By Zeeba T Hashmi
24 May 2016
The effects of colonisation caused tremendous damage to the fibre of the family structure and have caused economic upheaval in society in terms of religion and class. The following is an example to show how colonisation and the religion pertaining to it have affected societal norms in Latin America. Historically speaking, during the times of animistic religions, women in Latin America had greater influence on the social and economic structure.
It is very important to look at the woman’s role when we talk about gender dynamics because without their role and position, the Latin America that we know today would not have existed. The position of women in the pre-Hispanic world was very powerful. They had androgynous characteristics in terms of power sharing. Traditionally, in the Mayan culture, women were considered very powerful because they provided food by making bread out of corn wheat. They also bore children to secure their future generations. Not only that — from the monuments in the Mayan region we can see them as higher deities, and only women had the ability to give power to their sons through the ritual of bloodletting.
From these monuments, it is also learned that it was only through the women that the ruling lineage was legitimised and cemented alliances through marriage. In the pre-Hispanic Aztecs, the offspring would inherit property from both their fathers and mothers. The male and female deities and gods/goddesses were equally important. Both men and women had access to priestly religious roles but men held the highest position in the religious hierarchy. Economically speaking, women participated equally with men; they would peddle their goods in the market place and also shared positions as market administrators with men. However, as Aztec societies became more militarised, the position of women declined in terms of war, which needed male physical strength. However, the woman was still important in their society.
The Spaniards came with their patriarchal system, which was considered a divine design for humanity. The family structure, with the man as the head of the household, was epitomised by this ideal and served as a model for all social relationships. The father was given authority and he would determine this authority to keep his wife and children disciplined.
When the Spaniards came, the Latin American societal system experienced an abrupt change. It was because of this abruptness and shock that many people were not able to let go of their centuries old traditions so easily. With the Christian patriarchal system in place, it was getting difficult to adapt to these changes, and maybe it was because of this reason that many women who were subjected to this kind of change in their role, which was limited to the European traditional role, were still able to retain some of their characteristics as important figures of society.
They still have that role maintained as we can see in the current political scenario in Latin America, in which they actively participate.
Today, the role of women has been characterised by the change in the current situation, especially after colonisation, and the effects it left on the Americas in terms of extreme poverty and political corruption. The change in the political scene has led to the change in the status of women in terms of women’s movements and their concerns. The status of women has been directly linked to their participation in the labour force. Work can be taken in different terms but, in general, it can mean production for the market, growing food for exports and the home. Then there is non-market production ascribed to women like home vegetation, cooking, hosiery and handicrafts, etc. However, these are not counted when it comes to market production. Women’s role in indirect production in the market is underestimated.
This may be due to a number of reasons; maybe the statistical techniques used do not count women’s indirect participation. Also, because of the patriarchal society, a male member is commonly ascribed “the head of household” status. In the 1940s, due to economic change and capitalist expansion, men had to leave agriculture and head for industrial work. This left women to take care of their subsistence plots. This phenomenon is known as the ‘feminisation of farming’. This produced cheap male and female labour.
Due to the commercialisation of farming lands, both men and women were forced to leave their agricultural jobs. This led to female migration to the urban areas where they were subjected to urban poverty. There are still unsolved problems existing in present Latin America like poverty and prostitution.
These are the lessons to learn from the impact of colonisation and religiosity, which disrupted the male and female family structure. Patriarchy has taken root and it has become an integral part of society, creating an imbalance in gender roles and causing societal problems like widespread misogyny the world over. The only way to deal with it is to rationalise the roles of men and women in a given household and to maintain the balance of power between the two to keep gender harmony in place.
Zeeba T Hashmi is a freelance columnist.