From the Commune’s Pétroleuses to Mexico’s Morras: Women’s Political Struggle for Systemic Change



Communardes were depicted by the French bourgeoisie as “Pétroleuses” (Female arsonists), guilty of having burnt Paris. Irmgard Emmelhainz draws parallels between this misogynist trope and the recent characterizations of Mexico’s Morras who have sworn to not leave the heteropatriachal state alone, as long as women would be attacked and killed.

*For Dani López Guerrero and Frida Esquivel

The French Commune is a series of events that led to the short-lived revolutionary taking over of an autonomous, socialist government in Paris. The all-male Commune government was only peripherally concerned with gender issues, yet throughout the Commune, women played key roles in different ways. They formed political clubs for which they occupied churches and state buildings to speak against social and gender hierarchies, they created a labor and defense association, wrote political tracts and distributed newspapers, demonstrated on the streets, fought on the battlefield. They also built barricades and set buildings ablaze. By taking over the streets, state and church spaces, Communarde women challenged gender roles, class privilege, the authority of the catholic Church, and evidenced the interlinking of women’s oppressions. In their practices, the Communardes embodied what would be later theorized by activists and writers like André Léo, Paula Mink, and Elisabeth Dmitrieff as “Feminist Socialism.” Communarde feminist socialism was by no means a unified movement, but a series of events, attitudes and actions, which shared the central concern of female emancipation with divergent approaches on how to achieve it. In spite of the fact that Dmitrieff founded the Union des Femmes with the goal of creating a new social order founded on equality, solidarity and freedom, by the end of the Bloody Week (May 21-28, 1871), women were denied entrance into French politics. Accused of burning down Paris, Communardes were immortalized in the archetype of the wild and menacing Pétroleuse. By having embraced violence, women were seen to have stepped outside the role of femininity and the social order. This gave birth to the imaginary of the Pétroleuse as a negative female allegory, a dangerous woman out of control in an upside-down world. Communardes were vilified, persecuted and exiled upon the downfall of the Commune at the hands of the Versailles government.

150 years later, in a moment of increasing and relentless mass forced disappearance, machista violence and femicide (the murder of women or girls by men on account of gender) and in the context of a neoliberal war, Mexico has seen the emergence of an unprecedented rebellion against state indolence before violence against women, originary and vulnerable populations. In 2020, the count of registered femicides was 5,074, more than double the previous year. By September 2020, 57,000 emergency calls related to gender violence had been registered in the country. And only three of every 100 femicides are persecuted. According to Silvia Federici and other feminists like Rita Segato and Raquel Gutiérrez, we are living an escalation of violence against women because “globalization is a process of political recolonization intended to give capital uncontested control over the world’s natural wealth and human labor, and this cannot be achieved without attacking women, who are directly responsible for the reproduction of their communities” (Witches, Witch-Hunting and Women, 2018). In other words, brutalizing (generally working class, mestizo or indigenous) women is functional to paving the way for the land grabs, privatizations, discouraging union organization, the precarization of labor, the exploitation of reproductive labor, what is know as extractivism, the political economy based on extracting the commons to sell them in the global market, the necro-political alliance of colonial heteropatriarchy.

The numbers of femicides in Mexico and their gruesome appearance of femicide images in mass and social media, are intrinsically related to the recent waves of explosions of women’s rage, a tsunami manifested in marches, demonstrations, acts of vandalism against official monuments, state infrastructure and businesses and, since 2020, the occupation of university and state buildings. The massive feminist wave is fueled by women’s rage, indignation and fear. Women are gathering to scream out because we are being murdered, we are revolting against heteropatriarchy, acknowledging collectively the damage, expressing a war cry that had been a foreboding gasp with the feeling of death in our guts.

Emmelhainz Funambulist 3
Protest against police sexual abuse on August 12, 2019. / Photo by Frida Esquivel.

The Mexican feminist tsunami is plural and has no political demands, only the common signifier of women as victims of State sanctioned and perpetuated heteropatriarchal violence. Its origins can be tracked to April 2019, when a #MeToo movement in Mexico emerged by hyphenating accusations in realms like #MeToo_Academia, #MeToo_Cine, #MeToo_Literatura to denounce abuse of power and sexual harassment. A few months later, news of the rape of a young woman by police in Mexico City led a considerable group of women to scribble feminist slogans on the Independence Monument on Reforma Avenue, which legendarily features a winged victory. The women also broke a bus station and set a police station on fire. When feminists began to use confrontational direct action: “Fuimos todas” (“We all did it”), became a slogan.

Then, a group of female students self-denominated Morras — from the term morra castrosa or young woman who always has something to complain about; castrosa literally meaning castrating — occupied the Philosophy and Literature and Political Sciences Faculties at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. They were seeking to achieve the expulsion of sexual predators from campus. Thirteen more university buildings were taken, following occupations of schools and faculties throughout the country. In 2019 the Sonora State Justice Tribunal was arsoned, and activist leader of the movement against femicide “Ni una menos” (“Not one less”) whose daughter was murdered in 2016, Yesenia Zamudio famously declared: “I have the right to burn and break! I will not ask permission from anyone because I am doing it for my daughter! Whomever wants to break, go ahead! And whomever wants to burn, go ahead! And whomever doesn’t, then don’t!”

The 20th century Mexican imaginary, figured women’s involvement with social struggles as adelitas or coronelas. During the 1910 Mexican Revolution, women were kidnapped from their homes and forced to accompany soldiers to give them pleasure and take care of reproductive tasks, even bury the dead. Although some adelitas came to be respected as generalas (leaders), they were generally perceived as witnesses of masculine achievement and obstacles in men’s march toward modernity. In the 1960s, as guerrilla movements spawned through Latin America, women guerrilleras reported that the movement reproduced heteropatriarchy’s toxic patterns. For militant women, their gendered condition was lived as a handicap for their struggle. On their own skins, they lived the fundamental incompatibility between revolutionary struggles and feminism, women’s cause being only secondary, or even seen as a bourgeois concern distracting militants from the universal cause of socialism (see Guadalupe Gladys López Hernandez, Ovarinomio: Yo, guerrillera, 1982). These are reasons why it might be accurate to draw a parallel between the Parisian Pétroleuses and the Morras, in as far as they refused to remain in their domestic and socially prescribed roles, especially in struggle, resorting to violence as a means to make themselves heard.

In February 2020, marches and violent actions were detonated in Mexico by the femicide and dissemination of images of Ingrid Escamilla’s mutilated body. On March 8, International Women’s Day, collectives of mothers of victims of femicide and disappeared, groups battling for the legalization of abortion, contingents for sexual rights and anarchist baklava-clad Morras gathered on the streets creating a purple and violet mass of hundreds of thousands of feminist women. Many of them went on productive, reproductive and consumer strikes the following day. In spite of the fact that buildings and monuments along the march had been fortified, the March 8 demonstration resulted in broken windows, security cameras, and a fire truck; graffitied buildings, a confrontation with the police, arson to the door to the National Palace, a bra line at the gates of the Cathedral, and other symbolic and direct actions undertaken by masked Morras.

Feminist movements are not new in Mexico. Collectives battling against femicide and searching for disappeared women and their lost bodies fighting for justice emerged in the 1990s in Ciudad Juárez, when Mexico, at the eve of neoliberalization, became the cradle of femicide. The recent emergence of the Mexican feminist tsunami has been partly due to ongoing but now overt state indolence towards women’s ordeals and demands. In early 2019, in the name of austerity and the re-centralization of semi-private social services, the government of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador shut down state-subsidized day care and eliminated funding for ONGs operating refuges for gender violence victims. Instead, the government started giving out a meager bimonthly stipend to mothers of children aged between one and six, and suggested that grandmothers take care of their grandchildren. For feminists, the measure was considered a populist policy against women’s interests. Refuges have not been reinstated. In his daily morning addresses, the President has dismissed the feminist tsunami as provocations orchestrated by conservative infiltrators opposing the regime and by stating: “they victimize themselves and accuse us of being authoritarian” and in a telling Freudian slip he stated: “to accept violence is against feminism [/femininity?].”

For the tsunami feminists, however, “The Fatherland” is a murderer. To vandalize “national patrimony” is to externalize and retaliate against the violence women are subject to on a daily basis. “The oppressing State is a rapist macho,” is a line from the chant “Un violador en tu camino” (“A Rapis in Your Path”), created by the Chilean feminist collective Las Tesis. The chant points a finger to patriarchal power structures and the State as its gatekeeper. The song accuses judges, police, politicians, the President, for committing or failing to stop rape. The fact that the chant has been performed from Washington to Istanbul, to Delhi, to Paris, signaling government buildings, courtrooms, Trump Towers, etc. evidences that systemic violence against women is intensifying throughout the world. 2019, for instance, is the year in which a problem with domestic violence in France was collectively recognized, leading to marches throughout French streets to protest against sexual and sexist violence.

Emmelhainz Funambulist 2
House and Black Block protesters asking donations from passers by. / Photo by Frida Esquivel.

But particular to Mexico are the Morras encapuchadas or the hooded and balaclavas and all-black-clad women, who protest destroying public and corporate infrastructure, chanting to burn all down or throwing Molotov cocktails at government buildings. Perhaps they are comparable to FEMEN’s protests with activists bearing slogans written across their toppless bodies in the sense that both execute actions designed to become viral in mass and social media, as acts of counter-information. Yet, the Morras’ direct action and anarchist techniques are actually closer to the Communardes. A crucial difference is that the Communardes were working class women fighting for an equal society and for women’s participation in politics, while for the Morras, class is not an issue and neither are they actively fighting for political participation. Rather, they claim that the aggression they express is proportional to the violence they are exposed to everyday. As victims of gender violence, their masks and violent acts empower them. Many of them are younger than 25, are middle or working class and get around in public transportation. Losely associated with the Bloque negro (Black Block) movement, their direct actions are not being supported by academic and institutional feminists, who do not believe that they add up to women’s struggle. As Communardes occupied churches, the Morras’ most recent action is the spontaneous taking over of the National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) Building on República de Cuba Street in Mexico City, which spawned similar actions throughout the country, many of them met with violent repression.

Erika Martínez and Marcela Alemán had met with CNDH President Rosario Ibarra Piedra on September 2, 2020 to seek answers about the case of Martínez’s 22 year-old son murdered last year, and about the sexual assault of Alemán’s four-year old daughter. As they felt they hadn’t gotten answers, the two women refused to leave after the meeting and called activist groups for support. Members of feminist collectives arrived the next day, amongst them Bloque Negro, and after writing and reading out a list of 36 demands with the feminist organization Ni Una Menos, they peacefully entered the building. The occupiers intervened paintings hanging on the walls portraying national heroes, wrote feminist slogans and painted murals on the walls. Five months later, about 10 women continue living in the Okupa: they have renamed it Casa Refugio República de Cuba, transforming the government building siege into a shelter for women suffering gender and domestic abuse.

As they have been sidelined by major feminist groups due to their lack of political experience, strategy and concrete demands, idealism and disagreements, the Morras of Bloque negro, like the Pétroleuses before them, have come to embody a negative archetype of angry women seeking agency through destruction. In embracing violence, the right to be hysterical, dangerous and uncontrollable, as the Mexican President has pointed out, they have also stepped outside of the traditional feminine role.

While class was central to the Communardes’ struggle for participation in political, economic and military French life as they challenged dominant gender ideologies and practices, the Morras’ anarchist feminism is devoid of class consciousness and a political program. Their actions are centered on and justified by the figure of women as victims of state and heteropatriarchal violence. While the Pétroleuses were mobilized by class antagonism, the Morras’ claim to represent all Mexican women miss the fact that it is poor women who are mostly forcibly sterilized, displaced, murdered, and raped, while middle class and upper middle class women are molested, raped and harassed. While privileged women may afford therapy and overcome their ordeals, poor women stand by themselves although nobody gets justice. The Bloque negro Morras, as do the collectives organized around demands for justice for their disappeared beloved ones, reflect the current waning away of class consciousness, or rather, its transformation into identitarian resentment. As they identify as furious wounded women, Morras neutralize class consciousness and position. They see themselves as violated individuals and not as belonging to a class and race.

And yet without a program for structural change and cognitive emancipation from the epistemology of sexual difference (Paul B. Preciado, Je suis le monstre qui vous parle, 2020), symbolic direct action against national patrimony, the explosions of rage will lead us nowhere. A further analogy can be drawn to the Communardes: the Morras and the Communardes are understood as aberrations of femininity, but while the Pétroleuses were portrayed as sexually immoral, what is immoral about the Morras’ actions is vandalization of national patrimony.

Emmelhainz Funambulist 1
Dec 10, 2020 visit to the occupied Human Rights Commission building in Republica de Cuba Street./ Photo by Frida Esquivel.

And while the Refugio República de Cuba founded on the occupied CNDH building has the potential to become an autonomous zone, in order for the struggle to continue, a next stage for the Mexican feminist tsunami needs to be created, centered on making visible and rebelling against multiple gendered and racialized oppressions. The struggle needs to be grounded in an understanding of the intensification of gender violence as linked to the Neoliberal war. In other words, the intrinsic relationships between gender violence and land dispossession, the destruction of community relations and family support networks, the intensification of the exploitation of women’s bodies and labor to enable extractivism need to be at the front of women’s struggle.

The regime we are inserted in, moreover, is dominated by sexual difference that validates a patriarco-colonial regime that produces violence. Without a process of political critique and without confronting the necro-political alliance of colonial heteropatriarchy, we will be unable to leave the roles of the beauty and the victim. Colonial heteropatriarchy is a regime in which a hierarchy is established amongst diverse beings, executing violence against the bodies of women, non-white populations and the earth. The power figures of DSK and Jeffrey Epstein, brought to trial for sexual offenses evidence that in our contemporary culture power and the neoliberal structures that sustain our lives are intrinsically tied to predation not only of female bodies but of the commons.

At the time of the Commune, women were excluded from politics differently than today, as women have been summoned to take part in public life, to hold important posts in government and corporations, to be visible as empowered voices in the public sphere. Then as now, however, systemic interwoven oppressions remain unaddressed. While women now hold governmental positions, women’s concerns are secondary or supplemental to politics. Seemingly, the violent outbursts during the Commune and now are attempts to open up a political space to enact systemic change that would grant equality and emancipation from sexual difference. In a time in which the oppression of women has become a permanent death threat, moreover, it is urgent that we find strategies to rely on each other as opposed to on the state, to not destroy the existing world — there is already so much destruction — but to build the future together. ■