The Mirror Space

Bárbara Santos 2010, May

With a certain frequency, the places given to women are related to work and to an obligation to be or maintain “presentable”, “desirable” and “acceptable” following certain social patterns. Traditionally, women met in the kitchens to prepare food for family reunions; in the beauty saloons to satisfy expectations and needs; in the squares to look after children while they are playing; on the river banks to wash clothes; in pre-marital ceremonies or in adolescent rites of passage and in similar other gatherings, depending from the social class and the region of the planet where they live.

In these spaces, they are allowed to talk about specific issues and ratify the culture of “woman things”. Despite these gatherings facilitating the exchange of ideas about afflictions and dissatisfactions, not necessarily transform themselves into rebellious sites, on the contrary, usually ratify costumes and oppressions.

In the beauty saloons, women get ready for a socially carved competition. In the kitchens, despite complaining from the lack of support received from the husbands, women only introduce their daughters to the culinary art and not their sons. For many, the kitchen is asort of sacred space, a free men land, representing as much a site for knowledge, creativity and talent, than a prison.

In the squares, looking after kids, women complain about the work overload related to the children and the lack of job division tasks within the couple but, if they need to do something else, they delegate their kids to another woman. Same thing is done for the clothes or the house keeping, if there are not enough financial resources for electrodomestics or a cleaner, the tasks will be given to another woman.

In Guinea- Bissau, when we asked to the participants how they negotiated with their husbands the time spent outside the house to take part of Theatre of the Oppressed qualification, women would reply that the older daughters were taking care of their tasks.

In Sudan, a practitioner of the Theatre of Oppressed reported that he didn’t want his daughter to be circumcised – female mutilation, removal of the clitoris and, in same case, of the vaginal lips – in a traditional ceremony. He said, that his mother took the child to the ceremony, taking advantage of his absence from the house. The older women maintain this tradition alive.

In Guinea Bissau, we took part of the “ceremony of paridas”, a ritual between the sacred and the profane where only women-mother is allowed. The invitation was a special honour, a way to demonstrate confidence and admiration. On one hand, the ritual ratifies the power of motherhood, on the other, excludes women who are not able to have children, not only from the ceremony, but in many Tabancas (traditional villages) from the

These particular women spaces are contradictory. In a way they ratify oppressions and, in another, are female territories. In these real spaces, during a time laps, socio-cultural territories of brief “independency” are created, working as traps for the ratification and the “naturalisation” of oppression.

Despite the undeniable advances of women in the creation of territories of contestation and battle, during the last century, thanks to whom have been guarantee the conquest of rights and the division of power roles. Still, across the world, thousand of women are victims of domestic and social violence, physical and emotional, and, many times, they carry the shame and the blame for these tragedies. A situation that, in one hand, inhibits a woman to share her stories and look for alternatives and, on another, isolate her and promotes the continuity of undesirable behaviours. Further on, it difficult the perception that what is happening to any of them, neither is particular or natural.

And why do we keep repeating undesirable behaviours? Why do we say “yes” when the desire, the experience and the logic tells us not to? Why do we act re-affirming the standard when it doesn’t interest us anymore? Why in our daily life we end up strengthening the “naturalization” or “feminization” of some social functions? Why the images glued to our unconsciousness keep reflecting and strengthen themselves in our social act?

Many things we can only admit to ourselves in front of the mirror. The question raised by the Madalena Laboratory – an innovative scenic experience based on Theatre of the Oppressed techniques focused on the specificities of oppression against woman – is:
Would it be possible for a woman to be the mirror of another? By looking into others
women we can see our own eyes, by understanding what others are saying can we understand ourselves?

In the Madalena’s path, we try to create spaces for research and sharing, sites where shame, blame and competition are taken apart – affective, aesthetic and historically – and, when the trust is built, is allowed an opening even for confessions. For this reason, the importance of a space formed only by women, for the re-creation of a female power territory, where weakness, insecurity, mistakes and fears, as much as potentials, dreams and discoveries are shared.

The experiences have outlined the efficiency of the strategy. A big part of the participants reports that they feel more comfortable to tell their stories when they perceived that were like echoes of other women stories. This creates a powerful and vital process of identification: by listening to their own words in some one else’s voice, by the perception of herself in the other identity defining, by the self imaging, by the strange paint and by the re-encounter of the forgotten dream in the poem of another. A proximity that facilitates the collective comprehension of the emotional complexity and of the social contexts that contains and defines this oppressions and that give strength to face the given challenges.

For every particular group, in every laboratory developed, what emerges is the strength of the identification between the participants of the different experiences. In the North East and South East of Brazil, in Guinea Bissau and Mozambique, even if divided by social, cultural, religious and economic abysms, the oppressions are echoes of each others.

The creation of female territories promoted the link with something ancestral that helped to open closed doors of obscured identities, suffocated by the imposition of authoritarian and inflexible models. A time frame to be able to look at us (I-us) and research images,
contradictions and concessions. A space of comprehension and, at the same time of criticism, where we undress from the victim clothes and we assume ourselves as oppressed, seeking for transformation.

Translation: Chiara Rimoldi