“We Can Break the Chain Ourselves”: Unfettering Women’s Voices
There are many aspects to Mosqoy that inspire me: empowering Indigenous communities to prosper economically, stimulating a self-propelling system of educational opportunity for and by Quechua youth, developing global stewards internationally for a more positive and fair globalized world—the uplifting list goes on.
Yet one particular aspect has stood out to me from the very beginning. Mosqoy has always advocated for the revitalization of the Quechua textile tradition.
I remember stumbling through the lecture hall doors in my first Environmental Studies class at UVic in the spring of 2015. This was my first introduction to Ashli Akins, the founder of Mosqoy. Before that day, I could never have expected the effort that goes into creating a textile: raising the alpacas, shearing the wool, hand-spinning it on a drop spindle, boiling the spun fibers in cauldrons with dyes procured from hundreds of different mountain plants—and all this before the actual weaving even begins.
What struck me hardest, however, was how Ashli equated the textiles to a history book. The long hours spent each day threading the weft through the warp—or in other words the latitudinal threads through the longitudinal strands of yarn—wasn’t merely with the intention of creating a piece of clothing (and indeed gasp-invoking art), but it was actually a way of recording cultural knowledge, identity, historical events, ancient stories, values, and beliefs, through a complex iconography derived over millennia.
In her book Woven Stories, anthropologist Andrea Heckman (2003, p.36) takes the metaphor further and asks, “Would a computer discovered as an artifact 2,000 years from now reveal any more about its former contents than the textiles do now?” The point is to consider the weavings as a high-technology system, able to contain a vastness of coded knowledge. Weaving traditions in Peru date as far back as 8,600 B.C.E.—that’s a lot of coding.
Yet, something more incredible dawned on me: this history was one recorded and told primarily by the women. “In a region where men now run the politics and in a world where our written history is not that of Indigenous peoples,” Ashli’s voice rang through the auditorium, “these weavings give women voice—this art gives voice to their history…”
What does it feel like to be an Indigenous woman living in a male-dominated world?
I myself, a white male settler descendent living on unceded Coast Salish territory, am not the appropriate one to answer that question. To better understand the oppression that burdens Indigenous women of the Peruvian Andes, I decided to turn to Hilaria Supa Huamán’s incredible work, Threads of My Life.
Hilaria is the archetype of an empowered Quechua woman who rose from unconceivable depths of oppression and poverty. She struggled to survive through childhood and raise her own children while experiencing all types of violence and abuse: rape, racism, machismo, abandonment, hunger, crippling arthritis from forced labour—all without access to social support or healthcare either.
“Many say women are born to suffer,” writes Hilaria, “Likewise from birth we are both men and women already marginalized because of our race, for being Indigenous. This doesn’t have to be so! This chain of suffering and violence can be broken. We can break the chain ourselves…” (2008, p.21).
Following in the footsteps of her grandfather—who was murdered for making a stand against the oppressive hacienda system—Hilaria participated in instigating the land reform that began dismantling the haciendas. She was and continues to be a prominent leader in multiple Indigenous women’s organizations and developed a plethora of programs to empower hundreds, indeed thousands, of other women, Quechua and non-Quechua alike. In 2006, incidentally the same year Mosqoy was founded, Hilaria became a Member of Peru’s Parliament—challenging its male-dominated condition—and was the first in its history to take her oath in Quechua.
Despite the countless adversities, Hilaria and other women are breaking the chain. This, she says, is the very reason she wrote her book: to provide empowerment for breaking the chain of suffering. The same, I have come to realize, can be said for the reason behind the creation of Mosqoy.
By providing fair trade outlets for the Quechua textiles, Mosqoy helps restore a crucial foundation for women’s voices within the community, and their history can continue to be woven.
In this unprecedented time on earth, people and their histories are more interconnected than ever. Yet, instead of peacefully interweaving these histories, the Western way of doing things has come to dominate and devastate other societies (such as Hilaria’s Quechua culture), and the consequences of such violence towards people and their environments now threatens to take an irreconcilable toll on the future of the planet as a whole. In this light, honouring other histories and ways of being is paramount.
Listening to Hilaria’s story, I learned that in Quechua there is a concept known as “ayni.” It represents reciprocity—giving and receiving. Ayni is the law for good relations both among people and also between people and the planet. The disruption of ayni is at the root of the abuse of women, Indigenous communities, and of Pachamama, Mother Earth.
“If we observe the ancient…weavings,” says Hilaria, “we can find the same idea [of ayni]. There is a countless variety of symbols which represent the balance of life. Respecting this wisdom, neither machismo nor feminismo can exist because none of the two parts is worth more or less than the other…the imbalance between men and women sickens our society. This is why it was necessary to create a women’s organization…the natural recognition and respect for us was lost” (2008, p.102).
As I said, there are countless ways that Mosqoy’s work inspires me. The one I am writing about today is the act of helping restore that respect for the women. The balance—the ayni—is already there, but for it to function, Quechua women must have their rightful place in society.
Mosqoy doesn’t say, “We can break the chain for the Quechua women.” Rather, Mosqoy hears the Quechua women singing, “We can break the chain ourselves,” and observes that another chain, a much more ancient one—the textile—is already being woven, as it always has been, serving as an essential source of empowerment and connection to Quechua past, present and future.