The Ghosts of Gender Violence – by Amanda Petersen

A photograph of protesting women

This Halloween, TBI’s Freedom of Expression Project is focusing on ghosts—not the ghouls that will be knocking on your door this evening for “trick or treat”—rather the ghost as a manifestation of the haunting effects of gender violence in Mexico. In this context, the ghost is a metaphorical figure that reveals that which has historically been silenced, hidden, and suppressed in Mexican society.

Nexos magazine recently described gender violence that is perpetrated because the victim is (or identifies as) a woman as “invisible violence” because of the lack of reliable statistics, judicial recourse, and convictions of perpetrators. In the Nexos report, Sonia M. Frías examines data from the Encuesta Nacional sobre la Dinámica de las Relaciones en los Hogares (ENDIREH) from 2011 and estimates that 11.5 million women had at least one gender-based violent experience that year. Ana Pecova’s article, from the same issue of Nexos discusses how women’s legal rights exist on paper but are all to frequently denied in practice. [Check back on Thursday for a translation of Pecova’s essay]. Despite the fact that Mexico is one of the top 5 countries where cases of femicide are on the rise, only 15.73% of cases were investigated by law enforcement and solely 1.6% resulted in convictions during 2012 and 2013. While the judicial system in Mexico clearly needs reform to protect women and stop a vicious cycle of revictimization, there are cultural reasons that gendered violence is also invisible, as it traditionally has been taboo to discuss the violence and thus it remains shrouded in shame. The silence surrounding–and invisibility of–gender-based violence exemplifies its ghostly effects: its victims are made ghostly, literally or figuratively, by being discounted and by being denied access to non-sexist judicial system.

Yet there are signs that this invisibility may be changing. Recent massive protests against gendered violence, like the ones that occurred on April 24th and October 19th of this year, and accompanying hashtag campaigns in Mexico and the rest of Latin America such as #NiUnaMas, #VivasNosQueremos, and #MiPrimerAcoso (#NotOneMore, #WeWantToLive, #MyFirstHarassment) have raised public consciousness and outrage about violence against women. These movements have also provided a forum for women to share their personal experiences, serving to break the silence and shame that has historically surrounded gendered violence. This heightened collective consciousness recognizes that gendered violence is not isolated but pervasive and systemic, from catcalls on the street, to lack of educational opportunities, to the flaws in the judicial system, to femicide. These protests are reviving the formerly suppressed ghosts of gendered violence and turning them into empowered figures that give testimony to the abuses and traumas of the past.

A photograph of protesting women

Photograph courtesy of Alexandra Rodriguez de Ruiz, Mexico City

The Twitter campaign #MiPrimerAcoso is especially significant because it provides a large-scale venue for women to narrate their own stories of being sexually harassed, even if only in 140 characters. In these tweets, women have recounted stories that all too many have experienced but rarely shared. (This month in the US a similar phenomenon occurred with the #notokay campaign of women sharing experiences of sexual assault in response to  Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s attempt to normalize casual descriptions of sexual assault.) The power of storytelling, of giving voice to what has in the past gone unspoken, especially in public, while polarizing for some, has created a sense of solidarity and awareness that, in many ways, might begin to allow us to hear the voices of the ghosts of gendered violence.

As a literary scholar, I am fascinated by the power of storytelling not only in these Twitter campaigns but also in literary texts. I am interested in how gendered violence is represented and how literary texts can be a means to move away from (re)victimizing women and sensationalizing violence against them, and how they can perhaps help to somehow reckon with the horrific realities of gender violence in Mexico today.

There are two recent publications that are worth mentioning in this vein. The first is the Mexican edition of ¡Basta! 100 mujeres en contra la violencia de género (Enough! 100 Women Against Gender Violence, 2014). The anthology consists of micro short stories covering a wide-range of perspectives on violence and gender from both experienced and novice women authors, and is the Mexican edition of ¡Basta!, an initiative that first began in Chile. The extremely brief texts give fictional accounts of women who are victims of various types of violence, from symbolic violence, such as being trained by their mothers to be submissive to their future husbands, to physical violence, such as intimate partner violence or femicide. (An example from ¡Basta! is translated for the TBI this week and will be published on Wednesday.) The second is El silencio de los cuerpos: Relatos sobre feminicidios (The Silence of Bodies: Short Stories on Femicide) that was published in late 2015. It contains nine short stories about femicide by well-established women authors. In her previous essays about femicide, the historian and author Cristina Rivera Garza rebuked the Mexican literary world’s silence surrounding the Juárez femicides, noting that for many years it had diminished and ignored the rising problem in Mexico. Though these are not the first texts to discuss femicide, this anthology bravely approaches the topic using a literary approach that denounces the act and the fear that it generates, while inviting the reader to think critically about the phenomenon. An interview with Raquel Castro, one of the authors from this collection, will be published tomorrow.

As the ghosts of gender violence in Mexico are given more space to tell their stories and have their voices heard, one can hope that this new awareness and the power of storytelling will spread beyond the mobilized urban social classes and beckon us to social change.

Amanda Petersen is a professor in the Department of Languages, Cultures, and Literatures at the University of San Diego where she directs the Spanish program. A specialist in Latin American women authors, Dr. Petersen’s research interests center on the difficulty of representing issues of gender and violence, in particular in contemporary Mexican short narratives by women authors. Her lines of investigation include spectrality, gender, visual culture, and border studies. She is the Guest Editor of TBI’s Freedom of Expression Blog for the week of October 31.

About Michael Lettieri

Program Officer at the Trans-Border Institute

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