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'Democracy and Misogyny': Another Monday Night in Montevideo

01/05/2015 02:51 BST | Updated 30/06/2015 10:59 BST

Week three of my new life in Montevideo: it's 7pm on a Monday night and I'm sat in a cluster of enviously bohemian looking women and a couple of fresh-faced men. We have gathered around two Uruguayan artists, Pau Delgado and Ana Laura López de la Torre, to sip mate, guzzle down home-made cake, and chew the fat over the issue of 'Democracy and Misogyny' in Uruguay 30 years after the dictatorship (1973 to 1985).

Uruguay is a country renowned for its liberal policies, cultural open-mindedness and general grooviness. In 2013 The Economist voted Uruguay the publication's first ever country of the year for having effected "path-breaking reforms that do not merely improve a single nation but, if emulated, might benefit the world" (e.g. gay marriage, legalisation and regulation of cannabis). A worldwide political crush on the now ex-President José Mujica (and his three-legged dog) also did a lot for the country's democratic kudos. I was, therefore, a little dubious about this talk. I was innocently clutching onto my foreigner's perception that Uruguay is the bee's knees on an average day and a political utopia on a good one. Misogyny? Surely something so heinous could never afflict a country that dedicates the 29th of every month to the consumption of gnocchi...

The 'Democracy and Misogyny' discussion centred heavily on the relatively poor representation of women in parliament and other political spaces in Uruguay. According to data compiled by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, Uruguay's lower house parliament is currently comprised of only 13.1% women, its Senate a mere 6.5%. This is strikingly low compared with, for example, neighbouring Argentina: 36.2% (lower house) and 38.9% (Senate). This is even more perplexing taking into account that Uruguay is surrounded by countries boasting female presidents; Dilma Rousseff in Brazil, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina, and Michelle Bachelet in Chile.

In a 2014 interview with El Observador TV, Niki Johnson, a British political scientist who has lived in Uruguay for the past 16 years, goes deeper into the contrast between Uruguay's democratic character and the relatively low participation of women in politics. Johnson begins by noting that the highest percentage of female representation ever achieved in Uruguay's cabinet was 30%. This was during President Tabaré Vásquez's first term (2005 - 2010), the percentage then decreasing once more during the Mujica administration.

Johnson suggests that there is a cultural dimension to this phenomenon. Although one may not think of Uruguay as a machista country (machismo being an expression of masculinity that emphasises virility and domination of women), Johnson argues that it is indeed present in society and most clearly articulated in the political realm. Basing herself on the reports of the sessions of the Uruguayan parliament, Johnson points out that highly conservative comments concerning the role of women in society and in politics are frequently made by senators. Such comments speak volumes as to senior male parliamentarians' discomfort and resistance towards conceding their territory to women. After all, if Uruguay is ever to achieve a more diverse parliamentary representation, some of these old boys are going to have to step aside.

Before attending this talk I was an almost militant 'big picture thinker'. I would roll my eyes at any issue related with feminism that wasn't of global significance or on the FGM scale in terms of abhorrence. I would zone out as people talked about percentages in parliaments, let my head hit the desk as women made a huge fuss over a sleazy but only very slightly lingering male gaze. I somehow thought that my lack of regard for 'the detail' meant that others were petty and I was a focused activist who knew what mattered. However, participating in this discussion led me to the dazzlingly simple realisation that if you don't zoom in on the detail you're accepting that just being 'close enough' to equality and respect is good enough. Now that simply won't do, will it?