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01.06.2020

We Haven't Left: Feminist Notes of the Unthinkable

Drawing on the silencing of feminist movements in Mexico due to the health contingency, artist and activist Lorena Wolffer and researcher Ana Gabriela García insist on the urgency of collective organization and the implementation of micro-policies to disarticulate the hetero-patriarchal dynamics of a shunned “new normal”.

Let’s imagine that we are watching a VHS tape. We hit the rewind button, and then hit play.

It’s May 6. After being asked by a journalist about the increase in calls reporting incidents of violence against women during the coronavirus lockdown in Mexico, the president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, assures the press that the reported numbers have in fact not increased. Contrary to what several publicly available datasets, as well as shelters for women who are victims of violence have reported, the president insists that the parameters cannot be equated, since the Mexican family enjoys fraternity, which protects women from suffering any kind of violence in their own homes.

Rewind again, and then play.

It’s April 5. During the president’s quarterly press conference, he makes no mention of gendered violence, which—with or without a public health crisis—is worsening as each day goes by, and which has been rendered more invisible as a result of the current public health situation. Nor does he make reference to the Women’s Day protests, which took place the previous month.

Rewind once more, play.

It’s March 8. Millions of women flood the streets of Mexico City to march for Women’s Day. With historic participation, the protestors take over several streets denouncing the feminicide state. The official records of the number of participants don’t seem to reflect reality.[1] The next day, March 9, the National Women’s Strike takes place in order to manifest—this time through absence—the frustration and rage at the panorama of violence that women experience every day. One week later, the preliminary steps of the COVID-19 lockdown begin.

Ana Gabriela García: These three events occurred in a very short period of time. In the middle of the public health crisis, I am thinking a lot about its effects on the workforce of women and the precarity that these effects are perpetuating. Parallelly, in the midst of the current situation, there persists another problem that is even more disturbing: the feminicides. In this current climate of obscured violence and the intensified use of online public space, what feminist strategies can we use to react in an effective way to the present situation?

Lorena Wolffer: In a country like Mexico, with its level of poverty and where there are no monetary reserves for moments of crisis, the government’s plan until now has been to draw from the current budget to attend to the crisis. Frankly, this is a very questionable strategy, especially when the government expects to continue with the president’s mega projects, which clearly are not a priority right now—from the Maya Train to the airport to the refineries, in addition to projects in the cultural field like those of Los Pinos and the Bosque de Chapultepec.[2]

Given the specific impact the pandemic is having on women, we would hope to have treatment protocols and emergency programs for us women in particular. But half of the population is not a priority for the current administration of the country we live in, a country where, before COVID-19, 10 to 11 feminicides were committed daily, and national corruption and impunity meant that the responsibility for the wellbeing of little girls, adolescent girls, and women has been delegated to civil society.

To paraphrase the Bolivian intellectual Liliana Colanzi, feminisms articulate themselves out of a radical imagination that, by generating friction between the private and the public, is able to alter the common sense of our time. Briefly put, they accept the challenge of rethinking everything, of imagining something else.

This state of affairs becomes impossible under quarantine. Everything is very volatile, but there are new spaces of possibility that are opening up. There are initiatives like that of the Casa de las Muñecas Tiresias, organized by Kenya Cuevas and the trans* community which is helping her, as well as other allies who are organizing themselves to take food and provisions to different communities, and others who are providing aid to women who live in violent homes. These are initiatives that put those implementing them at risk. In contrast, the current policies include budget cuts for civic organizations, beginning with slashing the capacity of women’s shelters and daycares.

Another example of new possibility is the appointment of Sayuri Herrera, one of Lesvy’s[3] lawyers, as the head prosecutor of feminicides; it remains to be seen what she will be able to accomplish in a city with a law enforcement system that is deficient, neglected, and corrupt. In spite of everything, there is no infrastructure in place that would allow for great success. Furthermore, the ideas about families that the president proclaims are utterly beyond belief because—if there is one thing we know—it is the family is the cradle of violence against women. It is the heart of a monumental vicious circle: from feminicides to unremunerated, invisible labor that places women in situations of risk at the intersection of the requirements to work at home and to continue having a productive work life.

AGG: I think a lot about spaces of possibility, as you call them. These local gestures recall that mobilization from the unthinkable, a concept that is imperative to keep in mind. To paraphrase the Bolivian intellectual Liliana Colanzi, feminisms articulate themselves out of a radical imagination that, by generating friction between the private and the public, is able to alter the common sense of our time. Briefly put, they accept the challenge of rethinking everything, of imagining something else.

The patriarchal logic with which we have lived in the world and which we have chosen as a form of life is becoming more and more worn out. In the midst of this uncertain situation, when the capitalist structures that organize our world continue to demand that we produce more even as the economy slows down, what possibilities does the unthinkable point to from the perspective of feminism today? Perhaps political-artistic practices might contain within their mechanisms of socialization the possibility of rearticulating or tracing, at least at the level of the spectacle, other pathways of collective organization for a more just nonfuture?

[…]a state whose policies not only do not take women into consideration but are openly against the rights of women. It isn’t an omission, it is a declaration, and it is the following: the lives of women and their wellbeing do not matter. And the country operates accordingly.

LW: The field of invisible action involves really drawing attention to what it is that this pandemic implies, beyond illness and numbers; it is an analysis of what it means for Mexico to have universal access to a decent life in economic, political, and social terms. We operate in emergencies; for now, a large part of what is happening is more reactive than active. However, radically reimagining how we position ourselves with regards to the current environment, rethinking gender, its mandates and regulation, now—and out of political-artistic practices—is key.

The issues that were happening before the current public health crisis not only do not disappear nor come to a halt, they actually accelerate and grow because they are happening in the realm of the domestic. For me, there is something totally mind-boggling happening here: women’s return to the home. That might seem like a simple phrase, but it is brutal and its implications are terrible. In so far as it refers to the recognition of women’s work and the violence inflicted upon us, thinking in a way that produces a true change on a greater scale, one that isn’t confined to the local or the individual, is complicated. This entire situation is framed by a state whose policies not only do not take women into consideration but are openly against the rights of women. It isn’t an omission, it is a declaration, and it is the following: the lives of women and their wellbeing do not matter. And the country operates accordingly.

AGG: From the perspective of art practices and activism, your work is in constant dialogue with the current situation. You are currently developing Historias propias <desde casa> [Personal Stories <from home>], a call to women of all ages to share their experiences of the quarantine from home through images or text. This work points to two aspects from within the community: first, to the recognition of private spaces that we assume welcome us; and second, to an articulation of that which violates us within the home.[4] All of this is to be shared through a digital platform. The widespread participation in this piece activates the urgency of sharing collective experience. What are the aspects of this project that you find most potent, above all in relation to your political-artistic practice?

LW: I have been working on this project since the beginning of the lockdown. I think it is successful at showing the interior, and at transforming it, which happens for each person in an individual and subjective way particular to the interior of the house, as an outward political statement.[5] In this country, the act of looking inwards is a complicated exercise. I believe that this type of project will always be rare. What does it mean to make visible? For whom and under what conditions? Does it matter how many people see this project or is it really just about exhibiting and disseminating it as a means of reparation or recognition for the participants?

Andrea Medina, a friend and colleague of mine who is a lawyer, and I talk a lot about what 9M[6]stood for. On the one hand, it was an international strike that was in the making for four years, with which we joined. On the other, it was a day without women, a notion we questioned a lot for the fact of making us more invisible than we already are. Who would imagine that 9M would last four months, that 9M would extend so far in time to the point that we still can’t leave our houses?

I think that resistance from within the home is complicated because it isn’t a safe space for many people. Resisting the heteropatriarchal dynamics of the home entails the task of unlearning and reprogramming everyone who shares the same roof. For those of us for whom the home is not a dangerous space and who have access to the digital world, possibilities arise around proposing a distinct future: instead of thinking about the permanent growth that defines the logic of capital, it involves putting your money on a logic of reduction. I believe this can be accomplished through political pressure, social adhesion, proclamations, and positioning. The wager is being placed on exercises of resistance and disobedience that invite us to look at each other and discuss among ourselves, whatever the scope of the conversation may be.

AG: The next question points exactly towards this idea. Together with María Minera and José Antonio Cordero, you have formed the organization Frente Amplio de Trabajadorxs del Arte y la Cultura en México [Broad Front for Art and Culture Workers in Mexico]. Along with them, you were telling me that, with the help of other colleagues, you have also formed a Feminist Cabinet. In what way can we interpret this break with the system as a jumping-off point for generating other kinds of cultural policies that will lead to anti-patriarchal logics? Is a union organization that undoes the normative logic of the state possible?

LW: As an exercise, the Frente is interesting because it is only possible at this moment and in the face of this situation. We understand it as a fluid entity that exists in a state of permanent construction, which could grow as easily as it could disappear tomorrow. The proposal is simple: we are in a state of emergency because, in the middle of a pandemic, funding for art and culture which was already insufficient is being cut. Even though the visibility and relevance of FONCA has been disputed and questioned in other times, getting rid of it entirely in this moment is totally unthinkable. It can only be understood as an act of authoritarianism, which furthermore is illegal and involves a series of inconsistencies.[7] Mexico, in effect, is dealing with a long history of corruption in its systems and institutions, but instead of eradicating it where and when it exists, the strategy has been to completely get rid of everything.

The Frente is based on mutuality, shared concern: we are dramatically different people, who have different beliefs and position ourselves politically in different ways, but we have come together in this moment to respond to topics having to do with the access to decent, fair, recognized, and remunerated jobs for people who work in art and culture. The Secretary of Culture insists that budgets and programs are being maintained, but the question remains as to how. We are sticking to our questions and the Frente will continue working as long as collective anxiety and insecurity still exist.

On the other hand, in the Feminist Cabinet, we are building on the reality of many women in Mexico, working collectively to draw attention to inconsistencies in the government’s discourse and actions, to pose questions that will generate real accounts of the facts, and to launch concrete and accomplishable proposals. More than thinking about having an influence, we aim to generate positions in order to bring information to light that people might not know about.[8]

Artists, feminists, civic organizations, people with disabilities, and others—we have suddenly become the public enemies of a new regime which sees everything in terms of a simplistic dichotomy between good and bad. What we aim to do through this organization is to draw attention to those injustices that it is imperative that we tackle from the perspective of feminism. I believe the field of action now lies in positioning yourself and in applying pressure so that those groups which are suddenly now being ignored and relegated to a position of virtual inexistence and total lack of recognition can confront the policies of the state that violate us. I insist that what we can do now is organize ourselves in order to create a more just society for women and female bodies, one in which art and culture are recognized as fundamental tools for reimagining the world.

AGG: I like thinking about the instability and the power of uncertainty. If the future is an ambush—one in which the logic of the heteropatriarchy regulates the course of our bodies and life experiences in the name of a spent progress—I believe that it would be good to think collectively about the actions headed by trans*/feminisms that have blown up recently and which always point to how we might articulate new possibilities. What remains for political discourses and actions to articulate from and for the cultural sector, which is currently ridding itself of the paradigms which it has until now reproduced?

LW: Feminists have never had as much visibility as during those first days of March. Our proposals—principally, our fury at the growing wave of feminicides—were the topic before the quarantine. We had succeeded in placing them at the center of the national conversation, we were taking over the courts and the streets, and suddenly COVID-19 arrived and there was a different emergency on everyone’s mind.

At this moment, even if the emphasis is clearly on containing the number of people who enter a critical condition or die from COVID-19, it is important to remember that the other emergencies haven’t gone anywhere: the violence continues. We haven’t left. I insist on thinking that this can be a moment of radical transformation, even if our reality tells us the opposite is true.

This text was translated from Spanish to English by Chloé Wilcox.

Notes

  1. The official numbers state that around 80,000 people participated in the protests in Mexico City, while unofficial calculations estimate that flow of people fluctuated between 300,000 and 500,000 people.

  2. Some feminist colleagues are doing important work to track, down to the cents, the money that is being spent, and which the government proposes to spend. The April 23 presidential decree on the economic measures being taken to confront COVID-19, which proposed a 75 percent reduction in all the government’s current spending on general services, materials, and supplies, is a scandalous step. Feminist economist friends have noted that Mexico is expected to spend 0.7 percent of its GDP on the crisis, while other countries are investing up to 20 percent of their GDP without cutting into their government operation. While the government has promised that jobs won’t be lost, ten subsecretaries have already disappeared and up to 25 percent of the previously mentioned sectors of the current budget are being cut—affecting, for example, a good portion of the artistic and cultural community contracted under article 3000.

  3. Lesvy Berlín was a female student who was murdered on May 3, 2017. She was killed by her boyfriend Jorge Luis González Hernández, who was captured on security footage hitting her during an argument.

  4. The description of the project reads: “The intention of this piece lies in naming and making visible our realities during this time of confinement that forces many of us to live with our aggressors for long periods of time and/or take on even greater workloads and responsibilities, as regular caregivers for others.” For more information, see

  5. It was a kind of counterpart to the exercise View From My Window (La vista desde mi ventana) which circulated on F*ceb**k and had thousands of followers from around the world because views outside are amazing: green meadows and fields of bright flowers, baby goats on the mountain, majestic pools, the canals of Venice, a giraffe walking four meters away. It is a dramatic contrast to Ciudad Rotoplas.

  6. Trans. note: 9M refers to the National Women’s Strike on March 9, 2020, in which women all over Mexico abstained from working, going out into public space, or consuming.

  7. According to the Federal Law of Republican Austerity (Ley Federal de Austeridad Republicana), to mention just one example, the dissolution of a trust must be accompanied by a public analysis conducted by the Secretariat of Civil Service and the Secretariat of Public Finance and Credit, something which did not happen in the case of FONCA.

  8. Since the founding of the Feminist Cabinet, they have launched virtual infographics conveying information like that relating to the GDP mentioned earlier, as well as other information regarding the president’s denial that violence against women is increasing—a position that immediately translates into to a policy against us, our rights, and our lives—among others.

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