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Knowing the Body
2004 Final Web Report
On Serendip

The Systematic Destruction of Women's Agency in Juárez, Mexico

Sierra Jorgensen

As citizens, people rely on the state as an agent that acts on their behalf, by providing them with benefits such as basic protection. However, the state itself derives its power (or agency) from the fact that its citizens give up some of their individual agency in exchange for the benefits that belonging to a state provides. People are, thus, both the creators and the subjects of the state. In Juárez, Mexico the state has been shaped by a patriarchy that is very oppressive to women. The women are then subjects to this very oppressive state. Virginia Woolf claims that these women can gain agency and freedom by obtaining economic independence. But, in the case of Juárez, Mexico this economic freedom has deadly effects. Woolf's argument is very limiting and applied to a much more ideal situation. In this essay I will explore the climate in Juárez that seems to prove Woolf's theory wrong. I will also look at how her claims can offer hope to the women of Juárez so that they can alter the climate so that everyone has agency not just the men and the state.

Mexican culture has always placed the women in the home. Placement in the private sphere without the opportunity to earn money has always limited women's agency and freedom. Men have typically held the position of power because of their economic independence. As the holders of power in the public sphere, men have created a patriarchy in which the opinions have governed the laws that are passed within Mexico. Before the murders in Juárez began, and even still, women were offered very little protection by the government especially when it came to violence and rape. The machismo culture in Mexico sets up a climate in which young women can be beaten raped and murdered with little to no consequences. Domestic abuse laws in Mexico, state that a woman may not file domestic abuse charges if her wounds heal before the end of 15 days. Women are constricted to the private sphere according to Mexican culture. The women give up their rights to be in the public sphere with the hope and understanding that they will be protected in the private sphere. They, however, do not receive this protection. Men can essentially beat their wives with no consequence. Additionally, rape laws are very lax. In 2002 a new state law in Chihuahua, Mexico, where Juárez is located, proposed that the sentence for rape would be reduced from four years to one year if a man could prove that a woman had provoked him. This proposed law "Chávez and her allies argue, shows the root problem behind the Ciudad Juárez murders -- that, in a society where men cannot be charged with raping their wives and domestic abuse is rarely prosecuted, authorities simply do not take violence against women seriously enough." Laws similar to these set up a very restricting climate for women and a very comfortable climate for men. Men are assured that the law is on their side and that they are guaranteed a huge amount of agency.

It is within a climate where women have no agency that in American companies began placing their factories in the small border town of Juárez, Mexico. Juárez is a popular site for US Fortune500 companies to place factories that have very low cost and optional taxes. The sheer poverty of Juárez substantially lowers the amount the companies have to pay workers in comparison to in the United States. This financial motivation is also the leading reason that maquiladoras employ mostly young women. Women are preferred to men as workers in the maquiladoras because they can be paid substantially lower wages. The average wage is from four to seven dollars for a nine-hour work day and there are no benefits offered to workers. Years of sexist attitudes in the United States have created an environment where this pay gap still exists. The wage gap is therefore expected to appear in Mexico as well. While these companies still discriminate against women it is an American stereotype of women from which they are working. American women have been financially independent for decades and therefore have achieved the agency that Woolf refers to. Women have reached such a state of agency that they are past the struggle of making their way into the workplace and are now in a position to fight for equal wages. This position is similar to the situation that Woolf describes in Three Guineas. The women of Juárez on the other hand are still at a point where they need to fight their way into the workplace. It is an anomaly that the women are beginning to find positions in these factories in the first place. I believe that before the introduction of foreign factories into Juárez women rarely would have considered leaving the home to work. But, because the factories are motivated solely by money a man's work is not valued because it is too expensive.

It is this financial motivation that causes a system of giving up agency and receiving protection to fail within the factories. Women enter the factories looking for financial stability and a slight amount of protection. Many women are offered benefits when they come to work in the factories, but generally those benefits are not provided. They also work in very tough working conditions that instead of protecting them and their bodies, exploits them. Women are put under terrible conditions in the factories in which they work. They have to do "relentless, concentrated work" that is very "hard on the eye" which may cause their eyesight to become bad and unacceptable for the job (Vulliamy, 2003). These women are chosen for these jobs based on a stereotype that women have better manual dexterity and are therefore more suited for the job. This capitalization on a stereotype also benefits these companies financially. The production rates are higher because their workers are able to do their job well. The women are then made to do these tasks that are hard on their body for very long shifts and with as little as fifteen minutes break for lunch. It seems that many of the women believed that because they were giving up a right to a long lunch, they could use their agency to lobby for protection by asking for lunch facilities on factory property. These women were immediately fired. To the factories these women are entirely disposable. There are so many women who have traveled to Juárez in hopes that they can get work that more than enough women show up to the factories each shift hoping to receive a position. Therefore, the financial motivation that these factories have causes them to be happy to get rid of workers who cause them trouble because there are many more women who will not ask for things, like lunch facilities, that could cost the factories extra money.

The violation and systematic removal of a woman's agency begins in the factories with the violence toward women that is seen continued with the murders. Women are often raped and beaten within the factories. This is perfectly acceptable to both the factories and the men and women involved in the activities. It is frequently considered the woman's fault that she was subjected to these actions. Many of the men who rape the women believe that it is there place to do so because they have stepped out of their roles as women. The men are sending a message that women within the factory have no agency, no protection and no rights.

The conditions in which the factories allow their women to travel also indicate that they have no agency or protection. Companies do not provide transportation to and from the maquiladoras. Women frequently walk alone to and from busses and even to and from work. It is usually in this transit that women disappear. Employers also have a practice of sending home women for being the slightest bit late. For example, Claudia Gonzalez was sent home for being only three minutes late for work and she attempted to walk home. She went missing and her body was found a month later. Factories also make shift changes that take women off of shifts with friends and family members and place them on shifts that require them to travel alone. Women are also motivated to take later shifts because they pay a few cents more but the difference is significant enough. These women with late shifts leave after dark with no security present making them susceptible to kidnapping, even making abduction easy. Factories, though, are not motivated to take action and feel no responsibility to provide security for their workers because the murders do not occur on factory property. In fact the "North America Free Trade Agreement exempts the sweatshops from any laws requiring them to provide better security—because such laws might interfere with 'the ability to make profit,'" which is more important to these companies than the women they employ (Dellit, 2003). I believe that the factories are facilitating the abduction and murders of these women, possibly even knowingly.

The Juárez murders are a backlash by the men of Juárez because women are beginning to gain agency and freedom and men are becoming less dominant in the culture. Chávez explains: "'Men found themselves no longer the breadwinner. Women exchanged subordination at home for subordination to the factory boss, but this offered a certain independence. They could buy clothes, leave their abusive boyfriends, go out alone. And, with middle-aged men unemployable in Juárez, this created frustration, a backlash against women exhibiting independence for the first time. Being financially independent and wearing a mini skirt, however, is not an invitation to one's death.'" (Vulliamy). Woolf's period experienced similar, but far less severe backlash. Woolf describes a "natural expression of fear and jealousy" when women take on the roles of men and begin to gain agency (54). The men of Juárez feel threatened because not only are their jobs being taken away but so is their agency. Woolf claims that the one who makes the money decides how to spend it. In Woolf's time soon after women began moving into the workplace men spoke of taking the women back out of the workplace and making sure that the workplace consisted entirely of men again. Rather than just speaking about removing women from the workplace in Juárez, the men have actually done it. They have begun to systematically murder the maquiladoras workers with what I see as two goals. The ideal goal would be to scare the women enough that they will no longer seek places in the maquiladoras and therefore would no longer seek agency. The alternative goal would be to remove enough women from the factories that there are no longer enough women to fill the factories.

The violence toward and violation of women's bodies that begins in the factories continues for the women just before their murder. Many women are raped and mutilated before they are murdered. Their bodies are often cut, beaten or scared with acid among other things. By acting violently toward the women before murdering them the men are indicating that it is not enough to just kill the women silence their voices and take away their agency. They need to make it clear to both the women that they are murdering and to all of the rest of the women that they have committed a huge wrong. They need to deface and defile the bodies that carry a cultural meaning that goes against one that they like and accept. They need to disrupt the continuity of that meaning and not leave it intact to be found after their deaths. The men are taking the women's bodies and using them to express their agency. They inscribe messages on the women's bodies removing their agency and taking it for their own.

The government and authorities in Juárez have explicitly said that the women's little bit of agency is the reason that they are disappearing and being murdered. Women often express themselves by the clothing they wear and the way that they look. This is being cited as the reason that they are being killed. According to many of the men of Juárez, the women of Juárez have provoked the terror that is being brought upon their bodies. As recently as 1999, then-Chihuahua Attorney General Arturo Gonzalez Rascón blamed murder victims for dressing provocatively and thus encouraging men's baser instincts (Nieves). For a girl to go out alone is 'like a little treat' said former prosecutor Auturo Gonzalez Rascón, 'Like putting candy at the entrance to a school.'(Vulliamy) Many of the authority figures in Juárez use gender stereotypes of both men and women to their advantage. Women are seen to be promiscuous and men are expected to react to that. The men in Juárez have a problem with women expressing their sexuality, but at the same time women are expected to present their bodies attractively. Women are fed images of women dressed in very little clothing and told that that is what will make them attractive. Women in Juárez are stuck between two contradictory views of how women should appear. They are given messages that they are to adorn their bodies in order to please men, but if these women do follow these messages then they are blamed for their own rape, mutilation and murder. The blaming of these young women for their own murders is an important political move on the part of the men in Juárez. Although, 74 percent of the murdered women were wearing trousers investigators claim that they were or had at one point dressed provocatively in order to encourage their murderers. This sends a message not only to the women of Juárez, but also to the men that women are completely the object of men's gaze and desires. If a man's desire is to rape and murder a woman he is infallible in this decision. This gives the men of Juárez a tremendous power. It also turns the small amount of choice and agency around so that it is a problem and a cause for a war to be waged.

The authorities' handling of the situation displays even further the desire to stop women's agency and regain men's monopolization of agency and power. Over the past decade dozens of arrests have been made and most of these suspects--particularly in the most well-known suspects—have gone free. In 1995 Egyptian citizen Abdel Latif Sharif and an alleged band of "assassins" known as Los Rebeldes, were arrested but over half of them were freed due to a lack of evidence. Another well publicized arrest was that of two of the drivers of maquiladora busses. But, the suspects accused the police of beating them in order to obtain a confession and the two men were released. It seems that the police torture of the suspects was a clever tactic to ensure that the suspects would go free and the murders would continue. Even while Sharif and other suspects were in custody women continued to go missing. This leads Chávez to believe that many of the murders are the work of copycats who rape, torture, and murder women simply because they have discovered that they can do so with impunity. Men are receiving the message from the authorities that these crimes should continue.

There is also a gross mishandling of the evidence. Patricio Martinez, the Governor of Chihuahua described the situation well when he said, "I ask the people of Chihuahua how it is they can today demand we solve some crimes when all we got from the previous administration is 21 bags with bones" (Fragoso). There is so little effort and motivation to solve these crimes that the evidence is clumped together and passed on from person to person with no expectation that they will ever be able to—or want to—do anything to solve these crimes. Bodies are often presented to the victims' families that are not their daughters. In many cases skeletons are presented to families whose daughters have only been missing for a few months. Much of the evidence was simply glossed over or concealed from the public. This uncaring attitude shows the authorities lack of value for the women and displays their desire also to silence the women's agency.

The authorities often come in conflict with the families efforts to find their daughters and the people responsible for the crimes. "The authorities made the majority of the victims' families believe that the best way of solving each case was 'to remain silent', not to talk to reporters, not to allow the problem to grow and become 'scandalous' or 'public'" (Perez). The authorities often encourage families not to report their daughter's disappearances because they believe that in many cases the girl has run off with a boyfriend or left town. More often than not though, the woman's body is found a few months later, another victim of the robbing of women's agency. When the families do report their daughters missing the authorities do little to find the girl. Families are not even allowed to report a missing person until 72 hours after her disappearance, during which time the girls are tortured and raped. On one occasion a group had gathered to search for bodies of relatives and they came across a mass gravesite. Someone called the authorities to report the find. "As mothers of the murdered women wept, he scolded the volunteers for contaminating possible evidence" (Nieves). Several groups have also been founded to help stop the murders. In 1998 Voces Sin Eco (Voices Without Echo) was founded by Guillerma Gonzalez Torres, a former maquila worker. Her younger sister, Sagrario, was killed in April 1998. The authorities believe that these groups bring too much attention to the cases and hinder the progress of their investigations. The police pressured Voces Sin Eco and the group members received many threats and because of this the group dissolved in 2000. Another such group called Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa (Our Daughters Return Home) has received similar threats, but despite the risk the members continue to fight for justice. Even when people are making an effort to ensure the rights of women who have recently gained a small amount of agency, the patriarchal powers stop the efforts.

It appears that the murders have been affective in causing fear. Rather than attempting to change the views in Mexico, the focus has been on changing the activity of the women so that it more closely fits the current role that is expected of them. Fear is the general state of most of the women of Juárez and there are constant reminders around them that they are in danger. "'...All we can do is awaken the citizenry,'" claims Paula Gonzalez, the mother of one of the murdered women (Vulliamy). Black crosses on a pink background are painted on telephone poles commemorating the women who have been murdered. These crosses also act as a constant reminder that women are continually being murdered. There are also signs and billboards all over Juárez that warn "Be careful—watch for your life" (Nieves). Women are also always conscious of their friends, family and coworkers disappearing. The fear that these women may disappear just like their coworkers is always prevalent. Nieves relates the situation well: "Women are on edge. On a visit after the bodies were found in November, women factory workers who were waiting, alone, for busses at 5 a.m. all recoiled when I approached them for interviews with a male photographer and a male guide. Two ran away, and one shouted that her boyfriend would be along shortly." Authorities in Mexico thought that a curfew would be the best way to protect the women. The region's assistant attorney-general claimed "All the good people should stay at home with their families" (Dellit). The women are constantly being reminded that they need to keep safe. "Warnings were sent out about attending parties, staying out late till the morning hours, walking alone, and more importantly, if she was a laborer, about dressing provocatively and consuming alcoholic beverages" (Fragoso). "The official response was to advise women not to dress provocatively, avoid walking the streets and 'If you are sexually attacked, pretend to vomit. That will be repulsive to the attacker, and he will probably flee'" (Vulliamy). Not only are these warnings to keep the women safe they are also a way to control the activities that women can engage in activities which are classified as "an inadequate care and abandonment of the family unit in which they have lived" (Fragoso). These warnings force women to go back into the household and abandon the public sphere. The most troubling thing is that even the families of the women who are murdered feel hopeless when it comes to the possibility of the murders stopping because the gender views in Juárez have changed. The focus is just on stopping the activity that is putting the women in danger right now. I find that this is a dangerous track to take because it opens the possibility that the views will never change.

It seems that the presence of international interest in the Juárez murders will prove to be the most helpful. Many of the nations that are interested in the Juárez murders, the US for example, have an entirely different political, social and economic climate. This different climate can act as an example and an educator to the people of Juárez to the possibilities for their country should their gender culture change. There is a small population in Juárez that also believes that international help is the most useful. A good deal of the international attention and the pressure that came from international organizations to solve the Juárez murders came from the group Nuestras Hijas de Regreso a Casa. "In the face of this pressure, state and federal authorities are now attempting to free themselves of adverse international opinions, which in reality have turned against them and discredited them worldwide for not having solved the problem" (Perez). The international presence causes Mexico to want to save face in the international community. The "phenomenon of Juárez" has also become popular among US celebrities (Castillo). Castillo says that no one shines in the spotlight quite like US Hollywood celebrities—including Jane Fonda, Sally Fields, Christine Lahti and Eve Ensler. The authority that celebrities have worldwide can bring Juárez into the minds of most people. This outside perspective can help convince the women of Juárez that instead of being afraid they should fight for their rights. The international interest can also provide a different manner of approaching investigations and may possibly be able to take some of the action into their own hands.

Woolf claims though that no progress can be made without some sort of battle. Women are beginning to work their ways into the workplace. This is a stage that occurred before Woolf wrote Three Guineas so there had already been mothers to the daughters of educated men who had fought for their equality. In the case of Juárez, the daughters that are being murdered could become the mothers that Woolf refers to. They are the first in the ongoing battle for gender equality. Modern day England is testament to the possibility for advancement. We see many women in the workplace, though they still receive 19 percent less pay than their male counterparts there is significantly more equality in their pay than during Woolf's time. Through the example England I see the possibility for Juárez. There is hope that there will be progression much like from Woolf's time to present day. Evidence of this is seen in the little progress that they have already made. The first rape and domestic abuse crisis center in Juárez was opened by Chávez in the area. Although women are tentative to come to the clinic they are coming and the people who run the clinic can begin to teach the women about the possibilities that are out there for them.

The murdered women of Juárez have been inadvertently placed into a battle for gender equality. American companies that are financially motivated have begun placing their factories in Juárez. By employing mostly women these companies have unknowingly started a war about gender roles in Mexico. But, with the help of international organizations and the realization of the Mexican government that these gender divides must be re-evaluated, I see huge possibilities for Juárez, but it may come at continued loss of life and great cost. The women of Juárez have been given the chance, with the help of international organizations, to gain the agency that should have been provided to them with their economic independence. It is very important for the people of Juárez, especially the families of the murdered women, to ensure that these women have not died in vain. The crosses commemorating their deaths should not just be a tactic to inspire fear but also one to remind the people of Juárez that there is an unacceptable gender dynamic that is causing these women to be killed. It is not only the women of Juárez that need to cause this change, but also the men. Fathers, brothers, and husbands are also losing loved ones and they need to take the steps to stop it as well.

Castillo, Ana. Conditioned for murder: Juarez killings show cost of misogyny, 2004 Catholics for a Free Choice

Dellit, Alison. A Woman's Place is in the Struggle: Death in Juarez, from Green Left, weekly online edition, at

Fragoso, Julia Monárrez. "Serial Sexual Femicide in Ciudad Juárez: 1993-2001". Debate Feminista, 13th edition, Vol. 25, April 2002.

Jones, Adam Ph.D. The Murdered Men of Ciudad Juárez, published in Letras Libres (Mexico), April 2004,

Perez, Rosa Isela Ciudad Juárez, The Silence of Death from Cuartoscuro, at

Nieves, Evelyn To Work and Die in Juarez, from Mother Jones, at

Stackhouse, John. "Men Killing Women in Juarez, Mexico, With Impunity".

Vulliamy, Ed Murder in Mexico (part one), from The Observer, March 2003 at,3858,4621201-110490,00.html

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt Inc. 1938.

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