Women’s rights in Costa Rica – sexism masquerading as feminism?

Feminism is generally understood to follow one of two different models, often called the US and the European models. Costa Rica primarily embraces the European model.

The US model emphasizes equal rights for women, and thus champions causes like equal pay for equal work, equal access to credit, and an equal division of family responsibilities.

The European model emphasizes the different needs of women, and thus champions policies like state-subsidized daycare, maternity leave, and universal healthcare (because it tends to benefit women and children more than men).

Although both models can be defended, the European model seems to have the superior claim, at least assuming it is erected upon a general assent to equal rights. This superiority stems from the European model’s recognition that women’s and men’s needs sometimes differ, and gender justice isn’t always achieved by treating both the same.

However, the risk of the European model is that it can allow lingering gender stereotypes to define the differences between men and women, and thus perpetuate the very sexism that feminism should counteract.

Unfortunately, some of Costa Rica’s feminists fall prey to this kind of perpetuation of sexism under the guise of feminism.

Consider the most obvious example: The requirement that half of the national legislators be women. The assumption behind this law is that women need a kind of political affirmative action in order to earn elective office, an assumption that belittles women’s merit as party operatives and potential legislators.

Of course, it can be argued that having a strong women’s voice in the government is itself good, no matter how it is achieved. But this argument overlooks the fact that Costa Rica already has a national institute of women to which public officials defer, but no national institute of men.

Then there is the law which permits any woman to send any man directly to jail by simply alleging abuse. The accuser need not have evidence (especially since psychological abuse qualifies), yet her testimony all that is required.

Quite apart from the fact that this law empowers a subset of conniving women to extort men—the usual pattern is for the woman to allege abuse, the man to go to jail, and then for the woman to negotiate a cash payment to drop the charges—it construes women as such helpless victims that they can’t be held to the same standards of evidence required for every other criminal accusation.

And now there is even a law that mandates a lesser prison sentence for mothers caught smuggling drugs into prisons than for fathers who do the same thing. One of the justifications for this law is that women are so dependent upon the men in their lives that the men can coerce them into criminal acts, even when those men are behind bars.

Of course, another assumption is that as mothers women are almost above reproach, an assumption that is manifest daily by the family courts that invariably side with mothers over fathers in custody cases.

Costa Rica’s glorification with motherhood doesn’t stop at the country’s borders either. The government has championed the cases of US women who kidnapped their children in violation of US court orders, moved to Costa Rica to live illegally, and still merit the free legal backing of the Costa Rica’s authorities. The reasoning is that mothers are always the victims, father’s always the oppressors, and that the so-called feminists in Costa Rica can intuit the facts better than the judge who actually assessed them.

And on it goes. Overall, Costa Rica’s European-style feminism often reinforces the sexist stereotypes of women as marginally competent, vulnerable victims, and dependent upon men, rather than as strong, responsible people quite capable of fending for themselves.

And if you don’t believe that women in Costa Rica are strong, responsible, and capable, just look at the data on educational attainment. Girls graduate from high school at higher

rates than boys, when they drop out they are more apt to finish later in night school, and they swamp their male peers in their rates of admission to the leading universities.

Yet Costa Rica’s self-styled feminists continue to deny that women are strong, responsible, or capable.

Meanwhile, these proponents of European-style feminism haven’t yet gotten around to establishing the kinds of female-friendly policies that are the hallmark of European feminism. The majority of single mothers in Costa Rica still lack access to daycare, maternity leave, and even healthcare.

Let’s support Costa Rica’s European-style feminist aspirations, but let’s not be fooled when sexism masquerades as feminism.

Kenneth E. Morris

Kenneth E. Morris taught at various colleges and universities in the US before moving to Costa Rica in 2006, where he is now a permanent resident. His most recent book is Unfinished Revolution: Daniel Ortega and Nicaragua's Struggle for Liberation (Chicago Review Press).

The views expressed by columnists are not necessarily those of Inside Costa Rica or its staff.

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  • Rod Van Mechelen

    Mr. Morris is operating under a misconception. The US model does not emphasize equal rights for women, but superior rights. Thus it champions causes like equal pay for different work, claiming that a woman doing a safe, clean office job should be paid the same as a man doing a dirty, dangerous job. It also imposes an unequal division of family responsibilities, in which men are expected to do most of the work outside the home as well as an equal amount of work inside the home. This bias that favors women is particularly evident in cases of “no-fault” divorce, most of which are initiated by women, in which the courts overwhelmingly grant primary custody of children to women, and impose responsibility for child support and child education entirely on men. The US Model also falls into the trap of gender stereotypes, portraying women as perma-victims and men as predators. When a woman and man emerge from a bar, stagger home in a drunken haze and have sex, the following morning if the man has regret he’s told to “man up” and is the object of ridicule, while if the woman has regret she’s called a “rape victim” and encouraged to file charges against the man. If a woman hits a man it’s a big joke, but if a man hits a woman it’s a big crime. The Mirriam-Webster dictionary defines feminism as “the theory of the political, economic, and social equality of the sexes,” but actions speak louder than words, and by their actions feminists define it as a sexist, supremacist movement intent on destroying the nuclear family, masculinity, heterosexuality, the middle class, working class and working poor.