The following commentary was spiked by a local online publication (Mexico News Daily) after its new ownership decided to discontinue my regular semi-weekly contributions. Not knowing what else to do with it, I post it here in the format in which it would have run.
Women in Mexico are being killed simply for being women. Are their killers carrying out what they’ve been taught?
Commentary by Kelly Arthur Garrett
Last year, after a young Coahuila woman who had been missing for three dayswas confirmed as a femicide victim, a local paper ran the following subhead under the headline announcing her death:
“Neighbors detected a fetid odor in the interior of an apartment, with this crime, femicides in Saltillo total four so far this year”
Ignore for now the questionable inclusion of that first sensationalistic clause. Instead, note the transition after the comma splice. Before we even get to the lede of the story, a murdered human being has turned into a statistic. This can’t help but change the framing for the reader. An emotional reaction to a human tragedy gives way to a general problem to be pondered.
Both are important. The stats remind us this woman’s fate is no anomaly, that epidemic femicide is Mexico’s great shame, and that not enough is being done to put an end to it.
At the same time, personal pain must take priority. To the victim’s survivors, her death was not one of four femicides in the Coahuila capital of Saltillo, not one of some thousand per year nationwide (based on 2020 femicide investigations, but probably more in reality), and not just a fraction of a percentage point in the 129% increase in femicide cases from 2015 to 2020.
For them, it was the first femicide. The last femicide. The only femicide.
The point is that empathy has to underpin any approach to reducing femicides if we’re going to get anywhere. We’re not talking about paving over potholes here. The task is existential.
Understanding femicide requires clarity about what it is. It doesn’t make for pleasant reading, for which I apologize in advance. But there’s no way around it,
Femicide is not a synonym for the murder of a woman. The femicide category accounts for a minority of female murder victims, although it’s the fastest growing. The go-to shorthand description of femicide has been “the murder of women, committed by men, for the simple reason of their being women.”
That nutshell definition is useful, but over-simplified. Let me try cobbling one together from an amalgam of offerings from a number of theorists over the years:
“Femicide is the murder of women by men who feel so entitled to control their lives, bodies and sexuality that resistance to submission is justification for inflicting death as punishment.”
Here's where some have questioned the need for a special category. What’s the relevance of gendered motives, they ask. The victim is just as dead. The perpetrator is just as guilty. Try him for murder and be done with it.
In truth, there’s plenty of precedent for categorizing crimes by motive, hate crimes being perhaps the best-known. And plenty of reason to do it.
In this case, treating certain murders as femicides focuses the investigation, increasing the chances of justice. It clarifies the conditions that lead to these crimes, helping with future prevention. It can help the survivors understand what happened to their loved one and why.
Authorities don’t use the label casually. Since femicide was codified as a crime category in 2012, a paradigm for recognizing gendered reasons for murder has emerged.
Evidence of femicide may include signs of sexual violence, mutilation, necrophilia, antecedents of family violence in the suspect, a previous relationship between the suspect and the victim, previous threats or harassment, the victim having been held incommunicado (as was the case with the Coahuila victim and many others), or public display of the corpse.
So be clear. It is not the same as a crime of passion. It is not a sex crime, per se. It is not necessarily the work of a madman. It is, to repeat, the killing of a woman because she is a woman.
Another thing: Compared to most homicides, including those of women, femicide victims are less likely to be shot. The weapons of choice require physical contact —strangulation, blunt instruments, beating, knives, drowning. This preference is in keeping with the mindset underlying femicide: That women, being women, are simply unworthy, not only of life but of any kind of mercy.
That same mindset leads to other unspeakable crimes against women. It’s why we hear so often about acid attacks, scaldings, scorchings. It’s behind the less visible injustices, psychological as well as physical, such as domestic violence, workplace abuse, human trafficking, unreported rapes.
So why is this happening? Are we really such bad people? No. What afflicts us, researchers and activists say, is a normalization of gendered aggression. In other words, male domination is so ingrained in the culture that it’s barely noticed, let alone challenged.
That may sound counterintuitive, given women’s advancements in recent decades. But what you hear in the public sphere doesn’t necessarily apply behind closed doors.
A theory that has gained traction since it emerged after the wave of Ciudad Juárez femicides starting in the 1990s posits the existence of a “pedagogy of cruelty,” which neatly explains the perpetuation of physical aggression toward women. “Lessons” are informally and subtly imparted across generations, within the family, at the cantinas, among bros. From them, men learn it is acceptable, to resort to violence to punish women who break the rules, who do what they shouldn’t, who forget their place.
There are surely those who have a hard time believing that such an outrageous and anachronistic belief system could even exist, let alone have such an impact. They should get out more. It exists. It’s baked into the cake of Mexican society. Its impact is confirmed every time the mutilated body of a murdered woman is pulled out of an empty field.
Yes, it’s relatively rare for that toxic pedagogy to manifest as violence. But there we go again with the fallacy of statistics. If 10 women and girls are killed every day in Mexico, as Amnesty International tells us, is it any consolation that 65 million are not killed? And how many of those 65 million lead diminished lives because of the threat of femicide and other gender-based violence?
That threat may be growing. Our political leadership, potentially the strongest force for shifting the zeitgeist, seems strangely uninterested. They may have perfected the art of pinkwashing, dutifully repeating “las y los,” but they don’t do much of substance. Behind closed doors, many male public servants (I have it on authority) engage in the same sexist rhetoric they should be condemning.
What’s more, the incumbent federal government seems openly hostile to the cause. Feminists are illogically condemned as “conservatives” (the ultimate insult in the administration’s vocabulary). Shelters and subsidized daycare centers, two essential escape routes for abused women, have been reduced or shuttered. And NGOs working to reduce violence against women are treated as enemies rather than allies. Obediently, 64% of responders to a recent Reforma survey said that feminists “go to far.”
Clearly the push for change is going to have to come from below, because it sure isn’t coming from above. The effort would include the current protests and NGO research, as well as those current legislators and other public officials who are on board. But what about the rest of us?