Photo: Ideas de Izquierda
This article is a translation from an article published in Ideas de Izquierda in December 2014.
As never before, women have gained rights that, barely a century and a half ago, would have seemed part of an unthinkable utopia: from not being able to vote, to being presidents, legislators and ministers; from not having access to higher education, to being the majority among university students worldwide; from having to ask permission from their husbands to work outside the home, to taking up every trade in the workplace. Yet these rights were not achieved in a linear and constantly progressive evolution.
Many of these rights are the result of the struggles during periods of social and political radicalization, while others are the result of certain concessions from the ruling classes in order to smooth out the edges of insubordination from radical movements and integrate their leaders, thus limiting their most critical anti-systemic aspects.
It is true that all rights are bound within increasingly degraded bourgeois democracies. Such rights can be fully exercised only by some women, for a certain time, and in certain countries. As they can also be threatened and retreat in times of economic, political and social crises (1).
However, what it is truly disturbing is that, under the widely accepted and almost commonplace banner of gender equity, there still persists such a high level of discrimination and violence against women. Why do the patriarchal mandates persist, although under new disguises, and why do they continue to uphold the hierarchy of gender?
The Abominable Regularity of Femicide
The rate of femicide today is extremely high (2). In Argentina, there were 295 in 2013. That means one every 30 hours (3). Even today, the sensationalist press calls femicide “crimes of passion.” While we reject the patriarchal idea behind this classification, it does point to something made clear by the statistics: 63% of femicide committed in 2013 were by offenders who have been spouses, partners, boyfriends, or lovers at the time of the murder or in the past (4).
Society is horrified when these crimes come to light, and it is easy for media outlets to attribute them to the monstrosity of the criminal. Nonetheless, a monster, according to the dictionary definition, is a “force against the normal order of nature.” That is, something unusual, a rarity that clashes with what is expected, everyday, and familiar. Unfortunately, a femicide every 30 hours shows that this is not an exceptionality, but almost a rule: an abominable regularity warning us that one of us will be killed each day.
Sometimes perpetrators justify their own actions to a sudden loss of control of themselves or of the situation. However, violence against women is an example of the highest degree of control that can be exercised over someone. In fact, if the violence of femicide can be anticipated in most cases, it is because femicide is the result of an escalation of behaviors of harassment usually not addressed because the control and domination of men over women has been naturalized. Every time a woman is raped, beaten, or killed, millions of women–the survivors–learn the lesson that will imperceptibly shape their subjectivity. For this reason, while femicide appears in the news with the individual names and faces of victim and a victimizer, it is just a cog in the giant machine of violence against women aimed not just at the death of the victims, but at the disciplining of the body, desire, and behavior of the survivors. While other forms of social violence act to destabilize the status quo (as attacks against private property), violence against women contributes to keeping things running as usual.
Unlike other forms of social violence, it is structural because it arises from the socio-cultural norms that establish how women should behave, and it is established as the “legitimate punishment” for those who are not subordinated to these patriarchal mandates. From this point of view, we refuse to call violence against women “domestic” violence because, far from being an individual and specific pathological behavior within the private domain, that term makes invisible the fact that such violence is a link in a chain of structural violence of class societies against women, from the antiquity to the present day. It is a violence that, although naturalized and made invisible, originates, and is maintained, justified, and reproduced in the public sphere by the ruling classes, the state and its institutions, and repressive forces such as the schools, the Church, and the media.
This chain of violence includes derision, suspicion, control, intimidation, and condemnation of the forms of sexuality and behavior that do not conform to heteronormative standards, and the devaluation of bodies that do not correspond to models of beauty. But even more, the impediment the State poses for women to exercise their right to control their own bodies and their reproductive capacities is mostly an invisible cause of femicide statistics, such as the deaths resulting from clandestine abortions. Add to this the scandalous responsibility of the State through its political, judicial and repressive forces, the impunity it perpetuates, and its direct involvement, as customers or procurers, in the operation of networks of trafficking and prostitution, networks which kidnap and sexually exploit thousands of young women. In recent decades, this extreme violence against women has occurred against the backdrop of an increasing feminization of poverty and labor, and is coupled with the unusual increase in job insecurity.
Expropriation of Sexual Autonomy and Commodification of Women
If in so many countries, including Argentina, the fight for the right to abortion in the case of unwanted pregnancies has won the support of the majority, or is increasing daily, why are all attempts to legalize abortion unsuccessful? From the ’70s onwards, in many countries, the right to abortion has been won, and is now legal for 74% of the world’s population. However, each year 500,000 women still die from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, while 500 women die every day around the world as a consequence of clandestine abortions. This horrifying femicide perpetrated by states on a global scale is quite preventable (5).
The illegality of abortions is not merely due to lobbying for economic interests, although there are a great deal of medical corporations behind such clandestine abortions. This is, especially in Latin America, about the power of the Church and other fundamentalists interested in making their influence in and upon the State for the purpose of reproducing ancestral mandates that weigh on women’s bodies: motherhood as the only possible realization of a “real” femininity; reproduction as the exclusive objective of heterosexual partners is the base of the patriarchal family.
In contrast to these mandates, women who have had abortions classified with stigmatized terms that constitute reprehensible identities: murderous, lustful, ignorant, cruel, etc. (6). Abortion, therefore, is more than a non-reproductive technology: to interrupt the process of biological reproduction confronts, challenges, and disrupts the process of cultural reproduction that these forms of patriarchal and heteronormative power exert on the bodies of women (7).
Despite the scientific and technological developments achieved at present (achievements that would allow a degree of autonomy never seen before), women are being expropriated of their sexual and reproductive autonomy and the objectification and codification of women’s bodies has witnessed a gargantuan increase (8).
The naturalization of the ancient institution of prostitution prevents one from understanding the dimensions of violence perpetrated against women through sexual exploitation–in particular, the deceitful or forceful recruitment through trafficking networks. As noted by the Spanish philosopher Ana De Miguel, one might ask what is not questioned because it appears as evident: “Why do so many men agree with the normality of women’s bodies being observed, calibrated, and finally paid for?” (9). Maybe prostitution represents, like no other link between men and women, male pleasure obtained not through intercourse itself, but through sexual intercourse defined by the power of man over woman, and within its lack of reciprocity.
As the counterpart of the duty of loyalty the wife feels in the patriarchal family, prostitution is, on one hand, also an institution that regulates and legitimizes the social roles of women in a class society. Wives and mothers have limited access to their bodies through the imposition of monogamy (unequal by nature) and are limited in their sexual autonomy, not only by being expropriated of their desire and pleasure, but also of their reproductive capacity. On the other hand, prostituted women are publicly accessible and therefore embody all the (dis)values that are inconvenient for the “private woman.” Although prostitution emerged at the dawn of civilization, along with the Family, Private Property, and the State, only in recent decades has it become an industry of major proportions and a source of huge global profit. Moreover, while this industry is becoming increasingly legal–through taxation, the unionization of exploited women, and a set of rules enabling the establishment–its expansion also pushes the parallel growth of clandestine networks trafficking in women that constitute the raw material (10).
According to the UN–the organization which, by the way, 63% of whose multinational forces were accused of being involved with sex crimes, abuse, rape, etc. and a third of those allegations were related to prostitution–4 million women and 2 million girls each year are sold into prostitution as slaves or into so-called “marriage.” The exploitation of these girls and women mired in poverty produces lucrative returns of around $32 billion a year for pimps.
Feminization of Poverty and Job Insecurity
The massive transformation of work in recent decades–with increased labor flexibility, the precariousness of production rates, and the incorporation of labor into the global market through the transformation of non-industrialized countries into investment niches–has pushed millions of women into the labor market, making the number of urban wage earners surpass that of rural women. This is an increasing trend that indicates the process of the feminization of poverty and the labor force.
But the persistence of patriarchal gender roles ascribed to women, such as the responsibility for reproductive tasks, is branded on their modes of insertion in the productive space. As caregivers, educators, and housekeepers, women have access to fields of labor that life itself depends on–an ancient socio-historical process–and it has left them with the task of performing household chores.
Their specialties and qualifications therefore are invisible, as it is this same domestic work that does not receive paid compensation. That places them always at the lowest point within the scales of categorization in which wages are segmented. The invention of machines of varying degrees of sophistication that allow domestic work to be easier and faster do not reduce the other kinds of work and hours that go without remuneration and which are performed mostly by women and girls. While in the core countries the time spent on housing chores has diminished, in backward and dependent societies, women have remained trapped in this ancient exploitation, and are even migrating to be domestic workers in the cities. Capitalism needs to lower the price of the workforce. And patriarchy, by romanticizing domestic work, guarantees it.
Today, among the 2.5 billion poorest people, 70% are women and girls. The international economic crisis, which broke out six years ago, generated 20 million new unemployed people and 200 million who entered into extreme poverty. But the impact of this crisis is not the same for all: most of these people are women. Their situation makes them, obviously, in the main risk group for death and disease as a result of clandestine abortions, operations of trafficking, sexual exploitation, and all forms of violence against women.
The Right to a Life Free of Violence
This is one of the most repeated slogans within women’s movements. In recent decades, the demand against violence has been formulated in terms of law, prompting reforms in the penal system and establishing legal frameworks to counteract, limit, and punish violence perpetrated against women. This allows one to visualize the fate of subordination, objectification, and abuse that patriarchal capitalism reserves for half of humanity. It is the partial result of a struggle won by women themselves, and which the capitalist state must legitimize as it acknowledges in part the existence of discrimination that breeds and justifies their own institutions.
But apart from the courts, violence continues to increase. It is as if all the punishments have not been sobering enough for the perpetrators to desist from their deadly purposes. The structural nature of violence against women perpetually emerges through the cracks of a rotten social system that includes us formally, even as we continue to be sentenced to the fate of “second class citizens.”
Currently the oppression of women, which originated in the ancestral patriarchal mode of reproduction and is the source of all forms of gender structural violence, remains in place even though its forms have barely changed. This is because patriarchal society normalizes social relationships of reproduction, and it is essential for the social relations of capitalist production not to be altered while it ensures, reproduces, and legitimizes the exploitation of millions of human beings by a parasitic minority. To smash the almost unbreakable alliance between patriarchy and capitalism is the only realistic way to end all forms of violence. This requires the demand for legitimate rights, but also widely and radically exceeds it.
Translated by Laura Argüello
1. See also, D’Atri, A. and Lif, Laura (2013), “La emancipación de las mujeres en tiempos de crisis mundial” (Women’s Emancipation at a world crisis age”), Ideas de Izquierda 1 & 2.
2. This excerpt is based on the article “Las cifras del horror” on La Izquierda Diario, 09/24/2014.
3. Informe de Investigación de Femicidios en Argentina (Femicides Report in Argentina), period 01/01 – 12/31 2013, La Casa del Encuentro, Bs. As., 2014.
4. Recently, the concept of femicidio vinculado (linked femicide) has arisen. This concept is used to describe situations where children or people to related to women become fatal victims of the attack. Often, the killer’s aim is to hurt, punish and cause pain to women he considers his property. This concept also includes those those who got trapped in the “line of fire”.
5. See also, on abortion rights, Ideas de Izquierda 13 , September 2014 and Ideas de Izquierda 4 , October 2013.
6. See Rosenberg, Martha (2013). “¿Quiénes son esas mujeres? II” (Who are those women? II) in Otra historia es posible. El aborto como derecho de las mujeres (Another story is posible. The abortion as right for women), by Ruth Zurbriggen and Claudia Anzorena (compilation), Herramienta, Buenos Aires.
7. See Morán Faúndes, José Manuel (2013). “¿Pro-Vida? ¿Cuál vida? Hacia una descripción crítica del concepto de ‘vida’ defendido por la jerarquía católica” (‘Pro-life? Which live? Towards a critical description of the concept of ‘life’ defended by Catholic hierarchy’) en Zurbriggen y Anzorena, op. cit.
8. See D’Atri, Andrea (2014) “Pecados & Capitales” (Sins & Capitals) , Ideas de Izquierda 7.
9. See Miguel Álvarez, Ana (2012). “La prostitución de mujeres, una escuela de desigualdad humana” (The prostitution of women, a school for human inequality) in Revista Europea de Derechos Fundamentales 19, Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, Madrid.
10. See Jeffreys, Sheila (2011). La industria de la vagina. La economía política de la comercialización global del sexo (The Industrial Vagina: The Political Economy of the Global Sex Trade), Paidós, Buenos Aires.