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Keeping My Religion
As I stood face to face with Marta Alanis, regional coordinator of Catholics for A Free Choice in Latin America, we looked at each other with scrutiny.
"I thought youd be older," she said.
"I thought youd be more Catholic," I replied.
I was baptized Catholic out of respect for cultural tradition, though it is a religion I have never been able to integrate into my reality. It never entered my head that one could maintain a Catholic faith alongside a feminist ideology. Needless to say, I was curious to meet these Catholic women who hold such progressive views on reproduction and sexuality.
Catholics For A Free Choice (CFFC) began in 1973 as a North American movement committed to challenging the churchs hard-line stance against contraception, family planning, and abortion. They affirm the moral capacity of women to make their own decisions, and they maintain that the bishops do not represent all Catholic people when it comes to reproductive issues. Most recently, the group began working to change the status of the Catholic Church at the United Nations.
Their concern over the Vaticans growing role in global politics led the group to international expansion. CFFC began working in Latin America in 1986, with the formation of Catolicas por el Derecho a Decidir (CDD). Latin America seemed prime breeding ground for such a movement, considering the region is over 90 percent Catholic. In spite of this, the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest documented incidence of unsafe abortions in the developing world. An estimated four to six million abortions are practiced yearly in the region.
Marta Alanis became regional coordinator of the movement three years ago. Her interest in feminist issues grew out of her leftist political activity. She explains that when she was younger, there was no feminist movement. There was only a social justice movement dedicated to securing human rights and fighting an oppressive military dictatorship. Alanis says this movement was concerned with politics and class struggles. It wasnt until five years ago that she came to terms with other factors involved in the fight for equality. After 30 years of dedication to macro-political issues, Alanis is just now getting to the gender revolution.
Equal Access to God
Sitting in the CDD office, Marta explains why this movement is necessary. "The pressure of the Catholic Church on the government is immense," she says. "This government is ideologically, fundamentally against womens rights and in-line with the Vatican. Its on the level of stupidity that they dont know whats happening in Argentine society."
Whats happening is that unsafe abortion is the leading cause of maternal death in Argentina. According to CDD literature, the federal government estimates 365,000 illegal abortions are performed annually in Argentina. The World Health Organization states that 70,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions. Marta says access to contraception and sex education is extremely limited, exacerbating the problem of unwanted pregnancies. The Sexual and Reproductive Health Program in Cordoba reports that 63 percent of pregnancies are unplanned.
If a woman decides she wants to abort an unplanned pregnancy, she has to do so illegally unless she is mentally impaired and can prove she is a survivor of rape or incest. Argentina will allow abortion in these instances, and occasionally to save the life of the mother.
It is one of the more conservative countries when it comes to reproductive freedoms, paralleled only by the Islamic nations. This became obvious at Julys UN Conference on Population and Development (ICPD+5). The purpose of the conference was to evaluate progress in population and development programs with respect to gender equity and the idea that sexual and reproductive health are essential human rights. During his speech to the General Assembly, Argentine ambassador Aldo Omar Carreras declared: "Too much time is being spent on the narrow theme of reproductive health. It is overemphasized to the detriment of other elements...social policies must recognize family rights. Parents must decide the education of their children...human life must be respected from conception."
As Carreras dismounted the platform, he literally walked into the arms of the Holy Sees representative and embraced him.
Unlike other religions, which are considered non-governmental organizations, the Roman Catholic Church has held Permanent Observer Status at the UN for the past 35 years. This is made possible via the Holy SeeVatican Citys juridical entity. Permanent Observers at the UN, including Switzerland and the Holy See, cannot vote in the General Assembly. However, they have full access to meetings and documents, and may participate in debates. They take part in UN conferences and are typically granted the full status of UN member states. CDD believes this status enables the Holy See to exercise equal power as member states, including power to block consensus.
At the ICPD+5 conference, a side meeting was held to discuss controversial wording in the consensus regarding access to safe abortions. A representative from the Holy See took the floor as second speaker and declared that abortion is a tragedy. He said each and every abortion represents a failure and every attempt should be made to eliminate it.
A failureperhaps, but whose? The speaker from the United Kingdom pointed out that she has little sympathy for countries that complain about high abortion rates, yet refuse to provide their people with access to contraception and sex education.
Serra Sippel of CFFC in Washington, DC questions the equality of the Holy Sees status. "Whom do they speak for?" she asks. "Is teen pregnancy a problem in Vatican City?"
With a residency of less than 1,000 mostly male clergy living in the smallest state in the world, it is likely that teen pregnancy is not a major problem in Vatican City. It is, however a problem in Argentina. CDD literature reports that 700,000 births in the last few years occurred to Argentine mothers between the ages of 15 and 19 years old, 73 percent of which were unplanned.
Ambassador Carreras says the Vatican does not affect Argentine policy decisions. He says Argentina and the Vatican just happen to agree on a few issues. For instance, all those adolescent mothers and fathers should have received their sexual education from their parents.
Alanis agrees that sex education should ideally come from the home, but how is this possible when the parents are sexually ignorant? She says there are no adult sex education programs in Argentina. Marta questions the idea that a mother of seven, who doesnt know what a uterus is, can be capable of teaching her daughter about where babies come from.
Marta Alanis questions a lot of things. When she was 10, she remembers her mother fretting about not having enough money to buy bread. She asked, "Why is money necessary to buy food?" By age 19, she was married, pregnant with her oldest son, Leandro, and was developing the communist ideals she expressed at age 10
Alaniss husband, Luis, tells me he has lived all but 16 years of his life under a dictator. "One could walk out of school and be stopped by the police," he says. "If you didnt have your papers, you would be arrested, you could be tortured, beaten, raped, and even killed. There was no recourse."
The couple joined a guerrilla movement against the military junta that seized power in 1976. The junta went on a mission to wipe out these guerrilla activities, as well as any participant in left-wing activism. An estimated 30,000 Argentines "disappeared" mysteriously during the military rule from 1976 to 1983.
When the pressure grew for Marta and Luis, they left everything behind in Cordoba and moved the family to a slum in Buenos Aires. There they lived under an assumed name to avoid persecution. Leandro is the oldest, and he remembers what it was like better than the other children do. He describes the system they developed for what to do if he came home and saw the police at the house. He was to retrieve his brother and sister from school and take a taxi to the Swiss embassy to seek asylum. Leandro says as a kid he treated it like a game, but he also lost his childhood to a politic he couldnt possibly understand. "I can forgive," he says. "I would have done the same thing if I were in my parents position. But I cant pretend like this didnt affect me."
Marta and Luis had to leave the three children behind and flee Argentina on foot via the northern border. Marta was eight months pregnant at the time with her youngest son, Mario. They made it to Bolivia, where she gave birth. The family still refers to Mario as "the Bolivian." Bolivia would not grant the family asylum. They were finally accepted into France, where they lived for two years. The family then moved to Nicaragua to fight in the Sandinista revolution, before returning to Argentina in 1984 when democracy was restored.
I looked at this couple and tried to imagine them as soldiers. This good Catholic mother of four could tell you in detail how to make a Molotov cocktail. How does a woman go from guerrilla soldier to head of a progressive Catholic movement?
As Argentines we cant not be Catholics," Marta says. "Its part of our identity." Marta explains that Catholicism is culturally ingrained in Argentina, so much so that people are conditioned to the laws of the churchwhether they like it or not. For example, she says women played an integral part in the revolution, but it wasnt feminism. It was just another paradigm for the same tired gender role. She says they wallowed in martyrdom. They were proud that women political prisoners were tortured worse than men. They claimed to be atheists, but were still living under the suffering, Catholic mother paradigm that raised them. Argentinas most beloved revolutionary, Che Guevara, gives kudos to the female guerilla soldier in his Guerrilla Warfare: "One of the great tortures of the war was eating a cold, sticky, tasteless mess. The woman as cook can greatly improve diet, and furthermore, it is easier to keep her in these domestic tasks...the woman can also contribute...in the manufacture of uniforms...with a simple sewing machine and a few patterns she can perform marvels."
In Martas youth, feminism was unthinkable to even the most revolutionary of Argentines. Martas role in the guerrilla movement may not have broken traditional gender roles, but it did give her an education in subversive politics. It helped prepare her for the work she does today as head of CDD. This movement questions genderright down to the male-centered concept of God. Marta considers CDD to be a subversive group that works to change reproductive freedoms from within the power structure of the church. She says that wearing the Catholic name is an attention-getting political act.
Unfortunately for CDD, the Catholic name also bothers some feminists. When Marta visited CDD in Chile, she met with the other womens organizations. Mirleya Zuleta, national coordinator of the womens group forum (FORD), grilled Marta about how she can align herself with an institution that is so anti-female. Zuleta agrees with the tenets of CDD, but takes issue with the Catholic identity. "Were not going to paint ourselves Catholic for the sake of public visibility," Zuleta says.
Marta says this attitude is an obstacle CDD must constantly face. "The feminists are completely in agreement with us, but they are not willing to call themselves Catholic," Marta says. "The Catholic women who agree with us are afraid to speak against the church. It is difficult to find a Catholic woman who is willing to say I am with CDD."
Catholicism is an institution that has reentered Martas life with CDD. She was raised in a very Catholic family and received a Catholic-school education. She abandoned the religion in early adulthood because she could not support an institution that aligned with the dictator. Because of this, she did not give her children a religious education. "When my children asked me who is Jesus, I compared him to Che Guevara," Marta says.
Marta believes the gap between revolutionary values, Christian values, and feminist theology is not so hard to bridge. She says all three are looking for a just society, free of inequality. "Our revolutionary message was absolutely Christian," she says.
The message and focus of CDD now is largely educational. They hold discussion groups about contraception and reproductive health. They study feminist theology, which reevaluates the entire Bible from a womans perspective. They produce their own magazine and they do community outreach to educate women about their bodies. One important objective for CDD is teaching women that sexual pleasure is accessible to them. "Catholic women identify more with what we say about sexuality, than they do with what the archbishop says," Marta explains.
"I have always been marginal- ized, and this is my choice," Marta says. "But I am not content with marginalization. This is where we are now, but always with the hope of creating a different social structure and different mode of power. We represent a lot of people who agree with us, but remain silent." Z