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  Number 286 | Mayo 2005
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Mexico

Marcela Lagarde: A Feminist Battles Feminicide

A leading figure in Latin American feminism, Marcela Lagarde is now a member of Mexico’s House of Representatives, where she presides over its special commission to follow up on investigations into the murder of women. Through her ideas and activism, she aims to leave a mark on public policies.

Jorge Alonso

It is groups not individuals that carry out social struggles, and their success depends on the group’s power. Nonetheless, figures arise who imprint certain characteristics on the struggle, so it is worth examining those leaders. I want to discuss the work of a feminist whose many merits include her determination to wage a battle against the murder of women in Mexico and the rest of Latin America. Her name is Marcela Lagarde, a woman already familiar to envío’s readers through her article, “We Women Want Power,” which we published in March 2001.

Promoting equality
from the legislature

Lagarde won her seat in Mexico’s House of Representatives for the session that began in mid-2003 after agreeing to run as an independent candidate for the Revolutionary Democratic Party (PRD). As a feminist, she had sharply criticized the legislative branch as a misogynist, patriarchal institution where decisions are made in a top-down manner. She was well aware of the fact that women who have obtained important positions in government or congress have typically done so by working within a party, and their leadership is conditioned by the tensions between the party’s needs and those of their constituents.

Nonetheless, Lagarde felt that as a member of the House, she would be in a position to promote gender equity and a transformational vision inspired by a gender-based analysis. She decided to participate in the formulation of public policies, where she would have the opportunity to propose actions to ensure equal opportunities for women and demand that the government make a true commitment to women. More specifically, she set out to help clear up the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez and to promote transparency in the use of resources by the National Women’s Institute.

First she joined the Equity and Gender Commission, where one of her first acts was to offer a motion that the National Action Party (PAN) authorities of the state of Baja California fulfill the recommendations of the National Human Rights Commission in the case of Paulina Ramírez, a girl who had been raped then forced by authorities to bear the child. In the House, she was elected to preside over the special commission that is following up on the investigations into murders of women and efforts to procure justice in these cases. Allies and opponents alike have widely praised her performance in this post.

Women’s captivities

In her youth, Lagarde was a member of the Communist Party. She was trained as an anthropologist and became active in feminist causes at a very young age. She taught for many years at the Mexican National Autonomous University, and has authored several books and over a hundred academic articles that have had important repercussions in feminist theory and practice. She coordinated the Cassandra workshops on feminist anthropology and has collaborated with feminist groups and networks of women’s centers and institutes in Mexico, other parts of Latin America and Spain. She has served as an adviser to the United Nations on gender issues and also advises other international cooperation organizations as well as serving on the editorial board of Mexican and Spanish feminist journals.

Fifteen years ago, she published Los cautiverios de las mujeres: madresposas, monjas, putas, presas y locas (The Captivities of Women: Mother-Wives, Nuns, Whores, Prisoners, and Madwomen), a classic that has been reprinted several times to meet the huge demand. Lagarde constructed the category “captivity” to describe the cultural forms of women’s oppression in patriarchal society. The various kinds of captivity produce suffering, conflicts, pain and contradictions. Some women, however, like Sisyphus in Albert Camus’ reinterpretation of that story of endless suffering, find a false way out by imagining and even feeling that they are happy in their captivity.

Since women are diverse, they are subject to diverse kinds of captivity. Lagarde has reviewed the history of women from this perspective, emphasizing their relationship to power, and concludes that women are in an emergency situation and urgently need to take leadership all over the world. They need more power to ensure that their rights are recognized and respected. In this context, democracy consists among other things of establishing conditions to allow women to live as citizens.

Feminism is not exclusive

Lagarde has emphasized that the feminist paradigm is not exclusive, since it can be used to construct alternatives for men as well as for women. She maintains that history’s solutions are not binary opposites and that eliminating the patriarchy does not imply creating a matriarchy, noting that anthropology has shown us the many ways in which women and men are the most sophisticated cultural creations, leading her to oppose racist, classist and sexist ethnocentrism.

Central to her thinking is the idea that social inequalities between men and women are not biologically determined, but rather socially constructed. There are men who have understood women’s individual and collective experiences, and have committed themselves to help build a new, liberating and deeply democratic symbolic order.

Sisterhood: A crucial concept

Lagarde has looked at the issue of feminist acculturation from an anthropological analysis of the transmission of feminist conceptions, values, knowledge, practice and experiences under patriarchal hegemony. She notes that women are working from a delegitimatized and de-authorized minority position to build an alternative, reconstructive historical paradigm, but warns that processes are not linear and progressive and often involve steps back as well as forwards.

Another of her fundamental concerns is to emphasize the idea of “sorority” or “sisterhood” in response to the idea of “fraternity” or “brotherhood” that arose from the French Revolution. This notion refers to women’s mutual recognition and unity in public action, a kind of meeting point among women, through which they can build an alternative together and support each other in order to transform each woman’s life. Implicit within this concept is the modification of gender-based conditioning. When women achieve this sisterhood, this connection, they affirm their identity, but if they don’t develop an awareness of gender, they can’t develop a positive identity, which is the only way to overcome their lack of power and create spaces of solidarity.

Fear and empowerment

Lagarde has looked deeply into women’s fears: the fear of freedom, of making decisions, of being alone. She has shown how the fear of being alone in particular has been a huge obstacle to building autonomy. According to her theory, women will not gain autonomy without revolutionizing their way of thinking and the content of their thoughts. She proposes feminist keys to women’s self-esteem, with gender awareness and identity at the top of the list.

Lagarde believes that each woman goes through a personal process in forming her feminist consciousness and identity and transmitting all this to society and its institutions. Among the keys to this identity is empowerment, essential to acquiring autonomy and power. Empowerment is an analytical category that proposes women’s need for access to power—not established power, but the positive powers in women’s lives. This empowerment makes it possible for women to deconstruct oppression and create alternatives, to develop resources, goods, skills, capacities and spaces in favor of their own lives. It is not a process that takes place outside of an individual, but rather one through which women internalize their own power. It is a way of being, living, thinking, acting and feeling.

For gender empowerment to take place individually, however, there must be collective, social gender empowerment. The goal is to ensure that individual, subjective appropriation accompanies this collective, social construction, which requires a set of capacities that allow women to deal with their specific situation, a kind of empowerment that allows them to escape the male-imposed captivity and create spaces for positive identification among themselves. To achieve this, they need greater awareness and practical knowledge. Lagarde has also called attention to the feminist keys for negotiation in love.

For women’s leadership

As an activist, Lagarde has worked to build a gender-based democracy where justice, respect and solidarity between men and women prevail. She has sought to make the equality proclaimed by law a reality. To achieve this, she encourages women to recast their gender identity in political terms. If we want to live in a social democracy, we must ensure that women’s rights are recognized and respected, and women must legitimate their gender identity as something that justifies their participation in politics, then politicize this identity and promote leaders who assume women’s causes. Women need to shape specific kinds of leadership. Lagarde has studied how such leadership originates, how it develops and how it overcomes obstacles. She has found that it’s also necessary to heal generational relations, since adult women in a patriarchal society tend to exert authoritarian powers over younger women.

As an integral piece of her academic and activist work as a feminist, Lagarde decided to become a congressional representative for the Left. She’s determined to show that laws aren’t neutral and that discrimination against women lurks behind the application of the established legal framework. She has also denounced the discriminatory conditions in which women legislators work.

Classifying the crime of feminicide

As president of the House special commission to follow up on investigations into the murder of women, Lagarde has demanded that those who have permitted the murders of women in Ciudad Juárez, whether through omission, negligence or collusion, should also be punished.

She hasn’t limited herself to the crimes committed in that now highly publicized city, however, but has called for investigations into murders of women all over the country. She also demands that the orphans of the murdered women receive the care and attention they need.

As a legislator, one of her most important initiatives has been to promote passage of legislation to classify the crime of feminicide, which she describes as a crime against the state that may occur in conditions of peace as well as war. She explains that the lack of a rule of law or fractures in it allow violence to proliferate and murders to go unpunished, favoring impunity.

Lagarde sets the kidnapping and disappearances of women and girls in a context of institutional collapse. She even speaks of genocide against women when the historical conditions foster social practices that allow continual attacks on their integrity, development, health, freedoms and lives by people they know as well as those they don’t, by murderers acting alone or in groups, by occasional criminals as well as professionals. These crimes, whether serial or individual, share a common trait: their perpetrators treat women as objects to be used, abused and discarded.

Hate crimes against women

Lagarde defines feminicide as hate crimes against women, misogynous crimes forged by the enormous social and state tolerance of gender violence.

These crimes are encouraged by impunity, by haphazard investigations and mishandled findings, by fraudulent or misogynist prosecutors who don’t pay attention to the victims’ charges and misogynist judges who see women’s lives as secondary or are biased against the women, discrediting and blaming them. Silence, omission, negligence and the collusion of authorities responsible for preventing and eradicating these crimes all contribute in a criminal way
to feminicide.

Feminicide happens when the state fails to ensure women’s rights and create the necessary conditions to protect their safety in the community, at home, on the job, in transit, or at leisure. Feminicide happens when the authorities do not efficiently carry out their work to prevent, avoid and sanction these crimes, which are fed by the ideological and social environment of machismo and misogyny.

Gender violence: A global priority

Lagarde argues that eradication of violence against women is now a high priority in women’s political consciousness and on the democratic agenda of every country and the world as a whole. In her conception, gender violence—the violence women experience because they are women—includes sexist, misogynist, classist, agist, racist, ideological, religious, identity-based and political forms of violence.

This violence is nurtured in society and the state by patriarchal gender inequality, a lack of democracy and development, and because the lack of adequate public policies leaves institutions unable to respond. Gender violence aims to keep women at a disadvantage in the world, maintain inequalities and exclude women from access to goods, resources and opportunities. It devalues, denigrates and intimidates women, and reproduces patriarchal domination. Gender violence against women recreates a gender supremacy of men over women.

From a feminist perspective, Lagarde situates gender violence as a political problem not only for Mexico and the rest of Latin America, but for the world as a whole. She opposes misogynist concepts such as “crimes of passion” and calls for legally defining sexual violence such as rape, incest, harassment, conjugal and family violence, street violence, and all other forms of gender violence, whether work- or property-related, intellectual, symbolic, linguistic, economic, legal or political.

Lagarde has always acknowledged the women of many countries who have given life to feminist culture by denouncing gender oppression and creating a critical awareness of women’s condition by highlighting gender discrimination, marginalization, exploitation and alienation. Rejecting beliefs about the inevitability of gender violence, she considers it an attack on women’s human rights, one of the most serious social problems of our time, urgently in need of attention.


Women have made room
for themselves

Looking back through history, Lagarde notes that women have been making room for themselves, creating opportunities and participating in the most diverse spheres of society, culture and politics. Based on her experience, she believes that women have breathed life into the task of building democracy, since by denouncing and fighting gender oppression they have helped create a critical consciousness.

Because of their work, condemning and fighting violence against women is now a priority in the political and democratic agenda of countries around the world. Research has made it possible to create a model in women’s minds to differentiate among the various forms of violence, to eradicate misogynist concepts, and to legally define sexual violence.

Legislative initiative
against feminicide

Lagarde notes that most countries have now included the murder, rape, forced disappearance and torture of women as criminal offenses in their penal codes. As a legislator, she insists that we cannot allow a violent death to be followed by a denial of justice.

She has proposed a bill to create a new article in Mexico’s federal penal code on gender crimes in response to the spread of feminicide. She wants it classified as a continuous, ongoing crime, and argues that this classification will help eliminate the social silence and lack of concrete actions.

In her bill, “anyone who attacks the life, dignity or physical or mental integrity of a woman in a community or region where these crimes have been committed recurrently, regardless of the result of the action, will be punished with a sentence of 20-40 years, in addition to the sentence corresponding to the crime committed (homicide, forced disappearance, rape, kidnapping, mutilation, severe injury, human trafficking, torture, sexual abuse, forced prostitution, forced sterilization, or discrimination because of ethnic or racial origin, sexual preference or pregnancy).”

Those nearest are often
the ones responsible

In a January 2005 interview, Lagarde emphasized that the murders of women will continue unless public policies are established to prevent violence. She charged that those governing the country are paying no attention to this grave problem and demanded that the federal government develop a comprehensive plan to prevent and respond to violence against women. She reiterated that this violence can be prevented and eradicated, but that doing so requires political will. She also noted that women suffer from domestic violence and especially conjugal violence in every part of the country. Partners, former partners, husbands, lovers and boyfriends abuse women in the most terrible way, going as far as murder. Women are also hurt and murdered outside their homes. They are not secure anywhere. Without looking for violence, they are subjected to it; although nonviolent, they are murdered.

The problem is legal, economic, political and cultural. Women will live in precarious conditions as long as the inequality is
so great between women and men. Women’s inequality and exclusion is expressed in social deficiencies—health, education and jobs—and in unequal salaries and working conditions. As long as women are seen as being of less value in society, men will feel they have rights over them, including the right to abuse, insult, rape and even murder them.

The solution: True peace

Lagarde has not been content to wage this fight against feminicide in Mexico alone, but has sought to extend it throughout Latin America. At the end of 2004, both in a Socialist International meeting of women from the region and in the Guatemalan Congress, she proposed that if violence is the problem, the search for true peace is the solution. She charged that Latin American women are not included in the state through a democratic, egalitarian and equitable social pact.

The solution she has proposed for fighting feminicide is to build respect for women’s human rights under social conditions of democracy, development and peace, pointing out that many organizations, global summits and conferences have recognized both a hidden and open war against women that must be stopped. She warns that the problem is enormous and very serious, and urges quick action. As an example, she mentions the proposal from Nobel Peace Prize laureate Shirin Evadi that the International Criminal Court address cases of gender violence against women.

Women’s rights to prevent violence

In discussing the need to build peace for Latin American women, Lagarde has proposed that they wage a legislative battle to satisfy the demands of the women’s movements in recent years: inclusion of women in the state’s social and political pact in conditions of parity; reform of the state from the perspective of gender democracy; and transformation of the development model to ensure equity and well-being for women.

If the goal is to eradicate gender violence as the synthesis of all violence suffered by women, and if people are truly determined to eradicate feminicide in Latin America, justice and women’s human rights must be prioritized in the political agenda of democracy. Lagarde has urged legislators to act responsibly in crafting bills and approving budgets to address the violence women suffer. And she insists that in doing so, they should not follow the predatory neoliberal order, but one based on defending women’s human right to life, personal integrity, development and its benefits, protection and security from the state, respectful treatment, full justice, a life without fear or violence, social peace, peace in daily life and democracy with equity—as a step towards full equality.

All institutions have a role

Lagarde has called on people to view the paradigmatic cases of feminicide as red flags signaling a relatively hidden but critical situation. She notes that the state fails not only where feminicide occurs, but also in many other ways. And she is convinced that a profound reform of the state institutions is required, because the current institutions—especially the justice and public safety systems—are no longer up to the task of dealing with new challenges.

Her proposed bill calls for guaranteeing timely, professional, reliable and efficient police intervention that is respectful of human rights; adequate investigation; due process; discovery of the truth; sanctions against those indirectly or directly responsible (including government officials) and fair reparation for damages.

Public safety must be ensured by professionals capable of preventing gender violence through educational reforms and citizen participation. All state institutions have a role to play in these objectives and should act in a coordinated, integrated way to put effective public policies into practice. Consultation with and participation of civil society and international organizations are essential.

Calling on women and men

Lagarde never tires of repeating that the fight for women’s rights should be highly visible and remain on the political, legislative, and government agendas of all countries, and even more so those of international organizations. To achieve this, actions must be taken to encourage women’s empowerment; otherwise, they will be unable to achieve development and democracy, which are essential to stop feminicide. She calls on women, as a gender, to act publicly and resoundingly to demand an end to violence, crime, impunity, the feminization of poverty and the negation of women’s rights as citizens.

She believes that the struggle to eradicate feminicide and all forms of gender oppression coincides with the fight to extend human rights and opportunities for development to all women, do away with the fear women experience in their homes and public places, and achieve social peace, particularly for women. She is convinced that if we can do this, society will be radically transformed.

With her slogan, “For the life and liberty of women, an end to feminicide,” and with the clarity and force of her arguments along with her tireless and determined activity, she has succeeded in expanding the contingent of women and men in Mexico and around the world who are fighting to end the shame of feminicide.

A successful woman
assaulted by the media

In yet another, very concrete example of the discrimination against women in Mexico, just as I was organizing the ideas that Marcela Lagarde had shared with me in writing so I could draft this article, the country witnessed a revealing and moving event.

A successful woman who had served as president of Mexico’s National Association of Manufacturers (CANACINTRA), where her leadership was widely recognized, agreed to run as the PRD candidate for governor of the state of Mexico, which virtually surrounds the Federal District. The PRI holds power there, and because of the large number of voters in the state, its election results are seen as a harbinger of the outcome of the presidential elections.

The media, controlled by groups adverse to the PRD, launched a dirty war against the candidate, and it soon came out that she had another name. Up until that time we had known her as Yeidckol Polevnsky Gurwitz, but journalists found records in which she appeared under the name Citlali Ibáñez. The media also “revealed” that she was the “illegitimate” granddaughter of the brother of former President Manuel Ávila Camacho, and whipped up a scandal with an avalanche of ignorant charges.

On March 2, Polevnsky was obliged to explain the situation and reveal her family history—one that highlights many aspects of the daily pain women experience and that Lagarde has analyzed. Polevnsky appeared at a press conference with her two children, her mother, her mother’s husband and her sisters. Her father, who had contributed to the accusations against her, was not there.

“There are thousands
of cases like mine”

This was the story she told: “My parents divorced when my three sisters and I were young, between a year and six years old. The divorce was traumatic. One of the many differences between my parents was whether or not my mother belonged to the Ávila Camacho family. [Her mother was the illegitimate daughter of Maximino, the President’s brother.] When I was 12 I got pregnant. My pregnancy at that age was a traumatic event that marked my life and affected my whole family.”

“Because of my pregnancy, we had to leave the school we were attending and go from school to school until we found one willing to take us. Although I studied and behaved correctly, I was judged and condemned. Because of this, my mother decided to change my name to Yeidckol and also changed my last name. It was the act of a woman desperately trying to defend her daughters from the social stigma that followed us. She did it after trying everything she could to protect
us.”

“I’ve struggled to get ahead in life, and it hasn’t been easy. I went from religious schools to secular schools, and starting at the age of 14, I had to work while I studied. Mexico has thousands of cases of family violence, violation of women’s human rights, and the exclusion and stigmatization of women, their families and their children. We’re condemned by summary judgments. Our families are destroyed and we carry this burden all our lives.”

“My real name, my original name, Citlali, means ‘star.’ It’s a beautiful name and I would have liked to keep it, but I couldn’t. At the age of 12, 14 or 16, a girl can’t overcome such adversity alone. At that time, society didn’t understand a girl’s suffering. Now, my name is Yeidckol. I want to live with this name because it’s the symbol of someone who has overcome difficulties. Only those of us who have fallen know what it is to stand on our feet. I’m not ashamed of having suffered, and less so of having succeeded.”

“I am feminism in the flesh”

In response to questions from journalists, Polevnsky said: “I’m not going to talk about feminism. I’m feminism in the flesh. Who defends the thousands of women who suffer from domestic violence? Society has to become aware, so that those who experience so much suffering are not also stigmatized. Their stories are repeated day after day. Many, many women suffer such a tragedy then are left alone, the doors shut against them; they’re insulted instead of being supported. In most cases, they’re not guilty of anything.”

“We have to raise awareness in society so that single mothers, girls who have to work when they are neither old enough nor educated enough to do so, families that are left out in the street with nothing, are not mocked or stigmatized, because that is very painful. I experienced it.”

Polevnsky recalled that several days earlier, while visiting Nezahualcoyotl—one of the most densely populated and marginalized cities in the Federal District—a woman came up to her on the street. She asked for nothing, but simply told her: “I’m a woman of the street and I admire you very much.” In recalling this meeting, Polevnsky asked with tears in her eyes: “What opportunities has life given this woman? None. They took everything away from her and threw her out on the streets. They took all her opportunities away from her. Who’s defending her? Who even thinks about the harm this woman has endured? No one, because there’s no profit in it for either politicians or the media.”

The media refuses to pardon a woman who has been successful despite all odds but dares to stand for a leftist party, particularly in the crucial state of Mexico. They have tried to crush Polevnsky both politically and personally for being on the left, being successful—and being a woman. And she’s been able to defend herself. This is one example.


Jorge Alonso is a researcher with CIESAS Western and envío correspondent in Mexico.

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