The Butterflies: The Unsung Heroines of the Underground and the Fight to end Violence against Women

Heba Sharobeem
Tuesday 30 Nov 2021

“If they kill me, I shall reach my arms out of the grave and I shall be stronger.” “…Perhaps what we have most near is death, but that idea does not frighten me, we shall continue to fight for that which is just.”

“We cannot allow our children to grow up in this corrupt and tyrannical regime, we have to fight against it, and I am willing to give up everything, including my life if necessary.” 

These three strong and passionate statements were, respectively, said by Minerva Mirabal, Maria Teresa, and Patria Mirabal; they indeed sum up the lives of the three sisters who have become icons of resistance in their native country, the Dominican Republic, as well as worldwide.

The Mirabals, also known for their code name ‘Las Mariposas’ or ‘The Butterflies’, were involved — alongside their husbands and Patria’s son Nelson — in an underground movement. It was called the 14th of June Movement, which protested the ruthless rule of Dominican dictator Trujillo, who presided over the country from 1930 until his assassination in 1961.

He had them all, except Patria, imprisoned and tortured. However, he succumbed to pressure and released the other two sisters. Still, they would not be deterred.

Finally, on Friday 25 November 1960, his henchmen ambushed the three sisters’ car on a lonely mountain road. They strangled and clubbed them to death along with their driver, Rufino de la Cruz, placed their bodies into the car and pushed it off a cliff. Their death was reported as an accident. 

The fourth and only surviving sister, Dedé, took it upon herself to raise their children and carry the torch of her slain sisters by preserving their memories in a museum — the Casa Museo Hermanas Mirabal — and recording their revolutionary acts in her memoir ‘Alive in Their Garden.’ 

In 1994, Dominican-American writer Julia Alvarez wrote ‘In the Time of the Butterflies’, a novel inspired by the life stories of the Mirabals. In an article, she remarked that “it is a crime that they should be forgotten… I knew I had a debt to pay,” which is to highlight their bravery and immortalise these “unsung heroines of the underground.” 

Years before Alvarez’ novel, in 1981, the feminist activists in Latin America chose the day of their murder to call for the elimination of violence against women and celebrate the memory of the victims of femicide.

In 1993, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 48/104 for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, which defines this type of violence as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion, or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or in private life.”

To solidify this decision, the General Assembly adopted Resolution 54/134, of 17 December 1999, designating 25 November as the ‘International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women’; and recently, it has become ‘Violence Against Women and Girls’ (VAWG).

According to the UN, “violence against women is an obstacle to constructing inclusive and sustainable societies… It is impossible for a society to blossom if half of the population lives in fear of being assaulted. Hence, observing this day symbolises the mobilisation against violence against women and reminds us that women must be at the heart of change.”

Since 1991, a campaign titled ‘16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence’ (GBV) which runs from 25 November to ‘International Human Rights Day’ on 10 December. These dates were chosen to highlight that women’s rights are human rights, and they must be promoted and protected.

However, despite the efforts exerted, women all over the world continue to suffer from all forms of violence as well as gender segregation. Worse was the effect of the lockdown resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to UN reports, “all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified. In some countries, calls to helplines have increased five-fold.”

This increasing violence has been regarded as “the ‘Shadow Pandemic’ growing amid the COVID-19 crisis.” Hence, the UN 2021 campaign theme is “Orange the World: END VIOLENCE AGAINST WOMEN NOW.”

We definitely need to take action to end gender-based violence, issue and implement laws incriminating it, and create social awareness. In Egypt a great step has recently been taken with the issuing and implementation of a law incriminating female genital mutilation (FGM) and intensifying the penalty against whomever is involved in this horrible crime.

As a member of the Senate, I felt proud when this law was discussed and finally approved. It is a major step towards a long road of ending violence against women and girls, a road that requires a great deal of work from our educational, religious, and media institutions. They need to synchronise and unify their efforts to create awareness against this pressing issue all over Egypt.

On 25 November, I attended a performance titled ‘Kite’ at the Norwegian Embassy in Egypt that was inspired by true events. The performance depicted a young girl who lost her life while undergoing FGM. It was played by a group called Nawah from Assiut, which included amateur, yet very talented young men and women and two young girls. They wrote the script, the songs, and directed the performance. 

To create an impact, they involved the audience in the performance, raising questions and responding to their answers. The road for women is long and thorny, but the Butterflies and similar heroes and heroines around the world keep reminding us that we should never lose faith and there is always a light at the end of the tunnel. 

*The writer is an Egyptian Senator and a university professor 

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