Mexico will elect a female president, but Mexican women will still lose

In a landmark first, two women are competing for the Mexican presidency, but neither seems that interested in upsetting the patriarchy.

A combination picture shows Mexican Senator Xochitl Galvez (L) after she registered for the Frente Amplio por Mexico opposition alliance's candidacy for the 2024 presidential election, in Mexico City, Mexico July 4, 2023, and outgoing Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum
Senator Xochitl Galvez, left, and former Mexico City Mayor Claudia Sheinbaum are the candidates for Mexico's two leading parties for June's presidential election [File: Henry Romero/Reuters]

It is official: Mexico will elect its first female president next year.

One of the two top contenders in the June vote is 61-year-old Claudia Sheinbaum, the former mayor of Mexico City, a close ally of current President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) and a member of his National Regeneration Movement (MORENA). The other is 60-year-old Xochitl Galvez, the candidate for the opposition Broad Front for Mexico coalition.

On the surface, of course, the prospect of a female head of state would appear to be an undeniably positive milestone. But will the arrangement actually do anything to resolve the existential challenges faced by women in Mexico?

Unlike the coalition headed by Galvez, which includes tiresomely right-wing forces, MORENA identifies as leftist, meaning that Sheinbaum appears better positioned to guide the nation in a more progressive direction in terms of women’s rights. And yet her mayoral reign in the Mexican capital, which lasted from 2018 to June this year and coincided with the bulk of AMLO’s presidency, was not exactly empowering for women.

After all, you cannot really claim female empowerment during an epidemic of femicides, which skyrocketed 137 percent in Mexico from 2015 to 2020. At least 10 women and girls are killed every day in the country although pretty much all statistics relating to femicides are presumed to be underestimates given that many crimes go unreported or are reported as regular homicides. Tens of thousands of women are missing.

The vast majority of femicides are not prosecuted, and impunity remains the law of the land. Last year, Mexico’s National Institute of Statistics and Geography estimated that more than 70 percent of Mexican women and girls over the age of 15 had experienced some form of violence.

In March, Sheinbaum came under fire from feminists in Mexico City who not only decried government inaction on femicides and female disappearances but also its budget cuts for programmes benefitting women, including women’s shelters and sexual and reproductive health initiatives.

June, the month Sheinbaum ended her term as mayor, was incidentally the bloodiest month of the year thus far for recorded femicides. This is not to imply, obviously, that she is somehow fundamentally to blame for the violent panorama. It is rather to rain on the parade of those who contend that a Sheinbaum presidency would constitute a great victory for women in spite of the persistence of a landscape in which women are continuously reminded that their lives mean nothing.

For his part, AMLO is fond of patting himself on the back for presiding over a gender-equal cabinet and railing against machismo, which certainly earns him aesthetic points but does little to alter the patriarchal substructure.

It is less charming, to be sure, when he does things like argue that feminist protests in Mexico are part of a right-wing plot to take down his administration or that victims of domestic violence should simply take a deep breath and count to 10. Ditto for when he complains that discussions of femicides are distracting from other important matters of business, such as a raffle his administration organised around the sale of the presidential aeroplane.

I chatted recently with Mexican writer and researcher Irmgard Emmelhainz, author of The Tyranny of Common Sense: Mexico’s Post-Neoliberal Conversion, who wagered that, if elected, Sheinbaum would not defy the party line established by AMLO, who has demonstrated impressive devotion to “the neoliberal machine” even while purporting to be against neoliberalism.

Case in point: Emmelhainz noted that Sheinbaum’s buddy had “intensified the extractivist complex” in Mexico during his presidency, prompting a “dramatic increase in gender violence, femicide, forced disappearances, organised crime and persecution of territorial land defence movement leaders, many of them women”.

In the end, sexist violence is a very neoliberal thing – just recall the surge in lethal violence against women that attended the implementation of the United States-imposed North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994.

Naturally, the grim state of affairs facing women in Mexico would hardly be ameliorated by a Galvez presidency. In a September Univision interview with Galvez, interviewer Jorge Ramos began by invoking Mexico’s rising numbers of femicides and disappeared women juxtaposed with the historic possibility of Mexico’s first female president: “Why you and not Claudia?”

For the next 12 minutes, Galvez neither answered that question nor addressed the femicide/disappearance phenomenon – although she did manage to state that as president she would allow agents of the US government to operate in Mexican territory for the purpose of combating drug trafficking.

Never mind the gringo track record in such endeavours. Take, for example, the US-backed “drug war” in Mexico, which has since its official launch in 2006 killed hundreds of thousands of people, many of them women.

Galvez claims to identify with her Indigenous ancestry on her father’s side although it is safe to assume that many Indigenous Mexican women facing institutionalised discrimination and violence will find little in common with this aspiring head of state.

In contemplating the 2024 Mexican presidential election, one can’t help but think back to the 2016 US presidential candidacy of Hillary Clinton, who was marketed as a feminist icon despite having helped perpetrate all manner of harmful policies for women worldwide.

Before that, of course, there was Barack Obama, whose assumption of the US presidency in 2009 as the country’s first Black head of state had been heralded as a moment of great change and progress – except that it wasn’t, and the country’s love affair with inflicting violent oppression at home and abroad continued apace.

Now as Mexico prepares for its own milestone amid a raging femicide epidemic and other violence, it is worth reflecting on just how dangerous a facade of progress can be.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.