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Eleonora Esposito, Marie Curie Research Fellow at Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra
Eradicating violence against women: what the Mirabal sisters taught us
History is mixed with myth when the first meeting between Rafael Trujillo and Minerva Mirabal is recounted. He had come to power through rigged elections and used a culture of terror and brutal oppression to make the Dominican Republic his Trujillato. She was a 23-year-old law student from a rural town in the Cibao Valley, born into a family of landowners from class average . When she attended one of Trujillo's parties, Minerva was asked to dance by the colonel himself, a well-known womanizer 35 years her senior. There are many different versions of how things happened, but it is often said that she rebuffed the inappropriate advances of 'El Jefe' by slapping him across the face on the dance floor, to the horror of all present.
That was both the end and the beginning. Minerva's father ended up imprisoned and the Mirabal family lost their land, their home and all their property. Along with her sisters Patria, María Teresa and Dedé, Minerva Mirabal helped organize and grow the June 14 movement against the Trujillo regime under the clandestine name of Las Mariposas. In the following years, the three sisters and their families were repeatedly arrested and tortured for their activities against the Trujillo dictatorship.
On a rainy night on November 25, 1960, as the Mirabal sisters were returning from visiting their husbands in prison, a team of Trujillo's most loyal henchmen arrested them, took them to a sugar cane field and bludgeoned and strangled them to death. Their bodies were placed in a Jeep and thrown off a cliff to make their deaths look like an accident. At the time they were thirty-six (Patria), thirty-four (Minerva) and twenty-four (Maria Teresa) years old. Their brutal murder shook public opinion and helped fuel the movement that culminated in the fall of Trujillo. Only six months later, 'El Jefe' was ambushed and shot to death on a public road on the outskirts of the capital. The Trujillato, now recognized as one of the bloodiest dictatorships in the history of the Americas, was finally over.
Since their death, the fame of the Mirabal sisters has spread internationally, also thanks to the work of report of Dedé, the only one of the three who survived. In 1994, Dominican novelist Julia Alvarez commemorated their story with her historical fiction novel In the Time of the Butterflies, which was adapted into a film starring Hollywood actress Salma Hayek as Miranda Mirabal. The date of her assassination was also designated in 1999 by the United Nations General Assembly as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. Each year, November 25 and the 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence that follow (ending on December 10, Human Rights Day) are commemorated around the world, giving individuals and collectives the opportunity to mobilize and put the spotlight on the urgent need to eradicate violence against women and girls.
Remembering the life story of the Mirabal sisters in celebration of the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women involves much more than telling the story of how this particular date was chosen. It is about re-emphasizing the real lesson of the life and death of the three Dominican sisters. Revered as martyrs in their country, they have often been adorned with superlatives and elevated to myth, but turning them into an icon robs them of the real meaning of their resistance to violence. If anything, they were ordinary women with a lot to lose. They were young, educated and beautiful, they had professional ambitions and landowner privileges. They had families with husbands and children, yet they were undeterred: the cost of standing up for their principles was not too high a price to pay.
In remembrance of the Mirabal sisters, November 25 is a day to shine a light on violence against women and girls as one of the most pervasive, persistent and devastating human rights violations in our world today. As the world retreated indoors because of the confinement measures introduced to curb the COVID-19 pandemic, reports showed an alarming increase in the already existing pandemic of violence against women. UN Women has reported an alarming increase in multiple forms of violence against women and girls, especially physical, psychological, sexual and economic forms of domestic violence fueled by unemployment, household insecurity in terms of Economics and food, and living conditions resulting from confinement and social isolation measures.
November 25 also marks the return of the "Orange theWorld" campaign, launched by UN Women. Orange has been chosen as a symbol of a brighter future where women will not fear violence. As in previous years, iconic buildings and monuments around the world will be illuminated in this color and global citizens are encouraged to wear orange and share their photos and videos on social media with the hashtag #orangetheworld.
The choice of such a bright color is no coincidence. A large part of the problem, and a major obstacle to its solution, is the fact that most cases of violence remain unreported due to the impunity, silence, stigma and shame surrounding them. While the story of Miranda Mirabal's rejection of Colonel Trujillo with a slap on the dance floor might be an apocryphal myth, more than seventy years later her lesson of resistance to abuse of power and violence is still there for us to learn and make our own.