A version of this article originally appeared on VICE Latin America.
Scales, feathers, sequins and pearls adorn their colorful heads. Hundreds of them. Some alone, others in packs. They are all different, but their demand is singular: stop killing women, stop raping them, allow women to partake in the creation of the new constitution. These are the masked feminists.
Using masks was the norm in 1980s Chile, by armed leftist groups facing the dictatorship. Masks were a symbol of resistance, revolution and insurrection. In the 90’s, when democracy returned, these groups lost momentum, but the masks remained, often as a symbol in student movements. Mask-wearing eventually became associated with criminality, largely because of young masked men who would barricade themselves and throw rocks at police.
But today the garment has become an increasingly practical way of hiding one’s identity to avoid police persecution. It also acts as a barrier—although a weak one—to offset the effects of tear gas that the police throw from their cars.
The negative associations with masked protestors has incrementally shifted in recent months, as the garment has been claimed by feminist protesters. “The outlook on masks has changed,” said one such protester, Josefina, 34. "More and more people have taken to the streets, then realize that they cannot walk with their faces exposed. You have to walk covered like this or with a handkerchief, something that covers your eyes, to protect you from gas and everything the police throws your way. You find yourself covered up even if you don't want to. Before this, I had a negative feeling about masked people because they were the ones who break things and stuff like that. But not anymore.”
Josefina is walking through Santiago with a caravan of women who are participating in a mask-making workshop. In her backpack she carries a mask she made, a zipper adorning the mouth. In her hands, she carries a huge canvas poster that reads, “Red Masks in Resistance.”
“We are women and we put so much work into this. I put so much love into my masks. To make a war suit, put it on and to chant in ‘Dignity’ with all these women fills my heart,” she says.
Dignity is what the social movement has renamed the former Plaza Italia, the nerve center of Santiago and current epicenter of the demonstrations. On the stone base of the statue in the center of the square there is a new metal plate that reads, "Dignity Plaza."
The red wave
It’s 2 p.m. in Santiago, and 50 women of different ages and backgrounds have gathered at a cultural center a few steps away from Dignity Plaza. The women circle up on the floor around an embroidered blanket, a bowl of incense, with maté and fruits to share. They have come to the meeting of the “Red Masks in Resistance,” a group of women who meet every week to organize and create artistic interventions in different parts of the city.
After everyone introduces themselves, they divide into groups and follow instructions from the seamstresses, who distribute a newspaper pattern template to each of the attendees.
“Ideally, use a stretchy fabric,” says one of the instructors, while the students look through red fabrics in a container being passed around.
Each selects her fabric, folds it in half, and draws the pattern template on it before cutting it. They sew a quick backstitch on the open parts then toward the curved ends. With white chalk, some help the others mark the seams for the eyes and mouth to later cut out. The mask is ready; now to decorate.
Colorful scraps of fabric find their way to the floor, as do scraps of faux fur, animal prints, neons, silks, and lace. Sequins, rhinestones, ribbons, mirrors, beads, and feathers are everywhere. With silicone or needles, the women give life to their alter egos.
The group of women leading the activity have been doing this for a while. After the rise of the national feminist movement last year, they began giving free or low-cost workshops to teach women how to make their own masks. The intent is to share this knowledge and then replicate this workshop with others.
“The masked women do not expose their face for fear of recognition, it’s about not representing an individual: their face is your face, your face is my face. This is everyone’s protest and each one of us, both physically and ideologically, live in a space of resistance,” read a release about the message of the Red Masks. The document is signed “Masked women against the anti-mask law.”
“This is my first mask,” says 25 year-old Javiera as she braids blue and purple fabric to sew on her mask. “I came because everything makes my skin crawl. The feminist masks have more than just eyes and a mouth. Ours have more meaning than the men’s, which only serve to conceal. I like that because it serves as a counterpoint. We not only want to hide our faces, but we are presenting ourselves in the way we want to be seen, to be heard. The decorations are not just for aesthetics; every single article is important for the woman who is wearing it. Each woman creates an identity for the mask that reflects her story.”
The stories are bitter. They are shared among strangers. Laughter and tears flow between stitches as memories of rape, beatings, and abusive love are shared. The value of the mask is beyond the garment itself, it’s about the collective process of creation, it’s a means of meeting each other and building support.
“These are feminine spaces to share affection, to share tea while creating something by hand,” says feminist historian Hillary Hiner. “It’s a very long-standing feminine practice. Many feminist groups are dedicated to crafts: knitting, embroidery, sewing. It’s about re-contextualizing these tasks, which have been women’s labor for centuries, and now can serve a more feminist purpose. The masks serve as a symbol of rebellion, revolution and taking that history to give it a feminist perspective.”
Ximena, 63, has been wearing masks since the 80’s. She was protesting with her usual women’s collective, who worked to convert a former torture chamber during the dictatorship into a memorial, and decided to use the restrooms in the cultural center—that’s how she ended up at this workshop. The scene, she says, brings back so many memories of her youth. Back then she would organize with other women in the same building during Popular Unity, the socialist government led by Chile’s leftist icon Salvador Allende. The dictatorship took over in 1973. Ximena still carries the mask in her purse: a black handkerchief with two holes for the eyes, a big R for resistance written in white paint. She has told her children to bury her with it.
After the group of women have finished their masks, they dress in all red and walk en masse toward Dignity Plaza. By the time they reach the meeting spot, the group has grown to 200. Everyone puts on their masks and starts to sing and dance to “A rapist in your way,” a song from the feminist collective Las Tesis (The Thesis), which has become a feminist anthem in Chile and worldwide. “It wasn’t my fault, not where I was, nor how I was dressed,” they chant while waving their arms. “The oppressive state is a male rapist,” the red wave sings.
Feminists fighting the anti-mask law
In early November, President Sebastián Piñera's administration introduced a bill to Congress that would penalize the use of masks in public spaces. The bill prohibited the use of any facial obstructions during protests and increases the fine for disorderly conduct if the person’s face was concealed. The maximum charge could be up to three years of jail time. The bill was approved by the Senate and is in legislative process. Meanwhile, masks are becoming more and more prevalent.
“This law is a bluff, a distraction to lessen attention on what is important. We’re completely against it,” says Andrea, 29, who wears a white mask with rabbit ears, clear safety glasses (which is more common due to the rising number of eye injuries) and black lipstick.
Andrea is a member of Complejo Conejo (Rabbit Complex), a textile art collective dedicated to the right to anonymity. Given the social context, they have decided to devote themselves fully to creating masks with donated fabrics, which they then distribute for free at the demonstrations in downtown Santiago.
“We want people to use the mask as a face to go fight and defend themselves,” she says. “The right to anonymity goes hand-in-hand with freedom of expression, of not being punished for demanding your basic human rights. Who are the masked? They are not criminals, it’s finally everyone.”
To date, despite regular threats on social media, Complejo Conejo has distributed more than 700 masks and joke that they will not stop until all of Chile is masked. They have been so successful in distribution that they have begun to receive orders from other regions of the country and abroad. To meet the demand, they developed a tutorial so people could make their own masks.
Andrea and her team are handing out masks in Dignity Plaza. While some hold a sign that says “Free Masks! For the right to anonymity,” with masks hung on clothespins, others tend to the line where dozens of people are waiting to get their garments. Today they have a special guest, a member of Protected Data, a foundation that works in privacy rights and protection of personal data, who is answering questions about the bill that prohibits the use of masks.
One of the lucky ones in line is Antonia, who received an orange mask with spots of blue metallic leopard print.
"The mask has become useful, on the one hand, to cover us because they are poisoning us, but also to make us visible," says the 27-year-old. “These masks serve to bring visibility to our proposals, our own agenda, and to identify us to each other. If you meet a partner with the mask you know you can find support with her.”
To see more of Mila Belén's work, follow her on Instagram.