The COVID-19 pandemic has brought unprecedented changes to our lifestyles. Or is it, maybe, that the pandemic has simply underscored our already lived normality, albeit to absurd levels? For the management and the impact of the pandemic do not exist in their own vacuum. In fact, one thing the lockdowns around the world have done is made the space where we are expected to stay all the more invisible. When governments and media ask us to stay at home, they overlook and thus normalize the fact that not everyone has the privilege to a safe indoors space. In these unprecedented times there is simply a strengthening of the already normal with “better” reasons (even if physical – and not social – distancing is the only proven way to stop the spread of the virus, this should not stop us from being critical to the surveillance and disciplinary characteristic of the governmental logic that is sustained by such measures). The strengthened normal is also shown by the world’s response, and even anticipation, of the rise of domestic violence due to the lockdowns.
Undeniably, the suffering and vulnerabilities of women across the globe are contextual, however there are common characteristics. We know that women – in both rich and poor countries – are usually paid less than their male counterparts in the same occupation and, at the same time, are overrepresented in low-paid jobs. On top of their low-paid work responsibilities, women are expected to also juggle their unpaid social reproductive work. Since the pandemic began, women also have had to deal with further unpaid domestic labour such as care giving and home schooling – there is unquestioned assumptions that they are the ones that have to do so. In other words, in these “unprecedented” times women are expected to continue doing all their work, plus more unpaid and unrecognized labour, and to do so graciously.
Against this background, when lockdowns around the world started, reports of a possible rise in domestic violence began to be bluntly circulated. They soon became confirmed. In a normalized patriarchal narrative, this rise was something to be accepted (after all, if we accept it during ‘pandemic-free’ times, why not now? —strengthening of the normal). A country that followed this predictable scenario was Mexico: March (beginning of certain lockdown measures) saw a rise of 23% in the calls made to police emergency numbers to report domestic violence. Alongside the media’s coverage of this rise, is the response of public officials. The president, AMLO, has met this issue with complete dismissal, claiming that 90% of such calls are fake, and that even though Mexico has been historically a violent country for its women, Mexicans are fraternal before they are violent, hence having to be in lockdown only brings out this fraternity in the families. While the mass media outlets were quick to point towards the falsehood in the president’s claims, their reporting did not go beyond that. It was as if the only problem were the president’s claim and not the fact that domestic violence has drastically risen in the first month of lockdown.
This shows that the media do not seem interested in truly understanding the horror that it is to be a woman in Mexico; there seems to be little or no desire in serving as a voice that helps to tell the accounts of Mexican women. And so, during the pandemic, the media treated this rise in violence as an almost obvious, banal phenomenon, in a tone that suggested: in an already extremely violent country towards women, what did you expect to happen during a lockdown? It is of no surprise since gender and domestic violence—and violence generally speaking—is something covered by the media in Mexico as a normality, that society has come to see in the same way. A tragic, example of this is how every time the media repeats that nine women are killed in Mexico per day, it does so without any context, without any of these victims ever humanized, ever given a name, ever given their right to their life story.
Since 2018 Mexican feminist movement has taken to the streets and raised their voices to offer their own narrative instead; their own account of what it is to be a woman in such a deadly country. In this conjuncture, Mexican feminists were having a notably active moment and were re-taking the public space from which they had been historically erased. The media coverage of such moments of active resistance were met by comments almost exclusive to violent repertoires such as the vandalization of the streets and public property. AMLO himself dismissed the protests and accused them of being a provocation for repression. The media broadly followed in measuring the broken glass or the amount of graffitied walls before trying to understand the anger and frustration of those in the protests. Women in Mexico were trying to show that they are not safe anywhere, not in the streets and not in their homes. But then the lockdown started, and women were once again secluded to the space that they had just pointed to as deadly—and even more so during a pandemic.
It matters to highlight this, and build a discussion around it, because when media reports the rise of domestic violence during lockdown as normal, as something expected, they are failing to offer an account for the possibility of resistance. Women in Mexico are being denied any space in which to exist. These unprecedented times are working to cement the normalization of the eradication of private and public spaces for women’s resistance. We must be wary of media reporting that presents these phenomena as justified or understandable. We must stand critical to any narrative that places the overcoming of the virus onto the duty of citizens and their responsibility to comply, deprived of any possibility to contest the dominant discourse. Rather, let us take on how these unprecedented times have further unmasked the rawness of neoliberal capitalism and use it as a way to push towards the possibility of a new reality.
Jimena Vazquez and Kostis Roussos are both PhD Candidates at the Centre for Ideology and Discourse Analysis, Department of Government, University of Essex
This article is translated from Greek, first published by the ENA Institute here.