Thursday, August 30, 2012

Challenges of class and gender

Many of the people with whom I have spoken in the various community radio stations have talked about how their involvement in the radio stations -- and in the broader movement, for those who have been able to attend workshops or other activities beyond their involvement in their own, often hyper-local station -- has opened their eyes, their perspectives. They talk about how it has helped them in some cases on a personal level -- to lose the fear of and gain confidence in expressing themselves verbally in public, to raise their self-esteem, to feel that they have something of worth to contribute (these are terms they use, just in case you were wondering if I was imposing some categories from the outside; of course many of them have attended workshops and so they have picked up certain kinds of discourse). At the same time, they say that they also like being able to do something for their communities -- which in many cases are rural, isolated, poor, with few resources, or some combination of those.  

While the discourse of the indigenous movement and the radio movement proclaims equality -- especially racial and gender equality -- and some of the stations' founders or key organizers have made efforts to be inclusive, the larger social divisions of gender and class make their appearance. Young unmarried women often have to overcome the opposition of their parents or boyfriends to become involved in a radio station. Many times families try to exercise very strict control over the movements of their daughters, requiring them to stay home and take care of domestic chores, and only permitting them to leave the house for specific tasks --taking corn to the mill to be ground into dough for tortillas, or running an errand to the store. If they are going to school, they can go to school and back, but often parents don't want them socializing much, and certainly not talking to boys. Some families still do not favor educating their daughters beyond what is necessary to sign their names, make simple calculations, and it is not infrequent in a family with several children to see that boys have all gone farther in school than the girls.  If the family is religious then the girls can go to church but invariably in the company of their relatives.  

Child abuse is nearly as prevalent as spousal abuse. Many parents discipline their children physically, and certainly they threaten to do so a lot. This is true among some of my migrant friends; when their kids misbehave the mothers threaten, "Quieres cincho?" -- do you want the belt -- even if they may not actually use it much (but unfortunately many do). I won't moralize here or try to analyze too much why, but a certain level of spanking or hitting is part of daily life in many families. However, in some families it goes much farther.  Several of the women I know have told me about incidents of intrafamilial violence involving their mothers, themselves as children or within their marriages.  According to a young woman to whom I spoke recently, "Women say, 'I will put up with this for the sake of my children.'" Children don't have many options: their parents are their parents and if the parents hit them they try to do their best to avoid confrontation. And even in many of these families, the children, especially the older ones, continue to stay at home and work to support their families. For older children in large families, especially girls, this often means sacrificing their own education and dropping out so they can help their parents farm, tend a store, weave, sew or whatever it is that the family does to support itself.

So what does this mean for community radio? Young women, as I noted earlier, have to confront and overcome parental resistance or disapproval in order to venture forth to a radio station -- a place where there are both men and women, and a place where they will be exposing themselves, or at least their voices, in public. And for women of any age to speak in public means challenging established structures that keep them silent and often invisible. Even within Maya communities, where many talk about the complementarity of male and female roles, women are often shunted aside by male community leaders. Most of the community development councils (COCODEs), that try to get resources for rural hamlets and communities, have all-male membership. At public meetings, women are often discouraged or even prevented from speaking. So for a woman, even a young woman who doesn't yet have maternal responsibilities, to imagine that she could put herself out there, in a public arena, that she could take a microphone and speak, that she would have something to say and that people would listen to her, takes guts, at the very least.  She might have to deal with active discouragement or sabotage by her family, or at least one parent (usually her father).

There are very few married women involved in community radio. Once women get married, especially if they have children, they have very little time to call their own. Household maintenance is very labor intensive and the general expectation is that women will take care of the cooking and cleaning -- which takes hours since  it is done by hand. Once the dinner dishes are cleared it's time to prepare the maize so that in the morning it can be ground. And husbands may be jealous, worrying that if their wives are going out somewhere to a meeting or to a radio station they might meet a man and start a clandestine relationship. 

So, this is one of the specific themes in my research (yes, sometimes it's hard to remember that I am actually trying to do research and not just hanging out or visiting or offering support to community radio stations) -- the participation of Maya women in radio, and the way that community radio is shaped by and intersects with both discourses and social movements around revindication of indigenous identity and rights.

Some of the women and girls whom I have met in the course of this have had enough trust in me to share some painful and private experiences. Recently a young woman told me about the obstacles she had to overcome, and the ones she still faces, in order to participate in community radio. We had met several times before in different activities, and I sat in the studio with her during her broadcast which she did with confidence; it was mostly a musical program but she interspersed announcements and greetings from listeners and information about the songs she was broadcasting with discussion about the importance of dialogue in the family. After she finished we talked for a while. I hadn't known anything about her family and personal life. She comes from a large and poor family, and had to leave school much earlier than she wanted since she was one of the oldest children and needed to help support the family.  She was pretty introverted in school and rarely spoke up or spent time talking with other children. From home to school and from school to home. Her parents were somewhat physically abusive; as she said, "If I did things right, they hit me, if I did something wrong they hit me."  

Her life was very restricted; she told me that she only went to the mill to grind the corn or to run errands, and that there were days that she didn't leave her house. But she wanted something more, and to make something more of her life. She heard about the community radio station in her community and one day told her parents that she wanted to go there. Her father, who is an Evangelical, said no, that he didn't approve of the kind of music they played and she couldn't go. The next day she raised the subject again and her father again said no (just to put this in perspective, she was about 19 years old at the time).  However, her mother said she would support her, and so off she went. She didn't know anyone but joined the group and started doing programs and participating in training workshops. She told me that it had been important to her personally, since she had very low self-esteem and was afraid to speak in public and it was hard for her at first. She had never used a computer before and she was frustrated sometimes when other people in the radio station who had much more experience with computers would tell her to click on such and such an icon or buttom, but she didn't understand what it meant to "click" and what an icon was.  

 She told me that she had benefited a lot from working at the radio station, but she still felt somewhat at a disadvantage because she only had limited schooling and other people had finished high school or were studying at the university. Her family also cultivated fields and she had to help them out. Sometimes she had to get up very early in order to complete what her parents needed her to do around the house or to work in the fields before getting to the radio station, and she would arrive a few minutes late for her program. She got criticized at meetings, and it sounded as though she wasn't able to articulate that she was late because she had to spend some hours working in the fields first. Her father also at first used to give her chores or ask her to do errands right before she had to show up at the station, purposely, it seemed, to make her late for her shift. However, she said that he had changed his attitude and now came to the station once a week to do his own program. 

Two of her younger sisters were inspired by her example and started working at the radio station, and through that, they were able to get work. People heard them and they were invited to do some recordings for local businesses and be announcers at events. She still wants to figure out a way to use the radio to let women know about their rights, and specifically do something about domestic violence, which she says is widespread in her community, but a lot of women don't even know that they have rights. 

It was humbling and moving to talk with her, and I'm grateful that she trusted me enough to talk with me so openly, particularly about her family and about the ways she felt disadvantaged even within her radio station. 

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