In my house there is one mirror. It is hung at a height which gives me a brilliant view of my torso and maybe even a bit of upper thigh. It is located in my small bathroom that, much to my dismay when I have to go to the bathroom at night, does not have a light. This mirror is enough to ensure that my hair is not sticking out every which way before leaving the house, but not much else. I love wearing makeup back in the U.S, but here I leave the house bare-faced every day. While I miss the fun of putting on lipstick and experimenting with new shades of eyeshadow, I don’t miss feeling as if without it, I somehow look unpresentable. Without a mirror to thoroughly inspect myself before leaving the house, I have had to accept that my body is good enough as is.
In many ways being here in Ecuador has made me feel stronger as a woman. I have a host mom, three host sisters, and two host aunts, a grandma, and two female cousins all living in my direct vicinity. Being in such a female dominated environment has left no question in my mind that women in Ecuador run this society. They find more hours in the day than I thought existed to cook, clean, do laundry, and embroider on top of school or work. I have so much respect for the women in my life here and despite the strict gender roles, they are all empowered women.
When I think of strength, I can think of no one more fitting of that description than my host mom. However the picture of what it is to be a woman in Ecuador cannot be fully painted without acknowledging the fear. Being groped by a man without permission seems to be an expected experience. Choose any woman here and ask, and they will most likely confirm that it has happened to them. Its a huge problem, and yet there is not a lot of conversation happening about it. Women in Ecuador find themselves trying to battle the patriarchy while simultaneously under an almost constant sense of looming violence. Most of the crimes against women are punishable only in theory.
To be a tall, white woman in here means that I am going to stand out. It is unavoidable and quite frankly I barely bat an eye the casual and wondering stares of people as I walk past. However, it is the glances of men that carry a threat that leave me feeling as if my own body is a detrimental to my wellbeing. In the states, I use a baggy sweater to cover up insecurity of how I may be perceived; here I cover myself out of a general discomfort with the fact that I am a woman.
The road near my house has been under construction for about four months now. The same construction workers have been there every day and every day I walk past them on my way to work. They recognize me and understand that I am part of this community, yet almost every day I am met with a hungry gaze and sometimes whistling or comments. Here, men do not see it as harassment but rather as some sort of light hearted joke. I have had conversations with some of these men and there stares and comments are not a threat of violence, but that does not stop my reaction of fear.
In so many ways being in Ecuador has taught me to be more comfortable with who I am as a woman and what it means to be an empowered woman. However, there is such a strange juxtaposition between the overt sexism that is highly visible and the society itself, which is clearly kept running and functional by all the work women do. I do not want to be afraid. No woman should have to feel afraid. Our bodies are not weapons to be used against us.