When fear became fury: Mexican women shake society

Every day, 10 women are murdered on average in Mexico. Yet open violence is only the tip of the iceberg. Mexican women face constant harassment, discrimination and humiliation at home, in the workplace, and in the streets. Women in general, and working-class women in particular, bear the brunt of the crisis of Mexican capitalism and the process of social decomposition that accompanies it. Pent-up anger at this state of affairs has now come to surface as International Women’s Day saw unprecedented mobilisations, followed by a women’s strike that paralysed the country. Yet the revolutionary potential of the movement is held back by lack of adequate leadership.

Horror without end

Since 2015, 3,831 femicides have been recorded in Mexico. But those are only the official statistics; the real figure is much higher, as numerous femicides go unreported or are classified under other labels. Indeed, the state has a dismal record in dealing with femicide. Only 10 percent of murders lead to convictions, and police and judges breach official protocol systematically during investigations, approaching cases with a sloppiness that betrays their deep-rooted contempt for women. If some justice at all is delivered it is often only after strenuous efforts by the victim’s family or if the case happens to come into the limelight. When sexist abuse is reported, prevention protocols that could save lives are poorly enforced, if at all. In fact, the police and the army have been guilty of many femicides, often painted as collateral damage in the so-called war on drugs, which has affected women inordinately. Rape is also a pandemic. In 2019 alone, 3,874 cases of rape were registered by the authorities, but, again, hundreds of attacks go unrecorded. One of the latestscandals involved the rape of underage teenagers by Mexico City police patrols.

8 March Mexico 4 Image La Izquierda SocialistaSince 2015, 3,831 femicides have been recorded in Mexico. This reflects the sickness of Mexican capitalist society / Image: La Izquierda Socialista

Murder and rape are the most extreme expressions of women’s oppression, which also takes more subtle forms, couched in the same violent culture and the same feeling of impunity and social tolerance towards sexism. Most female users ofpublic transport in Mexico City claim to have experienced harassment at some point, which is also rife in the workplace. Women workers earn on average34 percent less than men. Their rate of employment is also much lower, at43 percent, yet this is obscured by the high participation of women in Mexico’s informal sector, which accounts for over 50 percent of jobs. As expected, statistics also show that women carry the weight of the household on their shoulders: on average, a Mexican woman spends 22 hours a week on average on domestic chores and 28 hours taking care of children and the sick and elderly, while men devote 8 and 15 hours a week respectively. The paltriness of public services has been aggravated by cuts (the budget for kindergartens, for instance, was slashed almost by half in 2019). The onus of childrearing is also exacerbated by the ban on abortion, which is only legal in the capital and in the state of Oaxaca. Poverty in Mexico has a woman’s face - and more so since the start of the crisis. Between 2008 and 2018, the number of women under the poverty line has grown by6.1 percent, while the percentage for men is 5.7 percent.

Violence against women has increased in recent years. Every year, the numbers swell: since 2015, the figure has more thandoubled. Infanticide is also a growing problem: 53 cases of child murder were registered in 2016, 65 in 2017 and 86 in 2019. This violence festers in the atmosphere of social decomposition with which Mexican capitalist society is riven. Indeed, the increase in femicide matches the tendencies of the overall murder rate. As the productive forces stagnate, inequality skyrockets, exploitation becomes starker, misery gnaws at morality, and corruption and organised crime spread like a cancer across the state apparatus. Entire layers of society are brutalised and lumpenised, driven to desperation and violence. Such is the breeding ground for the current epidemic of femicides, which also feeds off an age-old patriarchal culture that has always been part and parcel of class society. In Mexico, the current wave of violence is also connected to the “war on drugs” launched by president Felipe Calderón in 2006. Lenin said that capitalism is horror without end – that is even truer under Mexican capitalism, which is backward, crisis-ridden, and under the yoke of imperialism. The current drop in oil prices will hit the Mexican economy hard and accelerate social disintegration.

Fear gives way to rage

In recent months, there were symptoms that an explosion of social anger against violence was brewing (involving women but many men too). Two gruesome cases of femicide and infanticide shook the thick-skinned Mexican public. 25-year-old Ingrid Escamilla was raped, mutilated, and murdered by her husband. Graphic reports of the assassination were leaked to the press. Less than a week later, seven-year old Fátima was abducted, sexually abused, and murdered. These two cases generated tremendous outrage and large protests.

The police, the judiciary, and the government were taken to task for their negligence and incompetence. 25 November, the international day for the elimination of violence against women, saw large demonstrations across the country. In the following weeks, several universities and high schools were occupied and shut down, some indefinitely. Teachers accused of harassment were driven out by the students. The groundswell of public revulsion against sexist violence set its sights on 8-9 March.

8 March saw the largest women’s march in Mexican history. Endless columns, including trade unions, student associations, feminist and left-wing organisations, as well as families and groups of friends, filed passed the Monument to the Revolution towards the Zócalo, the huge square in the city centre where the presidential palace is located. Many wore green bandanas – the colour of the campaign to legalise abortion. As always, the youth have been at the forefront of the movement. Among this generation, there is an intuition that women’s oppression is intimately bound to the state and the capitalist system in general, and that only the root-and-branch transformation of society will genuinely improve the lives of women. They chanted slogans against the state and the system. Driven by anger and by the frustration at the government’s apparent indifference to their problems, some groups of youths smashed monuments and threw Molotov cocktails as they marched. Older activists attempted to stop this behaviour, but were driven away by thousands of younger demonstrators who sympathise with these methods. A group of fascist provocateurs by the cathedral in the Zócalo was immediately scattered by the protesters.

On 9 March, the country was paralysed by a mass women’s strike. Some half a million public-sector workers both in federal and regional administrations stayed home. Activity in schools and universities also ground to a standstill. Participation was also high in the private service sector, where many companies backed the stoppage. Mexico City, usually buzzing with activity on Mondays, was unusually quiet. Indeed, streets remained calm as the watchword, which spread through social media more or less spontaneously, was to stay home rather than organise pickets and marches.

Right-wing feminists?

These mobilisations have been largely spontaneous. Formally, at the head of the movement stands a steering committee including trade unions and feminist associations, yet it is clear that their hold over the movement is nominal. The right-wing parties PRI and PAN also jumped on the bandwagon in an opportunistic attempt to capitalise on the movement and strike a blow against the left-wing López Obrador government. These parties have alternated in power in the country’s recent history, and they are largely responsible for the difficulties that beset Mexican women. Many large corporations have also backed the movement, including banks such as BBVA, HSBC, and Santander. At best, these cynics peddle a bourgeois form of feminism that abstracts women’s problems from the class struggle. These bourgeois feminists have envisaged the strike as a cross-class affair, where anti-government businesses and local and regional governments controlled by the right organise the stoppages. Cases have been reported of companies that officially back the strike but ask their employees to work extra hours for the rest of the week.

Radical separatist groups, which blame all men in general for patriarchal oppression and ban them from participating in the feminist movement, have also been very influential. Their mistrust towards men is understandable if set against the extreme sexism that predominates in society and the sickening indifference and contempt many men (including some leftists) express towards the women’s movement. But, though understandable, it is misplaced and counter-productive.

This constellation of forces might explain the low participation of men in the struggle. Very few participated in the marches on Sunday, while the strike has been envisaged as a women’s strike that does not involve male workers. In our opinion, the movement against sexist violence would be much stronger if it involved male workers on a class basis. The movement would be more numerous and powerful, and thus have greater political leverage. Effectively, men have been asked to act as scabs in the strike, ensuring 50 percent of the population would still go to work. But, more importantly, to lastingly end oppression men must break with the male chauvinist prejudices which serve the ruling class and are reproduced and reinforced by the dominant bourgeois ideology. And there is no better teacher than the struggle. By bringing them into the fray, their mentality and their perception of women would be transformed, and they would develop greater empathy towards their class sisters. In Spain, the mass women’s strikes in 2018 and 2019, largely envisioned as a class movement, also involved men. Although the struggle is far from over, this has had a significant impact on Spanish culture, especially among the youth. The slogan of remaining home also blunted the revolutionary edge of the strike, which would have had greater impact if pickets and marches had also been organised.

Separatist groups often pay lip-service to anti-capitalism. Yet in essence their attitude is not much different from that of bourgeois feminists. Both pit an abstract man against an abstract woman, elevated above class antagonisms. But women and men are not abstract, homogeneous categories. Working-class men and women are exploited by capitalist men and women, and have divergent interests. When bourgeois women fly the feminist flag, they seek to exploit workers (male and female) in conditions of equality to capitalist men. In a society that is deeply divided into hostile classes, no abstract formulation of women’s oppression is possible, and, whenever this is attempted, it (consciously or unconsciously) opens the door for bourgeois feminists to dupe working-class women.

Marxists are in favour of class unity. In the class struggle against their exploiters, workers - male and female - have an interest in uniting to strike against their common enemy. But this in no way involves sweeping women’s demands and concerns under the rug. On the contrary, genuine unity must be voluntary and organic, and this is only possible if women’s demands are fully integrated into the socialist movement, which must then fight for these demands boldly and consistently. What is truly divisive is sexism and the indifference or complacency towards women’s oppression. A case in point is the left-wing López Obrador government, which took office in December 2018. The president has failed to meet the expectations of the millions of women workers that voted for him, and thus provided fertile ground for separatists, whose extremism is understandable but counterproductive; and for the reactionary bourgeois feminists of the PAN and the PRI.

López Obrador off balance

López Obrador has been taken aback by this movement. His record on tackling gender inequality and sexist violence has been poor and these issues have clearly not been a priority for his government. Some of his policies, such as cutting funding for kindergartens, have been outright reactionary. He has also taken an ambiguous stance on abortion, and in states such as Hidalgo, deputies of MORENA (López Obrador’s party) have voted against legalising it. On the issue of violence, it has provided routine solutions, such as increasing the number of CCTV cameras or holding regular cabinet meetings to deal with femicide. It has also appealed to abstract moralism with lofty, makeshift decalogues and plans of action. But the tide of blood will not be stemmed by spilling inks.

AMLO como presidente de la República Mexicana Image PresidenciaMX 2012 2018AMLO's record on tackling gender inequality and violence leaves a lot to be desired / Image: PresidenciaMX 2012 2018

López Obrador first tried to brush off the problem by blaming it on “neoliberalism”. When the movement began to snowball, he then blamed the “dark forces” of reaction for manipulating it. It is true that the right-wing parties are attempting to co-opt the movement, but he has given them this opportunity through his passivity and self-satisfaction. This condescension has understandably ignited a lot of anger. López Obrador’s approval ratings (previously very high) have fallen by as much as22 percent in recent weeks according to some polls, and82 percent of Mexicans have a negative opinion of his policies on sexist violence. The sentiment of the youths that demonstrated on 8 March was largely of scepticism or even outright hostility towards the government, from a left-wing perspective. These events could mark the beginning of the end of the long honeymoon between López Obrador and the working class.

It is true that some of the social policies implemented by López Obrador have helped alleviate the plight of women. For instance, he has improved access to social security for workers in the informal sector (where women predominate), has passed legislation on wage equality, and has expanded benefits for single mothers. He is also expanding the network of free residences for victims of sexist violence. In Mexico City, the MORENA-run council has launched an ambitious campaign against harassment and segregated public transport. Much more, however, could be done. The burning issue of abortion could be rapidly settled if MORENA threw its weight behind legalisation. Cuts to kindergartens and care services should be reverted, and schooling hours expanded to help working-class mothers. Public canteens and laundries would lighten the burden of housewives. High-quality, regular public transport and proper street lighting would make it safer for working-class women who commute long distances. There are calls for a thorough purge from the police of sexists and reactionaries, while the legal procedure should be expedited by removing unnecessary red tape and the introduction of specialised federal prosecutors for femicides. All this and much more could be done immediately by López Obrador, even within the bounds of capitalism, insofar as the government mobilised its base of support to overcome the resistance of the state apparatus and the capitalists.

Yet women will not wait for López Obrador to come to the rescue. The energy of these days must be channelled into grassroots organisation. Self-defence committees and patrols based on democratic mass assemblies in every workplace, neighbourhood, and school, faced with the inaction of the justice and police system, should take direct action. These committees already exist inembryonic form in many schools and campuses. The task is to spread them, broaden their base by linking up with trade unions and social movements, and coordinate them on a national scale through elected delegates.

A revolutionary task

However, in the last analysis, sexist violence in Mexico is so entrenched and rooted in the state apparatus, the dominant ideology of the ruling class - replicated and amplified by the family, the education system and the Church - and capitalism, that it cannot be nipped off with half-measures: it must be extricated through revolutionary means. Patriarchal society emerged in the Neolithic era, together with private property and social classes. Today, women’s oppression is linked to the bones and nerves of the capitalist system. Capitalism leans on the oppression of women to create a hyper-exploited sector of the workforce. It shoulders reproductive labour on women, who are shackled to domestic slavery and often face the double burden of oppression at home and in the workplace. Politically, class society needs to divide and dupe the exploited to ensure the domination of a minority of parasites, and must appeal to the darkest instincts in society, including male chauvinism. It leans on prejudice, passivity, and backwardness to stultify workers. The ruling class also requires a powerful, parasitic state apparatus to discipline the poor and contain class antagonism by force and intimidation. The social and political selection of the repressive forces of the state, the watchdogs of the bourgeois, guarantees their reactionary character. In Mexico, the connection between sexism and its rotten capitalist system and its state is especially intimate. Sexist violence is a side product of the decomposition of Mexican capitalist society.

Only by drastically raising the material and cultural condition of the Mexican masses can violence be enduringly eradicated. Capitalism cannot do this. On the contrary, it sinks society ever more deeply into the cesspit of misery and despair. A radical reconfiguration of social relations is necessary. Political and economic power must pass onto the hands of the most creative and progressive class in society, the working class, and particularly to its vanguard and its youth. Socialism will be able to build society anew on different moral and material foundations, and consign femicide, harassment, and all forms of abuse to the dustbin of history.

Without women there is no revolution

A reorganizorMarx: “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment” / Image: La Izquierda Socialista

The total liberation of women is impossible without the revolutionary transformation of society. But there is another element to this equation. Revolution is impossible without women. “Everyone who knows anything of history also knows that great social revolutions are impossible without the feminine ferment”, said Marx. Revolution is characterised by the active interference of the masses in events, particularly of its most oppressed and downtrodden sectors. The awakening of women, especially working-class women, thus acquires tremendous revolutionary importance. Ultimately, socialism means that society administers itself freely without taking recourse to the whip of exploitation and oppression. For this, everyone must feel free, safe, and empowered. This begins with a revolutionary struggle against capitalism that draws the broadest masses of the people into combat, transforming their consciousness through action.

“Revolution is necessary,” said Marx, “not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only in a revolution succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found society anew.”