A few words about my role. In transmitting this testimony, I acknowledge that the damage wrought by so much torture and death affects language itself. Perhaps there is no language capable of expressing the terror of mass tragedy experienced by the peoples of Central and Latin America during the 1970s and ‘80s. Faced with histories of unimaginable terror, people often say that a new language is needed to adequately describe such a phenomenon.

Torture, death, and disappearance, especially when they are perpetrated against so many and over such a long period of time, necessarily produce a rupture between the victims of that violence and the historic moment they were destined to inhabit. All the common references are gone. This alone makes the bridge of language more difficult to construct.

But poets and writers have often been able to construct these bridges. It falls to us to evoke a heretofore unimaginable reality in ways that may bring some measure of resolution to the survivors and reconnect the rest of us—and future generations—with vital chapters of our history. Perhaps the experience, in its passage through poetic imagery, allows us to feel extreme pain and suffering while keeping a certain distance from the resultant trauma.

The Uruguayan psychoanalyst Maren Ulriksen de Viňar says that “listening to these testimonies of horror is a way of breaking the silences, [of expressing] what could not be said: the words drowned by the torture itself. Raw testimony, a straightforward description of events, may prove unbearable: an obscene text.” For me, the testimonies of those who lived the experience have always been a necessary ingredient to the history’s telling.

I am privileged to be able to offer the following testimony. I hope the circular organization of this book—perhaps more spiral than circle—will enable the reader to descend with these women into memory and emerge with them as they reclaim their experience and its meaning for us all.