Mother and wife, housewife, caregiver, submissive, fragile. Or bad, crazy, bitch, witch. All are sexist gender stereotypes that speak to what, socially and culturally, a woman is considered to be, or not be, and what she should, or should not, be. How do we dismantle this sort of invisible violence? How do we challenge discriminatory gender stereotypes and label them publicly as being negative, when they are not visible, when they are presented as natural? And how do we respond to this sort of violence that happens both online and circulates in traditional media?

Some countries in Latin America, such as El Salvador (1) and Venezuela (2), have passed laws that recognize the problem and/or establish sanctions. Argentina in 2009 enacted law 26.485 on the comprehensive protection of women, which states in Article 2 that one the objectives of the legislation is “the removal of social and cultural patterns that promote and sustain gender inequality and power over women”. In Article 5 this law contemplates “symbolic violence” as a “type” of violence, defined as “that which, through stereotyped patterns, messages, values, icons or signs, transmits and reproduces domination, inequality, and discrimination in social relations, naturalizing the subordination of women in society. “

While this law is ground-breaking, it takes on a lot of issues. In her article “‘Witches: gender stereotypes and symbolic violence” Argentinian attorney Soledad Deza discusses a case from 2009, when El Tribuno – the largest circulation newspaper in the province of Salta – devoted seven news stories to covering “the witches of the neighbourhood of Santa Ana”. The paper alleged that the “unprecedented witch trial” included “allegations of Satanism” and “predictions of a bad future” in order to produce in the ‘witch’s’ victims “fear and an uneasiness of the spirit.”

The reality was that three women (a grandmother, mother, and daughter) were under investigation, and eventually acquitted. Neighbours had complained of threats, harm, and a break-in. These three women claimed compensation for pain and suffering from the newspaper that published the case, and won a ruling that sentenced the Salta newspaper to pay a sum of money to each claimant, because of the harm caused by the newspaper in “presenting the accused as witches and associating them repeatedly with activities of that nature, which exist in the collective imaginary, in a way that has the potential to persist in time”, a situation that justifies pecuniary reparation of the damage caused through the spreading of false news, which was also defamatory of the women.

Why is this sentence important? Because it formally recognizes the symbolic representations in the “collective imaginary” as a source of damage and, on the other hand, it emphasizes the identification of a gender stereotype that is capable of demonising women: that of the witch. However, Deza regrets the missed opportunity to make visible symbolic violence as a type of violence that reproduces gender stereotypes. “Identifying the disqualification of women as an offense and recognizing that the collective imaginary is a source of damage is a big step for gender justice. Calling things by their name and showing that certain forms of naming are violent is a pending task for the courts,” argued Deza. interviewed Natalia Gherardi, attorney and executive director of ELA – Equipo Latinoamericano de Justicia y Género (the Latin American Justice and Gender Team) during the pre-event held in Cordoba in August 2013 prior to the preparatory meeting for the Latin American forum on internet governance.

Flavia Fascendini: Speaking of the law… Argentina is very clear in its definition of the types of violence, and one of them is symbolic violence. Have you had a chance to see cases where this has been applied?

Natalia Gherardi: At the moment I can’t think of any cases where symbolic violence in particular was applied, using those terms in the sentences. I think the definition of the various forms of symbolic violence in the law is useful to make visible these forms of violence against women that are not physical violence, which is the most obvious and about which there is more awareness. The law makes advances by clarifying that there are other forms of violence, such as psychological, economic, media, and symbolic. Now, the definitions of each of the forms of violence are not strict in the sense that it is necessary to fit that definition completely, but are rather indicative, because they do not fall under a criminal statute. If it were a criminal law it would include descriptive standards of certain behaviours and it would be a requirement to fit exactly that kind of behaviour for a case to be covered by the law. Since it is, instead, a civil and public norm, it uses broad descriptions of behaviours that can even be subsumed into different types, such as workplace violence, for which the National Labour Court sentenced a newspaper a few months ago. We could say that in that case there is a specific form of violence in the workplace, employment discrimination, which is also a form of symbolic violence. It affects the space that women are allowed to occupy. In that case, there is an overlap of different forms of violence.

FF: So can a woman say “I consider myself a victim of symbolic violence …”?

NG: Yes, but as a complaint against whom? I think the goal of this law, in being so encompassing of different forms and types of violence that are expressed in different spheres, was to help raise awareness that when we talk about violence we are not just talking about behaviour that is physical and sexual. There are a number of behaviours that shape a society and culture, and all of these diverse behaviours can constitute symbolic violence. I think that’s the clearest objective of the law. In a sense it is educational, and serves to build consensus. Now, if we want to translate that into a court case, of a person who considers themselves a victim of symbolic violence, we have another problem to address: the legitimacy of who feels victimized, by what violence, and by which actor. There is a form of symbolic violence when, for example, a media outlet accuses a woman of witchcraft. That has nothing to do with a valid accusation, but rather stereotypes that smack of discriminatory ways of seeing women and what they do or imply through their behaviours. In that case there may be someone who feels they are a victim of symbolic violence from the person who engages in that sort of unlawful conduct. This happened. A media outlet in the province of Salta published a story claiming that a group of women was being investigated for acts of witchcraft and Satanic rituals. The actual reason for the criminal proceedings was for threats in a conflict amongst neighbours. For the newspaper to present women as having been accused of witchcraft strengthened a stereotypical and discriminatory view of those women, which can be understood as a form of symbolic violence. In this specific case, the women sued the newspaper for financial compensation for the damage caused by that stigmatization. That’s a very concrete case. Now, in other types of legal proceedings we could think of an association representing women or an association working for gender equality that, represented an undetermined group of women, and which argues that there is symbolic violence in, for example, an advertising campaign. The association then mobilizes for the ad campaign to be withdrawn from circulation, as indeed has happened with some frequency (though certainly much less than it should, given the current state of advertising). A process of this type can manage to get advertising withdrawn on the basis of using images that are stereotyped, discriminatory, and even violent, and which are not only spread through the publicity but which remain as effects on the culture of the society.

FF: And do you think it’s effective to “withdraw” it?

NG: If the advertising is simply removed, no, because then what remains in the air is censorship. In these cases where what is at issue is the social legitimacy of a given discourse, what you have to do is socially re-educate, question, raise awareness, and generate reflection about the problem you want to highlight. Someone said it very well at the conference: “in the face of discriminatory discourse, hateful discourse, we must respond with more discourse”. We need to respond with discourse that counters discriminatory discourse, and offers arguments for why it is discriminatory and unacceptable in a pluralistic and diverse society that is institutionally respectful of difference. So “withdrawing” – in this case advertising – has the immediate effect of not to continuing to spread an idea or discourse that we find unacceptable, but we must do much more than that: we must raise awareness so that in the future it is not as easy for society to create discourses of that type. Making that sort of discourse unacceptable requires work for it not to be accepted.

FF: In ELA you have two think tank watch groups (‘observatories’), how do they work?

NG: We have an Observatory of Legal Judgements , which is of interest to those working in justice and gender issues, in teaching or in research in topics related to the sociology of law, where we look at the various judgements by different courts in cases involving women’s rights. The aim is to analyse and disseminate the ways in which rights take shape on the ground, the forms of reparation for damages to women or certain human rights violations, and how specific laws are applied to actual cases. The other observatory looks at the media, and has recently focused more on the media and justice. We look at how the media treat legal issues related to women’s rights and what their take is on rights – if there is one – in their coverage of the news.

FF: Do you see any kind of trend or changes over the years you’ve done this work in the observatories?

NG: We started both observatories in 2009. In terms of justice, I’d say, yes, there have been changes. The courts are now more careful with their discourse. Government agencies such as the courts and government ministries (the defence and the prosecution), have a particular take on what happens in the legal system, and there is attention paid and concern as to how the courts protect rights, and how they don’t. The courts, the judges, know that they are being watched by their own superiors, by the Supreme Court, by the Court’s Office on Women, and by universities and NGOs. The important thing is that they know they are being watched, and they know that what they do is important to many social actors and that it has an impact on society, which is different from how things were a few years ago. Ten years ago there were only a few who watched what was happening in the courts (an arena that seemed distant, technical, and difficult to understand). Yet what happened there was highly relevant, because in the end when laws are broken and rights are violated, the courts are where organized society or citizens look to for a reparation of their rights. Until a few years ago it was a too-distant space, and that has changed. In that sense, we do see a certain evolution, although it is uneven, because the courts are made up of thousands of very diverse judges. But I would say that, beyond the differences, in general terms there is more care taken to not promote a terribly misogynistic or discriminatory judicial discourse on the rights of women. In less obvious or less monitored jurisdictions, there is still widespread discrimination. There is progress, but there is still much to be done. Moreover, in relation to the media I think there is also a little more consciousness. It is not impossible, but today it is hard to find a femicide treated as “crime of passion”, at least in the print media, which is what we usually monitor. The results would probably be different if we observed the news on the radio or television.

FF: On symbolic violence, do you know of any similar experiences in the region?

NG: I’m not sure, but we would have to look at the second generation laws, those based on Spanish law, in Argentina, Mexico, and Colombia. They are all promoting violence as a broader issue than did the precautionary or protective family violence laws that were typical in the nineties. We would have to analyse whether, with these broader and more comprehensive laws, things have progressed, and if so to what extent. But we also have to look at the actual effectiveness of these laws. What would be interesting is if these laws were accompanied by ongoing public monitoring mechanisms to determine their effectiveness, and their impact on society as a whole.

FF: You spoke on the panel of agencies that we already have, that are discredited and underused…

NG: There we have to take into account two things: one, the institutional aim of these agencies. What were they designed for? What are their competencies and what are not? Because that is going to define what they can do, beyond what civil servants who are more or less engaged personally with the issue want to do. In some of these agencies there are limitations in the institutional design, which are unjustifiable. Then there is what they can do with the resources they have, their technical capacity, infrastructure, human resources, and financial resources, and from that point of view, sadly, we have public institutions that are highly discredited and can hardly be drivers of change when it comes to cases as specific and yet as complex and challenging as symbolic violence.

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