The Feminist Struggle in Mexico

by Romaana Shakir

‘Guapa! Guapa!’ A group of men more than double my age shout at me as I walk home from my weekly shop. This is followed by incessant staring through which I am unable to do anything but quicken my pace and try my best to ignore this unwanted attention. Unfortunately, this kind of regular objectification is a familiar discourse that all females my age and younger have to deal with on a daily basis in Mexico.

The highly sensitive issue of feminism in Mexico is a funny one and by funny I do not mean it is an issue that is to be taken lightly. From my own personal experience and observations from friends, it seems that the crux of the matter lies in the deep-seated mentality of “machismo” which is very much alive here today in Latin America. There is an underlying assumption that machismo and sexism are “two entirely different concepts”, to quote a Mexican friend that I spoke to about this recently. From what I gather, “sexism” is bad, but “machismo” is far from it. Apparently, it’s a mistake to view machismo behavior as inherently sexist. Machismo is focused upon the more classically “masculine” traits of being “protective” over the woman and being “self-dependent” on a male figure. Expectations which are bracketing underneath this category of “machismo” include the traditionally “masculine” qualities which include a tendency for a lack of emotional expression, to cases where men are expected to exaggerate their sense of power in order to gain social validation of their worth in society.

Gender inequality is not an issue that women alone face here in Mexico and is a a feminist issue which demands the attention of both genders. Men here in Mexico are at times expected to behave in an exaggerated and traditional “masculine” stereotype that society has created for them to fit into. It is instilled into Mexican men at a young age that this is what society expects of them, as confirmed by a few Mexican boys that I met at a party. From the way they spoke about women being scientifically proven to be “more emotional” than their male counterparts and hence “unable to understand men”, it signaled to me that these boys had been fed an idea that masculinity and emotion were somehow mutually exclusive, in which emotion signals a lack of strength. Women, naturally “emotional” creatures, are hence under the superiority of men due to this. It is a dangerous mindset to view emotion as a “weakness” and from my conversations with these boys it seemed clear to me that they equated weakness and inferiority with the idea of femininity, and strength and power with ideas of masculinity.

I will never forget the curiosity with which a Mexican friend asked me about my views on gender equality. When confronted with this question “are you a feminist?” I responded with “of course”. After asking her the same question, to my surprise she answered, “I think not”. Her reasons for this was the familiar discourse that assumes that feminism insinuates an “attack against men”. It is an unfortunate reality that the word “feminist” as we know it has come to be offensive for some. Moreover, that the importance of equality between human beings has been lost in semantics and the meaning of words, rather than focusing on what is truly at stake – equality for all.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop there. There is a kind of “positive sexism” here in Mexico where women are superficially granted special “privileges” such as free entry into certain clubs and bars. On the surface it may seem that this is good for women – my first thoughts as a naïve exchange student were “HA, Great!”. However, it soon became apparent that this was not for my benefit, but a cunning entrepreneurial move from club owners to attract more women into their clubs in order to ensure that more men would come to their clubs. Again, this casual objectification of women where they are regarded as a kind of attraction for male customers, plays into the idea of women being objects of male gratification and hence demeaned to a position lesser than men. I cannot help but think that this kind of positive sexism is no advantage for women, but only reinforces gender stereotypes that women have fought for decades.

I have also noticed race and sexism spiral into another category of concern here. I notice my more “European” looking friends are greeted with a chorus of men shouting “guapa rubia” on a daily basis, fetishizing their “exotic” looks where blonde hair is a novelty. This mentality is seemingly fed by the Mexican media which mostly features unrealistically pale women – much more of a European “look”, than Mexican. “Whiteness” is equated with a high status and darker skin with a less desirable aesthetic where the darker you are, the lesser social standing you have. Being a mixed-race female puts me in a rather interesting position, since people are usually shocked to find out I’m from England. Questions usually involve ‘Latina o Mexicana?’ and I will almost always be spoken to in Spanish or handed a Spanish menu, unlike my friends. Indeed, on one occasion a man told me he liked my skin color and proceeded to point to a girl whose skin was ‘too pale’ and another who was ‘too dark’.

It saddens me to know that statistics show that Mexico City is one of the most dangerous transport systems for women in the world. Indeed, figures in Mexico show that there are 120,000 rapes each year. Mexico’s female participation rate in the workforce is one of the lowest amongst countries in the OECD. It seems to be that attempts to bring women up to an equal level as men are being shut down as “male-bashing”. Given these statistics, it’s disheartening to see that the issue of feminism isn’t at the forefront of debates here.

Despite having said this, there are signs that things are changing and heading in the right direction. In my university, there were a series of protests with A4 sheets of paper hanging on strings across campus showcasing harrowing stories of sexual harassment in university, shedding light on the inequality faced by women and men in some cases. There is a long way to go. However, if more stories were showcased in this way and people would educate the general public that feminism isn’t a fight against men but a fight against gender inequality, then perhaps things would start changing.