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‘We were taught to see abortion as a one-way ticket to hell’

Writer Salomé Gómez-Upegui describes what it is like for women growing up with a Catholic education and a traditional Colombian family

Salomé Gómez-Upegui, autora del libro 'Feminista por accidente'
Salomé Gómez-Upegui, author of ‘Feminist by Accident’.Sofi Perazzo

Colombian writer, Salomé Gómez-Upegui, 28, maintains that if she can be a feminist, anyone can. It was only a few years ago that she couldn’t stand feminists. She saw them as hysterical and best ignored. Now she teaches courses on feminism, and last year published her first book, Feminista por accidente ­(or, Feminist by Accident) which tells how she went from distrusting feminists to joining their ranks. She talks about her Catholic upbringing and life in a very conservative paisa family, the name given to natives of Medellín and its surroundings.

“School curtailed any possibility of being different,” she says. “From that moment onwards, we are under pressure to fit into a box of controllable, perfect women. There was only one way of being, and that was in the mold of the Virgin Mary. We were taught that being submissive and showing no personality or will was the right thing to do.” In Feminist by Accident, she describes how she broke down the barriers that separated her from feminism.

“I was taught to fear abortion,” she writes. “We were taught to see abortion as a one-way ticket to hell.”

Gómez-Upegui studied at a convent school and grew up in a large family where the women’s role revolved exclusively around domestic tasks. Her book is a compilation of essays on feminism and the experiences that led her to break with tradition and lose her fear of the feminist label. “The idea that I had to hate men to be a feminist was one of the first to be dropped,” she says. “For many years, I used to think that I would be betraying my father or my partner,” adds Gómez-Upegui, who decided to dedicate herself to writing after finishing a Master’s degree in Law at Harvard University. She now writes for the Colombian and US media on cultural and gender issues.

Published by Planeta, Feminist by Accident tells stories that reveal how male-dominated families work. She recalls how her father complained she didn’t know how to cook rice when she was 12. “The most absurd thing was that he, then over 30, didn’t know how to do it either,” she says now, laughing.

When she was younger, she was amused by a story about her great-grandmother, who had 18 children, and used to get up before her husband at dawn to put on a little blusher and lipstick and go back to bed so she would look “nice” when he woke up.

“Calling yourself a feminist is not easy. It’s very frustrating,” she says. “Just when we think things are improving and we’re progressing, a bubble bursts in our face showing us that there is still a long way to go.”

Gómez-Upegui dedicates a few pages of her book to talk about feminist movements in the region, and the meaning behind what is now an iconic global feminist protest performance, Un violador en tu camino ­(A rapist in your path) as well as Mexico’s creative forms of protest.

“Things are also changing [within the feminist movements] in Colombia,” she says. “And it is admirable because it is a country with many war wounds. It’s commendable that, in the midst of all this, we’ve been able to create and empower a movement,” adds Gómez-Upegui who flags up its potential to decriminalize abortion. “The fact that this is being discussed, in a country where it is still such a difficult issue, is already an achievement,” she says. “It is thanks to the huge amount of work carried out by feminist groups that the Constitutional Court is now debating the decriminalization of abortion.”

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