Aisling Walsh is a 31 year old Irish woman living and working in Guatemala since January 2014. She ‘fell in’ with Magdalenas Guatemala in April 2015 and they have gradually taken over her life. When she is not trying to transform the world with these wonderful women she is practicing as a doula and studying to be a midwife in the Galileo University of Guatemala. In her previous life she worked for an Irish NGO here in Guatemala and once upon a time she obtained a Masters of International Law in Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
Mary Magdalene, a sinner, a whore, a loose woman and a silenced woman. In the western imagination she has come to represent, after Eve, the sin of all women and a warning of the dangers of female sexuality.
There is a movement of feminists, however, that has decided to reclaim the image of this marginalised woman as an expression of our refusal to remain silent and accept the subordinate position that has been assigned to us. We call ourselves Laboratory Magdalenas – Teatro de las Oprimidas a theatre by and for people who identify as women.
Laboratory Magdalenas is an incipient network that emerged in 2006 out of the wider Theatre of the Oppressed movement. We now have small autonomous but interconnected cells in South and Central America, Europe, Asia and Africa where we are cultivating our own revolution. While we have yet to make significant ripples in the international feminist movement, for those of us who are involved it has represented a veritable earthquake in our lives.
When I signed up for a three-day long Laboratory with Magdalenas Guatemala in April 2015 I had no idea of the adventure that lay ahead nor that I was about to ‘fall in’ with a crowd of very dangerous women.
Every Magdalena has at some point passed through a Laboratory; an initiation of sorts into the wonderful, dangerous world of Teatro de las Oprimadas. It is a launching pad for what will hopefully be a continued process of investigation, experimentation, creation and action.
Each laboratory varies to a certain degree but the structure more or less remains the same: an analysis of the structural origins of our oppression, how oppressions are reinforced through the media, our family and society, how these oppressions impact the image of ourselves as women and the choices we make, how structural oppression manifests in our own lives and, finally, how can we begin to overcome these. It raises many, many questions which we have only begun to answer.
Each Laboratory is unique and yet the same themes emerge over and over again: the influence of gender stereotypes, religious dogma, societal pressures, familial expectations and our assigned roles in relationships. We create images of how, as young girls, our natural sense of freedom, our curiosity, our enjoyment of our own bodies and our connection with others is gradually silenced, repressed, beaten or shamed out of us. We perform the various ways our true desires have been distorted to fit into preconceived ideas of what it means to be a woman: the saintly, self-sacrificing, mother; the dutiful daughter; the submissive wife; the virginal bride; the vacuous model; the witch; the whore.
The Personal is Political
Many Magdalenas have long trajectories studying and/or practicing feminism, working in women’s rights or supporting survivors of sexual and domestic violence yet, often when we encounter misogyny, oppression or violence in our personal lives, we fail to recognise it as such or we stay silent.
Through 18 months of investigation, creation and action I have learned to pin-point with ever greater accuracy the ways patriarchal domination has had a direct impact on my life: from street harassment to being silenced in school, to the fact that since my childhood natural and healthy expressions of sexuality have been shamed and censored, that I have put my partners’ sexual needs before my own, that I have faked orgasms, that I have slept with too many men or not enough, that I I didn’t know how to say no, that I have stayed silent when men have touched me inappropriately because I didn’t want to make those around me feel ‘uncomfortable’, that I have minimised myself and my achievements out of fear that I would intimidate men, the belief that my worth comes down to my weight in kilos, stones or pounds or whether or not I have found a man, or whether or not I have children, that no matter what I do or who I try to please, that as I woman I will never get it right.
Are We Actors, Feminists or Activists?
We are in fact, all three. Magdalenas is a movement of women who have come together to overcome the patriarchal idea that we are alone, that we are fragile, that we are inferior. We strive to transform our world through solidarity, strength, care and collectivism. We seek to overcome all the oppressions present in all the spaces that we inhabit which limit and impede our dignity, our opportunities for development, our equality and our happiness.
We do not stay silent in the face of oppression. We use theatre, movement, sound and dance to explore the structural origins of our oppressions. We experiment with creative, dramatic and performative strategies to overcome these, both individually and collectively. We share our performances with the wider world and we take actions to denounce violence, oppression and injustice.
Our dream is for a for a society based on justice, free from the capitalist ideology of individual competition and the exploitation of humanity and nature. A world without racism, sexism, homophobia, without strict and stereotyped social mandates. A world free from patriarchal domination, where it is possible to radicalise, rethink, multiply and diversify power spaces and those who hold power. A world where our gender does not define the enjoyment of our rights, our social spaces and our social functions. (Las Magdalenas Manifesto, January 2016)
Creating a feminist Esthetic
Magdalenas is not simply theatre with a gender focus. We are working consciously towards the development of feminist esthetic, where our political actions will be recognised for their creativity and key dramatic and visual elements.
Though dispersed around the world we have performances and songs that unite us from as far away as Nepal, to Germany, Guatemala and Brazil. We are busy creating ever more frequent opportunities to gather together and learn from each other. The first ever Magdalenas International Festival was in Puerto Madryn Argentina in September 2016. There were further gatherings in 2016 in Nicaragua and Barcelona. We organise exchanges and multiplication of the Laboratory across territories from Berlin to Vienna and from Guatemala to Mexico and Costa Rica. We coordinate collective actions for specific events such as International Women’s Day and the Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. As our network keeps growing, our commitment and our actions gather ever greater force.
Every performance, every creation, every action we undertake as Magdalenas is a product of a collective and horizontal, organisational and creative process. In our plays there is no director; we create scenes through action, image, movement and dialogue. We don’t use a script; we explore our characters and the problem at hand and then improvise. We don’t have a costume department; we make our own costumes and props out of recycled materials and found objects. If someone proposes an activity we put it to the group and work together to make it a reality. No one person in the group ‘owns’ the product of our creative process, rather, we have all invested our creative energies in making something beautiful, powerful and challenging.
We are immersed in constant reflexion and ‘self-awareness’ so as to ensure we do not reproduce stereotyped images of ‘the ideal woman’. We recognise the complexity of the different ways of being a woman, respecting always diversity, specificity and the intersection of different oppressions including those based on class, race, gender, economic status and sexuality. We are writing our own stories on behalf of our ancestors, ourselves and those generations who have yet to come (Las Magdalenas Manifesto, January 2016).
No Men Allowed?
Magdalenas is a women only space. We believe that in order to get to the heart of the oppressions we confront on a daily basis, to be able to share our experiences without judgement and to empower ourselves in our own process of transformation we need to do this with and among women first. Men are welcome to come to our performances, to become our allies, and to practice solidarity with us but they are not invited to participate in the process of exploration, investigation or creation.
We constantly have to justify this practice to the world, our friends, our partners and even the wider Theatre of the Oppressed movement. As Magdalenas we have been accused of hating men, of painting them all with the same ‘oppressors’ brush and of alienating them from the feminist cause. This is not the case. We believe that men also need to embark on the process of deconstructing their masculinity, to question their privileges and the ways in which they benefit from and contribute to women’s oppression but we do not believe that women are responsible for this process. Is the idea of women working, analysing and creating together really so radical and threatening to the status quo? It would seem so.
Continued and Concrete Actions – Magdalenas Guatemala
In 18 months Magdalenas Guatemala have gone from 3 to 18 active members from a wide diversity of backgrounds (foreign women, Guatemalan women, gay women, bi-women, trans women, older women, mothers, single women, young women, activists, artists, writers, dancers and students). We have carried out public actions related to the ever present threat of street harassment in Guatemala. We have participated in the march on the 25th of November 2015, International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, where we performed the international Magdalenas interactive performance ‘Nosotras’. For International Women’s Day, March 8th 2016, we opened the march with a performance of our own that we created using dance, images and poetry to explore what it means to be a woman in Guatemala.
We have presented two full forum theatre pieces from themes that emerged in both laboratories: the rape of a young woman by a male friend at a party; and the question of the need to ‘please’ our partners in intimate relationships. Our aim is to continue the investigation of the theme of consent and desire in intimate relationships by continuing to present the play to diverse groups of women.
Stop, Breathe, Feel the Joy!
This may all sound like Magdalenas has created some kind of feminist utopia. If only this were the case! There are are times when power struggles occur, when old patterns of competitiveness rear their ugly heads or when we disagree about taking a certain action. There are economic restraints: in the majority we are self-organised, autonomous groups with little or no external funding. We have to juggle work and family commitments. We meet resistance and rejection even from those closest to us. Nevertheless, we make the time to come together.
In a world where we are assailed every day with new stories of domestic violence, sexual abuse, rape, discrimination, attacks against the LGBTQI community, racism, the denial of reproductive rights – apart from situations of oppression we may be living ourselves, in our relationships, our workplaces and our social circles – Magdalenas is a sanctuary. A space to pause and breath deeply, to cackle like hags and cry our eyes out, to explore, investigate, create and take action using our bodies and our voices. We have embraced this new path with the kind of joy that can only come from finding friendship, understanding, openness, solidarity and collectivity with women who are just as committed to danger, subversiveness and radicality as each other.
You can view images and videos of the artistic interventions of Magdalenas Guatemala here.