Refrain from Un violador en tu camino
This post contains information about sexual assault and/or violence which may be triggering to survivors. Support is available on campus or through 1800RESPECT.
This post was contributed by Lindsey Stevenson-Graf, a PhD candidate with the Griffith Law School and member of the Law Futures Centre.
On 20 November 2019, in Valparaíso, Chile, a Latin American feminist collective, LasTesis, performed Un violador en tu camino (translation: ‘A Rapist in your Path’), decrying sexual violence perpetrated by police and exposing the state and the broader community for their role in women’s oppression. The footage of this performance went viral on social media and instigated a global movement in the fight against institutionalized violence against women. Un violador has been performed in more than 50 countries and in a multitude of languages.
Feminist movements and ideologies are commonly viewed as originating in the West, then dispersing to developing nations. This manner of viewing the propagation of feminist theories is both lauded and criticised. Many feminists have viewed it as a way of advancing women’s rights where otherwise there would have been little progress. On the other hand, many have denounced this view as a perpetuation of colonialism as Western ideology continues to be imposed on developing nations. Interestingly, a principal objective of LasTesis is to spread feminist theory, in particular Latin American feminist theory, beyond an academic setting. Un violador was created to broadcast the perspectives of Argentinian feminist and anthropologist, Rita Segato, in a manner that engages the general public.
This blog agrees that feminist theory often originates in developing nations and, as it is disseminated throughout the world, enriches theories from the West, creating a more flexible feminist ideology. The global impact of LasTesis demonstrates how Western feminist struggles have been enrichened by Latin American feminist movements in their efforts to enhance visibility around institutionalised violence. It is important to note that this is but one example of the influence from feminists in developing nations.
Bringing feminist theory to the streets
LasTesis (translation: The Thesis) is an interdisciplinary collective, created in Valparaíso by Daffne Valdés Vargas, Paula Cometa Stange, Lea Cáceres Díaz and Sibila Sotomayor Van Rysseghem. Through live performances in public spaces, using catchy phrases and simple theatrical methods, they effectively convey feminist theory to a broad audience. Their performances are filmed and made available on YouTube where they are easily accessible to those who have access to the internet. Valdés Vargas stated that: ‘as was seen with the legalisation of abortion in Argentina, it is only from society that change can happen, our voices can rise and create change in institutions’. In addition to incorporating Segato’s theory, to prepare for the performance of Un violador, LasTesis collected data on sexual violence in Chile, researched the media’s portrayal of sexual violence, and examined what was happening in the local context. They identified the prevalence of victim blaming in both the media and in public discourse and highlighted this issue in their performance through chanting the refrain: ‘And it wasn’t my fault, or where I was, or how I dressed.’ The performance was intimately tied to the situation in Chile, down to their title, Un violador en tu camino, which is a satirical rephrasing of the Chilean police motto Un amigo en tu camino (a friend in your path).
To make feminist theory accessible to the general public, LasTesis uses artistic mediums to inform its audience about institutional violence against women, focusing on violations by the police, government officials and other systems of power. For example, in the performance of Un violador, a large crowd dances, moves and chants lyrics. During the chorus they stop, point fingers at the audience and government buildings, and chant ‘the rapist is you’. In this way, the performers highlight the role that is played by society in institutionalising violence. Mara Montanaro, an academic specialising in Latin-American feminism, states that the work produced by LasTesis ‘ensures that feminist theory does not remain an abstract concept that has no footing within the wider feminist movement’. Their performances are a mechanism for bringing academic theory into the streets.
Un violador has been performed in more than 200 locations, including Nairobi, Paris, Istanbul, Berlin, Sydney and numerous cities throughout North and South America. In 2020, Time Magazine listed LasTesis as one of the 100 most influential people (groups). As the performance has spread around the globe, and been adopted by feminist movements in other nations, it has maintained not only its artistic style but also its ideological message. The message of institutional violence against women resonates in many countries but is also controversial; and in response to the feminist outcries seen in public performances based on Un violador, several nations have arrested the women involved. These charges have later been dropped, but the impact and message is clear.
Dissemination of Latin American feminist theory
Latin American feminists are often described as ‘others’ in mainstream Western feminist theory. Mainstream feminist theory focuses primarily on problems from the perspectives of caucasian women in the West, and ignores voices from developing nations that provide alternative perspectives and demonstrate the flexibility of feminism. In this way, mainstream feminist theory fails to recognise that, although many feminist concerns extend beyond national borders, distinct historical, cultural, political and social experiences are relevant and important. Montanaro argues that Western feminism is limited and would greatly benefit from exposure to other feminist theories. She argues that ‘feminism is, in fact, a travelling theory, it is and must be in motion, in a constant movement of displacement’ and in order to maintain this motion, a variety of feminist stories need to be told. However, altering Western feminisms will involve ‘a powerful theoretical reworking of space.’ There needs to be a move away from the idea of a universal feminism created by the West, to a space where feminism is seen as flexible, and alternative feminist theories are accepted. The spread of Un violador contributed to such change; itreversed the neo-colonial movement of individualist feminist movements such as MeToo to a collective challenge of patriarchal, state sanctioned violence against women.
LasTesis’s production has provided a mechanism for Latin American feminist theory to be disseminated globally. It has engaged Western and non-Western audiences alike by adapting feminist theory to street activism. Through the widespread adoption of LasTesis’s performance of Un violador, feminists throughout the world have been exposed to the feminist theories of Rita Segato. This has made a huge leap forward in Latin American feminist theory. However, although Segato’s work is well recognised and respected in Latin America, it is not readily available in other parts of the world as she publishes primarily in Spanish.
Segato takes a distinct view from Western feminists in her writing, addressing the impact of colonisation on women and how resulting patriarchal and economic structures have influenced social relationships in Latin America. In Un violador, LasTesis applied Segato’s theory of rape culture and violence against women. Segato theorises that rape culture is based on a universal narrative that women are disobedient and thus deserving of punishment (ideas that are echoed in the first words of Un violador). According to Segato, rape is not about sexual desire but instead is about ‘power’. Segato condemns nations for considering rape as a minor crime, depicting it as a private matter associated with desire and passion. In contrast, crimes against men are seen to be public issues. Accordingly, in the performance of Un violador, by pointing the finger literally and figuratively at the state, LasTesis labels the State and the consenting society as the perpetrators.
By performing as a collective, LasTesis portrays rape as a crime against the public. Although LasTesis continues the colonial feminist practice of emanating from the elite, as its members are all university graduates who are now academics and researchers, it also challenges the practice of feminist elitism by engaging the public with ideas that in the past have been contained within academia. Women from many backgrounds contribute to the street performances, either as participants or as members of the audience (in person or online). The performances in turn become a space for knowledge production and thus can be understood as a means of decolonising and dehierarchising women. This act of decolonisation can be witnessed in the adaptation of Un violador by groups around the world. For example, Un violador was performed in the remote Amazon town of Puyo, Ecuador by the Indigenous women at the Women’s Centre for Gender Equality and Environmental Stability. This performance provides an example of learning taking place in a collective manner in a non-hierarchical space.
Segato argues that we need disobedience to counter these hierarchical structures. The performances of Un violador are in and of themselves disobedient. Women gathering in large groups chanting about the State’s involvement in violence against women, while performing confronting physical movements (such as squatting to depict invasive body searches illegally demanded by the Chilean police), go against the idea of women being silent and complicit in maintaining their place in society. These performances, while legal, aimed to challenge symbolic structures and unwritten laws.
By basing Un violador on the theories of Segato, LasTesis has challenged the concept that feminism originates in the West and is then spread to the ‘others’. Performances around the world have effectively challenged the boundaries between theory and practice. The dissemination and adoption of the performance provides a clear example of how Latin American feminists can move into the space occupied by Western feminism and influence the international feminist movement.