Revolution in a Revolution


"I USED TO BE passive," the Nicaraguan woman in fatigues holding a menacing machine gun says, "until I fought in the 1979 revolution to overthrow Somoza. But I'm not anymore."

That was pretty clear. With a huge weapon on her shoulder, heavy black boots, and assertive manner, you could not imagine her accepting a beating or a domestic demand from anyone.

She continues. "Maybe what you North American women need is a violent societal revolution. Look what it's done for us: Nicaraguan women were traditionally socially subservient to men, and had no legal rights. But while fighting in the revolution we changed our expectations as women and helped create a new society committed to realizing female potential."

But has the new Marxist National Sandinist Liberation Front (FSLN) government really met her raised expectations? "Well," she muses, "not cxactly. But let's say the FSLN is trying."

THE FSLN REALLY ought to try. As more than one Nicaraguan says, the revolutionary struggle against the 40-year-old dictatorial Somoza dynasty could never have succeeded without female participation. Initially, women did only peripheral work for the FSLN--smuggling arms for male comandantes (combatants), hiding male comandantes and literature written by male comandantes, providing food and moral support for male comandantes, and holding demonstrations protesting Somoza's violation of human rights and torture of male comandantes. But as these women became more politicized by the war around them--suffering the deaths of loved ones, and rape and persecution by Somocists--their actions grew bolder. The Women's Association Confronting the National Problem (AMPRONAC), formed by a broad-based group of women in September 1977, wrote a manifesto demanding not only an end to Somoza's reign, but also the "defense of Nicaraguan women's rights in all sectors--economic, social, and political."

A surge of women, often with family members' disapproval, forsook their dish towels for grenades. By 1978, 40 per cent of FSLN comandantes were women, and by spring 1979, four of the seven military chiefs of staff were female. Several battles, including the final insurrection in Leon, were led by women. Such a high level of female participation in a guerrilla movement has been paralleled only by the Viet Cong.

Where do these women stand today, a year after the successful revolution? Legislatively, very well. The Bill of Rights declares men and women equal under law, and that a woman must receive equal pay for equal work. A woman is paid during her pregnancy leave, and guaranteed her job after giving birth. Land titles are no longer only under the husband's name.

That, however, is paper thin. According to Flor de Maria, an official at the national Ministry of Health and former comandante, women haven't been rewarded adequately for their participation in the revolution. Although women hold prominent political positions--including "Comandante Dos" Dora Teja Tellez (head of political direction in Managua), and others such as head prosecutor of Somocist trials, the political secretary of the FSLN in Leon, and the National Secretary of Foreign Relations--of the 46 representatives on the National Council of State, less than 25 per cent are women. And the five-person ruling junta has not had a woman member since Violeta Barrios de Chamorro resigned last April.

The problem, de Maria says, is machismo left over from the old days. "I believe you call them 'male chauvinist pigs'; we just says they're behaving like 'counterrevolutionaries.' No matter how much the FSLN says men and women are equals, many men find it hard to work under women in the organization--even if they fought under them."

One group addressing this obstacle of lingering machismo is the Association of Nicaraguan Women Luisa Amanda Espinoza (AMNLAE). One of the FSLN's seven sub-organizations, AMNLAE was named after the first martyred female FSLN comandante, and aims to "transform, little by little, the situation of margination and backwardness of the Nicaraguan women." According to Silvia Reyes, and AMNLAE leader, that means helping women to deal with machismo in personal relationships, and to use economic and political potential to rebuild war-torn Nicaragua.

One AMNLAE priority is to integrate as many women as possible into the work force. In Somoza's day, a woman worked only if economically necessary. Those who worked constituted an undocumented number of street vendors, peasants and factory workers. Minus teachers and nurses there are few female professionals. AMNLAE wants to change that now.

In order to encourage women to work, AMNLAE, working with the FSLN-run urban block associations, the Sandinist Defense Committees (through which AMNLAE reaches its 350,000 active members out of a total population of one million women), pressures men to assume child care and housework responsibilities. With the Ministry of Social Welfare, AMNLAE hopes to open 30 free daycare centers in urban Nicaragua (so far, 11 have been established--six in Managua, three in Leon and two in Grenada) and plans similar facilities for rural areas.

AMNLAE urges women to enter non-traditional fields, but its success has proved limited. So far its greatest achievement lies in the security field--military forces claim 28-per-cent female membership, the police force 50-per-cent. And although the state-run Leon Medical School boasts only 30 per cent women students, more women than men are entering libera arts university curricula, which will increase the ranks of women professionals in several years.

Perhaps AMNLAE's stress on utilizing already- developed skills to the revolution's advantage accounts for the organization's offers of more conventional employment for women. Among its main projects for women are collective sewing factories and agrarian cooperatives, enlisting volunteer teachers for the literacy campaign, and staffing political education" (propaganda) offices. Government figures show that 70 per cent of literacy campaign teachers and more than 50 per cent of workers for the Ministry of Health are women.

LESS SUCCESSFUL has been AMNLAE's effort to change social attitudes. A common complaint among women transformed by the revolution is that their men have difficulty accepting this change. As one AMNLAE organizer explains, "I had to leave my husband. Although he wasn't too pleased when I decided to fight six years ago, he got used to the idea. But once Somoza was overthrown, he expected me to give up political work and tend to our house. He just couldn't accept that I wanted to work rebuilding the country I fought so hard to liberate."

To resolve similar problems, AMNLAE and the defense committees run discussion groups that resemble North American consciousness-raising sessions. In these workshops, women are encouraged to work with their men to dissuade them from "counterrevolutionary" ways. Reyes says men may participate in these functions. But few do--because of disinterest. "It's not that we're hostile towards them or vice-versa," Reyes hastens to assure. "Our approach is not to confront or alienate these men, but to work with them."

The party line for women disturbed by this, Reyes says, is that one must wait, that revolutions--particularly personal ones--don't occur overnight, and that you should forgive men who cling to pre-revolutionary notions, Several former comandantes interviewed in Managua, Leon, Grenada and Masaya seemed willing to wait for this internal change to occur within their macho men. "After all," says one, "it's not their fault they were brought up a certain way. You've got to be patient--they're trying hard." But there were just as many whose patience was running out, who felt "we changed, why can't they?"

But do these men really want to change? What's in it for them? Apparently a lot of peer pressure exists within the FSLN to behave like good egalitarians. Because AMNLAE has the status of a government organization, it has much contact with other departments and serves as a moral watchdog. But the end result can be deception. "If I felt a woman 'comrade' was inferior, I wouldn't let anyone know," one male Ministry of Health official confesses. "I'd be branded as 'counterrevolutionary.' But," he adds, "although the popular FSLN view is that a woman is more desirable if she fought or was active in the revolution, there are still many men who treat women as equals at meetings, but subjugate them at home."

WHAT'S TO MAKE THEM change, then? Reyes was asked. "Time and education" was her prompt response. "As it is now, change is in the hands of women. They run the political education program. Which is responsible for programs from lectures sponsored by the defense committees to elementary school classes, and which teaches that men and women are equally capable. The books used in the literacy campaign portray both men and women as good revolutionaries. Perhaps this generation of men will be slow to change, but the next generation will be brought up with our new revolutionary values," she says.

Doubts remain, though. Was AMNLAE a concessionary tool on the part of a male-dominated government to maintain post-war unity in a nation where 90 per cent of the population fought against Somoza? Are women encouraged to work solely to achieve a certain level of national productivity?

Reyes looks askance. "AMNLAE is too powerful within the FSLN government and grass-roots community groups to be manipulated. And the few women on the ruling council are highly influential national figures."

It becomes apparent that the barometer for attitudinal change vis-a-vis women in Nicaragua is the effectiveness of propaganda. The Nicaraguan lesson is that perhaps the only way to overcome sexism is by intense political indoctrination and enforced peer pressure. Time will tell if Nicaragua will succeed in changing social attitudes and integrating women into all sectors of Nicaraguan society.

And if it doesn't succeed in the next generation? "Well," Reyes smiles, "we're certainly better off than we were before. And better off than a lot of North American women."