Avoid Sectarianism & Opportunism (was Re: victimology)

Yoshie Furuhashi furuhashi.1 at SPAMosu.edu
Tue Dec 12 13:04:22 MST 2000


>Doug should be placed in the context of a rather
>broad spectrum of mostly academically based "Marxists" who are--bluntly
>speaking--an obstacle to the creation of a Marxist intelligentsia.

You attribute _so much power_ to Doug (he should be very flattered by
your compliment), but I don't think that he has a power to make or
break the "Marxist intelligentsia"!

What you have said about Mexican women workers -- your pronouncement
on their passivity outside their native villages -- does, however,
stand in the way of having a reasonable debate among the "Marxist
intelligentsia" here.  It's an important question of gender & class,
and I emphasize it because it has been common for many leftist men to
represent women workers as "conservative" or "unorganizable," merely
passive victims without being history-makers.  To repeat, there is no
contradiction between opposing imperialism & taking note of
possibilities for struggles in _a new terrain_ that women Maquila
workers confront, having been dislocated from their hometowns.  Marx
& Engels noted a possibility for _struggles_ for gender equality as
well as revolutionary socialism that emerged with women's
proletarianization, at the same time making clear the heavy tolls
that proletarianization took.

Here is what Debbie Nathan has to say about women Maquila workers:

*****   The Nation - January 13, 1997

Death comes to the maquilas: a border story.
Debbie Nathan

On a scorching day in August 1995 in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, a trash
picker combing an illegal dump site discovered the half-naked corpse
of a young woman.  Police eventually identified her as Elizabeth
Castro, a 17-year-old from a poor neighborhood who had last been seen
alive downtown a few days earlier.  Since then in the same desert
area - just a few miles south of E1 Paso, Texas - eleven more female
bodies have been found.  Most were adolescents as young as 14.  All
were slender and darkskinned, with shoulder-length hair.  Many bodies
are too decomposed to determine the cause of death, but the
better-preserved victims were raped and strangled or stabbed.  Most
were partly unclothed, with their underpants torn.  Some had their
wrists bound; on some, a breast was mutilated or severed.  Of the
victims police have identified, all came from impoverished families.
Last spring, seven more bodies turned up in another desolate part of
town.  Again, they were half-naked, bound and mutilated.  They had
slim figures and longish hair, and the identifiable ones were poor.

These nineteen victims constitute the biggest mass sex-murder case in
Mexican history, and the nation is horrified.  In Juarez, everyone
has responded - from a conservative mayor embarrassed by the
violence, to women's activists, who have played it up to bolster
campaigns against more common forms of sexual assault.  Several
suspects have been arrested, yet in the public mind the murders
remain a mystery.  Partly this is due to police corruption and
ineptitude.  But more deeply, the continuing whodunit reflects a lack
of understanding of how sexuality and violence intertwined for the
victims, whose lives and deaths centered around their work on the
global assembly line.

Many of the dead young women had jobs in maquiladoras -or maquilas,
as they're popularly known - transnational assembly plants that have
blanketed Mexico's northern border since the mid-sixties, displacing
jobs from the United States and recycling them for wages that
currently equal about $23 a week in take-home pay.  Some 170,000
Juarez residents have jobs in the plants.  Half are female, and most
are so young (as young as 14, even though Mexican law says they must
be 16) that inside the factories and outside, they are still called
muchachas - girls.

Six days a week, thousands of them leave their shantytown
neighborhoods, cram into aging buses, transfer downtown and
eventually reach vast industrial parks.  There they put in
forty-eight-hour weeks soldering electronics boards, plugging wires
into car dashboards, binding surgical gowns and sorting millions of
cosmetics discount coupons mailed by North Americans to P.O. boxes in
El Paso.  The work they do is highly repetitive and requires little
training.  Their labor is easily replaceable, and turnover is
astronomical, often 100 percent a year or more.

These are the girls of what author Jeremy Seabrook calls the "Cities
of the South" - those sprawling new enclaves of Third World
capitalist glitz, surrounded by slums full of workers who feed the
local neon and the consumer appetites of the North.  Navigating this
territory, factory girls are subject to unprecedented sexual
harassment and violence, of which serial killing is only the most
horrific extreme.  It has always been risky for women to move through
cities on their own, and in Juarez, everyone acknowledges the
connection between work and danger.  But few talk about work and
pleasure, few recognize that when maquila girls, shifts end, they are
loosed to sample freedoms their mothers never imagined.

Miles from their neighborhoods and with paycheck in hand, they have
access to urban diversions that their brothers always had but that
"proper" girls used to be denied: public nightlife, friendship based
on affinity rather than kin and, most momentously, sex.  According to
University of Chicago sociologist Leslie Salzinger , who has worked
on Juerez assembly lines, even girls who still live at home with
their parents enjoy these pleasures.

Indeed, Salzinger says, many girls have told her that they take
maquila jobs not for survival but for independence: to buy clothes
with their own money and to get out of their houses and socialize.
(Affluent kids do this at school, but for the working class,
education is a luxury.  Mexico guarantees public schooling only to
sixth grade.)

So poor teens go to work.  But unlike their older North American
sisters, who dress for the assembly line in no-nonsense T-shirts and
sneakers, most maquila girls don miniskirts, heels and gobs of
lipstick and eye shadow.  Their flashiness is hardly incidental to
their jobs.  Instead, it is a fundamental feature of those maquilas
that make a priority of hiring females: the reinforcement and
updating of a rigid version of "womanhood."

The process begins even when a girl is still looking for a job.  Se
Solicita Mano de Obra Feminina - Female Labor Wanted - blare the
newspaper want ads.  Managers say that females have more nimble
fingers, deal better with boredom, and are more docile" - i.e., less
inclined to engage in disruptive behavior, including union
organizing.  When maquilas first came to the border, men were
virtually excluded as line workers.  Labor shortages have since led
to their hiring, but in many plants women still predominate,
particularly in electronics assembly.

While gentle hands and natures are a plus for transnational
exploitation, fecundity is a minus.  Typically, maquilas will hire
women only after they've taken a pregnancy test (this is implicitly
illegal, according to Mexican labor law) that comes out negative.  In
many plants, management inspects workers' sanitary napkins for
monthly menstrual flow.  Meanwhile, in-plant health services are
sparse except for generous provision of birth-control pills.

There are also discriminatory job classifications.  At an electronics
plant Salzinger worked in, stuffing computer boards is a task
exclusively assigned to women, cabinet assembly and screen
installation are reserved for men because the company deems this
"heavy" work.  Meanwhile, almost all technicians, supervisors and
managers-who make the most money - are men.

Identification numbers distinguish men from women.  So does work
clothing, with women assigned light blue smocks and men navy.  Women
are monitored more rigorously than men, by Mexican supervisors who
pace the assembly lines, staring, flirting and asking for dates.  The
foreign manager also walks the lines and chats up his favorites.
Invariably they are the youngest, prettiest girls, and under their
smocks, they are usually dressed to the nines.  These girls are
groomed for annual industrywide "Senorita Maquiladora" beauty
contests, complete with evening gown and swimsuit competitions.

This sexualization of factory life, as Salzinger calls it, creates a
dense web of intrigue.  Dating, boyfriends, clothing and gossip about
whom the manager has the hots for are constant sources of
conversation and palpable tension.  Indeed, sexualization allies
workers with management and alienates them from one another.  It also
makes horribly tedious, draining work bearable, as the maquila
becomes a fantasy world.

Not surprisingly, eros overflows the plants, especially on week-ends
after work.  Instead of going straight home then, many employees stop
at a strip of downtown bars with names like Alive, La Tuna and Noa
Noa.  Several clubs advertise free admission for girls, as well as
"Most Daring Bra" and "Wet String Bikini" contests with prizes of $30
to $45 - more than a weeks pay on the assembly line.  Others feature
Chippendale-style male striptease dancers.  All provide huge sound
systems, and dance floors are packed with couples doing everything
from disco slamming to la quebradita, which mixes the two-step with
pelvis grinding, techno-tango gyrations.

Prostitutes do business in some bars, and in more casual fashion, so
do many maquila girls.  This is hardly novel for industrial workers
in Dickensian circumstances.  A century ago, New York Citys factory
girls were roaming dance halls and amusement parks, picking up
unknown young men and trading sexual favors for romance and the
"treats" - like clothing and entertainment - they couldn't afford.

In Juarez, police investigating the first serial murder wave
determined that several victims had frequented the downtown bars.  A
break in the case came when a teenager revealed that she had met a
man at one and gone home with him, where he tried to rape her and
told her she would end up like the women in the dump.  He was
arrested, and after his picture appeared in the news, witnesses told
police they seen him with some of the girls later found in the desert.

The suspect, jailed since October 1995, is Sharif Abdel Latif Sharif.
A 50-year-old Egyptian, he has lived most of the past two decades in
the United States.  "Give me a fucking break!" Sharif snorts in
English, to the delight of Juarez reporters.  He indignantly denies
any connection to the corpses in the dump, but Sharif also says he
has come to know "all the prostitutes downtown" since he moved to
Juarez two years ago.  Before that, he racked up an extensive record
for violent sexual assault in the United States, including six years
in a Florida prison for savagely beating and raping a woman.
Following another charge in 1993, Sharif fled Midland, Texas.  He had
been working there as a chemist, and he beat his rap by helping his
employer set up operations across the border.  He relocated to Juarez
and settled in a posh neighborhood.

With his athletic build, olive skin and dapper mustache, Sharif looks
like a Spanish-language soap opera star-the kind who plays the rich,
handsome father.  Police say Sharif befriended his victims in the
downtown bars, then cruised their workplaces or bus stops, offering
them rides in his shiny white Grand Marquis.  Maquila workers tell me
its common to accept such propositions, even from strangers, to save
car fare and the dreary bus trip home.  And for girls whose families
and friends can barely afford seventies junkers, tooling around in a
late-model vehicle is a thrill, especially with an attractive man.

Witnesses also saw some victims chatting or taking rides from young
Mexican men dressed in cowboy hats and boots, this led investigators
to suspect that Sharif had accomplices. took a long time to figure
all this out, though, because the victims' parents had no idea their
daughters frequented bars, and their friends were loath to admit it.
In Mexico, the thinking goes, good girls don't go to bars or watch
male strippers or display their bras for money.  And they would never
think of leading la doble vida - the double life of assembly work by
day and casual prostitution by night.

Parents who harbor these beliefs are clinging to memories of their
youth, when poor but decent Mexican daughters were still cloistered
until marriage.  Understandably, they are comforted by industry's
characterization of the maquila as a chaste, surrogate "home" for
their daughters.  But U.S. organizers seem equally naive.  A few
summers ago, when I helped with a solidarity tour for North American
union women who'd lost their jobs to transnational flight, one guest
expressed dismay at the girls, makeup and high heels: "They sure
don't look like they're working," she huffed.  "They don't even look

Disapproving of girls, involvement with night life and sex
constitutes "hypocritical moralizing," says Esther Chavez.  An
accountant in her 50s, she is spokeswoman for Juarezs Coalition of
Non-Governmental Womens Organizations, which does groundbreaking work
to combat sexual and domestic violence.  Like Chavez, some coalition
leaders are affluent.  Some are former maquila workers who were
blacklisted for trying to unionize, but who continue their organizing
efforts from outside the plants.  Others are human rights advocates
who've spent years protesting police brutality and torture.

Chavez and other activists understand casual prostitution as a
response to poverty, and they see the serial killings as the
spectacular tip of an iceberg of sexual assault against border women.
In October alone, there were thirty-two reported cases of rape and
molestation.  According to Chavez, Juerez logs the highest rate of
these crimes in Mexico, and authorities think they are a mere
twentieth of the total.  Only a fifth go to prosecution. Most victims
are 18 or younger.

Many coalition activists attribute the high sexual assault statistics
to gender inequality, and some mention the maquila industry's
complicity in fostering it.  However, coalition organizers focus far
more narrowly.  Even before the first of the mass murders surfaced
two years ago, Juarez feminists were petitioning the city and state
administrations for kiosks where the public could report sexual
assaults and for a woman-staffed sex-crimes unit in the district
attorney's office.

It's easy to see how a crime as revolting as serial murder could
inspire a law-and-order approach.  That's what has happened in
Juarez, particularly since the second group of bodies - many of them
freshly dead - began turning up last spring, after Sharif had been
locked up for months. The populace was terrified, and the women's
coalition sprang into action.  It organized marches, held press
conferences and sent the United Nations a report describing the
killings as a violation of women's human rights.

Feminists weren't the only ones pressing for a resolution to the
case.  Juarez police answer to a mayor and a state governor who are
members of the Catholic-based, conservative National Action Party.
The PAN has gained power in Juarez and other northern Mexican cities
recently, but the infamous and powerful PRI - the Institutional
Revolutionary Party - is constantly looking for ways to discredit its
rival.  By spring, the local PRI was noisily mocking PAN leaders,
failure to protect the city's women.  To make matters worse, the
Panista Attorney General failed to win even one murder indictment
against Sharif; a judge ruled there wasn't enough material evidence.

Finally, late one Saturday night in April, a phalanx of police
surrounded several maquila-worker bars and arrested more than 100
people, including dozens of underage girls.  Police now claim that
nine young men, members of a gang called the Rebels, committed the
murders along with Sharif.  Most wear cowboy clothes, some worked as
male strippers and musicians in the bars, where they are said to have
done a brisk business in illegal drugs, bootleg liquor and pimping.
The police allege that they were paid by Sharif to recruit and kill
victims - even after he was jailed, when he calculated that new
corpses would make him look innocent.

A rich foreign boss, a crew of native-born male supervisors, a
high-turnover supply of females.  Is this a true-crime scenario or a
maquila-saturated citys freaked-out, global-assembly-line fantasy:
mass production as mass murder?  Serial killers are popularly
portrayed as lone, Ripper-style offenders, but multiple murderers may
actually account for as many as a fifth of all cases, according to
Penn State history professor Philip Jenkins.

A Sharif & Co.-type enterprise is thus imaginable, and there are
indications that some of the accused may have been involved.  One
purported Rebels member was seen visiting Sharif in jail. Tests done
on anothers car supposedly have found blood.  The gang's so-called
leader, a beefy 26-year-old who police say is nicknamed "The Devil,"
was seen at a bar with a victim, and authorities say bite marks on
her corpse match his dentition.  At least two women have reported
that they were kidnapped and/or raped by gang members but managed to

On the other hand the case is seriously flawed.  The biggest problem
is the inability of the police to identify most of the dead women so
they can investigate possible connections.  Speculation is that these
Jane Does were newcomers to the city: poor girls who journeyed north
to work in the maquilas or cross to the United States.  Artists,
sketches of facial reconstructions appear in the papers, along with
itemizations of victims, clothing that constitute inventories of the
globalized textile market these girls both worked and consumed in.
("Lee jeans size 3, Hanes panties,"reads one list.  To the sad
bemusement of garment-worker organizers, police surmised that another
victim was Central American because a label in her clothing said
"Made in Honduras.")

More disturbing is that in addition to the nineteen bodies associated
with the serial murders, the women's coalition recently tallied old
press items and police records and discovered that fifty-three other
raped and murdered female corpses have been found scattered about
Juarez in the past three years.  Are their deaths related?  Are there
other sex murderers?

Even the "hard evidence" is fraught with problems.  Mexican police
have claimed they found blood and semen in suspects' cars, but
authorities in El Paso, where the vehicles were sent for testing,
have denied detecting body fluids.  A representative of the Mexican
Human Rights Commission reports that suspects were arrested without
warrants, denied lawyers and injured during questioning; defendants
say the police beat them, stuck their heads into toilets, held
pistols to their heads and threatened to kill them unless they
confessed. Bar habitues report being kidnapped by cops and subjected
to the same treatment to force them to incriminate suspects.  The
human rights commission finds these claims credible since Mexican
police are notorious for using Inquisition-style methods.  The police
insist the Rebels were freely confessing until the human rights
representative gave them legal advice. At a recent indictment
hearing, a judge agreed - and finally charged Sharif with the murder
of Elizabeth Castro, the teenager whose corpse started the case.

Feminists like Chavez wonder uneasily whether they've opened a
Pandora's box of false accusations and sexist moralizing.  But
they're reluctant to criticize the investigation.  One reason for the
activists' silence is their reluctance to fuel PRI squabbles with the
PAN.  More significant is that their outcry about the murders has
finally achieved gains from the government, including the
woman-staffed sex-crimes unit in the district attorney's office and
discussions about opening a state-run battered women's shelter.  So
activists who were once vocal critics of police brutality - including
against women maquila workers trying to unionize - are now quiet.

Left in the lurch, maquila girls have their own opinions.  Some are
common-sensically skeptical: "I don't believe the police," one
factory worker comments. "They keep contradicting themselves."
Others are frighteningly ignorant about sex murderers: "The young men
they've accused can't be guilty," opines another, heavily made-up
young woman, "because they're poor and the killer is probably rich."
There are wild conspiracy theories in which the killers are military
or police or organ traffickers.  And of course, that they are foreign
maquila managers-because, as another worker notes, "they know so much
about the victims' habits."

Managers do know the girls, at least better than labor unionists and
feminists do. Organizers need to catch up.  They might start by
campaigning to abolish discriminatory hiring, job classifications and
everything else based on M and F - including the pregnancy tests.
They could work with women's advocates to organize mother-daughter
classes in sexuality and self-defense.  Such actions would recognize
young maquila womens right to equality, dignity and pleasure.  They
would also help sever the link between murderous sexual assault and
the more insidious - and far more widespread - violence of work on
the global assembly line.   *****

In this article of which you disapprove, Debbie Nathan makes many
good points, criticizing the sexualization of Maquila labor,
discriminatory hiring practices & working conditions, and so forth;
exposing & opposing the ways in which rapes & murders of women
workers can be turned into fodders for the anti-labor Law & Order
approach & the PAN campaign; explaining an aspect of
proletarianization -- partial liberation from parental & community
control of young women, especially their sexuality -- from women
workers' points of view, as well as critically examining a
hypocritical moralizing against women workers; arguing that an
inability to understand the new lives of Maquila women workers
objectively & subjectively has been one of the causes of inept
investigation of the serial murders; etc.

While Debbie Nathan may not be a Marxist, her journalism has been of

How do women protect ourselves from rapists & murderers without
feminism becoming an auxiliary branch of the Law & Order crowd?  How
do women workers claim the freedom to own our sexuality without
buying into the sexualization of Maquila & other kinds of labor?
Nathan's article raises many difficult and yet essential questions.
Saying no to stagism on a left-wing e-list is fine & dandy, but in
the meantime, there are urgent questions, some involving life &
death, which the rejection of stagism in itself does not answer.

Throughout the history of capitalism, women workers have always had
to struggle with both bosses & their own families.  It is a virtue of
_Salt of the Earth_ to zero in on the multiple struggles that
Mexican-American women had to wage on the class, gender, & race


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