They are all university students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, from reasonably well off families, and as such I cannot claim that they are in any way representative of the Mexican population as a whole. One of the points raised during the interview was the idea that, while Mexico still has a long way to go in terms of gender parity, things are in a constant state of change. For this reason I decided to investigate some of the historical developments that have created the situation we see today.
Gender roles, and more generally the family unit, are deeply ingrained within Mexican society, and whole volumes could be written about their origins and development. The analysis here, however, will be restricted to two policy changes during the 20th century which have been identified by feminist scholars as particularly important in shaping the norms that define the modern Mexican family. Vaughan (2000) notes that during the first half of the twentieth century Mexico was relatively progressive in throwing off nineteenth century patriarchy.
She cites a worldwide trend away from a completely male centric model towards a more modern archetype, in order to cope with seismic changes in the global economic system. Jargon aside, it was recognized that basic levels of education and agency for women were now an economic necessity rather than a high minded ideal. Mexico’s relative progress in this area, according to Vaughan, was due to a need to control and placate a rebellious peasantry.
It’s important to note here that this was a change purely in policy, and not representative of popular opinion at the time, but it did provide the beginnings of a legal framework in which a degree of female emancipation was possible. We can perhaps see these themes continuing in modern Mexico, which to an outside observer could seem very progressive: many women in higher education, a female presidential candidate, but that does not necessarily have the underlying cultural values to match.
A second policy event occurred n the late 1950s, when a series of judges ruled in favour of women complaining against the treatment they had received from their in-laws (Varley 2000). Prior to this point, a married woman in Mexico became part of their new husband’s family; it was common for married couples to live with the husband’s parents, and in many cases women were treated as little more than servants. This ruling at first glance appears to give women greater agency, and to a certain extent that is true, but as Varley points out, it has also helped to define and strengthen the nuclear family that is so central in Mexican society today.
This family structure in turn solidifies gender roles and has made further emancipation more difficult. Academic works such as the two cited above can often lose connection with the real world as their authors theorise and pontificate It should also be noted that neither are written by Mexican scholars and that feminist theory is one of the academic areas that has suffered the most from outside academics misinterpreting what they see in other countries . As such, their conclusions should be taken with a certain pinch of salt.
However, I do think that the trends that these events helped to initiate can be seen in society today: an outward progressivity underpinned by some very conservative ideals and an overwhelming emphasis on the nuclear family unit. With the historical background addressed, albeit briefly, how then can we characterize the modern Mexican family unit, and the predefined roles within it? For me, one of the most interesting aspects of gender roles within Mexico is those pertaining to work. An article on the World Bank’s website highlights the growing number of working women in Latin America, in all levels of employment (World Bank 2011).
This is corroborated by my interviewees, who feel that families in which both parents work are increasingly common in Mexico, indeed all three have working mothers. As discussed above, however, this does not necessarily signify a fundamental change in the way gender roles are viewed in a society. The women I interview are adamant that the mother in a family is still the one that ‘looks after the kids’. The World Bank raises this point too, pointing to the challenges faced by working mothers at all levels of society.
The interviewees concur with my own observations of Mexican family life when they suggest that this distinction is one brought on from a very young age. Certainly by her late teens, a Mexican girl is subject to completely different pressures and expectations from her parents than a Mexican boy. The women tell me that the main expectation for a son is to find work and to support himself, and that, while families also hope for jobs for their daughters, this falls some way behind marriage and a family in terms of priorities. Relationships are hard enough to define within individual families, let alone on a general level.
For example, one of the women says that she feels closer emotionally to her father than her mother, and yet still says that her mother has been the one charged with childcare and education. The general sense, however, seems to be of mothers teaching their daughters to do as they’ve done: that their chief responsibility in life is as a mother. The response to this problem in the World Bank’s article leaves me deeply uncomfortable. The article calls for flexibility in working hours and increased childcare provisions to help working mothers.
This is obviously a great idea as a short term solution, but I cannot help but think that it only serves to further legitimise the already concrete family model that is the underlying source of the problem. Policies such as these accentuate existing divisions, separating men and women into two distinct individuals within the work place. One that does the ‘proper work’ and another that requires flexible hours and special treatment to be able to perform paid work alongside her true, god given task of raising children. Surely a far superior approach would be to encourage paternity leave, and flexible working hours for both genders.
I stress again that in the short term, such policies are clearly better than nothing, but it concerns me that an organisation such as the World Bank makes no mention of any sort of long term strategy to address underlying norms. Apart from anything else, these tactics seem reminiscent of the policies from the fifties mentioned above, addressing symptoms rather than core problems, and ultimately serving to strengthen the values that are causing the problems in the first place. Momsen (2004) argues that additional pressures for women at work are felt particularly acutely in rural households.
Many such households continue to subsist at least partially on home grown crops and animals, and this, more often than not, is considered to be part of the domestic sphere, leading to the following assumptions: firstly, it is women’s work and secondly, it does not count as ‘real’ work and therefore is expected to be done alongside formal employment. This leads to working women shouldering enormous workloads as they work full time weeks before coming home to more work in the form of childcare and household agriculture. A point that comes up during our group interview is the idea of jealousy over wages.
The machismo inherent within Mexican culture means that for a man to earn less than his wife is a source of considerable shame. While at first glance this may not seem a particularly important problem, it can lead to considerable tension within the household and could arguably be a source of the domestic violence that my interviewees claim is rife within Mexican families. Momsen (2004) goes as far as to suggest that it is this jealously that provides the underlying motivation for the pandemic of femicide killings that has been occurring for years in Mexico, particularly in and around the northern city of Juarez.
When this suggestion is put to my interviewees they reject it, but fail to provide an alternate solution. For my part I think it would be naive to suggest wage jealousy as the only cause, or even the main cause of the femicides, but it is not hard to imagine, in an area dominated by factories with a largely female workforce, how a culture of resentment could arise which could later lead on to the tragedy occurring today.
As previously mentioned, the women I interview are all between the ages of eighteen and twenty-two, and one of the things they are keen to emphasise is the lack of freedom they are given compared to their brothers and male peers. It appears that in terms of freedoms (going out, relationships, sex) men and boys have the vast advantage in the Mexican family. Fathers, I’m told, tend to be particularly jealous and protective of their daughters. It is also very uncommon to see women of any age walking the streets at night. I ask how much of this is cultural, and how much is practical safety concerns.
It seems to me fairly obvious that a large part of the father-jealousy-protectiveness-norm is simply a symptom of a macho, patriarchal culture, and the women agree, but at the same time, they do admit to feeling unsafe on the streets. This, of course, is a common theme in even the most progressively feminist countries, but it is interesting that the conversation then moves on to the practice of men shouting things at women in the street. I’m talking of course of the ‘compliments’ (for want of a better word) and ‘chat up lines’ that are endemic around the city, and Mexico as a whole.
It brings back a memory from my own experience that I find particularly telling. During my first week in Mexico, Tec organised a tour of the city run by a local tour guide. During the tour one of the students asked the guide about this practice, explaining that she’d already been subject to quite a bit of shouting despite having only been there for a week. The guide, a middle aged man, smiled ruefully and told her she should take it as a compliment, that it was simply what Mexican boys and men did.
This to me seems representative of the attitude taken by much of the male population to what is basically just verbal harassment: it is just a bit of fun, what is the problem? What conclusions can be drawn from all of this? In terms of equality within gender roles, Mexico is clearly improving. More and more women have access to education and are entering the work force. It also seems from my conversation with the three women that awareness and dialogue relating to feminist issues and gender roles is increasing.
However, I cannot shake the feeling that despite all the good work being done, underlying inequalities are not being addressed. From the short sightedness of the World Bank to the attitude of the Guadalajara guide, it appears to me that despite all the change on the surface, something fundamental is not changing, or at least, not changing fast enough.