Feminism in Action in Argentina’s Carnival

Photo by elojomurguero

Argentina’s feminist movement is gathering critical mass. Since 2016, feminists have protested the nation’s staggeringly high rates of femicide (i.e., the intentional killing of women simply because they are female), domestic violence, and lack of abortion rights.

Hundreds of thousands of women have gathered in Argentina’s streets each year, marching under the slogan #niunamenos (not one woman less). The campaign to legalize abortion has become so widespread and popular that it has been nicknamed “The Green Tide” because green kerchiefs worn by activists appear everywhere.

The abortion debate is very public, with graffiti on walls, candlelight vigils with chanted slogans, and even bubbling up on kitschy and usually apolitical daytime television talk shows. The movement’s impact has also been felt in the halls of government. Even under the conservative government of President Mauricio Macri, a bill legalizing abortion passed Argentina’s lower house of Congress in July of 2018 before being narrowly defeated in the Senate. Macri’s successor, the more progressive Alberto Fernandez, has promised to support abortion legalization. Definitive legal change in support of abortion access seems imminent.

Feminist language and ideas have diffused into popular consciousness. Young Argentines, particularly in the capital city of Buenos Aires, are increasingly embracing “inclusive language,” substituting the gender-neutral vowel -e for the more traditional -a and -o endings to mark gender in the Spanish language.

They are protesting the Spanish language’s grammatical conventions of rendering women and non-binary people invisible. Terms like “patriarchy” and “deconstruct” have escaped the halls of academe and taken up residence in informal speech. Argentina is experiencing a sea change in its gender politics. While feminist organizations, political parties and activist groups have obviously played central roles in this change, our research found change also being sown in a less obvious informal institution, the Carnival street theatre tradition known as murga.

Murga has long been a space for populist politics. Each year in February, murgas produce a show that includes dancing, drumming, poetry recitation, and bawdy satirical songs that poke fun at politicians and powerful figures. Murgas have historically been male-dominated spaces in which women were either excluded entirely or relegated to secondary roles as dancers.

Recently, however, women have begun to play more central roles: writing lyrics, singing, and playing drums. These women are now bringing feminist demands for inclusion and equality. But murgueras (female murga practitioners) have not only brought their feminist perspectives to this traditionally patriarchal institution. More surprisingly, they also found ways to make that same institution practice feminism.

The Research

Our article shows how feminist murgueras contest patriarchal norms and practices both inside and outside of their Carnival groups. We studied these Carnival groups by participating in them, observing them, and interviewing participants. We found that murga performances begin to move beyond gender stereotypes and expectations, to transform behavior that used to typify masculinity, and be done only by men, into behavior that can be done by women or men and doesn’t exude masculinity or femininity.

The Carnival groups are effective at feminist politics because such spaces are neither explicitly nor exclusively feminist spaces. Activists in these spaces are more effective there because they have previously shared their knowledge and skills in women’s only spaces. Feminists use such women’s spaces because their male counterparts had discouraged them from developing appropriate skills in mixed-gender settings.

Our interviewees told us about two of these women-exclusive spaces:

1.) Murgueras Independientes, is a group of women who attend feminist protest marches as murgueras, wearing brightly colored satin costumes and dancing effusive murga steps in what they characterized as a “joyful rebellion.”

2.) The second is a workshop where women taught each other the rhythms and performance practices of the bombo con platillo, the bass drum with suspended cymbal that is seen as the iconic representation of murga, and has been most jealously guarded as a male-exclusive practice in many murgas. These women’s-only spaces allow murgueras to share strategies, learn percussion skills, and gain confidence which they can then take back with them to their mixed-gender murgas.

These feminist activities have led murgas to become community-based youth organizations where gender norms and patriarchal power structures are being disrupted. Murgas are also now serving as crucial spaces to share women’s health knowledge. Feminist murgueras engage men and uncommitted women in discussions of gender identity, patriarchal power relations, and gender-inclusive language. They also lobby for changes in patriarchal power dynamics in the distribution of material goods and creative control within their murgas. Finally, these activists have developed new approaches for holding men accountable for gender violence, insuring that murgas no longer accept abusers’ participation.

These innovative and multi-faceted feminist strategies demonstrate how a joyful and utopian feminism can be integrated into popular youth culture, even in traditionally patriarchal spaces.

Julia McReynolds-Pérez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the College of Charleston. Her research focuses on feminist activism and abortion rights in Argentina. Her research has been published in Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth.

Michael S. O’Brien is an Associate Professor of ethnomusicology at the College of Charleston. He has been conducting ethnographic field research on music and cultural politics in Argentina since 2003, including work on tango, folk music, and murga porteña. His recent publications include articles in the journals EthnomusicologyMusic and Politics, and MUSICultures.