Wednesday, June 19, 2024

What makes femicide so special from regular homicide?

I keep thinking about a conversation at a get-together I attended about a year ago. The person who was talking, a likable, educated college professor, was saying that he didn’t understand why it was necessary to make a special category for “femicide” separate from regular “homicide.”

“Why don’t we call it ‘machocide,’ then, when men are killed?” he wanted to know. “Murder is murder, no matter who the victim is; what’s the use of distinguishing?” He was enjoying the argument in that affable and confident way that men do when they don’t have actual skin in the game.

He wasn’t being nasty about it, but I was irritated. We women are weary of these arguments, but tire of not quite being able to put our finger on fantastic counter-arguments when the topic is so viscerally scary and real for us. Too few of us joined debate club as we should have during our formative years, preferring to direct much of our attention to being liked by boys rather than competing with them on “their turf.” I wish someone had told us we’d still get laid throughout our lives anyway. Oh, the time I wasted!

And here we are today, not quite as good as wed like to be at arguing what we know to be true, feeling like we’re losing a rigged game over and over again. We simply know the difference between femicide and “regular” homicide because it’s something we can feel deep in our guts and as obviously as splinters in our feet.

Part of our difficulty is the nature of the “rules” of debate. First rule of the game: you can’t take anything personally. Well, with that we’ve already lost. What’s more personal than women being so much more easily killed, and for much less, than men?

Here’s what we know: men are, for the most part, physically stronger than us and when it comes down to it, can physically subjugate us if they decide to do so. Even if they’re not, weapons are fairly easy to get. (Though there’s no data for Mexico, in the U.S. one of the highest risk factors for a woman being killed is the mere presence of a gun in the home where she lives.)

Women are most likely to be killed by a current or former intimate partner — 40% of femicides are committed by them, though that number is believed to be a low estimate. How’s that for sleeping with the enemy? (For men, it’s 5% and of that a majority of those are reported as self-defense.)

It’s no secret that almost no crime in Mexico will be punished, and we have few hopes regarding the importance given to femicides by the justice system. Whoever kills and abuses women is likely to remain free to do so again, and again, and again.

Back to our “discussion,” with the knowledge that it’s only a discussion for the person who doesn’t have any emotions about it. To the other side, it’s a fight for recognition of a grim reality that won’t cease if it’s not acknowledged and taken seriously: the most urgent kind of convincing.

The thing that I knew, of course, is that femicides are indeed different; they’re not simply “regular murder.” There’s a special quality to them, often involving sexual violence.

While all murders, I suppose, can be explained as a fundamental lack of respect for (that particular) human life, there seems to be an extra sneer and shrug reserved for women, especially if they’re deemed to have behaved “badly.”

Ciudad Juárez was famous for a while in the 1990s and early 2000s for the copious numbers of disappeared and murdered women and a justice system that famously would not take them seriously. “She probably just went off somewhere with her boyfriend,” they’d say. Ecatepec has been a more recent ground zero, garnering much attention after the arrests of the “monsters of Ecatepec.”

I live in Veracruz, currently the leading state in Mexico for femicides. My blood turns cold when I think of my daughter. My blood turns cold when I think of myself. How many people are walking around us, in our own communities, with total contempt for the female population? The statistics, the papers, the protests. This must be the way black people feel driving through the Deep South, Trump signs and confederate flags streaming by. 

I find it hard to believe that well-meaning men are truly oblivious to the institutional sexism around us, and especially to the fact that it’s woven into the very fabric of our society and culture. And if we can’t get half the population to treat this as the emergency it is, where does that leave us?

I hope that it’s simply privilege that blinds them, and not indifference.

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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