Señora: “I hate women’s work. It’s better that you don’t marry.”
Me: “That’s why whoever I do marry and I will split the chores evenly. We will both work and we will both keep house.”
Señora: She looks at me with a pitying expression. “Maybe there are men like that in your country, but not here.”
Me: “Yes, there are. That is why I haven’t married a Paraguayan. If I don’t find a man like that, I won’t marry.”
The señora nods, seemingly satisfied, and goes to check her pot of food, which she is cooking outside over charcoal. She always cooks with charcoal or wood. She has a gas stove, but I guess it is too expensive to use gas.
In Paraguay, the house is the women’s domain and everywhere else belongs to the men. When a woman leaves her home she dresses up, puts on her swagger, and forges into a land where men have all the cards–she has tricks but her male counterparts still have the upper hand.
For me the most surprising and challenging features of Paraguay are the rigidly defined and openly maintained gender roles. When you boil things down, Paraguayan culture and American culture are similar. But, while in much of the US the glass ceiling is the elephant in the room and women “accidently” end up working and doing the lion’s share of the housework and child raising, differences in gender roles are openly talked about and defended in Paraguay.
I’ve watched a brother sit on his ass while his sister washes his clothes by hand. Then, when the sister gives him the clothes, already ironed, to fold, the aunt makes the sister fold them. I’ve seen men sit at the table waiting to be served while their women cook and set the table. I’ve witnessed men sitting and drinking for hours while women clean and cook and deal with the kids.
I’ve seen a woman called a whore because her boyfriend, undenounced to her, filmed them having sex and published a video. (If I am not mistaken, she lost her job because of that). People said it was her fault for not anticipating what the man might do as a man. I’ve heard a 3-year-old boy scolded and teased for touching dolls, painting his nails, and riding a purple bike. His best friend is his 4-year-old girl cousin. The list goes on, but you get the point. That is the home.
Beyond the home, anything goes. In most places in Paraguay, catcalling women in the street is the norm. In my community catcalling is limited, score, but if I walk along the main road every couple vehicles honk at me…and I’m not even blond or ever dressed to impress. It’s normal for old men, married men, men with children, and youth to hit on women ages…well, age isn’t important if he thinks the lady or girl is pretty. Men will pester women in front of anyone and everyone except their girlfriend or wife. Women and men don’t usually mingle at social functions. The vast majority of Paraguayan men my age who show interest in me don’t do so as a friend. They have only one end goal in mind. Of course, these affronts are brushed off as joking. According to many Paraguayans, pointing out women, offering commentary on women, and trying to conquest (the literal translation for the word “woo” or “take to bed” in Spanish) are what men do. It’s not their fault, they are men. It is women’s job to protect themselves.
In Paraguay it is odd to be single, especially at my age. Women are supposed to settle down and have children. Paraguayans like to ask if I have a boyfriend. They like to ask why I don’t. Men often ask me if I have a boyfriend before they know my name. It is normal now. I expect it. I anticipate in before it happens. I have multiple funny responses.
Just because I have a gender role in Paraguay that I do not agree with, does not mean I accept it. However, I can’t crash the whole system. The Peace Corps isn’t about forcing host country culture to change. I’ve settled for small rebellions. I do exercise that isn’t dance. I wear t-shirts and loose athletic shorts. I climb trees and get sweaty. I watch movies with guns and fire and talk about fast cars. I discuss being a professional and working. I own things that are blue and green. These are small details. But, gender roles are mountains made of pebbles. Maybe I can’t move the mountain in my little Paraguayan town, but I can sure send some rocks flying.