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  • The Notion of “Rights” and the Paradoxes of Postcolonial ModernityIndigenous Peoples and Women in Bolivia
  • Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui (bio)
    Translated by Molly Geidel

This article attempts to undertake a reading of “gender” as it operates in Bolivia’s juridical history, in order to propose some issues of debate that I consider pertinent to any discussion of the “rights of indigenous peoples” and their close ties, at least as I see them, to “the rights of women” (whether indigenous, cholas, birlochas, or refinadas).1 First I focus on the masculine and lettered aspects of the juridical process that has produced the documents known as the Laws of the Republic. In Europe both the law and the modern historical formation of what is known as “public space” are anchored in the ideals of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, whereby the rebirth of the human being was implicitly imagined as a masculine Universal Subject, who was by nature a bearer of “rights.” Up to now the notion of “human rights” means nothing more than what were known as “the rights of man” (droits de l’homme) in the eighteenth century. Jacques Derrida and Judith Butler have noted this conflation, writing of a “phallogocentric” version of the modern Subject, the enlightened heterosexual individual. 2 This representation of the modern individual has been inscribed in European history and imposed on the rest of the world [End Page 29] over the course of the last two centuries through multiple processes of political, military, and cultural hegemony.

In Bolivia the initial act of colonization was gendered: the very idea of rights arrived already tainted by the subordination (formal and real) of women in the household, governed by the pater familias. Rossana Barragán has illustrated how, during the early Republic, the Bolivian legislators copied and adapted a Victorian model of the family, transposing it onto a much older matrix of habitus and representations.3 This new hegemonic ideal of family relations prescribed that (1) men act as the sole public representatives of the “family,” subordinating wife and children under their authority; (2) women dedicate themselves exclusively to reproductive and decorative tasks, and thus become alienated, their agency denied, their public voices silenced (thus, the idea of “public women” became a cruel semiotic paradox, implying that the only “public” action a woman could perform was the marketing of her own sex); and (3) adolescents and children remain subject to the hierarchical authority of adults, principally of the father.

The liberal reforms instituted at the end of the nineteenth century only reinforced this patriarchal imaginary, reinstating it with new laws and behavioral codes. These reforms codified a notion of “human rights” based on the subjugation of women, instituting and upholding restrictions, legal elisions, and archaisms, as well as a myriad of daily practices that ended up in the denial of the very notion of “human rights” to the female sex. For example, under the new liberal laws, the typical penalty for domestic violence led to the punishment of the perpetrator only if the victim had suffered at least thirty days of hospitalization or convalescence!4 Through legislative measures, the liberals further consolidated the institutionalized inequality of property and inheritance rights that had been imposed by the colonizers: practices like primogeniture, unequal status between legitimate and illegitimate children, and patrilineal inheritance were thus consolidated by the independent state.5 Moreover, while juridical rhetoric recognized the equality of the Indian in 1874, the structure of the republican habitus continued to function through the invisible axis of the “two republics” (one of the subjects, the other of the citizens).6 As a matter of fact, [End Page 30] women and Indians only accessed a degraded and restricted form of citizenship quite recently, with the declaration of universal voting rights after the 1952 revolution.

Historical Nexuses between Colonial and Patriarchal Oppression in Bolivia

The latter example enables us to add a second thematic axis to our discussion. How is it that the subjugation of women, the oppression of indigenous peoples, and the discrimination against those who exhibit residual traces of native identities have been historically embedded in the subjectivity of each inhabitant of the Bolivian nation? That is to say, how was...


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