It has the 3rd highest proportion of female Members of Parliament in the world; over 70 percent of its health sector workers are women, including 64 percent of doctors; and its Family Code obliges men to share domestic duties and child care responsibilities equally with women.
It's not paradise. Or Sweden. It's a little island whose GDP per capita is half that of the United Kingdom, a place more associated with sickles and hammers than hammering through woman-friendly legislation in parliament.
Cuba remains one of the most misunderstood and misreported countries on the planet. When Carolina Amador Perez of the Federacion de Mujeres Cubanas (Federation of Cuban Women) and Gilda Chacon of the Cuban Trade Union Centre came to Tooks Chambers in London, it was clear that they wanted to set the record straight.
Their talk provided some welcome insight on the way that gender politics has unfolded in a country much-maligned in the Western media. Established in 1960, the Federation of Cuban Women was the first social organization founded in post-Revolutionary Cuba. Since then, it has enjoyed enormous success in educating women (99.8% are literate) incorporating them in to the work force (which is 46% female) and passing a Family Code that guarantees women equal social and economic rights. Today the FMC, ostensibly a non-governmental organization, represents 85 percent of Cuban women over the age of 14.
The statistics surrounding female participation in Cuban public life are, on the surface, so impressive that Perez jokingly suggests that what Cuba really needs is a Federation of Cuban Men.
Perez and Chacon's censure of Cuba is carefully calibrated and avoids any direct criticism of the extant regime; Perez calls Cuba an ‘imperfect but perfectable society'. Despite not explicitly addressing these flaws, Perez and Chacon's talk does address a much more convoluted issue: the culture of sexism. Indeed, effecting political change in Cuba is arguably easier than tackling the deeply ingrained traditions that legitimize inequality.
Hiding behind a set of inspiring numbers and figures is a serious undercurrent of machismo, or male domination, which underwrites much of Cuban life in the private sphere.
Though Cuban law sets out equal rights and duties in domestic tasks, traditional attitudes about gender roles often prevail and many women are expected to take full responsibility in household affairs in addition to full time work. Perez also notes that while the culture of machismo frowns upon physical violence against women, psychological and emotional abuse continue to be problematic in Cuban society - an issue that the CMF has organized a national working group to attend to.
The CMF's goal of democratizing family life remains elusive. And while statistics and statutes are important, they do not portray the subtleties of female subordination that often have deep historical roots. As in the Western world, it seems that legal measures to protect and empower women in Cuba outpace the cultural shifts necessary achieve full gender equality.
According to Perez, Cuban women are ‘content but not yet satisfied' with their progress. But the Cuban example is compelling because it complicates the Western conception of developed and underdeveloped states, a paradigm that tends to equate progress with ‘becoming like us'. At a time when the pay differential between men and women in the UK has recently increased to 17 percent, and when only 20 percent of all MPs in this country are women, a refusal to acknowledge the successes of other political and economic models -even when they are deeply flawed in some respects - seems foolish.
Indeed, Perez is visibly emotional when she speaks of Fidel Castro and she tells me that she sees him as a real leader, a man who genuinely believes that women are a fundamental and equal part of a revolutionary society.
To what extent her sentiments are popularly shared in Cuba is debatable. Many would argue that Cuba's political restrictions and its economic woes, aggravated by the US embargo, have tarnished the governments ‘revolutionary' credentials. Moreover, the effects of economic hardship have been borne disproportionately by women.
But what Perez articulates is a continued belief in justice and equality, ideals that were integral to the Cuban revolution just as they were integral to social movements of all different political stripes around the world. Those ideals - especially when it comes to women - have been badly bruised in countries that are communist, capitalist, and everything in between. So as economies flag and politicians flail, perhaps it is time to re-commit ourselves to creating societies that accept nothing less than the full participation of half their populations.
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