Commentary Law and Policy

Mexico’s First Female President? This One Won’t Be Good For Women

Jessica Mack

Coverage of Josefina Vazquez Mota's presidential campaign in Mexico has focused largely on the simple fact that she's a woman. Her politics are much more relevant to her candidacy than her gender, and though her election as Mexico’s first female president is historic in itself, her politics are actually harmful to women.

Electing a woman as head of state – pretty much anywhere in the world – is a newsmaker. I wish it weren’t still in this day and age, but it is. It’s happened in India; it’s happened in Ireland; it’s happened in Liberia; and maybe someday it will happen in the US.

Notably, in the past decade, it has happened increasingly in Latin America. A region known for its machismo and Catholicism, and home to the world’s most restrictive abortion laws is electing one female head of state after another: Panama, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Costa Rica, and now, potentially, Mexico.

Earlier this month, Josefina Vázquez Mota, an economist and former secretary of education, won the Presidential nomination from her party, the National Action Party (PAN). She is the first woman to win the nomination from a major party, and could very well become Mexico’s first female President in the country’s general elections on July 1.

Coverage of Vázquez Mota’s rise has been vast. All of the coverage has, of course, noted that she is a woman, that her very success so far is historic, and that she’s poised to break perhaps the thickest glass ceiling of all. NPR notes her “battle with machismo,” and describes a moment where she snaps at one of her opponents, Enrique Pena Nieto, when he suggests only “the woman of the house” would know a banal household fact like the price of tortillas.

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“I am a woman, I am a housewife, I am a government official, I’ve been twice a government secretary, I’ve been leader of a parliamentary group, I am an economist,” she said.

Slate suggests that Vázquez Mota’s election as President of Mexico would be “a step forward for women,” while the New York Times says her nomination treads a “new path for Mexico.” Very little of this coverage – and certainly not enough – has discussed about her actually politics in detail, and specifically her policies with regards to gender and women’s rights.

This is a swing and a miss. No doubt that Vázquez Mota is battling machismo, but is that the story here? Her politics are much more relevant to her candidacy than her gender, and though her election as Mexico’s first female president is historic in itself, and would seem a good thing, her politics are actually harmful to women.

“Unfortunately, as we have seen through the examples of many women in politics in Mexico, being a woman does not guarantee the issues that you are going to stand up for or prioritize, and especially that you will put the advancement of women’s rights on the top of your agenda,” says Regina Tamés Noriega, Executive Director of GIRE, a leading women’s rights group in Mexico, in an interview last week.

Though Vázquez Mota has not spoken at length about her stance on abortion, she has made it clear that she “will not support reproductive rights.” “When asked about abortion, she has said that she supports the position of [her party] PAN, which is to respect life but that they don’t want to see abortion criminalized. Her position remains quite vague and she doesn’t seem to want to get into it,” says Tamés Noriega. Abortion (and miscarriage suspected as induced abortion) is highly restricted and widely criminalized in Mexico.

This matters all the time, but it matters especially now, as Mexico finds itself in the midst of an anti-abortion backlash. For decades, abortion in Mexico has been largely illegal – available countrywide in cases of rape, and in some other instances, depending on the state. In 2007, it became legal through the first trimester in Mexico City and a landmark court decision the next year upheld this law, and made the procedure free for all women. As an organized response – and this will sound familiar to anyone tracking the steady and systematic dismantling of reproductive rights in the US – the passage of 17 state amendments (to laws already restricting abortion access) defined life as beginning at conception, 16 of which still remain in place. In September 2010, eight women in Guanajuato State were jailed for “homicide” in connection with suspected abortion.

Electing Vázquez Mota in Mexico would be like electing Sarah Palin or Michelle Bachman as president in the US. A win for women? Some might say, and perhaps it would be – very fleetingly or on a very superficial level – though not for women seeking their health and rights in the immediate or long run. “I do believe that it may break new ground for women, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that women will be represented [by her],” said Tamés Noriega.

We don’t have to look far for examples of women in high places who don’t support women’s rights or gender justice more broadly. After Laura Chinchilla made history as Costa Rica’s first female president in 2010, Samhita Mukhopadhyay pointed out the paradox with her election:

“I suppose this is one of those things you would be excited about..except, Chinchilla is opposed to same-sex marriage, abortion and the morning after pill. We are proven once again that having a vagina does not ensure you will protect others that have them.”

This would seem to be a very obvious point, yet it falls through the cracks time and again. Coverage of Vázquez Mota’s campaign should be honest about the impact that her election would have for women, beyond simply her gender, but her actual vision, policies, and appointments. In this day and age – when we have so many examples of strong female political leaders – it’s no longer enough to note that she’s female. We want to know what she’s saying, what she’ll do, and how this will affect women (and men) in her country.

Perhaps the more pressing question –given the grave situation for reproductive rights in Mexico at this time – is what will anyone do for women? While Tamés Noriega says Vázquez Mota has yet to articulate any kind of clear or promising agenda on gender (read reproductive rights, violence against women, trafficking, etc.), neither have any of the other party candidates.

“I think Mexico is ready for a woman president, but what we are really ready for is someone to move our country forward. We need a leader who will solve our country’s problems with accountability, and it is irrelevant whether that person is a man or woman,” she said.  

Culture & Conversation Human Rights

From ‘Her’ to ‘Bitch’: How Gendered Language Teaches Us Women Are Objects To Be Controlled

Jessica Ensley

The practice of using feminine pronouns (often in a sexually suggestive way) to refer to things such as tools, cars, and even boats is fairly common—so common that many people do not stop to question what they are actually saying, which is that women are objects. This underlying message in our language is reflective of how our society treats women.

“Aw yeah, fill her up. She loves it,” I overheard at work. My male coworkers in the Maine Conservation Corps were not talking about a fellow employee; they were talking about a chainsaw that needed gas.

I will often hear things like “rip her out” when talking about a tree or “that bitch is really in there,” discussing a rock that needs to be moved. Serving here has made me more aware of the pronouns (he, she, etc.) people use to describe both objects and animals. The various projects all require hard physical labor with numerous types of tools. While there are many women within the corps, the labor-intensive job itself would still be deemed by society as traditionally masculine.

The practice of using feminine pronouns (often in a sexually suggestive way) to refer to things such as tools, cars, and even boats is fairly common—so common that many people do not stop to question what they are actually saying, which is that women are objects. This underlying message in our language is reflective of how our society treats women. Women’s reproductive rights, for example, are consistently under attack because women are still not seen as humans who can make their own decisions about their bodies.

“Language is like an X-ray in providing visible evidence of invisible thoughts,” says children’s literature specialist Alleen Pace Nilsen in her work Sexism in English. Nilsen depicts throughout many of her works that the English language has many underlying sexist themes. Women are often referred to as pieces of dessert. “Honey” and “sweetie” may be something partners of all genders use, but many women, including myself, are often called these things by male strangers. Not once in all my life have I talked to a strange man and called him “honey.”

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The comparison of women to objects unfortunately does not stop with desserts. Laurel Richardson, a professor in sociology at Ohio State University, writes in Gender Stereotyping in the English Language: “It seems as though the smaller (e.g., kittens), the graceful (e.g., poetry), the unpredictable (e.g., the fates), the nurturant (e.g., the church, the school) and that which is owned and/or controlled by men (e.g., boats, cars, governments, nations) represent the feminine, whereas that which is a controlling forceful power in and of itself (e.g. God, Satan, tiger) primarily represents the masculine.”

The words we use to describe objects helps us to understand how we actually feel about them. I grew up around men who loved fast cars. They liked to fix them up and race them at a local track. It wasn’t uncommon to hear “I’ve got to polish her up,” and, “Look at how beautiful she is; she’s just begging to be taken for a spin.” Not only were they talking about an inanimate object as being female, but they talked about the car as if it were something to have sex with. The car, like a woman, is something to be owned and controlled by men. The car (woman) has no autonomy. It (she) does not get to decide what happens to it (her).

There was a television show dedicated to “pimping your ride.” At car shows where people go to buy, sell or oogle at various vehicles, women are shown standing in front of them with barely any clothes as if they are another pretty car to buy and own. The use of this type of language and possession goes past gender into other troubling territories. Who can afford to buy and use these objects to be controlled such as expensive tools, cars, and boats? Upper-class, white, fully able-bodied cisgender men. (Cisgender denotes that the individual identifies with the gender they were assigned at birth.)

Gendering objects not only harmfully impacts cisgender women, but also transgender and gender-nonconforming people, individuals with a gender identity and expression that fits outside of the gender binary. Yet we live in a world where people assume objects, from modes of transportation to pets, work within a gender binary, thus reinforcing it. As transgender advocate Janet Mock stated during a recent interview with the New Republic’s Jamil Smith, “I think a lot of the [activist] work, and a lot of the work specifically of genderqueer people and non-binary people is saying that: Why do we have to gender everything? Why can’t we just say that a Lego is a Lego?”

While objects tend to hold feminine pronouns, animals on the other hand are often assumed to be male. Any animal that is seen to be somewhat powerful, such as a dog or reptile, is often specified using masculine pronouns. Working in the woods, I would see my teammates calling most wildlife “he” if they could not immediately tell the sex. Walking my dog at home, strangers will stop and mis-pronoun her by using the pronoun “he.” This helps reinforce the belief that men are not only autonomous but also animalistic. Animals act independently and by instinct. Violent or crude behaviors of men are often excused as being instinctual or natural.

Some people argue that using male nouns and pronouns simply encompasses all genders. Richardson states, “Research has consistently demonstrated that when the generic man is used, people visualize men, not women.” Women are consistently seen as less human than men. They are ignored as subjects for medical research. Furthermore, as Rewire has reported, disability claims under workers’ compensation include the coverage of prostate cancer but not breast cancer.

Robin Lakoff, professor of linguistics at the University of California, stated in her thesis Language and Woman’s Place, “Linguistic imbalances are worthy of study because they bring into sharper focus real-world imbalances and inequities.” These imbalances seen in pronouns of both objects and animals show the gender inequality we still have to overcome in society.

Women are still seen by men as objects meant to be controlled. One only has to look at the current attack on Planned Parenthood to see the results of not viewing women as full human beings able to make their own decisions. Planned Parenthood clinics across the nation are facing arson terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, Republicans on Capitol Hill are attempting to defund the organization. State legislators, from Alabama to Texas, are moving in attempt to remove Planned Parenthood from Medicaid.

Ohio, my home state, is following in Texas’ footsteps. The Ohio Senate passed a bill that would defund Planned Parenthoods across the state. The bill’s sponsor, Keith Faber, was quoted as saying, “This bill is not about women’s health care.” Faber has apparently decided it is up to him to prevent the cars (women) being taken to the mechanic (or health care clinic). He will see to it they rot with rust if that is what he desires.

Our language clearly reflects a larger issue. Women are seen as objects to be controlled, bought, driven, or used. While this reclaiming of our bodies must be fought on multiple fronts, we also should push back to make our language more inclusive, which as Richardson has found, does have an impact. Richardson’s research shows that when the general masculine pronoun is replaced by the feminine, women feel a greater sense of importance.

We should stop referring to objects as gendered beings. Unless we know the sex of an animal, we could start referring to animals using gender-neutral pronouns such as the singular “they.”

All individuals have a right to decide what is best for their bodies and their own lives. It is time we start viewing everyone as, well, people.

Analysis Human Rights

For Women on Hunger Strike at Hutto Detention Center, It’s About Freedom

Tina Vasquez

"If you read the letters from the women detained within Hutto, you’ll see this isn’t just about health care or the quality of food in detention; it’s about human rights violations," a source with access to the women within Hutto told Rewire

As the women of the T. Don Hutto Residential Center in Taylor, Texas, move into the tenth day of a hunger strike aimed at demanding immediate release, Immigration Customs and Enforcement (ICE) is reportedly ramping up its efforts to quell the strike.

In one case, a Garífuna woman from Honduras named Insis was placed in “medical solitary confinement” for two daysa common tactic used by ICE, according to sources.

Despite the use of its infirmary for solitary confinement, Hutto detainees say the detention center does not properly address medical needs, as outlined in some of their letters released to Grassroots Leadership, an organization that forms part of a larger umbrella group known as Texans United for Families (TUFF). Insis, who suffers from sickle-cell anemia, wrote that when she says she’s sick, she’s called a liar. She also said that detainees there are not treated like humans, but “like dogs.”

Access to medical care is just one of the many issues being raised by the hunger strikers at Hutto.

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Cristina Parker, immigration programs director for Grassroots Leadership, told Rewire that various intimidation tactics are being used by ICE in an attempt to end the hunger strike at Hutto. Actions such as hunger strikes are considered bad publicity for both ICE and for-profit private prison corporations like Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), the company that operates the T. Don Hutto Residential Center. Parker said hunger strikers are now being threatened with deportation, questioned by ICE, written up by guards for not leaving their areas to go to the cafeteria for meals, and being asked to eat and drink in front of ICE officials.

As Rewire reported earlier today, six women participating in the strike are being rounded up for transfer; two of the original 27 hunger strikers were already moved earlier this week to a men’s detention center in Pearsall, Texas.

Since then, ICE has said in a statement to Rewire that it “routinely transfers detainees to other facilities for various reasons, including bed-space availability or to provide greater access to specialized services needed by particular detainees.” It reiterated that the facility “does not have solitary confinement areas” and that “no one … was identified as being on a hunger strike or refusing to eat.”

Speaking on condition of anonymity because ICE can revoke detention center visitation for any reason, one source with access to the women within Hutto said what is happening is a human rights violation. Women like those in Hutto fleeing violence in their countries of origin are often brutalized on their journey. A recent report by Fusion found that 80 percent of the girls and women crossing Mexico from Central America en route to the United States are raped along the way. Many are then put in detention upon arriving in the United States.

“If you read the letters from the women detained within Hutto, you’ll see this isn’t just about health care or the quality of food in detention; it’s about human rights violations,” the source said. “The women have already been tortured in their countries and they arrive with signs of deep trauma, showing symptoms of PTSD and depression, only to be re-traumatized by being placed in what is essentially a for-profit prison where they are threatened with deportation.”

Sometimes, those who are deported are murdered upon re-entering their country of origin. Last month, the Guardian reported on a forthcoming academic study identifying as many as 83 U.S. deportees who have been murdered since January 2014 on their return to the area known as the “Northern Triangle of Central America”El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.

In the past two weeks, detainees in four immigrant detention centers have launched hunger strikes: Hutto, the El Paso ICE Detention Center, the Adelanto Detention Facility, and Louisiana’s LaSalle Detention Center, where the 14 South Asian asylum seekers holding the strike recently released a message of solidarity for the women striking in Hutto.

The hunger strike at Hutto is decidedly different because of the detained population. The women-only facility holds asylum seekers, women who’ve fled violence in their countries of origin. The majority of the women detained at Hutto are from Central America. According to the report Women on the Run, released last week from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, women in Central America and Mexico are fleeing their countries in rising numbers to “escape a surge in deadly, unchecked gang violence.” The report found that criminal armed groups terrorize populations to gain control of areas and specifically target women using extreme forms of gender-based violence.

Asylum seekers such as the ones detained at Hutto must prove to ICE “credible fear of persecution or torture,” meaning they must prove it is unsafe to return to their country of origin, whether because of specific threats or because the environment is unsafe based on the identities they hold. If they prove they have a credible reason to fear for their lives, they are released from detention and allowed to remain in the United States. A major problem, said the source, is that women are not provided with proper legal counsel, forcing them to represent themselves in court and during hearings on their asylum applications, even though many of the women do not know English and are unable to read.

Detainees in these centers can remain in limbo for months and even years, unsure if they will be allowed to stay in the United States or if they will be deported. Activists say this leads to high rates of anxiety and depression and exacerbates the deep trauma many migrant women have already experienced. Hutto, however, does not provide help for mental and psychological trauma, the source close to the detainees told Rewire. The counselor at the detention center doesn’t know Spanish, forcing women to use Language Line Services (LLS), which requires a staff member to dial into the Language Line to connect with interpreters who assist with communication between the counselor and detainee.

“There is a lot of stigma regarding mental health issues and at Hutto, rumors circulate that if you are deemed mentally ill or to have mental health issues, your detainment will only last longer,” the source said. “We do not have proof of that being true, but there is a lot of mistrustand rightfully so. We’re expecting women to open up about their trauma to those who are imprisoning them. There are many layers to the human rights abuses.”

CCA is the nation’s oldest and largest for-profit private prison corporation and it has come under attack many times for human rights violations, including at Hutto, which was once used to detain immigrant families, including children. The Obama administration removed families from the center in 2009 after numerous allegations of human rights abuses, including—according to the Texas Observer“accounts of children suffering psychological trauma.”

A federal lawsuit was filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the University of Texas Law School Immigration Clinic.

Many problems arise when private corporations are allowed to act as prisons, especially as it relates to the abuse of women. The ACLU found nearly 200 allegations of sexual abuse in immigration detention facilities across the nation since 2007, a number its reports indicated did not fully represent the problem. The sexual abuse of detainees is not an isolated problem “limited to one rogue facility or merely the result of a handful of bad apple government contractors who staff some of the nation’s immigration detention centers,” according to the ACLU.

In fact, the largest number of cases of sexual abuse against female detainees has been found in Texas, where Hutto is located, though similar reports of sexual abuse have come from nearly every state that houses an immigration detention center.

As the Washington Post reported earlier this year, for-profit prisons have become a powerful lobby. The two largest for-profit prison companies in the United States, CCA and GEO, spent nearly $25 million on lobbying efforts since 1989and it’s proving to be lucrative. The Washington Post reported that CCA and GEO rake in a combined $3.3 billion in annual revenue.

The source who maintains contact with the women detained in Hutto said CCA makes $150 a day for each detainee, “which is why their hearings are constantly postponed and many are detained for months at a time, only to be deported.”

The source visited the women at Hutto on November 1. One woman the source had been visiting for six months shared that shortly before deciding to join the hunger strike, she was informed she would be deported this week. She has been in detention for a year.

“The woman fears for her life,” the source said. “She understands she faces potential death upon deportation.”

The women participating have not announced an end date for their hunger strike. The source close to the women in Hutto said that improving access to medical care and the quality of food within detention centers would be “nice,” but the strike isn’t about that.

“It’s about freedom,” the source said. “The women in Hutto are striking against the entire detention center system that profits off of them. They need to be with their families and other supportive systems. They cannot heal from their trauma while imprisoned.”

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