Mexico City is one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman. A 2010 United Nations report ranked Mexico number one globally in sexual violence against women, estimating that 44 percent of Mexican women have been subjected to some form of sexual violence in their lifetime, from groping to rape. In the country’s capital city, harassment and gender-based violence are rampant problems on public transit and in other public spaces. The problem is so extreme that the city has rolled out women-only subway cars and buses in an attempt to curb the violence.
This is all the more disturbing when you consider that Mexico City is a booming metropolis with one of the most extensively used public transit systems in the world. Crowds gather in streets, parks, and other public places as a matter of course—but harassment and violence can seriously impede women’s ability to safely traverse these spaces, especially at night.
Enter Las Hijas de Violencia, or “The Daughters of Violence,” a Mexican girl group that’s fighting the city’s notorious street harassment with a mixture of punk rock, performance art, and confetti. The group formed about three years ago as a response to the violence they were experiencing in the streets of the city. They were relatively unknown until last month, when a reporter with AJ+ recorded them confronting street harassers and the video quickly went viral, accumulating more than 9 million views on Facebook.
The premise of their project is relatively simple: when any one of the girls is harassed in the street, all three take out their confetti guns, shoot at the offending man, and then launch into a rendition of “Sexista Punk,” a song they wrote for just such occasions.
Their performances are an interesting mixture of serious confrontation and lighthearted play. They may be going up against their harassers, but the women look downright joyful while they do it, smiling at one another and jumping around as they sing. That sense of play goes right down to the group’s name, which is a nod to the violence they’re confronting, but also a play on the name of Violencia Rivas, a character played by Argentinian comedian Peter Capusotto, who calls herself the mother of punk.
This week, I videochatted with Ana Karen, 25, and Ana Beatriz, 28, who founded the group with 24-year-old Beztabeth. The women declined to give their last names in an attempt to protect their identities; since their video went viral last month, they have received numerous threats of violence and death.
How does your group combat street harassment, and why you did you choose to do so through music?
Ana Beatriz: Really, we do two things: the first is we take direct action against street harassers. They harass us, and we shoot them with our confetti guns and sing our song and chase them. And we also do public performances, which are a little more theatrical—we have a little bit of dance, some sculpture and drawing, some acting.
Ana Karen: It’s like a visual manifestation of the entire project. We go out into a public place and we have these performances that are meant to express everything and help us let go of the violence we carry around with us.
How did this whole project start?
AK: [Ana Beatriz and I] first met when we were doing a theater project together. We both work as actresses. So at one point, we chose to do a scene on what it’s like to be a woman, and the issue of street harassment just drew our attention because it really mirrored our own situations and what we were each going through. We felt like street harassment was the legitimization of a larger societal violence, because we all live just accepting that it happens.
So we started thinking a lot about how we could translate our thoughts about this into art and symbols. And we also wanted to get a different sort of reaction out of the men we confronted. We wanted to do something that would make them afraid, but that wasn’t actually violent, and in that way subvert the power dynamic that normally exists on the street.
AB: It’s really funny if you think about it, scaring men with confetti guns. They get spooked and then they get embarrassed about it, like they’ve forsaken their masculinity.
Did you have an inspiration for this kind of performance, or for your song?
AB: When we started our project, Pussy Riot was in the news a lot. They were still in jail at that time. And we were really inspired by something they said while they were in jail, which was something like, “The only thing you need to be punk is to have something to say.” We’re actresses—we’ve never done music or punk in our lives. But that gave us a lot of inspiration, because we do have something to say.
AK: Normally, when you respond to street harassment, people veer around to look at you as though you’re the crazy one, as though you’re hysterical or something. Singing a song helps us to reinforce the idea that, “No. The person we should be staring at and shaming is him.” It’s a way to poke fun at the harasser and make him look ridiculous.
How do men generally react to the performances?
AB: In general, they jump a little and look really surprised. Just the fact that we look them straight in the eyes before we even do anything scares them a little. And then while we’re looking straight at them, we reach for the confetti gun in our waistband, and you can tell they’re starting to get really scared. And then when the gun goes off and makes that loud pop, some men jump, some men yell. We had one fall down once.
AK: When we start the song, they try to laugh along, like they’re in on the joke or they’re making fun of it. But once they see that the song isn’t stopping, normally they run away.
What do you hope to accomplish with your art? Do you have any specific goals?
AB: When we started this project—and I think it will be this way in the future, too—it fundamentally had to do with us as individuals. We felt the need to do something about this, to reach a sort of emotional catharsis regarding the violence that we live with every day. So that’s a huge part of it. But after that, we also have an aspiration that other women, young women and old women, will see what we’re doing and be inspired to do something similar, to stop staying quiet when they’re subjected to violence.
Have your lives changed at all since you started this project? Has it changed the experience of street harassment for you?
AK: It has really been a catalyst for change in our lives. Speaking for myself, I’ve gained a greater consciousness of my own right to walk and to navigate public spaces comfortably.
There are people who like to talk about this issue in terms of free speech, arguing that they have the right to say whatever they want in public spaces, including commenting on other’s bodies. I think this project has helped us reaffirm where the limits are, and what our own right is to be free and walk in the streets and in other public places. And also now we know that when we’re walking and someone harasses us, it’s not out fault and it’s not our responsibility. It’s totally changed the way we look at ourselves and how we fit into the social context.
This interview has been edited, condensed, and translated from Spanish.