Death in Juárez

Around twenty years ago the bodies of women began turning up in vacant lots and in the desert.  Juárez City, with a million and a half people, became a world hotspot of femicide - the term Mexican activists use for women being murdered essentially because they are women.

Many of the victims are abducted on their way to or from work, then raped, tortured, and their bodies dumped.  Unofficial estimates of the number of such killings in the city range from 400 to 1000. The picture shows a poster about some of the missing women.

A horrible climax came just before Christmas 2010.  In 2008 a teenager, Rubi Escobedo, was murdered.  The probable killer was known, and for once was arrested.  But he was later set free by a local court before coming to trial.  Rubi’s mother, Marisela Escobedo Ortiz, protested, and continued to protest outside the state governor’s office. Surveillance video shows what happened next.  On the evening of 16 December a white vehicle drove up.  A man with a gun got out, chased Marisela through the traffic, and shot her dead.  Then the killer drove off, leaving her body on the pavement.

Why do these killings happen?  Juárez City is in arid country just south of the US/ Mexico border.  The city grew fast when hundreds of factories exploiting cheap labour for export trade, maquiladoras, were set up. Poor workers came in from other parts of Mexico. They lived with improvised housing, appalling transport, few social services, inadequate policing, weak or non-existent unions, and ineffective government.  The fact that many women were earning their own wages for the first time created extra tension.  Some men saw this as taking away their jobs, or giving too much independence to women.

On top of this came narcotrafico. The last generation has seen increasingly violent ‘cartels’ that recruit thousands of poor young men into their private armies.  The result is a masculine culture of violence in which brutality is admired.  Large numbers of men, too, are killed in the violence that surrounds the drug trade, though the pattern of these deaths is different from the pattern of femicide.

Why doesn’t the government stop it?  Partly, because the government is involved in it.  Some police and soldiers are among the killers. Foreign capitalists and drug traders have money to spend, and want cosy relationships with local officials.  Government is, often, corrupt; and has little interest in protecting the poor.

The killings of women in Juárez City are rarely investigated with care. Hardly any cases, out of many hundreds over twenty years, have resulted in conviction of the murderers.  ‘Impunity’ is a key to the problem.

Those are the local reasons for femicide.  It is a ‘perfect storm’ that has produced a terrible concentration of violence.  Components of this storm are found beyond this city, beyond Mexico, and beyond Latin America.  Most of these components can be found in Australia.

More than fifteen years ago, a retired accountant called Esther Chavez called attention to the killings.  In 2001 the mother of one of the murdered girls set up a group called Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa, ‘May Our Daughters Come Home’. Continuing intimidation makes this hard to sustain.  The picture above shows crosses erected by family and friends of the murdered women.

Gradually the message has been heard.  Human rights organizations and news media have begun reporting on the situation.  A well-known Mexican playwright has written a powerful theatre piece called ‘Women of Sand’.  In 2009-10 a group of artists in Mexico City launched an international solidarity campaign.

An Australian solidarity group, Sydney Action for Juárez, started in late 2009.  SAFJ has held marches (shown in picture), a fund-raising concert, a reading and radio production of ‘Women of Sand’, and other actions. Some Australians do think femicide in Juárez City matters a lot, right here.

"Gender in Question" conference, Pretoria 10-13 July

The South African Sociological Association (SASA) conference theme for 2011 was ‘Gender in Question’, and I was invited to give the keynote address.  There was a small problem with jet-lag, in fact I wasn’t present on Planet Earth 100% of the time. The avatar I left behind, however, does not seem to have disgraced me.  Even better, immediately after my address, a student group gave a performance with very good harmony singing, both African and North American, and spectacular dance.

The South African academic world is still on the long trajectory of democratisation.  This involves capacity development: many students are the first of their family or community to come to university.  I went mainly to the sessions about gender and sexuality, and many of the presentations were graduate students trying out their research proposal or presenting a little data.

A lot of young people are doing ethnographic research, very eclectic (and usually Northern) in their conceptual framework, but often very interesting as fieldwork.  They dealt with gendered workplaces and occupations, changing family patterns and housing, issues in the public sphere such as mass media, and questions of sexuality and violence.

In the conference’s plenary sessions there was sharper debate about the dilemmas of feminism in South Africa, as a male-dominated African National Congress (ANC, the governing party) consolidates power and there seems to be a drift towards nationalism and big-man politics.   South Africa has a very advanced constitution, in terms of human rights, but the translation into real equality is another matter.  Indeed that problem of ‘substantive equality’ was a driving issue for the conference.

The ANC’s turn towards neoliberalism in the 1990s does not seem to have dented the problems of mass unemployment and gender inequalities.  I went to a very interesting session about a new book by Sarah Mosoetsa, Eating from One Pot.  This is an ethnographic study of poor SA households responding to factory closures & economic restructuring.  Worth reading; tough stuff.

In my keynote I talked about the tangled history of sociology’s encounters with gender issues.  I also traced some of the important gender analysis and gender politics that came out of the global South but didn’t appear in the mainstream textbooks.  We didn’t have an extended discussion in that session, but in later sessions I was part of discussions about global epistemology, the relevance of a concept of ‘intersectionality’, and the continuing under-recognition of feminist thinkers in sociology.

I went to the conference banquet and was placed at the official table with the Vice Chancellor and the Minister for Higher Education, Blade Nzimande.  The Minister gave a speech declaring his affiliation with social science (he's an industrial sociology PhD, also the general secretary of the Communist Party), his intention to stir up the higher education system, and his critique of postmodernism for being too conservative.  I can’t think of many ministers in our government who could have done the same.

Two talks in Cape Town

In Cape Town in mid-July, as a guest of the University of Cape Town, a visit arranged by Dr Robert Morrell.  The upper campus is built on a spectacular site with close views of the mountain in one direction, and across the Cape Flats to distant ranges in the other.  I did workshops and seminars in four departments or centres, and met with academic staff and graduate students individually.
Robert Morrell and myself at UCT

On the evening of 20 July I did my big number, a Vice-Chancellor’s Public Lecture, "Intellectuals in the 21st Century World".  How is that for a pompous title?  (I confess, it was my own.)  This was part of UCT’s public lecture outreach series, advertised in the Cape Town papers etc.

It was in vacation time, but 250 people turned up.  In fact the lecture had to be moved to a bigger venue, how is that for a Key Performance Indicator?  I think I was in pretty good form too (see picture below, and audio/video).  I told the familiar ‘tale of the intellectuals’ as a subversive avant-garde and/or a new class holding social power.  Then complicated this story with data on intellectual labour, and tried to displace the Eurocentric tale with a global one.  This means thinking about the different groups of intellectuals in pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial contexts in the majority world.  Wound up with some of the dilemmas of intellectual work in the neoliberal university.

Giving the public lecture.  Picture credit:
University of Cape Town.
The Power Point worked perfectly, and the questions were numerous and relevant – always a good sign.  The Deputy V-C who chaired the session, Prof. Thandabantu Nhlapo, presented me with a warm handshake and a heavy book, in every sense of the word – it was about the 'Memory Box' project, stories of people living with HIV.  We moved off for refreshments afterwards, which were quietly gatecrashed by a bunch of students.  I discussed post-colonialism and anti-colonialism with a group of bright, critical, young Black men, a pleasure to talk with. 

Two days later I gave a talk at the University of the Western Cape, out on the Cape Flats in a very different social milieu from sandstone UCT.  The session was organized by Prof. Tammy Shefer, who has been in the thick of South Africa's very impressive social research effort in the field of gender, violence and HIV.

This was the only talk about masculinities I gave on the trip; about 60 people came, including people from NGOs and community activism.  We had a technological meltdown and I had to remember how we used to give lectures in ancient times before Power Point.  The group was good humoured and we got on OK.

The questions here were very much about the practical applications of knowledge about men and masculinities to issues about poverty, violence, drugs, gangs in the informal settlements, etc.

One woman raised the question whether women’s groups should spend energy on men.  My answer was that there were very good reasons why feminists historically focussed on women.  But since gender is relational, and the dire problems of the gender order can’t be solved without men’s participation, engaging with men is a necessity.  There seemed to be general agreement with that.

"Women's Worlds" 2011 congress Ottawa, 3-7 July

The Women’s Worlds congress is one of the biggest and most diverse women’s studies/ gender studies events.  It is held every three years, each time in a different country.  This year it was in Canada.

When the delegates got together for plenaries there were well over a thousand people in a cavernous and somewhat darkened hall.  But they dispersed through six university buildings and got rather lost at other times.  There wasn’t a central place where everyone mingled.
The organizers had made a big effort for diversity beyond able-bodied white feminists from the global North.  So there were a lot of sessions presenting ideas and practices from indigenous women in Canada, a real effort to be accessible for disabled people, and some money had been spent to bring delegates from Africa.  There was a Latin American contingent who ran some sessions in Spanish; and a scattering from eastern Europe, south Asia, Oceania.  Most delegates were Canadian and US of course, and the next most were from Europe.

There was, a celebration of women’s art and music in the conference, as well as the academic work.  The organizers had commissioned a Canadian artist to make a set of painted drums, incorporating indigenous women’s knowledge of plants and medicine, and the artist personally presented one to each of the plenary speakers.  I smuggled mine across two borders, but declared it to Australian quarantine, who looked at it very suspiciously, but let it through.

There seemed also a strong presence of NGOs, or at any rate papers based on work by or in NGOs, e.g. sessions about gender and development projects - consistent with what one hears about the “NGO-ization” of feminism.

I went to a number of interesting sessions, for instance a session about Russia, where Olga Shnyrova gave a good picture of the shaky history of feminism since the end of the Soviet Union.  The political system was more open in the 1990s but a national organization didn’t emerge and the situation is now tougher.  The authoritarian state consolidating under Putin, a revival of the Orthodox church, and withdrawal of NGO funds from the west.  They speak of a “patriarchal revival” in Russia now.

Our plenary was called “Breaking Barriers”.  The pattern was plenaries in the morning and parallel sessions in the afternoon.  The presenters met for breakfast in the “Green Room” at 7.45, not that I could eat much as I was nervous.  The line-up was Mary Simon, President of Inuit Tapiriit Kanatami (ITK), the organization representing Inuit people in Canada; Judith Heumann, a US disability activist now working in the State Department putting disability conditionality into US aid programmes; Malika Hamidi from Belgium who is coordinator of the European Muslim Network; and me.

The session was chaired by Alison Smith, a high-profile CBC television news presenter, who tried to give it an interview flavour but the time was mostly a series of declarations by the panelists on each successive topic.

The plenary was a bit formal right at the start, not helped by the fact that a storm was building up outside.  After the conference announcers had done the housekeeping, we were summoned up on the stage, the klieg lights turned on, the cameras rolling, a hush fell in the room – at least a thousand people there, you understand.  And just as Alison began to speak, an almighty peal of thunder rang out overhead and the rain came pouring down.  It was wonderful!  I fell about laughing, it was such perfect timing it could have been scripted.  The tension was completely broken, and it all went easily from there on, as far as I was concerned.

Day 3 Plenary Session pt.2 - Women's Worlds 2011 from Kaan Bayulken on Vimeo.

In the hour and a half we dealt with personal stories, education, setbacks and difficulties, allies & enemies, the Arab spring and what it means, globalization, and new growth points for change.  In the personal stories part I said a few words about being a transsexual woman, and had a very positive reception from the audience.  In the globalization part I talked about the femicide in Ciudad Juárez and international solidarity work, as far away as Australia.  More generally I stressed the changing character of feminism and the new growth points, especially in the global South and emerging issues such as environmental justice.

Lessons out of all that?  1. The greater feminist inclusiveness celebrated in the texts is turning into practice, at some levels at least.  2.  I’m increasingly convinced that the history of gender struggle and the dynamics of gender orders differ across regions of the world.  And if so, the familiar logic of gender theory (including mine) needs re-thinking.

“Genders, Feminisms and Diversities” conference, San Jose de Costa Rica, 20-23 June 2011

The GEFEDI conference brought together academics from across Latin America, and a few from the English-speaking world, and a lot of Costa Rican academics and students, to discuss the state of gender studies and new themes about diversity and plurality.   Costa Rica is not a rich country, and the organizers had made a great effort to assemble funding and make the event inclusive.

It was held in a hotel auditorium – all the sessions in the same room. About 350 people came. The organizers had arranged simultaneous translation between Spanish and English, throughout the conference and not just for a few sessions.  The main beneficiaries were the Anglophones, and for part of the time, just me.  Gulp. 

I met Gloria Careaga, whom I had known as head of the gender studies programme at UNAM – the biggest gender studies programme in the world? – and is now head of an international lesbian and gay peak organization. I also met Marcela Lagarde, who gave the very good closing speech for the conference. She is a most impressive Mexican intellectual and political activist who was elected to the Mexican national parliament and pursued feminist issues there.  

In the regular sessions, I was particularly excited by the work of Laura Velasco, a social researcher from Tijuana who is doing first-rate research about gender issues (and other social issues) in the turbulent development of Mexico’s northern border region.  This opens up the question of how a pattern of gender relations forms as a new social formation comes into being.

Some impressions of Latin American academic feminism as represented in the conference: The colleagues here have no difficulty at all talking about ‘patriarchy’ as the central problem.  Power held by men, and the subordination of women, is a stark reality.  High levels of violence are also a local reality – rape and domestic violence against women, anti-gay violence, and not much relieved by the apparent ending of the civil wars of the recent past.  There is still a lot of deference to theory from Europe and the USA.  There is a very wide range of topics under debate, from identity to human rights to environment.

The conference had ceremonious sessions honouring feminist pioneers in Costa Rica, with speeches by them, and presentation of gifts.  In most sessions there wasn’t much debate on the conference floor - most time was taken by presentations from the platform - though there was certainly a combative tone to some presentations. 

My plenary talk was about Southern perspectives on gender questions, encouraging people to recognize the scale and value of feminist thought across the global South, including the new patterns of transnational feminist networks.  The questions raised in the discussion time included racial inequalities, the concept of the 'South', the specificity of Latin America, the languages of colonialism, the conditions of production of knowledge, the relation of academic feminism to women outside the university world, and the uses of knowledge by social movements.

The day before my plenary, I truanted from the conference, went to the University of Costa Rica, and gave a talk on ‘Understanding transsexuality’ hosted by the psychology dept and a regional LGBT rights organization CIPAC, about 80 people came.  A transsexual/ transgender support group came to the talk and I had afternoon tea with them, a great meeting that exchanged some tough stories of survival.  The local estimate of a travesti’s expectation of life is about 32.

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