Saturday, October 18, 2014

The Ngöbe Approach to Feminism

Anne Boldt

            Upon setting foot in La Casona, a region of the Coto Brus canton in Costa Rica, while visiting the Ngöbe indigenous people, I immediately noticed something that we hadn’t seen in our trips to meet other indigenous groups: distinct differences in apparel. For example, while the men were dressed in standard jeans and an old t-shirt, as commonly see throughout Costa Rica, the women were dressed in beautiful traditional Ngöbe dresses. The dresses appeared to be hand-sewn, came in a variety of colors, and were worn by females of all ages in the community. In fact, even as the children played fútbol at recess, the girls were holding up their dresses while running down the field. Immediately I came to question why the women were, from my observations, forced to dress traditionally, while the men were free to dress in whatever apparel they chose.
            As we made our way to the EBAIS in the community and I saw more women clothed in traditional garments, questions flooded into my mind. Why this difference? How did the women feel about it? Was this something the men forced upon them? As a female from the United States who wears sweatpants and a sweatshirt daily because I prefer to wear what I think is comfortable, it seemed unfair that men were given the freedom to choose their clothing and women did not possess the same freedom to self-express through clothing. Was this a breech of human rights? Was there no sense of feministic pride in this community? I knew I had to find out if and why these women were being denied such simple freedoms.
            After meeting with both the EBAIS doctor and traditional healers in the community, we made our way across the river on a less than stable bridge to the cultural house of the community. In this house, Ngöbe children were educated on how to write in their own language, as Ngäbere originated as an oral language. We met with two Ngöbe women from the community, and were allowed to ask them questions regarding the community and their customs. To preface the discussion, our professor Claudine informed us that both women were very political. This point confused me even further. Why would such strong, opinionated women settle for a lack of simple freedoms?
As the discussion began, it was apparent that I was not the only one concerned, as another student quickly inquired about the differences in apparel between men and women. All of the questions whirling inside my head were causing me to hope for a response secretly full of angst and plans to over throw the patriarchy. However, to my disbelief, the woman’s answer was so simple and completely genuine. She responded by saying that the women of the Ngöbe community preferred to dress in traditional garments because they knew that the men thought they looked beautiful in them. There was no hint of frustration or bitterness in her answer; they simply enjoy pleasing the men around them.
            This complete difference between men and women is not only an accepted, but also a fully welcomed custom in the Ngöbe culture. To these women, their willingness and desire to please the men of their community are not considered degrading or lacking feministic characteristics.  Instead, these women are fully aware of their rights and privileges and they choose to wear their traditional clothing out of respect for their culture and the men in their communities. Perhaps their dress is also a form of self-expression, but simply having a different aim than that of women in the United States. ​

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