Since 1994, Mexico’s Zapatista movement has expanded well beyond the borders of the country’s southernmost and poorest state of Chiapas. In many ways, the factors that started and now sustain the movement are similar to those of other resistance movements characterized by human rights violations, lack of access to health care and education, gender inequality, and a variety of land disputes. However, one differentiating aspect of the Ejercito Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN) movement has been its female leadership. Even before EZLN forces entered the city of San Cristóbal de las Casas on the morning of January 1, 1994 to protest against Mexico’s membership to NAFTA, the women of Chiapas had set off an indigenous rights movement more powerful than anyone could imagine at the time. The vision and dedication with which these indigenous rebels advocated the EZLN ideals exposed the rest of the world to the movement in the jungle of Chiapas.
While female insurgents have been critical to the Zapatista rebellion, the groundwork for their ascent to power comes primarily from EZLN’s male leadership. On International Women’s Day, March 8, 1996, Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos made a global address stating, “If there is to be a [future], it will be made with the women, and above all, by them.” Breaking away from centuries-long traditions, he confirmed the development of changes in the indigenous communities that empowered Mayan women to become activists and leaders.
Ramona and the Revolutionary Women’s Law
Comandante Ramona, or as the media calls her, “The Petite Warrior,” is the first name that comes to mind when discussing female EZLN leaders and women’s rights campaigns in Chiapas. Ramona, an indigenous Mayan woman, dedicated her life to the Zapatista army and the indigenous cause. At only thirty-four years of age, she led a small indigenous army from Chiapas to San Cristóbal de las Casas on New Year’s Day 1994. Once the fighting subsided, Ramona and her rebellious companions returned to the Lacandon Jungle, where they began a powerful political campaign to end discrimination against Mexico’s indigenous population. The comandante focused on defending the rights of women – believing that education, the freedom to choose a life partner, and access to contraceptives would end the centuries-long repression of Mayan women.
The core changes in the communal life of indigenous Mayan women were introduced by the Revolutionary Women’s Law, which was passed by the EZLN in 1993. Anonymous suggestions collected from Mayan women by Comandante Ramona, Major Ana María, and EZLN activist Susana formed the foundation of the ten sections listed in the document. Although some of the expressed demands were universal, it was clear that many were addressing issues specific to the women’s communities. Some demands were as basic as the right to an education and healthcare, while others were as momentous as the right to freedom from sexual and domestic violence. “For the first time in the history of Latin American guerilla movements, women members were analyzing and presenting the personal in politically explicit terms,” writes scholar Soneile Hymn. The Law’s passage acted as catalyst, inspiring hundreds of indigenous women, many of whom did not know what the document actually stipulated, to break away from a traditional lifestyle and actively engage in their communities.
Encuentros and the Beginning of Cooperatives in Chiapas
Shortly after the Law was passed, indigenous women started sharing their thoughts concerning the changes enacted by the events of January 1994 at the Encuentros, or Gatherings (Encuentro de los Pueblos Zapatistas con los Pueblos del Mundo or the Encounter/Gathering between Zapatista Peoples and Peoples of the World) in Chiapas. During Encuentros, EZLN and visiting foreign human rights activists exchanged ideas on how to solve gender inequality and other human rights issues in indigenous communities, establishing a long-awaited dialogue between Lacandon Jungle rebels and the international community. At the first gathering, Comandante Ramona spoke about the many obstacles that lay ahead, “We have to unite more, to organize more, to network more… Women lack the courage to speak, to organize, to work. But we women can work with much affection for our pueblos.” For Mayan women, participating in the Encuentros was symbolic; prior to the passage of the Revolutionary Law, many husbands did not allow their wives to leave the house, much less participate in public discussions. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, more women were able to speak up and participate in the decision-making processes in their families and communities. Over time, political instability and increased monitoring by the paramilitaries made the Encuentros unsafe. Eventually, the meetings stopped altogether, with the third and final Encuentro taking place in December 2007.
Despite the cessation of the Encuentros, other smaller communal gatherings continued to take place in Chiapas. Indigenous women used these spaces to share their stories with other women and form women-only collectives dedicated to the production of various artisanal crafts, such as bead making and weaving. A member of the Production Commission in Chiapas commented on her experience with these communal gatherings, “Working together in the women’s collectives is where we get over the fear and embarrassment that we feel. We work together and we’re happy working together.” The environment of the collectives is comforting to many women, creating a feeling of security and belonging.
Artisan collectives, or, as some call them, cooperatives, allow women to learn from one another and earn money for their households, reinforcing their growing independence and self-sufficiency. For many families, weaving and other types of artisanal work have often become major sources of income, and women take great pride in their work and the wages they earn. However, commercializing artisan labor puts enormous pressure on women, as they must add extra work to their daily routines. Washing, cleaning, and cooking are just some of the household tasks for which Mayan women are accountable, and with cooperatives, the list of their responsibilities grows even longer.
Education in the Lacandon Jungle
“We are not going to let women continue to live the same way our parents and grandparents lived,” stated women from the Highlands region of Oventic, Chiapas, during one of the first Encuentros. For generations, Mayan women could neither read nor write and were only permitted to speak in their mother tongues. With the passage of the Revolutionary Law and the growing popularity of the Zapatista movement, women were encouraged to learn Spanish, the official language of the peace talks between Mexican government and the Zapatista rebels. Mainly, Mayan women and men were resistant to learning Spanish in the past due to fear of assimilation into the mainstream culture, where losing their indigenous identity would be inevitable. At the same time, by learning to speak Spanish, Mayan women proved to the Mexican officials and the world that they are willing to go great lengths to make their voices heard outside Chiapas.
There are nine distinct ethnic groups in Chiapas, all possessing distinct traditions and languages; Tzetzal, Tzotzil, and Chol are just a few of a number of dialects that Mayan women speak. Traditionally, education has been an instrument used to transform indigenous people into mainstream Mexicans. As stated by the Revolutionary Law, Mayan women want education, but they do not want the traditional type. Rather, they want a system that will “recover and develop the indigenous cosmovision and consolidate the Zapatista project.” Achievements could be experienced at the former Encuentros, where the younger generation of Mayan women proudly read their speeches to the guests and to the community. Indigenous schools instruct young Mayans in local traditions and languages, putting great value on the pluricultural aspect of human co-existence.
Critiquing the Revolutionary Law
Despite the fact that the Revolutionary Law ostensibly allows women to engage in community life as equal participants, a variety of obstacles still impede the full realization of these rights. “There is still a really big distance between the intention of actually being better, and really respecting the other – in this case women – and what our realistic practice is,” said Subcomandante Marcos in his address on March 8, 1996. Fifteen years later, his words still ring true in some parts of rural Chiapas, Guerrero, and Oaxaca, where Mayan people, especially women, see that in many instances their rights are just hollow declarations.
Overcoming machismo is only one of the challenges that Mayan women continuously have to tackle. As more female leaders are encouraged to take authoritative positions, one cannot ignore the skepticism with which their male counterparts approach them. Two female members of the Agrarian Commission in Chiapas commented on their experiences, “We don’t know much, but as authorities we learn as we go, by doing the work. A lot of times we’re still nervous and shy. There are still a lot of men who think that we can’t do the work.” As more women express interest in land ownership, they face certain obstacles, such as a lack of expertise in land matters and illiteracy. While the Revolutionary Law allows women to hold positions of authority, they are often inadequately prepared to handle such responsibilities. Among indigenous women, 50.1 percent are illiterate, and more than 20 percent of the Chiapan population, both men and women, have not received any kind of formal education.
Many women in Southern Mexico, especially those from the indigenous communities, continue to suffer from sexual abuse inflicted by their spouses and the military. Often, women undergo dehumanizing procedures simply to visit family members or friends jailed as a result of land and EZLN-related disputes. The Fray Bartolomé de Las Casas Center for Human Rights reports that women are “subjected to having to become nude, touching and revision of the genitalia, and other actions that violate the right to personal security and integrity, in addition to the right of women to lead lives free of violence.” During the period of 2008-2009 in Oaxaca, the Mexican state just west of Chiapas, 46 percent of women suffered violence at the hands of their partners, and it remains unknown how many cases went unreported.
Indigenous Relations with the International Community
Although international involvement may theoretically mitigate many indigenous hardships, few women call for the assistance of the international community. “The Mayan women however generally do not want outside help to correct these problems, perhaps owed in part to the tradition of autonomy in their philosophy… Customs are created in the habitus of the community, thus cannot be changed from an outside authority,” writes Soneile Hymn about the struggle in Chiapas. For them, these problems are a part of their cultural identity and must be solved by the community.
However, problems in Chiapas, as well as in Guerrero and Oaxaca, keep the international community alert and may eventually convince the women to seek international aid. Domestic violence, still rampant in many indigenous families, often accompanies drug and migration-related violence. It can thus be argued that the section of the Revolutionary Law stating “[women] shall not be beaten or physically mistreated” looks good only on paper, while in reality, beatings and abuse continue to force some women into submissive roles characteristic of the pre-Revolutionary Law days; still, others join the ranks of the EZLN insurgents in the mountains.
A Lasting Legacy
Despite continuing discrimination and violence, the changes promised by the Revolutionary Law continue to inspire and mobilize female activists in and outside of the state of Chiapas. Support from women’s collectives and artisan cooperatives encourage Mayan women to undertake tasks and projects which previously seemed unimaginable. Women now hold positions of authority in their communities’ commissions and among EZLN insurgents. They can also support their families with the income that they make as artisans, thus becoming less dependent on their husbands.
Opponents of the Revolutionary Law claim that its application in reality does not reflect its purpose. Many indigenous women are still subject to violence from their partners and paramilitaries and face a great deal of machismo at work and within their communities. At the same time, eliminating a long-standing tradition of abuse cannot happen overnight; it may be another fifteen years before all Mayan women will be able to lead, not follow. Undoubtedly, the passage of the Revolutionary Law in 1993 liberated Mayan women, so that they can now be recognized both locally and globally. Today, the Law encourages a new generation of Mayan women to become independent leaders and exercise their rights in and outside of the indigenous communities.