From Havana with Love (Part 2)

Ines Sanchez de Revuelta has hosted Tele Club on Cuban television since 1963.
Being a woman over 40 doesn’t mean you’re ‘over the hill’ in Cuba
says Alison Vernon-Smith

One of the few benefits of getting older is that you’re no longer subjected to tedious comments from complete strangers – usually on the street and in pubs, but also in restaurants, libraries, pretty much any public place – as you are when you’re younger.

Some of you reading this won’t have a clue what I’m talking about. And that’s because you’re men. I will eat the little paper umbrella in my Mojito if there’s any British woman out there who doesn’t.

From puberty onwards any British woman (it matters not what you look like or wear believe me) will have to negotiate, ignore, avoid or respond to lewd, silly or just really, really irritating remarks from men. ON A DAILY BASIS. From the hugely annoying ‘Cheer up love’ to the sexually threatening or humiliating calls from those oh-so-handsome builder chaps with their buttock-skimming, stiff jeans, beery bodies and astonishingly banal line in banter.

I spent an awful lot of time in my teens and twenties telling men to fuck off. Less in my thirties, much less in my forties and then delightfully, wonderfully and wholly unexpectedly when I hit my fifties, oh joy of joys, it stopped! I’m now 55 and can walk past builders. There’s a full stop there because for most of my life I have taken a detour just to avoid having to.

Now I am free to walk down any road scowling and muttering to myself if I like. No man takes it upon himself to upbraid me or fling me offers of sex. I can wear a hat, hum tunelessly, smile or not, wear glasses, have my hair cut, limp slightly in my new shoes, laugh inelegantly and NO ONE cares! It goes without comment! Hurrrah!

There is a downside of course. I tend to get served last at bars, men you might actually be interested in look through you unless they’re over 70, and younger women walk into you if you’re in their way. I wouldn’t be the first middle-aged woman to think I’d become invisible.

And then I came back to Cuba.

Now this is tricky. I’ve always thought that the level of Cuban male interest in women is of a different order and magnitude to that in Britain. It’s relentless and omnipresent. What we wear, how we walk, our hair, shoes, eyes, skin you name it, it’s all given due attention and remarked upon.

But it’s always felt different and unthreatening, sexual but not predatory on the whole. Now is this just because my still poor Spanish means things are getting lost in translation? Or because I’m determined to find Cuba charming and quaint and I patronise everyone by thinking they’re delightful? Hard to know. But what is certainly true is that the prophylactic benefits of middle-age no longer apply. I’ve become public property again and I’m not sure how I feel about it.

I’ve been here often but for the last six years I’ve usually been with my (Cuban) husband when venturing out. Here, if you’re with a Cuban man (sorry chaps but you don’t really seem to count if you’re not ) then it’s eyes off and you live comment free.

But now that I shop, walk to college, sit alone in parks doing my emails I’ve felt the full force of male attention. It feels different from the UK in that it’s not, on the whole, designed to humiliate or intimidate and it tends to be of the ‘By golly aren’t you just beautful’ variety. There are exceptions . A younger woman I know who speaks good Spanish and is mixed race seems to draw unusually graphic comments. And I’m really sick of men trying to get my attention by making noises like they’re calling their dog. I don’t really like any of it and some days I really hate it.

But…it does make you look at the place occupied by women and particularly middle-aged women in Britain. It’s not just that here in Cuba we’re still treated like attractive and sexually active entities by blokes in the street. In this apparently macho, Latin society women are public property, yes, but they’re also regarded as fully-functioning human beings with the right to a voice and a public presence.

This is clear if you watch TV. In the past I’ve been quick to defend decisions made by British producers who seeem to have an agenda by replacing older women on British TV for younger models, in fact lots of presenters lose their jobs because quite frankly, they’re a pain in the arse and not worth the grief or inflated wage demands. But you can’t go public with that type of information.

However when you watch TV in Cuba you realise just how small a profile middle-aged women have in Britain. Many of Cuba’s regular TV presenters and commentators are women in their 50s and 60s, with – wait for it – GREY HAIR!! And….NO MAKE UP!!   They also regularly appear as union officials, academics, politicians, journalists, correspondents and entrepreneurs (a new breed here). They’re visible and unapologetically, older women.

This is not to say there’s no domestic violence here or sexual crime. Of course there is. But there’s no ‘over the hill’ here for females over 40 and there is no demonisation and bullying here of women who raise their head above the parapet. Mary Beard could give us the benefit of her hard-earned learnedness safe in the knowledge that no one would be reviewing her hair, skin, voice, make-up or clothes.

If I told a Cuban woman that a British woman had received death and rape threats for suggesting that perhaps some of our currency could have pictures of high-achieving women on it…..well, actually, I wouldn’t. I’d be too embarrassed and ashamed of my culture. She wouldn’t believe me anyway.

It was International Women’s Day earlier this month. British women tend to keep their heads down on days like that in case someone has a go at them for deepening the sense of worthlessness inherent in their poor white, male lives. It’s a bit different here. Several people, mainly men, wished me ‘Happy International Women’s Day’. Some shops had signs up saying they were closed for the day because the women were having a party. A friend said that women at the office brought in rum and snacks for the afternoon. There were scribbled signs up in doorways wishing everyone a good International Women’s Day. It was nice.

So it’s with mixed feelings that I’m returning to the land of middle-aged invisiblity. I won’t miss running the gauntlet of appreciative comments but I will miss a country where women are so at ease in their bodies and in their lives, whatever their age. Or shape. Or colour.

PS: There are no paper umbrellas in the Mojitos here. Or any other drink. I was just saying that for effect.


One comment

  1. It’s something I’ve always admired about the US too. Even when I hate their news coverage I have to give them credit for having older women news casters, and yes, even with grey hair. We have to get better at it here in the UK! x


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