• The Untranslatable Journey of Argentina’s Fourth Feminist Wave

    In the beginning, there was death. Or that’s how it was for us, here in Argentina. The fourth feminist wave did not start with a vocabulary of empowerment or with stories of resilience. It did not start with sexual coercion; it did not even start with conversations about money or equal pay. It started with dead bodies: scattered fragments of women, pieces of corpses piled up in the countryside or next to a freeway, carefully placed in shimmering black garbage bags. Girls lost and later discovered, but not exactly found, though that is how they usually say it: “She was found dead.” Both in Spanish and in English this phrasing allows for a tasteful ellipsis. Found dead does not necessarily mean killed. But most of the time, if a girl goes missing and is then found dead, that is in fact what happened. Most of those times, she was killed by a man. And most of those times, she was killed by a man she knew. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We didn’t really know all of this, at the beginning.

    Maybe this is why many Argentinians get upset when someone calls Ni Una Menos “the Argentine #MeToo.” It’s not that we don’t have respect for our sisters in the United States. It’s partly about the imperialistic implications of naming Latin American social movements after North American ones; but it’s not only that. It’s that we’re fighting for something different. It’s that our story is somehow darker and more morbid. It is a story that has no happy ending, where traumas are not worked through, but mourned. We do not want that darkness erased. We carry it with us as a sad badge, like a scar you wish you didn’t have but cannot imagine life without.

    Moreover, Ni Una Menos — which is a hard phrase to translate: the UN Women website translates it as “Not One Less,” but the word “one” is not gendered in English, like “una” is in Spanish — became massively famous two years before #MeToo did, in 2015. The debate, though, started much earlier, at least in 2009 with the sanction of the Law 26,485 (which defined violence against women in a more precise and comprehensive manner than previous legal frameworks) and then in 2012 when the figure of femicide was incorporated by Argentine law as an aggravating circumstance for murder. This last development was publicly celebrated, but in private — and sometimes not so much — many feminists were torn. We liked having a word that named the difference between being shot and being shot for being a woman. We liked that crimes against women were justly recognized as crimes of hate. But was this what we wanted? Harsher penalties? Was punitive power a feminist ally? It was a bittersweet victory, but it prompted a public conversation.

    Since we did not have — and still do not have — official records on femicides, collective memory was key. There are too many names: Ángeles, Lola, Natalia, Mariana, Agustina, Chiara. I think every woman in Argentina had a place in her heart for one of the stories in 2014 that prompted the first Ni Una Menos march in June the following year. Mine is Melina Romero. She was last seen on her 17th birthday; her body was found in a stream, one month later. Three men had tried to rape her and killed her when she resisted. In a now-infamous headline, the most widely read newspaper in Argentina referred to her as a “nightclub fan, high school dropout.” The piece is still online.

    Ni Una Menos spread to many countries in Latin America, connecting with other movements that were already fighting the killing of women in different regions. During the first Ni Una Menos march I couldn’t stop thinking of Melina and that perverse headline. We feminists in Argentina are frequently accused of conflating sexist phrasings with actual murders, but it was hard not see a common thread. That headline was a disciplinary message: she had it coming. It told women: you should stay in school, but mainly, you should stay at home, where you are safe. Here’s another thing we didn’t know at the time: according to the NGO La casa del encuentro, from 2007 to 2017, more than half of femicides in Argentina took place at the victim’s home.

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    The illusion of unity did not last long. At first, hardly anyone dared to be openly against Ni Una Menos (who could be in favor of the random killing of innocent women?), but the reaction eventually surfaced. It had many names, but the one that stuck was “Nadie Menos”; again, this translation lacks the necessary nuance. While “una” is a gendered word — feminine for “uno,” one — “Nadie,” on the contrary, is not gendered. The point Nadie Menos tries to make is that “all violence is bad and equal,” meaning there is nothing special about violence against women. It’s the denial of oppression, framed in a dubious hippie rhetoric; in this case, the comparison with “All Lives Matter” is actually useful.

    But the real break came when feminists in Argentina decided to take the next step: if we were speaking about women killed by the patriarchy, shouldn’t we be talking about the ones whose lives were lost to illegal abortions? Didn’t Ni Una Menos include them? It surely did — activism for the legalization of abortion had been going on for decades in the country — but it also transformed the formerly almost indisputable slogan in the source of a huge political divide. Before, the right to choose had not been seen as an actual political issue. Many well-known feminists worked within both of our important parties, but they were used to marching next to (or, more accurately, behind) men who would never publicly support an abortion bill, even if they could tolerate it in private. Ni Una Menos did not radically change that — in the 2019 elections, the few feminists that run will do so next to anti-choice candidates — but it did challenge it, and it produced the first abortion bill to ever get to Congress, even if it ended up dead in the Senate.

    The abortion bill was also the first time famous actresses, just like in #MeToo, took the stage to speak on gender issues. But again, there were differences. Local actresses created a group that they called “Colectivo Actrices Argentinas”; they held assemblies, where famous and non-famous actresses alike debated their own professional problems but also the positions they would take as a new political agent. Dolores Fonzi was one of the most visible faces in the group; she and others lobbied members of Congress in person for months, taking advantage of the fact that they would always receive celebrities. In the final hearings, Fonzi delivered a moving yet restrained speech, very in line with her on-screen persona. What I found interesting was that, unlike many actresses that had intervened telling their own tales, she started stating she had never had an abortion. She wasn’t there for herself. She didn’t waste a lot of time, either, apologizing for her privilege — she used it to speak for many others, who didn’t have it.

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    The abortion debate was never just about abortion, just like Ni Una Menos was never just about dead women. Argentine feminists were, firmly and not as slowly as some would have liked, encircling traditional gender and family roles as in a sort of raid. However, the more we explicitly challenged conventions and habits that were dear to most people in our continent and country — and probably in many other places in the world, too — the more we were insulted and caricaturized. A well known feminist, Marta Dillon, was quoted in 2018 saying that “heterosexuality is a risk factor for women”; social media users ridiculed her for weeks. She was, of course, deliberately trying to be provocative. When you read it in context, it was clear what she meant. Women were being killed mostly by their male romantic partners — not by immigrants, not by robbers, not by shady men who were just walking around. They were being killed by husbands, family fathers. And many more that were not killed were being hit and raped in their own homes. Violence was not outside: it was within us. It was within the way we conducted our relationships, within the way we had been taught to love and trust. And to mother, too.

    A month ago, in February 2019, one of the biggest newspapers in the country published an editorial piece “in praise of child mothers”; it commend their “infantile ovaries” for their “strong maternal instincts.” It referred to little girls who supposedly refused the abortions their mothers wanted to force on them — abortions they, as rape victims, were legally entitled to in Argentina. Girls like Lucía, the 11-year-old who, after being raped by her grandmother’s partner, was forced to give birth by a government official who insisted that she did not want to interrupt her pregnancy — contradicting the reports of many, including a psychologist that saw her days before the C-section took place. For antiabortion activists here the point isn’t just saving fetuses: they want women to fulfill their biological destinies. Whoever challenges the assumption that a woman’s sense of self has to come from her role as wife and mother is a danger to society.

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    A friend of mine got a divorce last year; she was tired of her husband, a lying, manipulative man. Her mother disapproved: she said “nosotras aguantábamos más,” which translates as something like “we were more tough” or “we took hardships better.” This version of antifeminism has become widespread lately: we feminists are weak, cry-babies.

    At the end of 2018, Actrices Argentinas called a press conference: there, a young actress called Thelma Fardín told how she had been raped by Juan Darthes, a famous actor, while they were on tour with a kids television show. Darthes, over 40, was practically the only adult in the cast; Fardín was 16. This all happened 10 years ago, in Nicaragua, where it is still possible to press charges after that kind of time; Thelma had already started a penal process when Actrices Argentinas decided to go public, as a way of supporting her.

    While my social media bubble was bursting with support for Thelma, I knew that was not necessarily the majoritarian view. Elsewhere, in comments on news sites and other corners of social media, she was accused of being, alternately, a liar and a lesbian. Actrices Argentinas was insulted for “ruining the life of an innocent man.” Why, asked men and women alike, would a handsome, rich actor rape a teenager, “one that is not even that pretty”? Apparently, the idea that a girl would randomly press false charges in a foreign country was more believable than the notion of a man —who, in the following days, told lie after lie according to his own former castmates— raping a vulnerable young woman in a hotel room. A family man, people stressed again and again.

    In her account, Fardín said that Darthes had taken her hand, placed it in his crotch and told her “mirá cómo me ponés”; which translates, roughly, as “look how hard you made me.” Thus our hashtag for sexual harassment was not #MeToo; it was #MiraComoNosPonemos, a play on that phrase that could be put in English, even more roughly, as “look how hard we made ourselves.” The original sentence was uttered by Darthes as a twisted mind game. While, in a different situation, it could have merely meant you turn me on, in the context of a grown man forcing himself on top a teenager it also implied: you brought this upon yourself. In the public telling of her story, Thelma ends her account by reappropriating this phrase. Moreover, she does not just lineally reverse it; she doesn’t say “look how hard you made me.” It is not about him, and in a way, yet again, it is also not about her. The verb in #MiraComoNosPonemos is conjugated in the first-person plural. It makes no reference to the aggressors either, or to any kind of revenge-like narrative: it speaks of resilience, finally, of collective force gathered from very personal pain. Since then, many girls and women sharing stories of abuse have used the hashtag as a way of recognizing that their individual stories are part of a bigger fight; and that they are not alone in it. #MeToo does not use a plural form — which is a thought-provoking difference — but the “too” part works in a similar way.

    There is no moral to this story, nor is it more interesting than the American one; intersectionality is not a competition. I can’t stop thinking, however, that the Ni Una Menos conversation was somehow easier when we hadn’t started naming names, when people could just blame “criminality” or “psychopaths” or maybe even just “nobody”; when normal people thought they could avoid the long look in the mirror. Taking responsibility as a society is difficult, but there also seems to be a sort of survival mechanism in play. The fact that violence against women is not the exception but rather the norm, that it is woven into the fabric that keeps our lives together, is simply too hard to stomach. It might be easier, then, to focus on the most spectacular forms of aggressions and to ignore their connections with our everyday lives. To believe ourselves immune, because we are not like those whores, we are not married to serial killers; to talk about Ni Una Menos like it does not involve all of us, like it does not speak about our relationships and the way we run them: like something in a galaxy far away and not, maybe, in our very own bedroom. Still it does sound strange, when put in a nice, orderly manner for an essay, how we had to make ourselves hard to speak of sexual relationships when we started speaking of dead bodies in garbage bags.

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