Sex, shame and power: gender politics in machista societies

Clara Riveros is a Colombian political analyst and author whose publications have focused on populism, totalitarianism, revolution, dictatorship, religious states, authoritarian regimes and freedom on both sides of the Atlantic. Here she answers our questions about Colombia, García Márquez and attitudes to sex in Latin America and North Africa.

Clara, your new book is called Sexo, pudor y poder. Debates del siglo XXI en el norte de África: [Sex, shame and power: 21st century debates in North Africa].  What led you to research this topic?

A few years ago I came across the work of the Italian historian Loris Zanatta, who has a special interest in populism and religion in Latin America. I found myself applying his theories to my home country of Colombia, and also to North Africa – an area I was drawn to partly because we Latin Americans know so little about it.  I first went there in 2015 to attend a seminar on populism.  Since then I’ve been working as an independent consultant, dividing my time between the Americas, Spain and Morocco.

Sexo, pudor y poder looks at the way North African/Islamic societies deal with individual and sexual freedoms in the 21st century. These are countries where social pressures and state regulation limit individual autonomy, particularly with regard to women and their bodies.  I draw on various academic disciplines to describe the power relationships behind this phenomenon.  I also look at Morocco’s complex relations with the US, Spain, Algeria and Israel, among others.

What were your main findings?

Essentially, Islamic states are authoritarian, and will remain so unless and until there’s an effective decoupling of state and religion.  In Latin America we used to have a similar situation with the Catholic church, but in the past half century we have prioritised the rights of the individual and accepted secular values (albeit at a different rate and with differing degrees of resistance in each country).  North African culture limits freedom of the press, religion and the individual.  As for sexuality, both state and society regard it as their right to monitor what happens in people’s bedrooms.  Every year thousands of people go to prison because their private lives do not conform to the state’s requirements.  Treating people as though they need the state and society to set them guidelines for every aspect of their lives is damaging.  It infantilises them.    

Male superiority is hard-wired into North African public life. Women’s rights are limited because of their sex.  They can inherit less than men; they are scrutinised and monitored by those around them, including their families, and subjected to comments about their appearance, their behaviour in public, their virtue.  Modesty is their obligation and shame their punishment. 

The basis of a woman’s honour is her virginity.  Male relatives boast about it.  Husbands subject newlywed wives to demeaning medical examinations, while women furtively undergo procedures to ‘recover’ their lost virginity.  Straight out of García Márquez’s Crónica de una muerte anunciada [Chronicle of a death foretold], but taking place now, in the 2020s.  It feeds hypocrisy and encourages a culture of lying and revenge, which then become part of everyday life – part of North African identity.   

Is there any comparison between the situation you describe in North Africa and what happens these days in Latin America?

In 2010 I went to live in Buenos Aires.  I found it liberal, modern, dazzling – a city whose residents were confident of their own worth, without the sense of servitude one can find in other parts of the continent.  Sure, Argentina suffers from populism and a political and economic framework that’s prevented it from living up to its potential for decades.  However, it was a welcome change from Bogotá, where there is still an obsession with appearances, family surnames, hierarchies, and other such hangovers from its Catholic colonial past. 

My research into North Africa gave me a new understanding of how Latin America has changed.  For example, its 1991 Constitution secularised even a conservative society like Colombia by separating Church and state.  The country modernised, recognised individual rights, and protected minorities.  This was Colombia’s great achievement of the 20th century, even though a mafia culture still permeates much of society and politics. 

Perhaps North Africa is just a few stages behind Latin America.  When it comes to the realities of daily life,  I don’t see the two regions as so far apart: populism, nationalism, authoritarianism, phony patriotism and democracy, corruption, lack of transparency and accountability…  People in the two regions have many of the same concerns, which offers scope for dialogue.  The problem is that North Africa still awaits modernity in its values and outlook.  There is huge resistance to change.

Crónica de una muerte anunciada by Gabriel García Márquez is based on a crime committed in Colombia in the 1950s. It portrays a bride being returned to her family on her wedding night because she is not a virgin.  Her brothers are then expected to kill whichever man is responsible.  Do those kind of rules still apply in Colombia, or do young people today have complete sexual freedom?

Interesting you should ask: I’m currently researching the portrayal of Arab characters and culture in Colombian literature, including Crónica (a number of whose characters – including Santiago Nasar – are of Arab descent).  García Márquez, by the way, had close connections to the Arab community: his wife, Mercedes Barcha, was of Egyptian descent. 

In Crónica the private life of the central characters gives rise to a very public crime of honour.  Indeed, the two brothers who commit the murder plead ‘honour’ as their defence.  Virginity has great cultural significance both in the Hispanic and Arab traditions, with the potential to unleash violent consequences, as the novel shows.  In Latin America the religious dimension has faded, and attitudes have moved forward with the times.  However, machismo carries weight in both cultures as part of the patriarchal value system.  

In the present era sexuality is expressed freely and spontaneously in Latin America.  This trend started in the 1960s and took root in the 1990s, when greater rights and freedoms were secured.  This liberalisation cuts across all social and economic classes, as does the freedom for same-sex couples to display affection in public. 

This is the biggest difference I find between Latin America and North Africa.  When it comes to sexual freedom, crazy things happen in North Africa, some of which could be taken straight from the pages of García Márquez.

Turning to Colombia today: five years on from the signing of the Peace Accord, how are things now in your home country?

Society has changed in many ways, but it still struggles to uphold the rule of law.  People like the idea of easy money and ostentatious living, and look up to the drug barons.  They turn to violence and take justice into their own hands to settle scores.  Equality before the law is more an aspiration than a reality.  If you have a distinguished family name and lineage it sets you up very nicely. 

FARC’s demobilisation was crucial but didn’t end the violence, nor even the problem of guerrilla activity.  Drug gangs, FARC dissidents and other guerrilla groups like the ELN remain active: 145 human rights activists and social leaders were killed in 2021. 

Despite all this, state institutions are reasonably strong.  The country remains a great place to visit, with Cartagena, our most beautiful city, drawing large numbers of tourists each year.

What’s the COVID-19 situation there now?

In late 2020/early 2021 Colombia’s response to COVID-19 was rated among the worst of anywhere in the world.  That improved during 2021, so that in the second half of the year the vaccination effort outstripped the rest of Latin America.  President Duque’s goal of vaccinating 35 million (out of 50 million) Colombians during 2021 achieved 87% of that target.  Over 30 million are now double-vaccinated, and a third dose is now available for all.  Shared indoor spaces like restaurants, theatres and cinemas require masks and proof of double vaccination.  Visitors need proof of vaccination or a negative test result to enter the country.  Infections and deaths were falling in late 2021, but picked up at the start of 2022 due to omicron.

The current estimate is that economic recovery will take until 2024.  As in other countries, the pandemic has caused occasional shortages and increased inflation, but the OECD is forecasting that in 2022 Colombia will enjoy the highest growth rate in Latin America (5.5%).

Clara Riveros was in conversation with BAS Senior Editor Robin Wallis.

A Spanish-language version of this article is available on request via our Contact Us button.

Sexo, pudor y poder. Debates del siglo XXI en el norte de África hace parte de la Colección "Ensayos Saharianos" publicada en España en la Editorial Alhulia. Disponible en librerías de España y próximamente en Amazon.