Why is Civil Society Important?
The Arpilleristas in Pinochet's Chile
In a democracy citizens have rights, such as the freedoms of expression and of association. Often these rights are written in a constitution or other public document. When people freely exercise these rights, for example, by meeting to advocate for their interests, by volunteering to forward a valued cause, or by protesting a government policy, they do so as part of civil society. Civil society is a "space" whose function as a mediator between the individual and the state distinguishes it from the government and the business sector. While scholars debate the definition of civil society, they more or less agree that it comprises institutions such as religious organizations, labor unions, charities, community groups, nonprofits, and the media. In a healthy democracy these institutions supplement formal processes such as voting and help citizens shape the culture, politics, and economies of their nation.
Yet, what happens when the government controls the media and arrests those who protest publicly? What happens when individuals are afraid to associate? How do individuals and groups find outlets to express their ideas in an atmosphere of fear and retaliation? Ultimately, why is a vibrant civil society important? To whom? These are the kinds of questions students will explore as they interpret several arpilleras, or tapestries, woven by poor and working-class women during Augusto Pinochet's dictatorship in Chile from 1973 to 1990. Although Pinochet's regime largely dismantled civil society, the arpilleristas (weavers) used their tapestries to draw attention to human rights abuses, especially the plight of the thousands of men who had been "disappeared." In their arpillera workshops, Chilean women garnered the strength to express their political discontent publicly-in the streets through their protests and to an international audience through their artwork. These women voiced their outrage outside of the private, domestic places that had been the traditional sphere for women to demonstrate their power.
The supporting primary and secondary documents included in Facing History's case study Stitching Truth: Women's Protest Art in Pinochet's Chile will help students contextualize the stories of the arpilleristas while revealing important insights into civil society. For example, learning about the torture and detention of innocent civilians during Pinochet's regime can help students understand how leaders can use fear tactics to dismantle the social networks and forums for expression that nurture civil society. Moreover, when civil society is weakened such that individuals no longer have a way to freely protest government policies, it becomes easy for the state to abuse basic human and civil rights. At the same time, an awareness of how the arpilleristas, women whose gender and class marginalized them, forged a movement for social and political change by using the resources available to them-thread, fabric, imagination, dance, public spaces-demonstrates how individuals and groups can leverage different elements of civil society to resist oppression and secure human rights, even within the context of a dictatorship.
In a stable democracy many of the rights that support a vibrant civil society may be taken for granted. Thus, studying Chile at a time when freedom of expression and association was curtailed provides students with a unique opportunity to appreciate the function of civil society and, ultimately, to consider their own power as actors in a civil space.
These lessons address the following ESSENTIAL QUESTIONS:
- What is civil society? Why is it important?
- What factors strengthen civil society? What are the characteristics of a society with a vibrant civil society?
- What factors weaken civil society? What are the characteristics of a nation with a weak civil society?
- How is civil society different in a dictatorship from civil society in a democracy?
- What are the consequences for human rights and democracy when civil society is weakened? What are the consequences for human rights and democracy when civil society is vibrant?
- How do individuals and groups participate in civil society? How do you participate in civil society?
LEARNING OUTCOMES: These lessons are designed to help students...
- Construct a definition of the term civil society.
- Compare how civil society functions differently in a dictatorship than in a democracy.
- Identify tactics used by the Pinochet regime to weaken and dismantle civil society in Chile.
- Analyze how Chileans, particularly Chilean women, participated in civil society as a way to challenge Pinochet's dictatorship.
- Develop their ability to gather information from primary documents, cultural artifacts, and historical narratives.
- Consider civil society in their community and nation, including their own participation in it.
DURATION: 3 -5 hours
This unit consists of three lessons, developed to be used in sequence. Depending on your classroom context, you might decide to only use one of the lessons, or parts of each of the lessons. Or, if you choose to have students create their own tapestries (arpilleras) this could be a week-long unit.
- Facing History and Ourselves study guide Stitching Truth: Women's Protest Art in Pinochet's Chile
- Copies of the arpilleras numbered 1 through 8 (optional: copies of the arpillera on the cover of the study guide). Images of the arpilleras can be found in the study guide as well as in a slide show on the Facing History and Ourselves website at www.facinghistory.org/arpilleras.
- Map of South America (The website http://worldatlas.com/ contains several maps of South America and Chile, which can also be found elsewhere on the Internet.)
- A computer and projection screen to present the arpilleras to the whole class.
NOTE: A PDF version of this unit can be downloaded. It includes the following supporting materials:
"What is civil society?" graphic, Abridged Timeline of Recent Events in Chile, Document Analysis Template, Arpillera Presentation Preparation Worksheet, and Arpilleras Presentation Graphic Organizer.
The following websites provide additional information about the definition of civil society:
|Stitching Truth Unit.pdf||123.47 KB|