The Power of Women and Peru's Shining Path
The war between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state during the 1980s and 1990s left almost seventy thousand, mostly indigenous, Peruvians dead, and many more bereft, with emotional and physical scars. The legacy of this time of violence could appear entirely bleak, yet recently scholars have examined the opportunities the Shining Path offered traditionally marginalized sectors of the Peruvian population, particularly Peruvian women. Women made up a significant portion of the Shining Path’s membership, and their visibility within the movement was one of its most striking features. Some suggest the Shining Path brought Peruvian women into the public sphere by giving them leadership roles within the revolutionary movement. Other scholars give a more complex analysis of the involvement of women in the Shining Path, finding that both personal agency and exclusionary patriarchy were part of their experience.
The Shining Path failed to generate the significance and power of Peruvian women through their inclusion in the Revolution, nor neutralized their political agency through their co-optation into a patriarchal organization, but rather that the circumstances surrounding the war between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state unleashed the power of women, revealing their profound significance within Peruvian society, and providing them the tools and the space necessary to act politically. An analysis of the Shining Path’s platform, propaganda and membership will demonstrate that the Shining Path was dependent upon women for its empowerment, by showing the instrumental role played by women in legitimizing the image and ideology of the Shining Path. Then, a discussion of the opposition to the violence and terror of the Shining Path will reveal the power of grass-roots organizations led by women. Finally, this paper will show that now, as people study and remember the violence in Peru, women, through their testimonies and interviews continue to shape the legacy of the war, and the image of both the Shining Path, and the Peruvian state.
Foundations of the Shining Path
Several scholars have studied the political, economic, and social context of the rise of the Shining Path, and a brief summary of the conditions in Peru in the late 1960s and 1970s is necessary to understand both the People’s War, and the emergence of women into the public sphere. Poverty and deprivation marked the lives of many Peruvian citizens, especially those who lived in rural, non-Spanish speaking communities. Enrique Mayer writes of the division between “deep”, or indigenous Peru, and “official”, or Hispanic Peru, and describes the ways indigenous Peruvians live with structural violence, the experience of “poverty, abuse, discrimination, racism, and arbitrariness and/or indifference by the state.” Rights for women in Peru were very limited; abortion after rape was illegal, female poverty was on the rise, and women of indigenous background faced virtually insurmountable obstacles.
The “Revolutionary Government of the Armed Forces,” led by General Juan Velasco Alvardo came into power in 1968, the year that popular movements and protest erupted in Paris, Mexico City, Prague and other cities worldwide. Velasco enacted educational, agrarian and economic reforms to combat widespread material inequality, and prevent a more radical revolution from the left. Velasco’s top-down reform movement was incomplete, and therefore highly combustive, creating a potent mix of expectation and frustration in a population of increasingly educated and politicized young Peruvians, who were caught at the intersection of reformist promises and structural impediments.
In 1969, a strike of educational workers in Ayacucho (south-central Peru)revealed the limits of Velasco’s reform and the growing dissatisfaction of teachers and students in Andean communities, what Orin Starn describes as the “climate of sharp unrest across the impoverished countryside.” The activism of members of SUTEP during the 1969 upheaval highlights the collision between the expectations and limitations fostered by the Velasco regime. This was a seminal event for the Shining Path, and used in later publications to contextualize and legitimize the uprising. Shining Path propaganda described the role of women, “In 1969, women heads of households smashed the doors at the Ayacucho food market, after the police closed it during the demonstrations…an elderly woman,…delivered a furious and spontaneous speech to the masses.
The “second “phase” of the reform movement started by Velasco was carried out by his successor, Moralez Burmudez, with a significant movement to the right. Velasco’s agrarian reform led to land take-overs and peasant movements, and according to Floencia Mallon, “if official attempts at popular mobilization and social redistribution seemed to generate a radicalization even more difficult to control, then better to stop Velasco’s ill-fated experiments and once again court the confidence of the investing classes." Activists, labor leaders, and teachers were fired, repressed, and deported.  Promises kept, like expanded education and socialist reform, and promises broken, such as the lack of jobs for indigenous youth, deficient land reform, and the continued repression of social movements, combined to create what Starn calls an “enormous pool of radical young people of amalgamated rural/urban identity who would provide an effective revolutionary force.” Several leftist groups worked within the political and educational space opened up by the Velasco regime, while working against the repressive, inefficient, and indifferent Peruvian state. Other groups, particularly the Shining Path, refused to work within the state-defined system.
Birth of the Shining Path
The Shining Path arose out of the San Cristóbal of Huamanga University in Ayacucho, informed by Maoist/ Leninist/ Marxist ideology, the writings of Mariategui, and the failures of the Peruvian state. The leader of the Shining Path, Abimael Guzman, called President Gonzolo by his followers, sought a protracted people’s war with the state, modeled after the Chinese communist revolution. He led the movement according to ‘Gonzolo Thought’, an ideology that was dedicated to class struggle and combating imperialism, with an emphasis on the importance of the Vanguard Party and the necessity for bloodshed. While other leftist opposition groups attempted to work within the political process, the Shining Path rejected the validity of elections, maintaining connections with few other leftist groups besides SUTEP. The Shining Path continued to work with SUTEP because of the organization’s Maoist ideology and, at least partly, according to Ivan Hinojosa, because, “The education system was the greatest source of cadres for the left.”
On May 17, 1980, the day before Peru held elections for a civilian president after twelve years under a military regime; Shining Path members signaled the beginning of their revolutionary movement by burning ballot boxes in Chuschi, a village in Ayacucho. The Shining Path was not well-known outside the Andean countryside in the at the beginning of the People’s War. The movement was led by white, educated Peruvians, Guzman and his inner-circle who believed the rights of women and indigenous people would be ensured by the dictatorship of the proletariat. Guzman largely dismissed issues of racial and gender equality, yet at the same time, they appealed for ideological legitimacy by recruiting indigenous men and women, and by portraying their movement as a champion of Peruvian women.
A publication from Nueva Bandera from the mid-1990s describes the Marxist approach to gender dynamics, “Women, like men are seen as a combination of social relations, historically formed and changing as a function of the variations in society as it develops. Women are thus a social product and their transformation demands the transformation of society.” They rejected feminist movements that did not share their radical ideology, groups that “preach women’s liberation, simply making some adjustments to this decrepit society.” The article continues to condemn these types of organization, calling them “social cushions” that, “have bourgeoisie and revisionist positions and serve as instruments of oppression and backwardness for women with the aim of pulling them off the path that the proletariat and the people have traversed with the People’s War.” Although the movement lacked space for feminist-oriented activity, it did recognize the tactical significance of women. The women of Peru were necessary to the revolution, according to Lenin, “The Success of the revolution depends on the degree to which the women participate,” and Mao, “Women represent half the population…and they are a force determining the failure or success of the revolution.” Mao and Lenin may have understood importance of women in revolution, but Peruvian women had much more then just demographic strength as half the population.
Women in the Shining Path
Women played an instrumental role in legitimizing the ideology of the Shining Path, as teachers, members, martyrs and propaganda images. By 1990, women made up approximately one-third of the revolutionary group’s membership. Guzman, although aloof from bourgeoisie feminist movements, had formed the Popular Woman’s Movement in 1965, and worked as the director of student teachers in the Education department, where more than half the teachers were women, and according to Robin Kirk, “By 1981 half of Ayacucho’s teachers had received their degrees from the Shining Path-controlled San Cristóbal of Huamanga University (UHSC) Education Department.” In this way, women were involved in the diffusion and reception of the Maoist ideas that underpinned the Shining Path. Women were not only teachers and students of Maoism and Gonzolo Thought, but also members of the movement’s leadership. Guzman’s wife, Augusta was the director of the Popular Women’s movement, but her early visibility waned until a video of her funeral surfaced in 1991. As wife, warrior, or martyr, Augusta was a symbol of the Shining Path’s appeal to Peruvian women and women’s ability to serve in leadership roles. The Shining Path celebrated the image of one young female member very successfully.
In 1982, Edith Lagos, a member of the Shining Path, or Senderista, died at the hands of the police. Earlier that year she had helped mastermind the Ayacucho prison break, and was, according to Robin Kirk, “the most famous Shining Path member after Guzman.” Lagos was misti, or a Peruvian with non-indigenous features, well-educated and the daughter of wealthy parents. Her life an example of the emergence of politicized Peruvian women into the public sphere, and her death an illustration of the power of the image of fierce, dedicated Senderistas. Lagos’ funeral in Huamanga drew ten thousands mourners, who appeared in an amateur video of the event as a “solid carpet of people”. Since her death, Lagos’ grave has been destroyed three times, attesting to the military’s recognition of the power of her martyrdom to inspire Shining Path members and sympathizers. The Shining Path continued to use her as an icon seventeen years after her death, extolling her dedication and martyrdom in a presentation given in San Francisco by a member of the Committee to Support Revolution in Peru at a gathering on International Women’s Day called “Women Hold up Half the Sky, The Role of Women in the Revolution in Peru.”
The Shining Path appealed to women within Andean communities, building its membership and ideological legitimacy. They did this by holding trials of wife-beaters, adulterers, and rapists. Later publications of Shining Path propaganda recount their role proudly, “Peru’s traditional Andean peasant culture is quite a lot more rigid than prevailing in the urban areas. Peasant women who would stray from their husbands are severely punished but sexual harassment and adultery on the part of men is rather prevalent. On the other hand, where the Party established its influence, divorce is introduced and sexual harassment is not tolerated.” Previously “invisible,” in the words of Isabel Coral Cordero, and trapped within a system that recognized only their domestic contributions, the Shining Path gave Peruvian women education, social justice, and opportunities to act alongside men in the People’s War.
Yet at the same time, gender issues were not part of the Shining Path’s platform, only their rhetoric. Guzman, like the primary influences in his life, Marx, Lenin, Mao and Mariategui, found gender insignificant in comparison to class struggle, but recognized the necessity of women’s involvement in the Revolution. “Only the direct and massive participation of revolutionary women, principally working women,” Guzman is quoted as saying “…in the (the revolution) remains the sole guarantee of genuine defense and promotion of women’s rights within a real and concrete path of liberation.” The Shining Path recognized the need for women in the movement, yet it cannot be said that they offered Peruvian women emancipation or political agency, only that they sought their support through policies and rhetoric that validated their significance within Peruvian society and the revolution.
In contrast to the image of invisibility, domesticity, and sacrifice of Peruvian women described above, the figure of the female Senderista fighter inspired fear. The perception of these women warriors often had racial and gendered implications, harkening back to both stories of fierce Andean females, and the teachings of Mariategui. Mariategui described the nature of women as, “Lack[ing] a sense of justice. Women’s flaw is to be too indulgent or too severe. And they, like cats, have a mischievous inclination for cruelty.” Robin Kirk conducted interviews and research on the role of women in the Shining Path and found two prevailing perceptions of the “crazy” women drawn to join the People’s war, either “sexless automatons,” or “bloodthirsty nymphomaniacs.” Kirk writes that “It was as if Nature had delivered a totally new creature…it frightened and gave Guerillas an aura of unnatural, witchy power,” and quotes her cabdriver’s sentiment that “women from the mountains were, strong-willed, warlike.”
Senderistas were rumored to regularly deliver the ‘coup de grace’ in targeted assassinations and popular trials, further building their image as cold and deadly. The Shining Path reinforced this racialized perception of Andean women in its literature, quoting a 1923 El Tiempo newspaper article that described Andean women’s “rich history” of involvement in rebellions in the Ancco and Chusqui districts, saying, “They mistreated the mayor and the chief tax collectors of theses districts in a cruel and inhumane way, and left them fatally wounded.” The Shining Path did not create this image of strong, dangerous Peruvian women, they merely applied it in order to legitimize their appeal to indigenous communities, using both fear of women’s innate cruelty, and pride in Andean resistance and independence.
Women Opposed to the Shining Path
The violence of the 1980s and 1990s threatened Peruvian families, compromising parents’ ability to protect their children, separating men from their families and leaving women to organize associations to defend and heal their communities. During the 1970s labor and political movements were almost exclusively male, but as men left rural communities, joining or fleeing the Shining Path, women “filled the void,” and formed groups that resisted the Shining Path. Some women, like Maria Elana Moyano, had been politically active for years, others formed in reaction to the war between the Shining Path and the Peruvian State. The conditions in Peru, the violence, the hunger, and the terror of the areas affected by the violence, necessitated the fusion of the roles of mother and political actor. The power and significance of Peruvian women may have previously been invisible, dormant, or even repressed, but was now brought to the fore by women’s compelling resistance to the Shining Path.
Maria Elana Moyano’s years of political activism had their roots in the incomplete land reform of the Vargas regime. In 1971, when she was twelve years old, Moyana accompanied her parents in a land take over, after their expectations of land redistribution had been unmet. The land they and the neighbors occupied outside of Lima became the Villa El Salvador.] Moyano remained politically active in the town; she was a member of a church group that was influenced by Liberation Theology, president of the Villa El Salvador Womens’ Federation, and in 1987, Vice Mayor of the town. In 1989, the Agency for International development showcased Villa El Salvador as a model town. Moyano’s power was neither invisible nor radical, she worked within legal institutions and pursued social change.
The Shining Path aggressively pursued obedience and loyalty from the inhabitants of Villa El Salvador, using violence and terror to achieve the townspeople’s cooperation. Moyano would not endorse the People’s War and gave an interview to journalist Mariella Balbi in 1991, after the Shining Path had blown up a food ware house that supplied ninety-two soup kitchen. “Until a little while ago, I thought the Shining Path was wrong-headed but that they in some way wanted to fight for some kind of justice,” she said, “…now they have touched grassroots organizations, made up of the poorest people. Who participates in the soup kitchens and the ‘glass of milk’ program? People who can’t afford to eat in their houses, so I don’t understand this unbalanced group. They want to snuff out survival organizations so that levels of malnutrition and death rise.” Moyano led a march to protest the violence of the Shining Path and gave interviews like the one cited above criticizing the movement’s tactics. On February 15, 1992, Moyano was murdered by female Shining Path members at a community chicken barbeque she had organized.
Moyano was able to make a political space for herself in Peru, before the Shining Path invaded her town. She was neither silent nor disempowered in Villa El Salvador because her position gave her power to defy the Shining Path as a politician and a woman. Other women resisted the Shining Path informally, without political clout. Peruvian women collaborated in “Mother’s Clubs,” soup kitchens and glass-of milk programs, functional organizations that addressed nutritional needs of children and communities. Yet the violence and terror of the war between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state, these women’s federations became politicized. In August, 1988, the Mother’s Clubs Federation organized a march for peace, one participant saying, “Because we give life, we defend it.”
Senderistas attempted to disrupt the march and intimidate those advocating peaceful solutions, but they were expelled by the female marchers. Without the support of women, the Shining Path struggled for legitimacy and control, in the face of explicit opposition from Peruvian women, the group asserted their influence though violence and repression. The potential contribution of Peruvian women may have been overlooked by the masculine organizations that formed in the 1970s, but within the extraordinary conditions of the war, women’s foundational position within society became clear.
The war also inspired women in the Peruvian countryside to act in the public sphere in order to protect their children and their communities. As the number of casualties grew and the men left, women in Andean communities formed self-defense organizations, or Rondas Campesinas. Although accounts of the successful opposition to the Shining Path often include gendered language and references to masculine resistance, women, or Ronderas, played central roles in the community organization. Although some described their activities as “making ourselves macho,” or “put[ting] ourselves in the position of men,” the efforts of women to oppose the Shining Path dealt the People’s War a serious blow. Gendered language aside, the outcome of the Ronderas’ involvement in the war against the Shining Path was significant, communities cooperated with the Peruvian state to identify, attack, and purge Senderistas.
Andean women recognized the value of their political participation, and sought to ensure their continued political involvement. In Ayacucho in 1994 and 1995, Andean women created the “Proposal of the Women of Ayacucho.”  The women demanded guarantees they would retain their position in the economy, state aid for nutrition and health programs, women and children displaced by the violence and attention to the mental health of Peruvian children. They recognized their role in maintaining their visibility, and pledged to coordinate and organize local, regional and national women’s groups, learn Spanish and engage in family planning. This effort to claim space for themselves in the public sphere shows the dedication of these women to their goals, and according to historian Steve Stern, “women’s new prominence as citizen-subjects, with their own political organizations and agendas, has left an important and probably irreversible legacy.”
Women Remember the Shining Path
The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (PTRC) found that the Shining Path was responsible for fifty-four percent of the deaths during its war against the Peruvian state, and was principally guilty for the violence because the organization had deliberately sought to elicit a violent response from the state. One key distinction between the terror perpetrated by the Shining Path and that of the military and police was the state officials’ systematic application of sexual violence against women. The use of sexual violence by state representatives, such as military and police, was widespread under military dictatorships in the Southern Cone, and state repression and civil wars elsewhere in South and Central America during the twentieth century. These violations were generally committed against civilian women, while in Peru, the presence of women in the Shining Path complicates the understanding of this distinction.
The inclination toward rape and sexual torture, as seen in Peru during the violence of the 1980s and early 1990s could speak to the need of the state’s military and bureaucratic machine to break down and reorganize marginalized and indigenous populations. Raping with impunity is a powerful tool, it breaks down family bonds and degrades the mothers and sisters of the families, damaging and disempowering the victims of state violence in ways that undermine entire communities. In Peru, as elsewhere, sexual violence was used against women to assert state control over target populations, the results were damaging to the women and their bodies, their communities, and the legacy of the Peruvian state’s victory over the Shining Path.
Testimonies continue to speak to scholars and other members of the international community. The state-sanctioned sexual violence recorded in the PTRC is personalized by interviews and testimonies by both victims and torturers. For example, Betty was a militant Shining Path member, but left the party after becoming pregnant. She lived in fear of being found by either the Shining Path or state authorities. Eventually the police began questioning her about rumors of her Shining Path involvement, periodically arresting, torturing and raping her. Betty’s life was ruined by this violence, she lived in constant insecurity and “never knew when one of the policemen who had raped her would pass her on the street and smile that secret smile of knowing.”
“Pancho” was a veteran of the Navy and fought in the early 1980s against the Shining Path in Ayacucho, and he gave an interview that is recorded in The Peru Reader, History, Culture, Politics. He matter-of-factly told of raping and abusing girls and women, “When I searched women, the first thing I did was undress them. Old or young, I stuck my fingers in them just the same. You may not believe me, but there was one time when I found one explosive, pardon me, two. It’s because they have big cunts,” he said, “So from that moment I began to search all the cholas…sometimes little girls thirteen years old. They were sluts.”
“Pancho’s” interview shows that as he battled the Shining Path, he victimized women he felt could be enemy combatants, perhaps this allowed him to justify his crimes, while racism also allowed him to distance himself from the pain he caused. He narrated his participation of another rape and murder of a young indigenous girl with his military comrades, asking his interviewer, “You understand don’t you. This happens the world over.” He then reminded his interviewer of Vietnam, as if to establish their mutual culpability in wartime rape. Yet, by the time the PTRC released its report; sexual violence was increasingly acknowledged and condemned by an international community that was more responsive to reports of systematic sexual violence.
Women testified to the PTRC, and their experiences will forever be a part of Peru’s official history. Remaining adherents to the Shining Path, such as the Committee to Support the Revolution in Peru (CSRP) exploited the PTRC’s report, as seen in an article in the weekly newspaper, Revolutionary Worker, and reprinted by the CSRP: “One of the most heart-wrenching sections of the Commission report documents case after case of torture of women revolutionaries by the military and police,” the article goes on to describe acts of torture, and ends by quoting the PTRC, “The Commission concludes that sexual violence against women by the armed forces of the state was a ‘generalized practice that took on a systematic character connected to the repression of the subversives in the provinces of Ayacucho, Huancavelica, and Apurimac.'” In the production of memory, the Shining Path has won an important victory, and even after its destruction in the mid-1990s, the movement continued to celebrate its treatment of women. Later in the article the authors remarks, “One of the things that really stands out about the People’s War in Peru is how steadfastly the PCP (Peruvian Communist Party) has struggled against women’s oppression, and how it has led the masses against every form of degradation faced by women in Peru.”
The power of women becomes explicit when it is shown in the public sphere. Under the kind of conditions created by the war between the Shining Path and the Peruvian state, Peruvian women were able to act in ways both maternal and political, and show the influence they wielded in a variety of ways. Women acted as revolutionaries, soldiers, community organizers, and national consciences because of a combination of factors, among them: their dedication to party doctrine, the Marxist appeal to female inclusion, the dwindling number of men in many communities, their need to feed their children, and their decision to testify to the PTRC. Although the Shining Path and its remaining followers claimed to be instruments of the emancipation of the women of Peru, it was the organization that benefited from the women’s membership.
The movement acquired greater ideological legitimacy and a dark air of mystery and danger associated with indigenous female warriors, adding even more to the movement’s credibility. Women were visible sacrifices to the movement, and the martyrdom of Edith Lagos drew support from many quarters. Women played a crucial role when communities began to resist the Shining Path and form alliances with state representatives, and also began to act publicly by forming substantial social organizations that addressed matters of nutrition and child welfare. Finally, the testimonies of women will continue to verify claims of the Shining Path that the Peruvian state’s victory was sullied by the systematic application of sexual violence during the war.
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- Robin Kirk, The Monkey’s Paw: New Chronicles from Peru, (Amherst: University of Massechusetts Press, 1997), 64; Isabel Coral Corder, “Women in War,” Shining and Other Paths: War and Society in Peru, 1980-1995, ed Steve Stern, (Durham: Duke University Press, 1998), 352.
- Enrique Mayer, “Peru in Deep Trouble,” Rereading Cultural Anthropology, ed. George E. Marcus, (Durhm: Duke University Press, 1992), 188-193.
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- Starn, DeGregori, and Kirk. The Peru Reader 264.
- Orin Starn, “Missing the Revolution, Anthropologists and the People’s War in Peru,” Rereading Cultural Anthropology. 153; Ivan Hinojosa, “On Poor relations and the Nouveau Riche: Shining Path and the Radical Peruvian Left,” Shining and Other Paths, 70.
- The New Flag Magazine, “How Women Advance the Revolution,” (1998), 1-2.
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- Kimberly Theidon, “Disarming the Subject: Remembering War and Imagining Citizenship in Peru,” 70.
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