In recent years, Latin American feminist movements have emphasised mass mobilisation and performance protest. These movements take individual experiences and convert them into collective movements via the body. Here, I refer to this as a “bodily turn” in Latin American feminism. The marea verde of the fight for abortion rights, the framework of body-territory or cuerpo-territorio and the focus on bodily autonomy and freedom from violence of Ni Una Menos, all demonstrate how the body is the subject of feminist activism. However, it is also a tool of activism: actions like performance, dance, topless protest, die-ins, and marches are ways in which activists actually put their bodies on the line. This overlap between body as subject and body as tool is crucial to understanding contemporary feminist activism in Latin America.
To illustrate this, I will use the example of a performance by Peruvian feminist activists on the 28th May 2019. This performance, organised by the collective Trenzar, took place on the International Day for Women’s Health and called for free, safe, and legal abortion. Abortion is illegal except to save the life of the mother in Peru, in practice it is extremely difficult to access a legal abortion, and clandestine abortion is rampant. Many of those who took part in this protest later told me in interviews that they had had abortions. So here, they were taking those embodied experiences and bringing them directly to the streets to confront those who see nothing wrong with criminalising abortion and punishing those who have them. During my fieldwork, I used participatory and embodied methods to study performance protest, including taking part in protests with activists. This was done with permission from the organisers and participants, and alongside ongoing reflections about my position in the field as a white, British researcher in Peru.
In the performance, the performers brought together different symbols and themes in the fight for legal and safe abortion. The papers that we threw and held up, read “atraso menstrual” (menstrual delay) a euphemism seen on stickers and signs taped to lampposts advertising clandestine abortion services – ones that are usually predatory and unsafe. We performed different scenes representing situations linked to the experience of unwanted pregnancies in Peru: castigation by authorities and the church, young girls forced to carry to term, pregnancy as a result of rape etc. – these were all collectively decided during the process of rehearsals. We ended the performance by pulling red wool out of our clothes to represent blood linked to unsafe illegal abortions – before ‘dying’ on the ground – to represent the risks that maintaining the criminalisation of abortion poses.
Afterwards, however, we left singing and revelling in the power of the performance and feminist solidarity. In this performance activists occupied the street outside the Ministry of Health with their bodies in front of symbols of power in the Peruvian healthcare system. This brought the reality of clandestine abortion to the places where the right to abortion is denied. But it also used bodies to bring the power of feminist activism to where it is needed most.
The body is a site of oppression, where patriarchal forces attempt to control women by imposing suffering on their bodies and thus controlling those bodies. In the case of abortion rights, activists reclaim their bodies as a contested site of oppression to reframe the terms of the debate as centred on something that takes place within the body. Hence, by embodying theory and activism, the body becomes both subject and object of activism.
Thinking of the body as a methodology, then, does not mean thinking about how activists use the body instrumentally. A broader conceptualisation encompasses the body as a tool, a site, a way of understanding the world. And, what strategies such activists use in pursuit of this vision. Through performance protest, they are acting and thinking from the body: the process of collaborative creation to decide on how the performance would take shape was informed by the participants’ bodily experiences, and those same bodies were presentes (to borrow from Diana Taylor) in the actual intervention.
In this way activists took their embodied knowledge and transmitted it by means of the body. This embodied knowledge includes lived experience of abortion, and of accompanying friends through abortion. As well as the experience of living in and growing up in a country like Peru, where abortion is illegal but omnipresent. The tension between abortion’s status as an illegal and criminalised act, but also the cause of countless suffering, creates a reality in which the bodies of women and those who can become pregnant are symbolically and legally ignored by the State.
Throughout Latin America, and beyond, feminist activists are putting their bodies on the line to fight for bodily autonomy, reproductive justice, and environmental protections. By approaching the body as a methodology, we can understand how feminist activists see and interact with the world, creating feminist solidarity and knowledge in Latin America and beyond.