MEXICO CITY – Mexico’s President Andrés Manuel López Obrador is an increasingly powerful man. At the helm of what he calls the country’s “Fourth Transformation,” he has dismantled checks and balances, weakened autonomous institutions, and seized discretionary control of the budget. AMLO, as the president is widely known, seems intent on pulling Mexico back to an era of single-party dominance, and in the absence of a cohesive opposition, his dream of centralized and unobstructed control may yet become reality. Thanks in part to the corruption and callousness of his predecessors, López Obrador remains popular despite mismanagement of COVID-19 and an expected decline in GDP this year of about 10%.
Yet there is one force that has caught López Obrador by surprise – and threatens to derail his plans and damage his reputation. Frustrated by the government’s lack of a response to a pandemic of violence against women that has only grown worse in recent years, Mexico’s feminists have become the one true thorn in AMLO’s side: a singular political movement that he does not seem to understand, cannot control and will be unable to suppress.
Women in Mexico are angry, and rightly so. Ten women die on average each day as a result of violence, with 1,932 victims last year alone, up 4.9% from 2018. Every year more than 11,000 girls between the ages of 10 and 14 become pregnant, most as a result of sexual abuse, and 15% of women who are arrested by authorities report being raped while in custody. In the last four years, femicides have risen by 111%. And COVID-induced lockdowns have made things worse. Women are now often confined with their abusers, leading to an unprecedented increase in 911 calls related to domestic violence. In short, being a woman in Mexico entails living in a state of perpetual fear.
Women’s longstanding frustration with government passivity and neglect – which precedes López Obrador – has been exacerbated by a president who seems impervious and even disdainful of their demands, including calls to legalize abortion at the national level. AMLO ostensibly hails from the left, and feminists should be his natural allies. But instead of displaying empathy and sensitivity, he has responded with scorn and ridicule to women’s protests on the streets of Mexico City and elsewhere. In his view, feminists are not independent drivers of a legitimate social movement, but conservative puppets manipulated by his political adversaries. As a product of his own social conservatism and religion-infused worldview, AMLO sees women through the lens of a supposed past in which they kept their “proper” place: tending to children, taking care of elderly parents, keeping the family intact.
AMLO’s patriarchal and paternalistic views would not be quite so damaging if not for the fact that his policies and commitment to austerity have been harmful to women as well. Despite keeping the promise of gender parity in his Cabinet, his government has closed publicly subsidized day care centers, eliminated shelters for victims of domestic violence, defunded the National Women’s Institute and cut many nationwide gender programs that protected women, especially in indigenous communities. As violence continues unabated, women who bear the brunt of these decisions have joined the ranks of those who are disappointed with an administration that made progressive promises but has acted with conservative instincts.
AMLO’s failure to embrace women’s causes may come back to haunt him, as more women take to the streets and challenge his lack of leadership ahead of mid-term elections in 2021. Feminists are not the political animal that he is accustomed to and knows how to deal with. They cannot be bought off, coopted or appeased by deal-making that AMLO resorts to with unions and other social movements. Women’s solidarity tends to transcend class divisions, partisan affiliations and ideological stances. This makes it harder for López Obrador to divide and conquer, as he has effectively done with other civil society organizations.
And while AMLO can easily discredit opposition leaders as “morally defeated” and “neoliberal” as a result of their past shenanigans, angry women are not so easily dismissed. Among those marching, yelling, spray-painting historic monuments, defacing public buildings, occupying the central office of Mexico’s Human Rights Commission and in general demanding change are the mothers of Mexico’s more than 65,000 “disappeared.” Their moral authority is above reproach, and beyond the traditional smear tactics the president uses against his political adversaries. Even the efforts of Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum to portray feminist protesters as “vandals” and contain women’s marches with the use of force and tear gas have backfired.
Today, Mexican feminists are more energized and more combative than ever, and seeking to reframe the public debate in their favor. They are joined across the political spectrum by a common cause: the desire to substitute government repression with government action and specific policies designed to protect women from their predators. And they are not alone. Throughout the world, the #MeToo movement is confronting traditional politicians and refusing to remain silent.
Facing a movement that will not go away, AMLO still seems incapable of understanding what it is all about. He repeatedly underscores that he is a “humanist, not a feminist.” For many women – especially those of a younger generation – AMLO’s stance is that of an avuncular elder, far removed from the reality of their lives, where misogyny, sexism, violence and discrimination abound.
What’s more, they are fighting for equal rights vis-à-vis a president who is focused on building a clientele instead of empowering citizens. López Obrador’s vision of equality is not based on a culture of rights but on a vision of state largesse, centered on the distribution of support via social programs. The only valid social policy is the one he dictates from above, while he ignores demands rising from below. His efforts to marginalize and discredit feminists form part of a broader pattern of delegitimizing civil society at large. Autonomous organizations are not allies to be courted, but adversaries to be lambasted.
Many Mexican women thus believe they have nothing to lose, and that makes them even more dangerous opponents. They are fighting for their lives in a country where so many end up beaten, dead, raped by their domestic partners, on a list of the disappeared, their bodies abandoned in canals and rivers and dusty backroads. What women are yelling to López Obrador as they take to the streets is that his so-called Fourth Transformation must be feminist or it will not be at all. They are subjects of a different, democratic, authentically grassroots narrative. And AMLO ignores them at his peril.
Dresser is a Mexican political analyst, writer and activist. She is the author, most recently, of Manifiesto mexicano: cómo perdimos el rumbo y cómo recuperarlo.
Tags: AMLO, Mexico, Women's rights