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Knowing the Body
2004 Second Web Report
During the Argentine dictatorship known as the Dirty War (1976-1983), thousands of people were systematically abducted by the government in order to eliminate all opposition to the regime. These "disappearances," which the dictatorship never admitted to committing, happened across class and age lines, but most of the kidnapped were young blue-collar workers and students. Despite the fact that associations and meetings of any kind were forbidden, a group of housewife mothers decided to protest the disappearance of their children. They began to gather every Thursday afternoon at the same time in the main square in Buenos Aires, Plaza de Mayo, walking alone or in pairs to avoid being arrested for disorderly conduct and wearing white kerchiefs on their heads to be easily identifiable. By showcasing their grief in public, the Madres turned their motherhood and their bodies into political tools to hold the government accountable for its actions.
Traditionally, motherhood in Latin America is restricted to the realm of the private. Diana Taylor explains that "'public' women [...] are considered prostitutes or madwomen—that is, nonmothers, even antimothers," while "good mothers are invisible," because they stay home with their children (1). However, the Madres carved for themselves a third position that broke this dichotomy. Their identity was based on their motherhood, but they could no longer restrict it to the private, lacking children for whom to stay home. The Madres were in fact called locas (madwomen) by many, who considered that their public grieving was inappropriate. But despite this, no one could deny them their rightful status as mothers.
Considered "one of the most visible political discourses to terror in recent Latin American history," by Mario Suárez-Orozco (2), the success of Madres' movement is dependent on their performance of their role of mourning mothers, even as they apparently contradict the notion of "good" motherhood by going out on the streets. Taylor credits them with "perceive[ing] and literally act[ing] out the difference between motherhood as an individual identity and motherhood as a collective, political performance." (3) The image of the Mater Dolorosa gave them legitimacy and visibility in a culture known for putting mothers in a pedestal. Thus, the Madres, usually outside the political, made the personal political by both crying for their lost children in public and by converting a private/personal role (being "madres") into a public/political weapon (being "The Madres").
Since their political power depended on their conventional role (despite their redefinition of it), it follows that the Madres' form of protest is not violent, disruptive action. While it can be argued that the somewhat passive, or more "feminine," nature of the movement is due to the repression exercised by the military regime, it is also true that the Madres could not risk putting their bodies on the line, as, for example, male members of guerrillas would, because they have a responsibility to care for their homes, their husbands, and possibly even remaining children. Their form of protest goes together with both their identity and the goal they are fighting for. If the Madres die in bringing their children back, who would take care of those children when the movement succeeds?
Elaine Scarry (4) calls war a contest of injury of bodies, where the winner out-injures the loser. The Dirty War fits this description, as the government kidnapped and tortured the bodies of thousands of people in order to maintain itself in power. The Madres struggle is also about bodies: without their children physically present, they have no way of mothering them, or performing their own identity. The concept of bodies themselves became so meaningful to the movement that it eventually resulted in its division. Today, two different groups of Madres still gather at Plaza de Mayo. One, which kept the original name, is committed to bringing the disappeared back alive. The other, Línea Fundadora (Founding Group), has resigned itself to accepting that many of those people were killed. These women are dedicated to claiming the dead bodies that have surfaced and "bringing the perpetrators to justice." (5)
The political importance of bodies goes beyond the physicality of the disappeared. The Madres themselves use their bodies to make statements. The white kerchief that they wear every Thursday has become a symbol of the opposition to the Dirty War, and is even sold as souvenir these days. Furthermore, the Madres turned their bodies into "walking billboards" (6) by wearing pictures of the disappeared hanging from their necks or taped to their clothes, where they also write the names of their children and pleas for their reappearance (7). The dictatorship established its authority by making bodies "invisible;" the Madres responded by making their own extremely visible.
While it was impossible to ignore the presence of the Madres, despite the government's efforts for the contrary, the absence of fathers in protesting the disappearance of their own children was seldom noted. Even though most of the Madres were married, very few men ever joined them in their efforts. Suárez-Orozco refers to this as a "gender bifurcation," where the fathers (and men ergo public figures) turned inward and grieved in private. This apparent switch in conventional gender roles led to some, such as Madres' leader Hebé de Bonafini, to refer to the mothers as "the only ones who had balls." (8) The masculinization of the Madres as somehow having testicles does not take away from their cause, but rather reinforces their redefinition of motherhood as a powerful resource, capable of spawning change or, more literally, to give children to the childless mothers.
It is also true that because of Argentine society's reverence towards mothers and its relegation of women to the private sphere, men would have been at a much greater risk had they decided to speak out against the disappearances. "Masculine," or more violent, forms of action would have resulted on the fathers getting jailed or killed or disappearing in the same way as their children had. Although some Madres did suffer from repressive government action, they were for the most part left alone, pretending they did not exist in the same way the dictatorship pretended it had nothing to do with the disappearances (9). As I said above, the nature of the Madres' movement both suits and relies on their feminine and motherly traits.
Virginia Woolf says in Three Guineas that women are instruments of peace because, unlike men, they are not nationalist or patriotic, but cosmopolitan (10). Although Woolf based this idea on the fact that women used to acquire their citizenship from their husbands, it applies in the case of the Madres in that they were willing to go against the government and, by extension, their country, in order to bring their children back. Woolf calls women the "Outsiders' Society" (11) because they were not afraid to transgress the boundaries of patriotism to do what is right.
The Madres were outsiders in this way, but, more importantly, in that they were able to enter the political realm on their own terms, which stemmed directly from the private/outsider role. Unable, because of whom they were and the historical moment, to use traditional avenues of political agency, they used their own selves (their bodies and their identities) to effect political change. The personal and the political became connected and inseparable for them when their children were abducted. Woolf talks about how forgetting the existing unity of the private and the political leads to "dead bodies, ruined houses" (12) The Madres used that same unity to bring back their children, or even just their bodies, and rebuild their broken homes.
1. Taylor, Diana. "Trapped in Bad Scripts: The Mothers of Plaza de Mayo". Disappearing Acts: Spectacles of Gender and Nationalism in Argentina's "Dirty War". Durham, NC: Duke UP. 1997. 195.
2. Taylor 191.
3. Taylor 194.
4. Scarry, Elaine. "The Structure of War." The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World . New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. 63-121.
5. Taylor 189.
6. Taylor 183.
7. Navarro. "The Personal is Political: Las Madres de Plaza de Mayo." Power and Popular Protest. Latin American Social Movements . Ed.Susan Eckstein. 1989. 251
8. Taylor 193.
9. Navarro 244.
10. Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. 1938; rpt. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1966. 108.
11. Woolf 106.
12. Woolf 142-143.
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