DAY NINE: Statues and status: Mexican women change the face of history to combat gender-based violence today

Sarah Easy discusses how Mexican women are changing the face of history to combat gender-based violence today.

Sarah Easy

Image above: The Benito Juárez Hemicycle monument, Mexico City, defaced by anti-gender-based violence protesters in 2019. Credit: Santiago

Until recently, statues of Christopher Columbus quietly watched over major cities of the world amongst other bronzed men and marble slave traders, including in Mexico City. Public monuments are now flashpoints for activist movements worldwide, including the anti-gender-based violence (anti-GBV) movement. In October of this year, the governor of Mexico City, Claudia Sheinbaum, announced that a statue of the indigenous ‘Young Lady of Amajac’ would replace the statue of Christopher Columbus toppled 2 years ago by the anti-GBV movement, renewing debate surrounding the historical representation of women.

Protest and public monuments in Mexico

The anti-GBV movement in Mexico provides fertile ground for discussion; deemed ‘the most successful women’s and feminist movement in the history of Latin America’ by Associate Professor Edmé Domínguez, yet birthed from a patriarchal society with one of the highest rates of gender-based violence worldwide.

Originating in the #MeToo phenomenon, the movement reached boiling point during the student occupation of the National Autonomous University of Mexico in October of 2019 (ongoing to this day). Mass protests of hetero, trans and non-binary women subsequently erupted under the Ni Una Menos and Aequus collectives. Judith Butler describes the movement as “a realisation of a common social good and social bond, one that recognises that what is happening to one life…is also happening for others.” This collective approach provides an alternative to more individualistic modes of western feminism.

The most visible expression of the anti-GBV movement in Mexico is the defacing and dismantling of public monuments.

“the movement is anti-patriarchal and, in one aspect anti-capitalist, that’s why one of its forms of resistance is to intervene in these representations of historical figures and facts as forms of protest”. 

Prominent feminist collective Aequus

During the anti-rape glitter protests of 2019, slogans such as ‘the State doesn’t take care of me, my friends do’ were painted across Mexico City’s iconic Angel of Independence. This lasting imagery situates women in the public sphere, giving new meaning to spaces that previously celebrated masculine ideals of war and colonial rule.          

Image above: The Angel of Independence statue, Mexico City, defaced by anti-gender-based violence protesters in 2019. Credit: Santiago Arau

In September of 2020, anti-GBV collectives Aequus, Okupa and Ni Una Menos took further radical action by occupying the National Human Rights Commission and converting the building into a shelter where over 100 women sought refuge. Activists painted over portraits of the all-male historical figures that adorned the Commission, highlighting the female human rights defenders who have been erased from history.

This form of radical visual activism has become so infamous that president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador erected a 3 metre metallic barrier, or “macho wall of shame”, around the presidential palace in nervous anticipation of the International Women’s day March this year. Aequus Collective contends “if the State does not guarantee the security, integrity and the life of women, we should not respect figures symbolic of the State”.

Image above: Anti-gender-based violence protesters camp outside the National Palace, Mexico City, on International Women’s Day 2021. Credit: Santiago Arau

The most recent visual demonstration of the anti-GBV movement is the installation of a cardboard cut-out of a woman with a raised fist where a statue of Christopher Columbus was toppled two years ago. Activists renamed the site the ‘Glorieta de las Mujeres que Luchan’ (Women Who Fight Roundabout), painting the names of murdered women across its base. Aequus explains that “the demand not to commemorate anyone in particular is a way of expressing pain and rage in the face of violence, as well as a will to fight for the dead and disappeared.

This example of an ‘anti-monument’ rejects the official discourse of the Mexican state which denies the corruption of the justice system, propagates the impunity of rapists and silences survivors of gender-based violence.

Whether the replacement of the cut-out with a replica of ‘the Young Lady of Amajac’ is genuinely progressive or purely performative remains heatedly debated in Mexico.

Image above: Glorieta de las Mujeres que Luchan installation, Mexico City. Credit: Sarah Easy
Image above: Anti-gender-based violence protesters paint the names of murdered and disappeared women in Mexico City on International Women’s Day 2020. Credit: Santiago Arau
Statue toppling as a global phenomenon

Dating back to ancient Rome, the practice of ‘statue toppling’ forms part of ‘damnatio memoriae’ (the condemnation of memory) in which public figures were erased from official accounts. We are currently experiencing a global wave of statue toppling that intersects gender, class and race campaigns, such as the mass removal of confederate statues during the Black Lives Matter Movement. Modern activism distinguishes itself through this fixation on history, re-examining and rectifying what is remembered, by whom and for what purpose.

In October 2020 in La Paz, Bolivia, activists from the group Mujeres Creando clothed a statue of the Queen of Castile, financier of Christopher Columbus’ expedition to the Americas in 1492, in a traditional hat, aguayo and pollera (the traditional dress worn by Andean indigenous women, or ‘cholas’).

Indigenous women in Bolivia experience compounded discrimination on grounds of gender, ethnicity and class, with gender-based violence most pronounced in rural areas. Perpetrators of gender-based violence justify their crime by debasing indigenous women. Consequently, the transformation of the statue of the Queen of Castile into a chola serves to elevate the position of indigenous women in society, reflecting their active participation in business, education and politics. 

Significance: statues as symbols or vehicles for change?

The question remains: is the dismantling of the old and rebuilding of new public monuments merely symbolic or can it engender genuine change? Professor Verity Platt defines statues as ‘ideological powerhouses: physical objects that compress whole systems of authority into bodies of bronze or marble’. Similarly, Perhamus and Joldersma (2020) argue that the toppling of statues is ‘more than symbolic destruction of representations, these ‘acts of takedown’ are concrete, physically manifested interruptions’ of the established order. 

From this, we can understand the recent substitution of the statue of Christopher Columbus with the indigenous Young Lady of Armajac in Mexico as more than a passive reflection of feminist ideology, but rather, an active tool for countering machismo.

Gender-based violence knows no bounds of race or class. Judith Butler stresses that ‘violence seeks to secure the class of women as killable, dispensable; it is an attempt to define the very existence of women’s lives as something decided by men, as a masculine prerogative.’

Put simply, a man who respects women doesn’t kill them; what we need is a cultural revolution. Aequus explains that the violent and patriarchal culture in Mexico is “linked to the official version of Mexico’s history in which male historical figures and facts are elevated…due to the broad influence of the armed forces in different aspects of public life”.  The anti-GBV movement in Mexico is changing its violent culture against women by tearing down the patriarchal ideology preserved in statues, monuments, portraits and public spaces, and we should be doing the same.

Image above: Anti-gender-based violence protesters gather on International Women’s Day 2020 in Mexico City. Credit: Santiago Arau

Author’s Bio:

Sarah Easy is a human rights lawyer based in Mexico City and research assistant for the Australian Human Rights Institute. She has previously worked in the Human Rights Specialist Law Service and the Mental Health Advocacy Service at Legal Aid NSW. She has also worked in several NGOs across Mexico, Spain and Australia. She undertook her practical legal training at the Refugee Advice & Casework Service (RACS). Her work focuses on women’s rights and refugee and asylum seekers’ rights. 

DAY EIGHT: Death in Geraldton: how Joyce Clarke became another Indigenous statistic

Aboriginal women continue to voiceconcern about state indifference and violence that contributes directly and indirectly to the violence against women and children.

Hannah McGlade

Featured image: Death by police in the NT: murder trial is only the second in 41 years. Source:

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains reference to community members who have died.

On 7 September 2019, Joyce Clarke was shot by police as she walked down a suburban street in Geraldton, Western Australia (WA). She was carrying a large bread knife in one hand and small pink scissors in the other. Hours earlier, she told her family she was going to die.

At 6.30pm that night, her prediction came true. It took the police officer charged with her murder 16 seconds to arrive at the scene and fire the shot that ended her 29-year life. Last Friday, the officer was found not guilty of murder.

Aboriginal women in Australia have been described as “the most incarcerated group of people in the world“.

Over 475 Aboriginal people have died in custody since the end of the 1991 royal commission. In New South Wales, the number of Aboriginal people charged by police increased by 67% between 2010 and 2020. Western Australia has the highest rates of incarceration and deaths in custody of Aboriginal people in the country.

Clarke’s trial was shrouded in secrecy. A suppression order was placed on the officer’s name due to safety concerns for his family. The media was allowed in, but the public was refused entry to the court.

This isn’t the first time the WA Supreme Court has suppressed information over those charged with murdering Aboriginal people. In 2016, the same court issued a suppression order over the name of the Kalgoorlie man who killed Elijah Doughty, a 14-year-old Indigenous boy. The man was eventually given a road traffic conviction.

There were no Aboriginal people on that jury and there were none in the murder trial for Clarke.

Clarke’s family, including her sister Bernie Clarke, maintained their steady presence through the trial, although it was hard for them to hear the final details of her life.

During a demonstration of how a taser works, defence barrister Linda Black began laughing loudly. She later told the jury that Clarke was a “walking time bomb” and a person who “needed to be taken down”. In her opening address, Black said the case had “nothing to do with race”.

Seven days before her death, Clarke had called 000 because she wanted to end her life. This was known by Senior Constable Barker on the day she died. He had approached her with his hand out, wanting to “communicate”, when the constable responsible for her death appeared and shot her.

Barker, who was only a few metres away from Clarke, was clear in his evidence that Clarke had not moved in a threatening way. Other officers gave similar evidence that she had not moved when shot — evidence that contrasted with that of a civilian witness who, at some distance, claimed Clarke, arms in the air, had lunged at the officers before being shot.

There’s no doubt Clarke was in a bad way. She had recently been released from the overcrowded Bandyup prison for stealing a mobile phone she believed was possessed by spirits. The prison is known for its appalling conditions, with reports of abuse of Aboriginal women.

Just two weeks after her release from Bandyup, Clarke was admitted to Geraldton hospital following a suicide attempt. She was discharged, and less than a week later was admitted to St John of God Hospital in Perth for mental health issues. Anne Jones, whom Clarke called mum, asked a nurse not to release her due to concerns she wasn’t well enough to leave. Clarke was discharged because there was no evidence she was still experiencing psychosis.

She left the hospital on Friday, September 13, taking a bus back to Geraldton to stay with relatives. The next Tuesday, in a state of distress, she went to the Wajarri Aboriginal community organisation. She called a relative, warning she was going to die.

A relative called the police to try to get her taken back into the hospital. That was when police arrived — a total of three police cars and eight officers.

The jury took just a few hours to hand down the not guilty verdict, accepting the defence argument that the officer had acted in self-defence. Aboriginal women have long been seen as angry, violent and unworthy of legal protection.

Clarke’s family were distraught. Aboriginal elders began crying outside the court in disbelief that so little had changed. Although police told the defence not to exit the court’s front door, defence lawyer Linda Black did so, telling the family — surrounded by a police barricade — that her client was “sorry” but did what had to be done.

In their case study on Indigenous femicide, that is, the systemic ways in which Indigenous women are subject to conditions that render them unsafe and exposed to violent deaths in settler states of Australia, Canada and the US, the authors write:

‘Indigenous women are targeted and criminalised from birth. In many cases, women who should have been afforded protection by authorities have instead been treated with extreme violence by them’.

We must learn from Joyce Clarke’s life and death. Aboriginal women have consistently voiced concern about state indifference and violence that contributes directly and indirectly to the violence that is blighting the lives of too many women and children. We have argued for a stand-alone National Action Plan to combat the systemic and structural discrimination that contributes to and underlines violence. And we demand recognition of our fundamental right to self-determination as critical to all dialogue and responses on addressing violence to Aboriginal women.

Further reading:

Author’s Bio:

Dr Hannah McGlade is a Noongar woman from Western Australia and her career has focused on justice for Aboriginal people, race discrimination law and practice, Aboriginal women and children, family violence and sexual assault.

Currently Dr McGlade is a Senior Indigenous Research Fellow at Curtin University and an Advisor to the Noongar Council for Family Safety and Wellbeing. Dr McGlade is also a member of the UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Issues, Western Australia Mental Health Tribunal and the Medical Board of Australia.

DAY SEVEN: Systemic Stereotypes: Violence against Bonda tribal women

Nancy Yadav writes about stereotypes embedded in myth and colonial history that oppress the Bonda tribal women in India.

Nancy Yadav

Featured Image: Bonda women at Bhubaneswar (Odisha) Tribal Fair (author’s own)

“We have the same colour of blood as others, why are we kept behind and exploited?”

Mini (Bonda Adivasi/Tribal advocate

 The right to live free from violence is one of the most fundamental human rights; the Universal Declaration of Human rights internationally recognised documents advocate these rights. In India ‘Article 21 of the Constitution of India, constitutes a basic human right, the right to life with dignity sans violence. The introduction of “Report no.230 on Atrocities and Crimes Against Women and Children” mentions that women’s “status witnessed a sharp decline with pervasive gender stereotypes in society.” The situation of tribal women remains perilous, the reports observe that in the rural, tribal areas the communities accept atrocities as a way of life in the absence of organisational assistance. As per the National Crime Records Bureau records, which are documenting crime against women from Scheduled Tribes (ST) specifically since 2015, we see 1137 cases of rape being recorded against ST women in 2020 as against 885 intent to outrage the modesty of ST women. The situation of Bonda women is no different. 

Odisha’s “Remo” Bonda tribe is one of the Particularly Vulnerable Tribal Groups (PVTGs) among 13 PVTGs in Odisha and 75 PVTGs in India. The PVTGs categorisation, which was supposed to provide special rights, itself creates a divide discriminating the tribal women based on their ethnicity, gender and class in the larger Indian society.

Mini’s experience of hostility is one such example which indicates the systemic violence faced by tribal women in Odisha.  Mini is a Bonda woman from Malkangiri district Odisha (whom the researcher met and conversed with during her fieldwork), every year she puts up her stall, selling agricultural produce at Adivasi Mela Ground (annual tribal fair) at Bhubaneshwar.

When asked about her community, Mini says that she does not like the attitude of people from the plains; her community is often perceived as “violent” and women are seen as photographic objects because of the customary attire. “Only for mere 10 rupees tourists take pictures and advertise our community women as ‘exotic’ Indians and “naked” Indian tribes”. As someone actively engaging in social work in her region, Mini is determined to shatter the stereotyped identity of her community and challenge the idea that by “giving alms to the tribals they (the non-tribals) cannot exploit and restrict them from developing.”  

Mini’s reaction is against a long-standing historical violence and injustice done to the Bonda community. The narratives and knowledge formation of the community have its roots in colonial ethnography which stereotyped the community as “primitive” and “savage.” The “strange dress” and appearance of Bonda women, violent and homicidal ways of men, and inaccessibility of their villages, in the colonial narratives remained the primary information, recognising the Bonda tribe as “classical savage type.”

Historically, Bonda women keep their head shaved, covering it with a fillet of palmyra, olive shells or scarlet seeds. They cover their upper body with brass collars of different patterns of brass chains and beadwork necklaces of different colours. Their lower body is covered with a small ‘ringa’ skirt tied by a waistband attached in front. Though Bonda women cover themselves with a lot of ornaments and necklaces, their semi-naked appearance to others is determined to form the identity of the community as “naked tribe.”

In the Bonda community, all significant roles of gender-based identities are attached to myth and rituals, and the customary attire is part of myth which constrains Bonda women from wearing any other cloth except” ringa” (loin cloth). Gregory Staley (2008) in his essay published in the anthology Laughing with Medusa: Classical Myth and Feminist Thought, articulates that investigating myth is a constructive feminist exercise.

Myth becomes a tool through which women can escape the world which men have constructed for them through myth, can attack it, can begin their voyage of discovery’

Gregory Staley (2008:219)

Revisiting the Bonda myth explains the origins of the prohibition of clothing among the Bonda community.

The shaven heads and half-clad bodies are the result of a curse given by goddess Sita, as a penalty for laughing at the bathing goddess. It is necessary to note that the goddess Sita is a Hindu goddess, and the curse version is most widespread among ‘outsiders’–the non Bondas, most likely the non-tribals. The second myth explains that the scrap of cloth is given as a gift by Mahaprabhu (Bonda deity). There is no offence and no curse, the skirt is a gift of Mahaprabhu’s mercy, as an advance on complete nudity. In the third myth, a Bonda woman who has removed her clothes to husk grain on a warm day, jumps below the earth to avoid being seen in the nude by her brother; he catches her by the hair, and it comes in his hand. The woman thus stayed hairless and with only a tiny rug she was holding to wipe off her sweat.

These curse myths are the most narrated myths explaining Bonda women’s attire. The significant issue with the myth is that it propagates the stereotyped identity of the Bonda community as “naked,’ and ‘uncivilised”.

The myths reinforce the violent gendered stereotypes of cursed nudity, and  propagate and reinforce colonial stereotypes that justified the documentation of the tribe as ‘uncivilised’.  Thus, caught between tradition and coloniality, the Bonda women, ironically, face violence both within and outside the community.

Over time, wearing sarees (as many women in some parts of Eastern and Southern India do) and shedding the traditional clothing and nudity led to the Bonda women being outcast from within the community. On the other hand, appearing in customary clothing in weekly Onukadelli markets, Bonda women are objectified through a sexual gaze and ‘voyeuristic tribal tourism’ and “human safaris.” 

In sum, the myth and recorded history of the Bonda community intersect with violence against Bonda women making them stereotyped and reduced to bodily descriptions. But Bonda women like Mini brings a ray of hope, interrogating negative stereotypes that they are born into and repositioning their identity.   

Researcher with Bonda women at Mudulipada (Odisha)

Author’s bio:

Nancy Yadav is PhD candidate in Gender Studies at the School of Human Studies at Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi.  

DAY SEVEN: When Bessie Guthrie met the Women’s Liberation Movement

Writer and Director Catherine Dwyer reflects on the Women’s Liberation Movement and the making of her film, Brazen Hussies.

Catherine Dwyer

Featured image: Bessie Guthrie: Fighter for Underprivileged Girls, Tribune 2 Oct 1973

I first came across the story of Bessie Guthrie and her campaigns for child welfare reforms in an essay by Suzanne Bellamy about MeJane, a Sydney Women’s Liberation Newspaper that ran from 1971-1974. I found it in a book called Things that Liberate An Australian Feminist Wunderkammer (2013) edited by Alison Bartlett and Margaret Henderson. The book is a collection of essays by various women centered around objects from the Women’s Liberation Movement. It became an object in my own ‘Wunderkammer’, acquired during the five years I spent researching and making the documentary film, Brazen Hussies.

Image above: Things that Liberate An Australian Feminist Wunderkammer, edited by Alison Bartlett and Margaret Henderson (2013, Cambridge Scholars Publishing)

In Suzanne’s essay I discovered the hilarious story of Vera Figner, a 19th century Russian revolutionary, whose name was used as MeJane’s ‘Publisher’. As a result, Vera Figner was later found to be a “New South Wales Person of Interest” in ASIO’s surveillance on the Women’s Liberation Movement. This story made it into the film where we also combined ASIO surveillance footage with the pop song ‘Girl Watcher’ by the O’Kaysions – putting an ironic twist on the sexist pastime of ogling women.

‘Girl Watcher’ ASIO Spy story featuring Vera Figner in Brazen Hussies (Film Camp, 2020)

But it was difficult to capture all of the facets of the women’s movement in one 90 minute film, and one of my favourite stories ended up on the cutting room floor. It was the story of Bessie Guthrie’s arrival one day at the MeJane Headquarters. She was armed with folders of documents from her one-woman crusade for child welfare reform that she had amassed over 20 years. She announced to the MeJane collective of radical feminists “I’ve been waiting for you girls all my life.”

Image Details: Bessie Guthrie at Sydney Women’s Liberation House, 1974. Photo by Anne Roberts courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Tribune / SEARCH Foundation

One of the most significant campaigns [from MeJane] in terms of its success and coverage came in the wake of the arrival of the grand dame Bessie Guthrie … She was in her 60s when she arrived, a tall, elegant woman who came with piles of folders about her campaigns for child welfare reform. It was an astonishing amount of work and took us time to really process.

Suzanne Bellamy, during her interview for Brazen Hussies

Bessie was a local Glebe woman, concerned about the plight of runaway teenage girls and their horrific treatment in state institutions. She would often take them in, her home becoming a makeshift halfway house for runaways.

She fashioned this campaign through MeJane and she gradually allowed us to explore her material and shape it, and then to access what we had, which was the power of numbers. And so we had really important demonstrations outside the Bidura children’s prison in Glebe in which women climbed up on the roof.

Suzanne Bellamy
Image details: Women’s liberationists storm the roof at the Bidura Shelter for Girls in Glebe on International Women’s Day 8 March 1974. Courtesy of Australian History Museum at Macquarie University [Image 42000127]

With the power of numbers, they were also able to attract the attention of ABC journalist Peter Manning, who reported an exposé on the abuse of girls in state care and the barbaric act of forced virginity testing. It was in watching this report that I was struck by how absolutely horrific the treatment of these girls was.

Video: Parramatta Girls Home and Hay Institute for Girls – This Day Tonight (1973)

In a report for the ABC on the Paramatta Girls Home in 1973, Peter Manning discussed the ‘exposure to moral danger’ laws which could be used against girls up until the age of 18:

Annual reports of the child welfare department state that no young men or boys are ever picked up on the charge of exposure to moral danger. It is the section of the Child Welfare Act used exclusively on girls … They are made to scrub the floors of the shelter on their knees every day, ordered to wear a uniform, and they are given a medical examination.

The medical exam included a pelvic examination to determine whether or not they were ‘virginal’. For this white, middleclass, Australian millennial -at least-the idea that the state could compel teenage girls to be physically violated to assess whether they were virgins or not, sounds like something from medieval times, rather than a common occurrence in 1970s Australia. A pelvic examination is not at all a scientifically sound means of testing ‘virginity’.

Image details: Protest at the Parramatta Girls Home, December 9th, 1974. Photo by Anne Roberts courtesy of Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales and Tribune / SEARCH Foundation

The exposure to moral danger law was designed to ‘protect’ teenage girls from having sex out of wedlock, but the punishment was far worse than the crime. Only recently the 2014 The Royal Commission into child sexual abuse in institutions revealed horrific stories of physical, sexual and mental abuse of the girls who were taken into state care and put into homes such as Parramatta Girls Home.

Just like the criminalization of abortion, the lack of financial support for single mothers and the pressure on them to give their babies up for adoption, the ‘exposure to moral danger’ law was all part of the gendered violence that controlled women’s bodies, and subjugated them under a patriarchal society. Exposure to moral danger was a crime only committed by poor, often Aboriginal, young women, for no other reason than being born female.

Images Details: Bessie Guthrie (second from right) with members of Women’s Liberation, photo by Pat Fiske in Cauldron vol. 1, no.1, September 1974

Because of Bessie Guthrie’s collaboration with the Women’s Liberation movement, a group of women also made a short film exposing the plight of girls charged with exposure to moral danger. Home, made by Leonie Crennan, Margot Knox, Barbara Levy, Robynne Murphy and Susan Varga features testimony by Toni Wilson, a young woman who spent much of her adolescence in girls homes. The film shows a reenactment of legs going into stirrups from the patient’s point of view. She recounted the following:

The doctor sticks his finger up you. So you can imagine the effect that would have on a thirteen year old child. And a virgin at that. And the doctor saying you know when I resisted purely out of embarrassment, ‘Oh if you don’t lie still we’ll take you to Parramatta and tie you down.’ Completely misinterpreting my attitude, that’s what shits me. An air of defence is just born of fear and bewilderment and you’re penalised for it.

After the episode of This Day Tonight aired compulsory virginity testing was stopped virtually overnight. Eventually the charge of ‘Exposure to moral danger’ was also dropped.

For more information about the “Exposure to Moral Danger” laws and the girls institutions listen to Ann Arnold’s award winning ABC radio documentary from 2009, Exposed to Moral Danger.

For more info on Brazen Hussies:

Facebook: brazenhussiesfilm
Twitter: Brazen_Hussies
Instagram: brazenhussiesfilm

Author bio:

Catherine Dwyer is the Writer and Director of Brazen Hussies– an historical dive into the Australian Women’s Liberation Movement 1965-1975. She was inspired to make the film during her time as an Associate Producer on Mary Dore’s She’s Beautiful When She’s Angry (2014) – about the Women’s Movement in the United States. During this experience she realized how little she knew of her own country’s feminist history and how easily it was being forgotten. Catherine was nominated for an Australian Director’s Guild Award for Brazen Hussies as well as an AACTA award for Best Direction.  Brazen Hussies was nominated for the 2020 AIDC and AACTA Awards for “Best Feature Documentary” and is listed as one of The Guardian’s top 10 Australian films of 2020.