Sarah DeVries
Sánchez and López Obrador Sánchez and López Obrador: the boss wasn't happy.

Backtrack produces feelings of rage and embarrassment for minister

Olga Sánchez appears to have been given a dressing down for comments about misogyny

What does it mean to be hypersensitive?

At what point are women justified in their mistrust and general suspicion of institutions controlled by men, and when are we just being “too sensitive,” perhaps perceiving things that aren’t there?

If you’ve been a regular reader of my column, you can probably guess what my own answer is. I’ve addressed the frustration of not quite being able to explain the kind of insidious sexism that permeates society favoring men over women, especially when it comes to arguing about it with men who consider themselves to be open-minded and fair upright citizens.

Which brings me to today’s topic. I was shocked to read that Interior Minister Olga Sánchez backtracked on a comment she’d made about misogyny in the cabinet, discrediting herself as “hypersensitive” to such matters.

Surely she’d received a good talking to by the president, and the fact that she publicly came out to say what sounded like “Oh, I think I exaggerated, you know how we do that sometimes …” speaks to the power that President López Obrador has to ensure that those in his inner circle stay “on message.”

Olga Sánchez is not just some random lady complaining about something on Facebook. We know her. We know her accomplishments. She was the first female notary public in Mexico, a Supreme Court judge, and now the interior minister.

If anyone’s got experience in dealing with machismo in the upper echelons of Mexico’s government, it’s her. And she is not a young woman. What most female professionals deal with today is surely a cakewalk compared to the environment she developed in.

In the end, she can be, and indeed was, forced to backtrack. The president’s her direct boss, after all.

But look around: while there are suddenly many more women senators and representatives in the country recently (a very good thing indeed), the situations of most women haven’t changed much. In the workforce, wages for women are low, and the “second shift,” especially now in times of Covid, is more intense than ever as Jude Webber points out. And femicides have shown no sign of slowing down.

Even when Senator Manuel García publicly humiliated his wife on an Instagram live video, she did as he asked and apologized. In that particular case, he was the one forced to publicly apologize after being called out on the internet. I doubt those types of apologies or shows of being self-aware are happening in less privileged (and less public) families.

I’ve heard stories from many women in my parents’ generation being told by bosses outright that sex is the price for moving up in a job; I was shocked too when women in my own generation (I’m nearing 40) told me about choosing a girl from their university class to maintain a sexual relationship with the professor so that he would give them all fair (or unfairly good? I’m not sure) grades.

Then, of course, women who “play the game” are shamed for having played it by both men and women. Misogyny on a societal level is not simply an imagined problem that women are being “hypersensitive” about. It’s the sea we all swim in.

If you live in Mexico, you might have heard the phrase pena ajena used to describe the feeling of being embarrassed for someone else. Is coraje (“rage”) ajena a concept? Because I feel that, too, for the minister essentially having been forced to apologize for having spoken what was surely the truth. I’ve been in similar situations, and those experiences have stuck with me as moments in my life that I’m not at all proud of.

To have to take back something that was so difficult to say in the first place is, for me personally, the pinnacle of that combined feeling of shame and frustration. It’s a feeling I wish I knew less well.

Pointing out overt expressions of machismo is easy. Getting anyone who’s not at the receiving end of more subtle structures that keep women “in their place” while making it look like they’re keeping themselves there is an entirely different beast. It reminds me of those 3D posters that were popular in the early 90s: in order to see the image you have to adjust your vision in a very particular way.

The trick, I learned – if you’re still unable to see them, is to focus your sight on the reflection of the physical surface (surely there’s a metaphor in that somewhere, but I don’t care to explore it). Once you see it, you can’t unsee it. You might be able to refocus your vision to only see all the little squiggly lines again, but you still know that the image is in there.

It’s obvious to those who can see it, while still allowing those who can’t or don’t want to bother to try to remain oblivious and insist to each other that there’s simply nothing there, I mean just look at it!

When there’s another kind of serious problem – and there’s always another kind of serious problem – the response from the president is to keep “women’s issues” on the back burner. “We’ve got real problems to address here people, stop whining and help me with this more important thing!”

Mr. President, women’s true equality is the important thing.

What do we have to do to place everyone in front of these (metaphorical) posters and say, “See? See?

Sarah DeVries writes from her home in Xalapa, Veracruz.

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