How attacks on women mobilized Mexico’s ‘feminist earthquake’

Why We Wrote This

Sometimes we see righteous anger as ennobling – and other times, the opposite. Mexico City’s feminists are protesting gender-based violence, but they’re also provoking a debate about how to push for change.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
On the anniversary of two deadly earthquakes, women marched in Mexico City Sept. 19, 2019, to protest decades of increasing violence against women. In August, two alleged rapes of teen girls by police spurred demonstrators to march in the capital.

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In Mexico, where nine women are killed each day, female anger is mounting. 

Last month, after a teen accused four police officers of raping her in their patrol car, that anger burst into the open. Outraged feminists in Mexico City doused the city’s security minister in pink sparkles, and days later defaced the capital’s most iconic monument. “Terremoto feminista,” they called another day of demonstrations this month: “Feminist earthquake.”

Their so-called “glitter movement” has attracted plenty of backlash, though – from misogynistic slurs, to criticisms that support their goals, but not their methods. But many of the women protesting see themselves as challenging not just impunity, and rape, and patriarchal attitudes, but ideas about how women ought to push for change. 

“They call us vandals. I call it dignified rage,” says Irinea Buendia, whose daughter was a victim of femicide. Her daughters’ death was initially labelled a suicide. After five years of legal battles, her daughter’s husband was arrested, and the country’s Supreme Court ruled that all violent deaths of women must be investigated as possible femicides.

“I will not stay silent,” says Ms. Buendia, explaining why she refused to participate in a silent march. “Everything I have gained has been from screaming.”

They were called vandals and provocateurs.

But Irinea Buendia didn’t mind. She was thinking of Mariana, chanting for an end to gender violence in Mexico, a photo of her murdered daughter hanging by a string around her neck.

This latest demonstration of women was organized under the hashtag #terremotofeminista (feminist earthquake) and controversially called on Sept. 19, the day the city marks two of its deadliest quakes. But it was just one that has gained force – and backlash – here in recent weeks.

In August women, Ms. Buendia among them again, were so outraged by allegations that police had raped minors that they doused the Mexico City’s security minister in pink sparkles, and days later defaced the capital’s most iconic monument. It became known as the “glitter movement” – and outside feminist circles, it wasn’t widely welcomed. “They call us vandals, I call it dignified rage,” Ms. Buendia says.

In a country where 41% of women say they’ve experienced sexual violence – and nine are killed each day, according to the United Nations – female anger is mounting. But with it has come even greater outrage directed back at them, with critics lobbing sexist slurs. Others support their goals, but not their methods. Yet far from viewing it as a step back, many of these women say the rejection of their movement is a sign that a paradigm shift is underway.

Alfredo Sosa/Staff
After police labeled her daughter's 2010 death a suicide, Irinia Buendia's efforts to get answers resulted in a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 that sets precedent for future cases of gender violence.

Andrea Medina, a lawyer who has worked with many victims of gender violence over the decades, sees anger against the movement as a sign that the status quo is giving way. Society is reacting as it sees women put their foot down, she says. “It’s a form of inhibiting women from continuing to denounce violence. They are saying, ‘You cannot be angry, you can’t defend yourself, you have to accept violence quietly.’ ”

She believes, despite how unpopular the protests are, it is a turning point. “Public silence of the victims has been broken.”

Femicides, or the murder of women for being women, have been on the agenda in Mexico for decades, especially since the notorious murders in Ciudad Juarez starting in the early ’90s: Hundreds of women were violently killed in the border town, and most of the cases were unsolved. But marching was rare, especially for victims or their families.

As the rate of women’s murders has grown – with 30% of the 52,000 deaths registered since 1985 happening since 2010, according to 2016 government figures – so has the feminist response.

Like in many women’s marches, it was specific cases that pushed women to the streets this summer – as in South Africa, where the brutal rape and murder of a teenager led to protests earlier this month. 

Here, it was two girls – a 17-year-old who says four police officers raped her in their patrol car, and a 16-year-old who accused an officer of raping her in a museum. But if marches are spurred by local events, activists say, they are catalyzed by global ones, from abortion debates in Argentina or Spain to #MeToo and its iterations around the world. For Yndira Sandoval, who belongs to a feminist collective here, “The movement has never been more alive, more forceful, more awake, or more powerful.”

Alfredo Sosa/Staff

The cases here set off a particular fury because of the girls’ ages. But it was also their vulnerability in the face of impunity: that the very authority figures meant to protect them from wider violence are their alleged violators. 

It was particularly painful for Ms. Buendia. Her daughter was found dead in June of 2010. Suicide, said her husband, a police officer. Ms. Buendia had never heard the word femicide. But she felt in her heart that her 29-year-old, a law student who loved to dance and sketch and whose favorite character was the gloomy Eeyore – a detail she says doesn’t square with Mariana’s rosy disposition –  wouldn’t take her own life.

She fought for the next five years to have the case reopened, which led to the arrest of Mariana’s former spouse; his case is still in the legal system. Her battle led to a landmark Supreme Court ruling in 2015 – that all violent deaths of women must be investigated as possible femicides, among other things – and now she’s part of a group on the front lines of the marches that calls itself “Moms in Resistance.”

“Almost all cases hurt me, because it’s like they are killing my daughter all over again,” she says, the day before the latest march. 

The next day, she and the women – moms and grandmothers, and young and single women alike – came to the streets to protest about a long list of grievances, from femicide, to rape, to impunity, to patriarchal attitudes in general. But they also see a role for themselves in challenging perceptions of how women should effect change: fiercely, they say. 

Gabriela Mijares, who works in public administration and has attended all these recent marches, raises a conch shell to her lips and blows to initiate the protest – what ancient warriors used to do to instill fear in their adversaries, she says.

Mexican journalist Ricardo Raphael, writing in the newsmagazine Proceso after the launch of the “glitter movement,” says that men from Julius Caesar to Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata have used their anger to transform societies and are celebrated for it, but there is a double standard for women. “If a woman dares to exercise it, it is because she is a sorceress, like Circe, or the Harpies that harassed Ulysses.”

That kind of social bias, the women say, is part of what they’re pushing back against – walking with pink and red spray paint bottles, and graffiti-ing walls and pavement alike with the Venus sign and a raised fist. 

“It is anger, but it is what protects us. ... It is what has gotten people to turn and look,” says Ms. Mijares. 

Not all agree with her – men and women alike. Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum – Mexico City’s first elected female mayor – called their actions in August a provocation. At the Sept. 19 march, one woman on a speaker said they would only talk to female journalists. One male journalist on the sidelines, who did not give his name, said he was harassed by women in the “glitter protest,” and that while he understands their grievances, there is no excuse for defacing national monuments that all Mexicans must pay for.

The way Marcela Oropa, who is marching with her 11-month-old daughter, sees it, some critics lack empathy for what it’s like to suffer aggressions, big and small. Destroying buildings is nothing compared to destroying lives, she says: “We never know when we’ll be next.”

Ms. Buendia walks with a cane, but says she would have scaled the walls around the Angel of Independence, the monument now barricaded while it undergoes restoration from the feminists’ graffiti, if she could. She doesn’t believe such controversial actions undermine the cause. 

In fact, one of the recent marches was a silent one by family members who have lost women. But Ms. Buendia refused to participate. “I will not stay silent,” she says. “Everything I have gained has been from screaming.”

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