The Rise of the Anti-Rapist Anti-Hero
Egyptian comics character Qahera, a new Muslim superhero who fights street harassment and sexual violence.
At the beginning of September, around the time news broke of Ciudad Juárez's Diana, "Huntress of Bus Drivers", my dad informed me that a female family member of ours living near Mexico City was assaulted while waiting for the bus she took home each evening. So, after reading reports about Diana the Huntress from Mexican news sources like El Diario, I came to embrace the myth-worthy, middle-aged, black-clad vigilante with a shock of blonde hair who was quickly attainting superhero status for killing two bus drivers she alleged were rapists.
According to reports, twenty witnesses say they saw Diana hail two buses and in each, she shot the driver twice in the head. The killer (whose police sketch is at right) then sent the following message to several Mexican news organizations:
"You think because we are women we are weak, and maybe we are. But only to a certain point [because although we have no one we can count on to defend us and we need to work late into the night to support our families.] We can no longer remain quiet over these acts that fill us with rage. [My colleagues and I suffered in silence but we can no longer be silent, we were victims of sexual violence by drivers covering the maquila factory night shift here in Juárez and although many people know what we suffer no one does anything to defend or protect us.] And so, I am an instrument who will take vengeance [for various women who, although we seem weak to society, are not, in fact if we are brave and we will give respect to those who respect us, Juárez women are strong.] Signed: Diana, Huntress of Bus Drivers"
Mexico is a country that loves its antiheroes. Mexican pop culture is full of stories and songs about vigilantes and glamorous bad guys. Crime fiction coming out of the country is chockfull of antiheroes, characters who do not restore order, but rather satirize its absence. My father, who doesn't consider himself much of a reader, is the one who told me about Paco Ignacio Taibo II, considered one of the most influential Mexican mystery writers of all time. His most popular character is a detective named Hector Belascoaran Shayne, described as "an alcoholic, police-hating, resenter of government corruption." Mexico also has an ever-popular musical tradition called narcocorridos: drug ballads that rather matter-of-factly report the atrocities of drug violence while mythologizing the cartels that are terrorizing areas of the country. When Vice asked El Komander, one of the genre's biggest singers, why tales of drugs and violence were so popular, he said, "People love listening to stories from bad people. They eventually convert them to their own heroes."
Whether or not Diana the Huntress is a "bad" person or a hero is completely subjective, but in a country with a long history of vigilante justice in the face of an ineffective justice system, the mythologizing of Diana the Huntress in Mexican media illustrates the romantic pull of the revenge narrative.
In just a few days, Diana gained legend-like status in Juárez, a border town that has become synonymous with femicide. Beginning in the early 1990's, young, working-class Juarez women began disappearing, many of whom were employed by the city's many maquiladoras— factories that target women and are known for their cheap labor and exploitative working conditions. Hundreds of the women were never heard from again, though many were found dead, dumped like garbage in the street or thrown into mass graves. The New York Times has reported that the second wave of killings, currently occurring, is even larger than the first that took place in the 90's. In 2010 alone, the bodies of 304 women were found and even as violence in the area declines, the bodies of women continue to be discovered.
Some say the women are victims of the area's particularly brutal drug trade, others say the women have been slain by jealous husbands, boyfriends, or lovers. But rapes and murders have been linked to bus drivers who ferry the women through Juárez's streets at night. Despite its reputation as the capital of murdered women, the Juarez police and government have done little to protect those who continue flooding into the city seeking work. What is known for sure is that the implementation of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) in 1994 resulted in the expansion of the maquiladora industry and young women and girls began busing into Juárez to work. What resulted was "a new phenomenon of mobile, independent, and vulnerable working women," women who, it was assumed, wouldn't be missed when they disappeared on their ways to or from late night shifts at the factories.
And in many ways, the assumption was correct. Despite two decades of public outcry from the area's hundreds of grieving families, the Mexican government has done little to put a stop to the killings, dismissing many of them as drug-related, which is always the best excuse not to investigate. It seems that for the women of Juárez, the vigilante Diana is welcome figure.
If the comments section of El Diario is any indication, many locals believe she is undertaking a "courageous act of justice," with some men even commenting that in a city where there is no justice for women, Diana was given no choice. Oscar Máynez, a criminologist working on the case, has said that the comments on the site are a reflection of how ineffective local authorities are at providing security in a city "devoid of justice," and that women are responding positively to Diana because any act—no matter how violent—that seems to restore justice is one that will be well-received.
So far, there is no evidence that the bus drivers who were killed were rapists. As police officers pour resources into this investigation—resources that never seem to exist when women are being raped and murdered by the hundreds—it's becoming more likely that the story of Diana is more fact than fiction. According to recent reports, the email sent to various news agencies has been traced to a computer in an El Paso home and is believed to be an intentional ploy to "grow the legend" of Diana in local media.
At this point, Diana has taken on larger-than-life proportions. Whoever is behind the message or the murders perhaps hoped for this kind of fame, since they chose to name themselves after the Roman goddess whose statue towers over traffic in downtown Mexico City. While a random killing of a bus driver—or daily sexual assaults of women—might not make the headlines, styling herself as a vigilante superhero is sure to get media attention.
Diana the Huntress is clearly not the only woman who has dreamed of becoming a superhero who takes out sexual predators.
Egyptian artist and blogger Deena created a fictional superhero, Qahera, a "female Muslim superhero who combats misogyny and Islamophobia."
In a recent installment of the comic, a young woman leaves the police station crying after being blamed for her own sexual harassment, only to encounter more harassment from four men, one of whom is carrying a knife. In the nick of time, Qahera swoops in, takes out all of the men, and then hangs them from poles outside of the police station with a note saying, "These men are perverts." It's unclear if they are dead and honestly, there is a large part of me that doesn't care. The writer who shared the comic with me also rejoiced at the conclusion, leading me to believe that as women, we need these stories.
In India, a new Bollywood thriller called Kill the Rapist? is making headlines. In the film, a woman overpowers and traps the man who nearly raped her at knifepoint must decide whether to kill him or call the police.
According to the filmmakers, it's a "motivating, empowering film, dedicated to women across the world" and the hope is that the film leaves every rapist shivering "with fear before even thinking of rape." Many of the conversations currently happening in India around gender-based violence are the result of several high-profile rape cases, including the 2012 New Delhi gang rape case. Just last week the four adult convicts in the case were sentenced to death. Shikha Dalmia, senior analyst at the Reason Foundation, writes that the only reason why justice worked swiftly against the men is "the domestic outrage and the international headlines this case generated." Clearly a movie cannot stop rape and ultimately, vigilante justice cannot protect women from it, but hopefully Kill the Rapist? invites more conversations about gender-based violence.
In a world where women are raped, beaten, and killed with alarming regularity and with little consequence, it's hard not get on board with vigilante justice. Of course, there are bigger questions to consider—the long term effects of combatting violence with violence, the retaliation women may experience, what this all says about us as a society—but it's somehow comforting, at least for me, to encounter women and characters who take the law into their own hands because they're left with little alternative.
I don't know what it says about me that I have great trouble mustering sympathy for rapists who are killed by their survivors, finding it very easy to discount the fact that they may have been products of their environment who weren't given the chance at rehabilitation. As a survivor, I could never imagine seeking out revenge in the form of murdering a rapist, though I don't condemn the woman who apparently did and I would never tell her she must practice forgiveness.
I'm less concerned with arguments about whether vigilante justice is right or wrong, and more intrigued as to why it is that we crave these stories, why we secretly – or not so secretly – rejoice the Diana the Huntresses of the world. It's about understanding the many shortcomings of our criminal justice systems, but it's also about something more primal, the kind of satisfaction that can only result when you feel true justice has been served.
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