The Pink Ghetto of Women’s Issues in Mexico: From Rape Whistles to Subway Cars

The Mexican government says it’s taking steps to protect women from sexual violence in public. Why aren’t they working?
By Michelle Threadgould,
Commuters await on the platform inside Hidalgo subway station in Mexico City.

“No one ever asks me to take them to graveyards — except on Day of the Dead,” my cab driver says as we make our way from the airport to my hotel in Mexico City. He talks animatedly, and tells me that Halloween is when families pay their respects to their children who have passed. Every year he and his wife make an altar for his hijo. He pats his heart with pride.

I think of what it means to live in a country where infanticide and death are so common that you celebrate both. As we sit in traffic, I stare at the Aztec ruins and buildings gutted from the 1985 earthquake. I wonder if this is why my mother left her hometown of Mexico City. If she ever looked around her and thought: There is so much I want to, and cannot, change.

My driver continues talking; he describes the traditions of leaving flowers, breads, and sugar skulls as offerings at your family’s graves, and it’s as if he’s reliving the nostalgia of experiencing Day of the Dead as a child. I smile, thankful for this moment.

But the man in the car next to us is staring at me. He keeps rising up, out of his seat, swaying back and forth, trying to get my attention. I worry that the man is trying to warn me of some danger, and, if I ignore him, it will be at my peril.

I ignore my uneasiness and look in his direction.

He is masturbating in his car.

I let out a shriek.

My driver asks me if there is something wrong, then looks at the car next to him, and says, “Oh.”

He changes lanes. We drive in silence for a few minutes, before he points at an old church, and begins another history lesson. He changes subjects with the same ease he changes lanes.

My mind however, has not moved on. Instead, I let a familiar fear wash over me, of not having the words—only the rage—to describe being sexually violated. I think of all of the women this happens to, daily, and I remember why I am in Mexico City.

In Mexico City, 65 percent of women who use public transportation have been sexually harassed or assaulted. It is unclear if that 65 percent is composed only of the cases women have reported, or if that figure is what statisticians call “black numbers” — statistics that reflect both the reported and unreported incidents of sexual assault. Either way, at least three million incidents of sexual assault on public transportation have been filed by women between 2010 and 2015 in Mexico City.

“Why are we in charge of violence against women when we aren’t the ones committing the violence?”

Because sexual harassment and assault are so common on the bus systems, the metro created women-only cars for use during rush hour. The entrances of these women-only cars are guarded by police officers to ensure women’s safety and to prevent men from trying to enter the trains. Yet incidents persist. There have been several high-profile incidents of women videotaping their sexual assault on public transportation, which led thousands of women to protest in the streets in April, demanding that the government make an effort to respond to this insidious problem.

In response, Mexico City Mayor Miguel Mancer issued rape whistles to the women so that they could alert police and bystanders when they were attacked. The counter-intuitive logic of these whistles, which you can only use after the harm has been inflicted, was swiftly criticized by the women of Mexico City and across social media.

“The whole thing was so ridiculous without actually being funny,” says Lucia Toledo, a doctoral candidate of sociology at National Autonomous University of Mexico. “It was such an important topic, the violence against women in Mexico City, and that [the government] took this issue with that level of seriousness speaks volumes.”

In the eyes of the government, women are partially to blame. Toledo describes the government’s attitude as such:

Women have to prepare themselves, and are responsible for confronting violence, while men are the ones who are the ones who are acting violently and being macho. Why are we in charge of violence against women when we aren’t the ones committing the violence?

Laura Garcia, the executive director of Semillas, a non-profit dedicated to funding organizations across Mexico devoted to the advancement of women’s rights, says the rape whistles were an erroneous attempt at “telling women that they don’t have a voice, and to elevate their voice, they need to confront their situation, and they are also responsible to leave that situation, and denounce what has happened to them. Instead of [the government] implementing policies in which women aren’t responsible for reacting and coming up with the solution of these problems.”

Each rape whistle has printed onto it the proverb, “tu denuncia es tu mejor defensa,” or your “denouncement [official complaint] is your best defense.”

How can women trust the government to defend them when their best line of defense, according to the government, is themselves?

When I ride the subway cars for both men and women from the Zona Rosa to the Zocalo, it is 2:00 p.m., far from rush hour. Still, I’ve heard so much about these trains. My aunt, who is also from Mexico City, even warned me before my flight to Mexico, “Never take the trains for men and women, only take the trains for women.”

I live in Oakland, and I used to live in New York City. I am no stranger to public transportation, congested cities, or warnings from people in the suburbs about the “dangers” of city living. Still, the uneasiness from my first day in Mexico City returns, even though I haven’t felt unsafe even once in the 10 days that I’ve been here.

The “mixed” train looks like a photograph I’ve seen from 1970s MTA New York subway cars. The lighting is harsh, all of the windows are open and rattling, and there’s a strange, greenish tinge to the cars themselves. There are only two other women on the subway car, and they are accompanied with boyfriends or family. When they jump off to their respective stops, I want to jump off with them. I don’t; instead, I tighten my grip on the pole above me.

All of the men are silent, and staring at the floor or in the opposite direction. Most are working class, on their way to a late shift, or on their way back home after working an early shift. The rattling of the windows unnerves me, as does the lack of eye contact, or any conversation. I ride the train to my transfer station, before I hop off and take the women-only trains.

At the station, I wait for my train and stare at the policeman guarding the entrance to the women’s waiting area. I start a conversation with a young girl, waiting to ride the subway in her Catholic school uniform — a cardigan, plaid skirt, and knee socks, almost the same as my old uniform in the United States. I ask her if she ever takes the “mixed” trains, and she laughs at me. “No, I never take those trains.”

“Why?” I ask.

“Because they’re not safe,” she says. Suddenly, the train enters the station; she bolts onto it.

I get onto the subway car. It is filled with chatter. Women are talking to each other about their days, schoolgirls are laughing together, and there is a warmth and comfortability about the train. The windows are not open, or rattling. The cars even look cleaner, like a freshly ironed white. I am so relieved to be on this train.

If I’m honest, I’m with the young girl, I wouldn’t ride the mixed trains either.

Alice Driver is the author of More or Less Dead, a book about the disappearances and feminicide of women in what was once considered “the most dangerous city in the world,” Juarez, Mexico. She is also a journalist and documentarian, who studied in Mexico City and wrote a chilling account of her own experience with sexual assault on public transportation in Mexico City.

“I think it’s a hard thing to understand from the U.S. perspective,” she says. “Even when I wrote that story about the guy who jerked off on me, there’s so many people [on the metro] that you can’t, you don’t even know who is touching you, and you don’t even know what they’re doing. And you get so used to it that you kind of just ignore. You ignore it, because you think ugh.”

When describing what happened to her, and how hard it is to report acts like this, she says: “I don’t know if no one saw anything, but no one did anything. And what do you do? Who do you report that to? So, I think a lot of these issues are not reported because who do you report it to and what do you report? Some guy I hardly saw that no one else paid attention to felt me up on the bus or on the metro?”

“If we want to combat violence against women, we need to improve working conditions for women, to improve their sexual and reproductive health access.”

So what are contributing factors to this problem, and how can Mexico City stop sexual assault on public transportation? Most importantly, what can be done to prevent women from feeling a sense of defeat, like there is nothing that can ever spark real change?

“The fact that a woman does not have economic empowerment, the fact that a woman does not have the right access to health, the fact that a woman receives less salary than a man; all of this starts playing in everyone’s head to normalize later [on] an act of violence,” says Garcia, the executive director of Semillas. Because women do not have equal pay, equal access to health care, or equal economic power to men, women and their rights aren’t seen as equal in Mexico, which leads to allowing the abuse of women, physically, mentally, and sexually in Mexican society. “If we want to combat violence against women, we need to improve working conditions for women, to improve their sexual and reproductive health access, we need to improve a lot of things.”

In Garcia’s case, this means using the money Semillas raises to finance grassroots organizations run by activists, that address different issues. Garcia speaks from a very tactical perspective, and Toledo, the sociologist from National Autonomous University of Mexico, sees the problem similarly, adding that a need still exists for education reform to stop the problem before it starts, and for the government to stop implementing Band-Aid solutions.

“The government is trying to solve problems in the moment, but when it comes to violence against women, in general, I think a lot of it has to do with education. Not just in schools but at home,” she says.

But the issue is not only education; it’s also how the government presents women, and the opportunities that they have, or the futures that they can attain.

“The government needs to protect women, and, at the same time, stop acting like the only role available to women is that of the victim. The government needs to support the message that women can be empowered, they can be successful, and [that] there are many successful, independent women,” Toledo says.

Though the Mexican government still has a ways to go in finding scalable solutions to its sexual violence problems, many women have begun to realize that, in the absence of a strong governmental response, the strongest tool in their arsenal is each other.

“I understand that men and women are physically different, and physically men are stronger than me, but women have our own strength. We have words, we have our potential — and here you are, a reporter, and you have the power to inform opinions, you can help change the conversation, to discuss feminism and open people’s eyes to our reality, and that is really powerful.”

I am in awe that she has faith in me, but I realize that this faith is the first step in a long procession of steps to hold the Mexican government accountable, hold men accountable, and make change for women in Mexico City.

You can sometimes feel invisible, but just one woman in Mexico City saying “I see you” leaves the role of victimhood behind.

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