Book Review: Desalmadas y maleantes: Memoria de género en Argentina y España (1936-2018)

Manuel Sánchez-Moreno. Desalmadas y maleantes: Memoria de género en Argentina y España (1936-2018). UMA Editorial, 2020.

By taking a humanistic approach to Law, Desalmadas y maleantes argues for an ethical reading of memory to give the victims of atrocities proper recognition at a time in which post-truths seem to be taking over the public discourse, putting in jeopardy our democracies. The book focuses on the non-hegemonic vanquished whose experience is excluded from the official memory. The author, Manuel Sánchez-Moreno, claims that this lack of recognition of the diverse victims impedes the proper function of democracy because they tend to be considered secondary insofar as juridical treatment is concerned. In order to correct this failure of the transitional systems, he calls for a study of juridical texts that goes beyond aseptic interpretation, and examines their applications to the victims (324). Published in Spanish by the University of Málaga Press in Spain, the book fills this important gap in that it identifies the exclusions made in the human rights discourse regarding gender violence and affective-sexual diversity during fascist dictatorships as well as during the transitions to democracy in Spain and Argentina. The difference between the Spanish and Argentine contexts is that in the latter, the right to memory is recognized while in Spain, life goes on in amnesia and impunity. In terms of methodology, this book aims to reestablish a connection between the fields of the Humanities and the Juridical Sciences, as it is not enough to rely simply on juridical texts.  

This comparative study of Argentina and Spain addresses the impact of fascist laws on the bodies of diverse genders. In citing major feminist and queer critical theorists, the reader is provided with a brief literature review of gender as socially constructed and performative, always operating within a heterocispatriarchal framework, and supported by pseudo-scientific and religious discourses to maintain the non-democratic regimes. Constructed upon an ideal of masculinity, these regimes radicalize the woman-man binary in order to encourage procreation and the socioeconomic apparatus of the regime.

One of this study’s most important qualities is that it provides a survey of the legislation that led to and influenced the specific violations of human right based on expressions of gender in both Spain and Argentina. While many scholars in the fields of Law and Human Rights in the Hispanic context are aware of the broad impacts of these laws, Sánchez-Moreno delves into the nuances of its impact on non-normative victims. While the conversation about gender in this context has become commonplace in the Humanities, the author convincingly and successfully links it with the concrete legal trajectories in both countries. In fact, the two countries are frequently linked in studies about fascism, human rights, and memory, and Desalmadas y maleantes utilizes some of that shared memory to make a specific plea for post-transitional memory work in Spain, as it struggles with coming to a consensus regarding the Transition.

Chapter 1, Memoria, género y justicia: el diálogo de las humanidadesy el derecho [Memory, Gender, and Justice: The Dialogue between the Humanities and Law], lays out the theoretical underpinnings located at the disciplinary intersections that serve to highlight the exclusions that generated gender and affective-sexual violence during the fascist regimes as well as their exclusions during the Transitions to democracy (25). The author positions his argument within the major challenges faced by the study of memory, including its struggle to define itself against history, and to address increasingly traumatic memories, and ultimately, its role in the functioning of democracy. Therefore, the work of juridical feminism is able to contribute to the fight for a right to memory of all the excluded victims whose inclusion into the narrative would guarantee a healthy democracy.

Chapters 2 and 3 center on Argentina, outlining socio-juridical approaches to the dictatorship of the military Juntas (1976-1983) with a focus on gender, and the processes of transitional and post-transitional justice since 1983. The goal was the annihilation of the so-called subversion and the reorganization of the society, a clear euphemism for implementation of genocidal tactics. The persecution on the basis of affective-sexual identity expression criminalized “sodomy” for example. Among the various, specifically gender-oriented methods of torture was the rape of persons of all genders. The book explains the use of these tactics within the framework of crimes against humanity established later by the ad hoc tribunals on Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, allowing the victims to seek justice in more recent times. The decade of the 1990s opened a debate about the classification of the different acts such as the appropriation of children, and the reorganization of the society in order to eliminate a group, as genocidal acts, which also created a tension between national and international justice for Argentina (152). A notable ongoing case that is not frequently discussed in the literature is that of Valeria del Mar Ramírez, a transsexual woman who had been kidnapped twice and kept in the Pozo de Banfield detention center where she was tortured and raped repeatedly. Her case could be the first sentence of crimes against humanity against an LGBTQIA+ person in the state terrorism context. The author notes that she was the first trans person to receive a name and sex change on her state identification card in 2012, based on the Gender Identity Law 24.743, which allowed her to press crimes against humanity charges. The importance of this case is that it demonstrates that equality and equity are vindicated in the present (170).

The last three chapters (4-6) are focused on Spain and address the incomplete handling of atrocities of the Spanish Civil War (1936-39) and the subsequent dictatorship (1939-75) by the Spanish state. The author’s emphasis on the legal strides that were lost is key to understanding the false consensus of the Transition during the last 40 years, which in many ways, is a continuation of the Francoist regime legitimized in the new democracy. In Spain, the loss of women’s rights and the advancement of women achieved during the Second Republic is presented as a major wound to the democracy that must be recuperated now. Likewise, during the Second Republic, even though homosexuality and transsexuality were both understood as “sodomy,” or unnatural acts not aimed at biological reproduction, the identities were beginning to gain ground in terms of visibility and acceptance in non-conservative points of view (177).

With its National Catholicism ideology, the dictatorship relied on pseudo-scientific biological discourse to repress the population. An example of this would be the the theory of so-called “red gene” carried by the Republicans allowed the Francoist regime to be openly misogynistic when the gene was found in a woman. This meant that a Republican woman was unable to correctly perform the role of mother, and Francoist women were imbued with a more important political and public role executed through the Sección Femenina, the women’s branch of the Falange Party. Another important genocidal tactic used under the Franco regime was the practice of stealing of children, and performing irregular adoptions that continued after the dictator’s death during the period of the Transition to Democracy.

In the conclusion, Sánchez-Moreno enumerates the major takeaways of his comparative study into twenty-six digestible points making this book very useful to students and scholars of both Argentina and Spain. He leaves us with an emotive contemplation and a call to action to the Spanish civil society, urging for historical, social, cultural, and juridical revision and mobilization. Since the reinforcement of heterocisnormative masculinity maintains non-democratic regimes, democratic societies must include the memory of victims of gender-based violence into a right to memory in order to guarantee its healthy functioning. I find it crucial to echo the author’s concluding words: “Time cannot vanquish memory just as impunity cannot vanquish justice” (my translation).

Erma Nezirevic

University of Minnesota – Twin Cities