Traffic Lights

Leah Mesh-Ferguson - Ecuador


December 16, 2013

Before I talk about my perceptions of gender here in Ecuador, I want to mention something else. First, I want to emphasize that these are MY perceptions, MY truths, while for somebody else, they might not be true.  About a week ago, I was at my second Training Seminar in Baños, just a couple hours north-west of Riobamba. For one of our discussions, we had to read an articl called The Danger of a Single Story. This article used extreme examples, like how someone from another country might watch American Psycho, and then think that all American men were psycho killers. But my fellow Fellows and I discussed the danger of a single story on a smaller level, and in the context of our lives here in Ecuador. The major medium for this type of storytelling is our blogs. We talked about how we might unconsciously be romanticizing our experience or generalizing about Ecuadorians in our missives back home. During this discussion, I had already written the following blog post. And I realized that I was telling a single story; the story of the man from the machismo Ecuadorian culture. So as you read it, keep in mind that these are my perceptions, and I’m aware that there are generalizations. I’m still grappling with gender complexes both here and in the USA. So here it is:

 

“Women are like traffic lights. After 9 P.M. no one respects them.”

This was said to the female Ecuador Fellows during our gender talk at In-Country Orientation. It was said somewhat jokingly, with a hint of serious caution. Unfortunately, I’ve noticed that traffic lights here are disregarded at all hours of the day, and it sometimes seems to be no different for the women.

At first, I was hesitant about drawing a comparison between the United States and Ecuador, but I’ve realized it’s the best way to showcase reality. In most places in the States, I can walk down the streets without commentary, no matter what I’m wearing. However, my days in Riobamba have been a lesson in patience. Whether I’m in a skirt or baggy sweatpants, I get cat calls, wolf whistles, and “hey babys.” The advice given is to ignore and keep walking, even though what I really want to do involves a rude gesture and a response. My friends and I have gotten very frustrated on many occasions, wondering what is going through the men’s heads.

Even more eye-opening are the scantily clad women on large signs used to advertise all sorts of things, from motorcycles and cars to restaurants and print shops. One internet café I walked into had set the backgrounds of all the computers to women in bikinis on cars. What is the purpose? Just as many women as men use the internet cafes. My coworkers at Plan International flirt shamelessly with me, asking me what I look for in a man and promising they’d be perfect for me. However, it seems that all the women of the office are treated this way. In an interview with my sister, she states that it is because women are seen as less useful in this culture. Further, in my family, and elsewhere I’m sure, my mother is expected to have dinner ready when my dad gets home. She also washes all the dishes, does the laundry, and cleans the house.

On the other hand, I’ve seen more female construction workers and trash collectors here than I have ever seen in the U.S.A. So what does that mean? Is our disrespect for women in the States just more hidden? I’m not really sure, but a woman in the same job as a man will still make less money than him. It’s an interesting conundrum that I haven’t come close to figuring out.

Here in Ecuador, women are always given an empty seat on the bus or in the meeting room. Men always hold open the door open for me. Is that a sign of respect? Or is it connected to the idea that women are delicate and need to be taken care of? Tough question, huh?

There’s work being done to help women in some things: teenage pregnancy, violence, low self-esteem, and education, and some work definitely needs to be done with the men and boys as well. But it’s a slow process and until then, bring on the cat calls…

Leah Mesh-Ferguson