Female students in Chile have had enough and have occupied their universities. Giulia Dessi reports on the unprecedented wave of feminist civil disobedience sweeping the country
The classroom floor is covered with duvets and mattresses. Ten women students from the Metropolitan University of Technology in Santiago are waking up, and begin to prepare for another day of debates, workshops and meetings. Outside, hanging chairs protrude through the university gates and a banner says toma feminista, feminist occupation.
Dozens of university faculties and high schools across Chile are in occupation or on strike, demanding an end to the abusive patriarchal culture inside Chilean classrooms. Tens of thousands of students are taking part, and two months on from the first occupation, the movement is persisting.
Chile has a long history of student protests, normally mobilizing against the privatized education system put in place by the military dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. What's happening today emerges from that experience, but with feminism at its core.
It started at the Universidad Austral in Valdivia, in southern Chile. On 17 April 2018, a group of students occupied the building of Philosophy and Humanities as a reaction to a mismanaged disciplinary case against a professor found guilty of sexual harassment. The Faculty of Law of Universidad de Chile in Santiago came next, ten days later, igniting the movement in one of the country's most prestigious institutions.
The last straw was a case of sexual harassment involving Professor Carlos Carmona, former president of the Constitutional Court. It took the university eight months to process the case, at the end of which Carmona was suspended for three months for 'lack of integrity'. The outcome prompted an emergency student assembly that decided to occupy the Law Faculty building. In a matter of days, dozens of faculties and schools across the country followed.
Before this mobilization, only seven universities out of 60 had policies and procedures to deal with cases of sexual harassment. Where they did exist, students found these protocols to be inadequate.
'On the other hand,' Millaray continues, 'our petition covers the formative area, with curricular innovations within school programmes.' In other words, as well as sexual harassment protocols, central to the demands of the movement is the creation of non-sexist curricula, sensitive to issues of gender and sexuality.
Each occupied faculty has its own priorities, but many are calling for the creation of a gender unit where students can seek legal and psychological support. A central demand is the institutional acknowledgment of different sexual orientations and gender identity. Another deeply-felt issue is the necessity of facilities to ensure that students with children are able to continue their studies.
Beyond holding university authorities to account, the occupations serve as spaces for reflection and democratic participation. Demands are submitted to the dean of the faculty as a petitorio, an official petition. Students from each occupation draft these documents in a collective and horizontal process. The beginning of an occupation, or strike, is decided with a vote, and then revalidated with another vote at the end of the week. Some occupations are for women-only, but this decision has also been decided democratically, and also put to a vote.
The first step in most of the occupations was to share the experience of sexism, strengthening awareness of its systemic character. Each school in mobilization organizes several feminist events a day. From courses on self-defence and workshops on resistance embroidery, to feminist stand-up comedy, debates on socialist feminism, non-patriarchal football matches, and gynaecology lessons.
'We are questioning our relationship with our mothers, when we come back from the occupation,' says Catalina Sanchez, a spokesperson of the School of Social Work of Metropolitan University of Technology (UTEM). 'It's an idyllic world here - we help each other in the kitchen, we hug each other, we plait each other, we paint each other, but when we come back home it's like "bam! Reality".'
The occupations have diverse visions of feminism. Some are content to make demands of university management; others are oriented towards more systemic change. Catalina makes a clear division between UTEM and other universities. 'We come from the marginal and marginalized places that are the poblaciónes [shantytowns], so we live and breathe sexist violence,' she says. 'We are of indigenous descent, we are poor and this oppression is daily. The girls of other university are just questioning the issue of abuses and violence, but they are not questioning their class privilege'.
She is from La Faena, a población on the fringes of Santiago. It is a place that exemplifies the massive social inequality in Chile, but is also proud of its radical heritage.
For her, institutional change is not sufficient, rather feminism should pose a challenge to free-market capitalism. 'We're fighting in this context, we're questioning the capitalist means of production, race and class issues,' says Catalina.
Luna Follegati, a historian specializing in gender issues, agrees with the need to take the uprising outside the university walls. 'The feminist movement should now go beyond the ceiling imposed by the need for policies and procedures and for a non-sexist education,' she said. 'It should reach such a level of resonance to confront other social conflicts, such as health, housing, pensions. In all these areas, women are... in a greater condition of precarity.'
As a response to the mobilization, in May, Chilean president Sebastian Piñera announced the 'Women's Agenda', a series of measures to reach equality between men and women in areas such as health, harassment, and childcare. Millaray describes this response as 'a heteropatriarchal agenda. It's set so that women conform with the market, but not that the state conforms with the women'.
Most of the measures will apply only to a very small minority of women, those who have a job, a contract, and private health insurance, in a country where almost a third of workers are in informal or non-permanent jobs.
While some faculties have only recently joined the mobilization, other occupations are coming to an end, after seeing most of their demands accepted. At the Universidad de Valparaiso in Santiago, for example, authorities agreed on commitments such as an improvement of policies and procedures, recognition of gender identity, and creation of a gender equality unit. With 32 votes to extend the occupation by a week and 47 to end it, last week's poll decided that classes would start again on Monday. In other faculties, the occupation ended, but the classes are still paralyzed.
It's hard to predict how the movement will evolve, but to date it has reached an unprecedented level of support and visibility. No matter what is achieved in the short term, their struggle is not just about basic demands to improve the living conditions of women students. It is about making everyday gender violence visible. It is about challenging heteronormative gender roles. And above all, it is about creating new spaces for reflection in which to envisage social change.
With a right-wing president in power, this constitutes a healthy cultural resistance that could be a source of inspiration for action beyond Chilean borders.