Chilean Irina Karamanos, 32, arrived at La Moneda on March 11 with her partner, Gabriel Boric, who assumed the presidency that day. Feminist and social scientist with studies in Anthropology and Educational Sciences at the University of Heidelberg, she militates in the Social Convergence party of the Broad Front, as her partner. Her decision to assume the functions of first lady (which in Chile means automatically adopting the direction of six foundations, apart from protocol tasks) were criticized by the feminist movement, which aspired that Karamanos not hold the position, as the couple themselves had declared in campaign. In Chile there was a precedent: in the first government of Michelle Bachelet, between 2006 and 2010, these functions were delegated to suitable people who were paid for their work. In this interview, held last Friday, Karamanos explains what she announced publicly this Tuesday: one of the six foundations, Integra, will no longer be chaired by her, but by whoever the Minister of Education appoints. It is the beginning of a process that will continue with the other five foundations, which is expected to culminate before the end of the year and will be sealed with his departure from La Moneda: “I will continue accompanying my president and my political project, but not from an institutional role of government”, said Karamanos.
Ask. You are part of a new political generation that defends the importance of institutionality without giving up on transforming it. And you have had to transform a very indefinable figure such as the first lady. What did you think when you saw yourself in the position of accepting it?
Response. Since we have been doing politics, we have considered that institutionality is one of the paths that we must follow to make transformations. The decision to inhabit the position was a very big challenge.
P. Were there doubts? The feminist movement criticized them for accepting the position.
R. There were doubts, yes. In making the decision, there were critics. And we knew it. Internally it was a very interesting debate: can a continuity be interrupted by entering as a political agent an unconventional space to deploy feminism? We consider that it required political leadership to avoid that –if we did not inhabit it– it could be reproduced mechanically ad infinitum. That is why we prefer to enter and see what was inside, to then propose the transformations. And you have to be very aware of the pace of cultural changes when proposing the transformation.
P. Occupy and transform the position so that it is not reproduced in the future, you say, that an unelected person, the first lady, has public responsibilities. Are you sure that her movement now will not prevent that figure from being reproduced in the future?
R. We are sure to try. Making very blunt or megalomaniacal statements is to ignore how history works. I wouldn’t fall into that trap. But the closest way to avoid the reproduction of this tradition was assuming it and modifying it from within.
P. Have you found an echo of other colleagues, couples or wives of presidents?
R. I have spoken with former first ladies or with women who worked in the Government of Michelle Bachelet (2006-2010) in the Sociocultural Department. In this new moment of inflection, we have also talked. We recognize that there have been times when one or another part of the first lady’s institutionality has been questioned. And today, there is expectation, interest and recommendations about which part to change and which not.
P. Why is it important to question the figures that reproduce stereotypes of women?
R. I don’t think it’s a change that transforms society as a whole. It is a space that has a certain model and that represents an example of something that is protected and that which is protected, is preserved. And it is preserved in a way that, if it is not questioned, it may be hiding an invisibility of the potential of the presidents’ partners who may have political and professional capabilities or trajectories. There is a very clear and stereotyped imaginary of expectations. They are even attitudinal expectations. It seems to me that a more contemporary version of that can be proposed.
P. What is the contemporary version of a president’s partner?
R. One where the figure is not hidden. We can move to a place where that public figure can make visible some issues, problems, focus on some group of the population or play a protocol and diplomatic role. What we have come to propose, having analyzed the possibilities, is a modification in how institutionalized the role of first lady is in Chile. That she is inside the palace, that she goes to work inside the Government, that she has foundations that she presides over, are elements that anchor the figure in a network of much interference and spaces of discretion. The figure of the first lady is not as democratic as we expect the institutions to be.
P. You are going to continue to be the president’s partner, as far as we know, and forgive me for talking about private life…
P. Will you appear in public with him? What does the reformulation of this figure halfway between public and private consist of?
R. In practice, it consists of greater independence of attitude, of opinion, at a professional level and also at an economic level. We have to look for the possibility that there is more freedom, that the partners of the presidents can continue with their professional life, for example. I think it’s possible.
P. What are you going to do in those contexts where the first ladies have an assigned role, such as the summits?
R. We are going to define which are the trips or protocol instances in which it makes sense for us to be together.
P. The president said, regarding the rejection of the proposed Constitution, that you cannot go faster than your people. Are you afraid that there are Chilean men and women who don’t understand your decision on this issue?
R. I can’t imagine people arguing against the fact that I no longer have a space in La Moneda. In addition, what is going to continue – the accompaniment to the president – is the most popular and accessible version of this figure. She is the most human. And the public debate and cultural change is in the line that a woman is rather independent in her work and has her own proposal, unlike this slightly modeled modality of what is expected of a first lady.
P. What are the main challenges in equality between men and women in Chile?
R. It is still a big challenge. We have marked important advances worldwide, such as what was achieved in the design of the new Constitution, with parity [que se rechazó el pasado 4 de septiembre por un 62% contra un 38%]. In addition, I consider very important what was achieved in the formation of the Government, with a Cabinet that is not only equal, but also with a majority of women ministers. Now comes a double challenge: mainstream feminist logic in politics.
P. How concerned are you about the reactionary movement that we are seeing at this time of enormous vitality in the feminist movement around the world? It crystallizes in the difficulties of having an abortion in the United States or what is intuited that may happen in Italy if a government led by the extreme right is finally constituted…
R. Being a militant and a feminist, I am very concerned about observing national and international politics. The normalization of certain dehumanizing arguments is very worrying.
P. One of the decisions that have to do with this transformation of the figure of the first lady is to be able to have a professional life of her own. What is she going to do from now on?
R. My main bet – for myself and the following people who are partners of a president or president – is that there is freedom regarding the decision of how much you want to get involved in the protocol and diplomatic role and that you can continue with your professional career. In my case, I would like to go back to doing research in study centers, at the university.