Madrid, Spain during 1930s
It’s Friday night. We are driving to the theatre. A tram cutting through the heart of Madrid is jam-packed with people. I witness how young souls carefreely enjoy their life. Gradually, this society is changing in erratic ways. Yet, sometimes, most of the time, I feel like I’m living in the cage despite—or because of—wealth and status.
Shortly after, we arrived at the front of the theatre. Julián walks straight to a group of unfamiliar-faced, besuited gentlemen and glamorously-dressed ladies and greets them. I secretly study the patterns and sewing of her attires. He introduces me as his wife. Senores, Senoritas, this is Carlota, my wife. I give them dos besos, and then force a smile when they compliment my appearance. That’s it and there’s nothing left for me to do. While waiting for the play to start, I meekly stand beside him and listen to them talking and laughing—as if I was spiritual. But when looking around, I’m relieved. Those gentlemen’s partners don’t utter a word, just like me.
‘Have you heard the news yet? The majority of the parliament already passed the new constitution,’ a gentleman changed the subject.
‘Yes, we all have. Now that House Bourbon was overthrown, the Republicans seem to be overconfident. Plus, their constitution is bullshit. I won’t be surprised if nationalists spark off riots.’
‘They even granted women suffrage. I don’t know if it’s progressive or ridiculous. Not to mention letting women hold public office.’
‘Exactly. Their place is in the house, not office or parliament,’ I somehow feel offended by their statements. Yet, Julían doesn’t utter a word—only chuckling and nodding.
We enter the hall where many people are in their seats. Julián leads the way to our reserved ones on the balcony. By surprise, an elegant woman with black curly hair comes in the opposite direction. She smiles at me—I recognize she is among the group of people we talked to earlier—and then walks away without saying anything.
‘Do you know her?’ Julían askes as taking his seat.
‘No, I don’t. Isn’t she your acquaintance? She’s with those gentlemen you talked to.’
‘I don’t think I know her. Forget it. The play is about to start.’
While sitting down, I unexpectedly notice a letter, stuck in the chair, addressed Nosotros, mujeres. I quickly crumpled up the letter and shoved it behind my back, for I fear Julían would see it. The racing beat of my heart resounds in my head as if I’m doing something wrong. I twist my body and open the letter, gingerly.
We shall ally together if you don’t desire to be detained in the invisible cage
of female oppression any longer.
After reading the letter, I can’t pay attention to the play even for a second.
Early in the morning, I wake up to prepare breakfast for my husband. While I am setting the table, the bell rings. Walking towards the door, I wish it wasn’t her but unfortunately it is.
My mother-in-law comes to visit us once in a while. Usually, she doesn’t talk to me much—only asks whether I take good care of her son and the household. Also, the hitting the nail in the head question is are you expecting? Every time I answer no, madre, she will look at me with mere disappointment. And it’s the same this morning.
‘You only have a few jobs in this house and carrying a child is one of them. After all these years, you achieve nothing,’ she blurts out as Julián walks down the stairs, after sleeping in on his day off.
‘I think you aren’t aware of the fact that to avoid being a defective woman, conceiving can’t be neglected, are you? Because if you are, I must have held my grandchild long ago.’
I should have been used to her kind of words and manner, but somehow my heart aches. I want to say something against her. I want to argue that I’m a woman all the same despite not having a child but I don’t dare to—a proper daughter-in-law should know her place. However, what’s even worse is that she has never expressed sympathy after that heartbreaking moment a couple of years ago. Julián seemingly turns a deaf ear. He never speaks up for me nor defends anything for my sake. He is not a bad husband but not a good one either.
After the topic of me carrying a child, we have breakfast in the most unpleasant atmosphere. Mother and son are catching up. Once again, I am physically there but invisible. Even after finishing the dish, I keep my mouth shut and sit there. It must be worse if I stand up before they do.
‘You better not take her words to heart,’ said Julián, while I was cleaning up the table after his mother left.
‘Yeah, I guess.’
‘What’s wrong with your tone of voice?’ He drops the newspaper and scowls at me.
‘It’s just what she said...’
‘You are being too emotional.’
‘You should control your manner, Carlota. What she said is true, and she is my mother after all.’ Frustration is about to burst. But before everything goes downhill, I close my eyes and take a deep breath.
‘You’re right.’ After washing dishes in the kitchen, I go straight to the front door and walk out the door, ignoring his calling.
I don’t know where to go. I just want to stay away from the house as far as I can, so I keep walking and walking. Suddenly, the address mentioned on that mysterious letter pops up in my mind. Following the direction for a couple minutes, I am in front of a small, off-white cafe. Given weekdays, it is rather quiet compared to the neighbour, yet the atmosphere is welcoming and drawing, not unsound as I thought. Seeking through the glass window and seeing a couple of women chatting in the room, I decide to push the door.
I know I have come to the right place because the first thing catching my attention is a canvas shall we, women not be tame no more, hang above the door across the room. I step forward—hands get cold. Hearing a woman’s voice behind the door, I turn the doorknob.
‘...I was told by my mother to obey whatever men say. I have no right to do what I want. I was told to behave nicely and properly so that some gentlemen could take me in as a wife. I once was told I was lacking the quality of being a woman, for I don’t behave like a so-called lady. I, too many times, was harassed by men but people around kept telling me it was just the nature of them. Let them have a bite, it doesn't cost anything, they said. But it does! My body is my own. Why do men have such rights to invade and conquer it without my consent? Yet, never have I spoken up for myself and dignity. I let them depreciate me. I never dare to raise my own voice. I kept quiet because everyone around me seemed to do so. They were obedient. But I know in my heart that they also question what they have been brainwashed. We, as a woman, live such a hard life in such a domesticated, oppressive, and patriarchal society. Family, friends, colleagues, and husband. They all looked down on us because of the unchanged fact we are women. But right here right now I shall not be afraid anymore. From now on, I will speak up for myself and I would like to encourage you guys to do the same. No one could define and evaluate our existence and identity, but us ...’
Her bitter experience dampens my spirit, yet her message and determined voice are engraved on my heart. I feel like the empty hole in my heart becomes full—it’s like unanswerable questions have been answered. Closely looking around, I see around ten people in the room—they all are women, no doubt. Some are firmer than me. Some are less. Some look noble. Some look common. And out of the blue, a woman approaches and greets me enthusiastically.
‘Buenos días, señorita. We’ve met before.’
‘Yes, the other night at the theatre. I was the one giving you the letter. I’m Marca.’
‘Oh! It was you. My name is Carlota,’ I said, recalling that elegant woman with black hair. I am a bit reluctant but decide to ask her something stuck in my mind.
‘Why did you give me the letter?’
‘Because I’m an observant person. So, why did you decide to come?’
‘It’s just that I am curious about this place and don’t feel like staying at home,’ I replied, thinking her answer is not satisfying enough but I let it slide.
‘Are you the founder of this gathering?’
‘Sort of. At first, it was just me and my friend sharing our thoughts. Pretty much everything. But then we thought it would be great if we create a space for women to vent their suffering.’
‘You know, everyday experiences in general as a woman.’
‘Do you have one? Suffering, I mean’
‘Every woman has at least one whether they are aware or not, Carlota, including you.’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘Come to this place every Wednesday, you’ll see. Oh! Should we continue listening?’
It’s past 5 p.m. when I arrive home. The fact that I get home late and miss preparing tapas and lunch for him sends shivers down my spine. Julían is waiting on the couch in the living room in the darkness. A glass filled with whiskey is in his hand. He doesn’t say a word when noticing I arrived home.
‘I’m sorry, dear. I walked down the river and lost track of time,’ I said, aware my voice was slightly shaking.
He still doesn’t open his mouth. Slowly but firmly, he walks toward me so close that I can smell alcohol faint in his breathing. His sudden move takes me aback. I don’t know why all of sudden he puts his hand on my cheek. For a second, I thought he would slap me. But fortunately, he didn’t.
‘Walked down the river, you said. But why isn’t your cheek cold, Carlota?’
‘I don’t get cold easily, dear. You know that.’ I can’t risk letting him know that Marca was the one who sent me off.
‘I think you should since you have been outside for half a day. Without my permission, even.’ Unhurriedly, his hand strokes my cheek and down to my jaws. With all haste, he grabs them so tight that I shudder.
‘Please, don’t. It will never happen again. I promise’
‘Is that so? And how can I be sure you’ve never been out before without my knowledge.’
‘You can rest assured. This is the first time and will be the last.’
‘You better keep your words, Carlota.’ He finally lets go of me and walks straight upstairs, leaving me paralyzed by fear.
It has been a couple of weeks since that evening, but nothing has changed. I still wake up early in the morning, serve my husband as he goes to work, and welcome him when he gets home. Besides, I haven’t stepped outside since—not that I am allowed to go outside frequently in the first place. Let alone go near the front door. It seems Julían couldn’t remember what he did and said to me. And it’s better that way. I don’t want to bring the issue up.
As I am pedaling a sewing machine, I hear the bell rings. Is it Julían’s mother? I shove the equipment in the box and hide it under my closet. I rush my pace to the living room and check if there’s any dust or untidiness in there. I neaten my appearance before opening the door. Unexpectedly, the person waiting in front of the house is not Julían’s mother but Marca.
‘Why did you come here?’ I ask with a high-pitched voice.
‘Check on you, of course. You have been missing after I drove you that night. I thought he chained you or something.’
‘What are you talking about? I wanted to go but I’m busy.’
‘Oh, right. With house chores and everything,’ she said but I didn’t reply.
‘So will you invite me in?’
‘My apology. Come in.’
‘I just want to ask you one question. Are you fine?’ Marca said after I escorted her to the couch.
‘Why did you ask such a question? I’m perfectly fine.’
‘Really? Because to me, you look far from fine. What worries you?’
Again, I didn’t give her an answer. How can I say that I was almost beaten by my own husband.
‘Come to our club, Carlota. You’ll understand things much clearer. Believe me.’
‘I’ll think about it.’
Every Wednesday after Julían goes to work, I go to the cafe. Not only Marca but also the other ladies in the club are so welcoming. The environment in the club is women-friendly. No one is more superior than the others. They are so determined to encourage each of us to speak up and appreciate our values. Besides, I’m thankful for them helping me open my mind, especially about women’s issues.
‘But due to our constitution, women are allowed to vote just like men. I think it’s a big move. We are somehow equal, right?’ I don’t hesitate to show my curiosity after they discuss the law.
‘Yes, it is. Spain is the first country in Europe to grant women the right to vote. But is it enough?’
‘No, it’s not enough. The system is one thing, but the most important matter is society—workplace and house, for example. Or else a legal right is nothing if society isn’t changed. We need to raise awareness about women’s rights,’ said Marca.
‘So that’s the reason why you approached me that night, right?’
‘Yes. Most women here were invited the same way.’
‘Our goal is to work harder to change the mindsets of people in a male-dominated world, Carlota.’
‘Exactly, a right to vote and whatsoever is nothing if the society still looks down on us. We must show them that women have their own free will and will not be oppressed anymore.’
‘We shall not be swayed by such entrenched stereotypes. Women’s place isn’t limited solely in the house to serve her husband and take care of children as they have always said. We are not pets. We must take a strong stance that we will not be domesticated unconditionally. We can be a part of the labor force or whatsoever too if we feel free to. Women also can run the office if they would like to.’
‘We’re going to make speeches this weekend. You are always welcomed if you would like to join. You know, just a little courage means something,’ Marca said to everyone in the room, and then turned around and made eye contact with me.
‘Dear, I’m going to buy groceries for a couple of hours,’ I said after finishing cleaning up the table. He didn’t reply, just nodding.
I’m quick on my feet—fear I might miss the event. From afar, I see a woman standing on a chair is surrounded by a small group of men and women, both old and young. Noticing Marca standing right beside that mini-stage, I approach her.
‘Yes, I did. I was on time, wasn’t I? What are we doing now?’
‘Handing out these pamphlets. The woman there is our last speaker and then we will end the session unless you want to speak something.’
‘Sorry? You mean I stand over there and speak in front of everyone?’
‘Why not? I know you have prepared. Come on,’ Marca said while pushing my back.
I suddenly feel nervous. Yet, when I look around, our club members are looking at me encouragingly. They pat my shoulders while smiling. Feeling heartened, I nod to Marca and look her in the eyes to get myself together. Every step I take toward that chair, my heart leaps. Deeply breathing, I look around and start giving out my speech.
‘Hello, ladies and gentlemen. My name is Carlota. As you can see I’m a married woman,’ I said while showing my right hand.
‘I’m sure most married women must know perfectly well how we feel to live a married life. Newly-wed, I felt happy and completed. Yet, as time passed, I felt something didn’t feel right. As a married woman, you need to abide by the words of your husband and mother-in-law who is, of course, domineering. I have never been myself nor have I stood up for myself, for I don’t want to get a rise out of them. For so long, I have been shaped by their demands that I almost forget who I really am.’
Suddenly, I shudder and stop speaking as I notice someone across the road—someone who shouldn’t be here under no circumstances. Standing not far from where the crowd gathered, crossing his arms, is Julían. His facial expression is unreadable—he might be angry but I’m not so sure about that. My heart is beating fast from the fact that he could hear every single word I said even though we don’t have a microphone. I don’t know how he managed to be here. Did he follow me? But screw it. I’ve come this far. I might as well let him how I feel. I’m sure he has never known what is in my mind, never. Now it’s his turn to listen to me. Feeling Marca’s hand patting on my back, I compose myself, look around at my audience, and continue speaking.
‘I’m sick and tired when they ram patriarchal concepts down my throat. They command me to do this and that. You should be a proper woman, they once said. But never have they asked nor listened to me what I want. My mother-in-law asks me constantly if I’m expecting or not. But she has never asked me how I felt when I miscarried. They treat me coldly and indifferently to the point that I don’t know if I’m their wife and daughter-in-law or docile servant and breeder.’
‘To tell you the truth, I have never found my own voice in the house or anywhere else, but here my voice can be heard.’
‘Speaking right here right now doesn’t mean that I detest my husband.’
‘...’ I hesitate for a moment before deciding to declare my one, simple longing.
‘It’s just this time I want to be heard.’ This time I don’t look at the audience, but straight at him.