Scores of images are appearing on the walls of San Cristobal as women push back against endemic violence. All photos by Dawn Starin.
Although accurate figures are hard to come by—in part because of underreporting and how the data is manipulated—there is no doubt that widespread violence against women exists in Mexico. An average of seven women were murdered in that country every day between 2013 and 2014. According to Amnesty International, killings, abductions and sexual violence against women and girls remained endemic there in 2015 and 2016. Human Rights Watch has shown that Mexican laws do not adequately protect women and girls against domestic and sexual violence.
Some women are fighting back—not with their fists but with graffiti.
"Don't submit to him, Don't devote yourself to him. Woman, free, beautiful, and mad."
Poverty, economic woes, and gender inequality have led to a surge in political creativity, visible in the pro-feminist anti-machismo graffiti popping up overnight on the colorful stucco walls across the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas, a city rich in architecture, craftwork, scenic vistas, and indigenous cultures.
The fight for equal treatment and against domestic violence has been a part of San Cristobal’s political landscape for more than twenty years. When the EZLN—the Zapatistas—rebelled against the Mexican government on January 1, 1994, they unveiled a Women’s Revolutionary Law in San Cristobal as a key feature of their manifesto. The ten-article bill of rights for indigenous women essentially declared that women have a right to a fair wage, quality health care, equal participation in the political system, marital and reproductive rights, and freedom from sexual and domestic violence.
"Don't let them touch you; Don't let them silence you."
Establishing the right to have rights—especially women’s rights—is no easy task. Here in Chiapas, the state with the highest levels of inequality and poverty in the country, it is very much an unfinished one. Discrimination and violence against women are still commonplace. Many women, especially those from the indigenous communities, continue to face machismo and discrimination at work and within their communities, and suffer from violence inflicted by their partners as well as by the military.
While graffiti often conjures up images of vandalism and defacement, here in San Cristobal it is being used as an artistic and literary consciousness-raising tool. If the graffiti spread around this city can have an educational impact, then the creators of these messages should be encouraged to spread their feminist communications far beyond the stuccoed walls of the colonial city of San Cristobal de las Casas and out into the surrounding mountains and valleys and beyond.
"Neither housewife nor slave"
"If man thinks he owns you then to rebel against him is a RIGHT"
"Take a machete to machismo"
"Being a woman is not the same as being a mother"
"Make your words mean more than your silence"
"No means no!"
"I'm not a dog don't whistle at me"
Dawn Starin is an anthropologist. Her writing has appeared in Behaviour, Critical Asian Studies, The Ecologist, The Humanist, Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Natural History, The New York Times, Philosophy Now and Scientific American.