Everywhere you look when seeking images or travel information on Guatemala, you see photos of the brightly coloured textiles of indigenous women. And tourists here are snapping photos of women on the street – it is true they wear their handwoven clothes as daily wear, and that their embroidered patterns are a mixture of wonderfully bright colours. But it is the women you see in the photos – not the men with their white straw hats and bright stripped-and-embroidered half-trousers. And tiny candy-sales girls with smudged faces wearing miniatures of their mother´s skirt and belt, smiling shyly against crumbling colonial walls.
It is objectification.
How would Europeans feel if tourists swarmed their cities and snapped photos of their blouses and t-shirts, just because it looks unusual to them? Probably the way the women feel who laugh and shake their heads when I ask to take their photo, or the girl in the women´s day parade who put her hand neatly between the camera and her face, making her desire very clear.
We foreigners are thrilled to see these colours, not only because of the handwork but also because we assume it is uncomfortable, compared to our stretch jeans. And the colours, which I admit are fabulously cheerful in the tropical sunshine, with brown skin, black hair, and against a white plaster backdrop. It makes a wonderful characteristic image. But it is objectification. It is taking a snap for the visual impact only, turning the person inside those clothes into an object to be part of a visual mosaic of colours and patterns, to be a symbol of having-been-in-a-foreign country.
The people here in Xela wear handwoven skirts and cloths piled on their heads against the sun, school uniforms, hoodies and jeans, shop or security uniforms, and suits. The people of Xela are from different cultures and need to wear clothes for a variety of jobs. Many probably don´t own the textiles for which Guatemala is so famous.
And the cultures associated with the characteristic colourful clothes are ones in which women are often not educated – not even able to read and write – and have no opportunities to work for pay outside of agriculture, selling tortillas, or cleaning. Sixty-three percent of Guatemalan rural women are illiterate (compared to 37% of rural men). A local Xela woman pointed out to me that the rural women often don´t know it is different elsewhere in the world. They aren´t able to follow any nascent desires to become, say, teachers or doctors or enter other professions, because they may not know that elsewhere, girls are expected to complete high school (or even go to university). They are expected to marry in their teens and have large families. And a huge number are extremely poor, with malnutrition and lack of access to even clean drinking water. (Information from a presentation by Vivian Martinez).
One of the problems in the Guatemalan press is the high incidence of domestic violence and what is being called femicide – the murder of women just because they are women. Seven or eight hundred a year of the past few years, and the perpetrators are usually not caught or prosecuted. This is one of the reasons women in Xela marched through the streets today with holding placards with the names of victims. And one of the reasons why women in Guatemala are working so hard to empower other women. We in other countries may notice inequality – especially the sharing of dish-washing and other mundane and frequent tasks – but what we face is light years away from what the women of Guatemala face every day.