From a distance you feel the strokes… bam, bam, bam. The arm raises the thick fat stick and then lets it falls hard on the twisted sheet. The spray of lather explodes with every stroke and white water seeping from dirty fabric mixes with the river. It is very early, the sun barely up, and already the clotheslines are waiting for with damp clothes that must dry in the morning. The woman is exhausted. From the time she was a teenager she has washed her and her family’s clothing in this way. What other choice did she have? In that little village lost in the eastern mountains all her neighbors did the same. At times as she slept her body would move restlessly in the bed and repeat the hint of a movement: up… down… bam… bam… bam.
Lately the discussion of women’s emancipation in Cuba has been focused on persuading us of its extent, showing the numbers of women in parliament. There is also talk — in the official mass media — of how many have managed to climb into administrative positions, or to lead an institution, a scientific center or a business. However, very little is said about the sacrifice involved for them in managing in these positions with their busy domestic schedules and material shortages. You only have to look at the faces of those over forty to note the tense frown common in so many Cuban woman. It is the mark left by a daily life where a good part of the time must be dedicated to burdensome and repetitive tasks. One of these is the laundry, which many of our countrywomen do, at least a couple of times a week, by hand and in very tough conditions. Some do not even have running water in their homes.
In a country where a washing machine costs an entire year’s salary, we can’t talk about women’s emancipation. Facing the washtub and the brush, or the boiler filled with baby diapers bubbling on the firewood, thousands of women pass many hours of their lives. The situation becomes more difficult if we move away from the capital and look at the hands of the women who clean, with the strength of their fingers, the shirts, pants and even the military uniforms of their families. Their hands are knotted, stained white by the soap or detergent in which they’re immersed for hours. Hands belie statistics about emancipation and the fabricated gender quotas, with which they try to convince us otherwise.