Tango is the perfect metaphor for the relationship between men and women in Argentina, so says my Spanish teacher. The man leads and the woman must follow his cue while playing a game, alternately showing interest one second, turning her face away the next. So it is in romantic relationships, according to several men I speak to who have dated Argentine women (both Argentine men and foreigners). Argentine women are 'more complicated', 'difficult' and 'indecisive' so they assure me, but it undoubtedly begs the question of context: historical and cultural. Surely Argentine women are not inherently different from women the world over. What has happened to create this pattern of machismo, these starkly contrasting gender roles?
It is unheard of (nigh on illegal) for a woman to pursue a man in this country. And going back to the tango analogy I can recall my first tango lesson in Buenos Aires almost three years ago in which I made the apparently-reprehensible mistake of pre-empting my partners moves having just learned an eight-step sequence which we were practicing. He, a sixty-plus porteño (a BsAs local), was, to put it mildly, not best pleased with my efforts.
The history is a long and complex one, but Argentina is strongly influenced by its Italian and Spanish heritage. On first arrival to the Americas, Roman law ruled and this meant that women were ultimately the property of men; their fathers and then their husbands. It wasn't until 1905 that women first had the opportunity to go to university in Argentina and 1947 was the year women won the right to vote, largely thanks to Evita Peron's prominent efforts. So yes, things have evolved as they have the world over, but Argentina today remains a firmly patriarchal society.
In a country that has a female president; where the law dictates that 30% of ministers that sit in congress must be women and where the most celebrated human-rights campaigners are women (the mothers and grandmothers of Plaza de Mayo http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mothers_of_the_Plaza_de_Mayo) all is not as it seems. There are not many policies that reflect the relatively strong female presence in Parliament. Abortion is still illegal here, as it is in most of Latin America, and proposals for equal pay have not gotten anywhere. A case of token gestures but no substance perhaps?
On an everyday level, the machismo is manifest in fleeting moments. In the lack of attention I get when trying to get a waiter's attention in contrast to my male companions; in the proprietorial manner I see a man handle his girlfriend and in the not-so-subtle predatory stare of the porteño sat opposite me on the underground. In a strong imitation of their Italian heritage, men here tend to have very close relationships with their mothers and it is not uncommon for a man to visit his mother for lunch every Sunday, I am told. That said, in contrast to other South American countries such as Brazil, there seems to be less of a stigma attached to people moving out of their parents' homes before marriage.
Interestingly, we discussed these issues in one of my spanish classes (in spanish of course). The teacher asked us what we thought the situation was like for women in each of our own respective countries. I was astounded to hear that all seemed to think that women were treated equally to men in Australia, France, Austria, the U.K etc. Easier to point the finger at 'macho Latin America' than to think reflexively I suppose...