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Uprooting Patriarchy and Establishing Racial, Economic and Social Justice in Chiapas, Mexico

Author Hilary Klein talks about the stories of Zapatista companeras – the women involved in the movement for social justice in Mexico from its early years.

Zapatista women standing outside a cathedral. (Photo: Oriana Eliçabe/Flickr)

After centuries of oppression, a few indigenous voices of dissent in Chiapas, Mexico, rose up to became a force of thousands – the Zapatistas. Hilary Klein’s Compañeras relays the stories of the Zapatista women who have overcome hardship to strengthen their communities and build a movement with global influence. Click here to order your copy of this inspiring book today!

Roxanne Dunbar­-Ortiz, a specialist in movements of resistance among indigenous peoples and feminism, writes in her forward to Compañeras that the book is “brilliant and informative.” Dunbar-Ortiz praises Hilary Klein for detailing how Zapatista “women and girls … transformed the movement into something profoundly distinct from previous social movements of the post-feminist era.” Klein notes in her introduction to the book that it “captures many individual stories, [but] it ultimately centers on Zapatista women’s closely held group identity.”

The following is a Truthout interview with Hilary Klein.

Mark Karlin: Let’s start with some background. What is the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), where is Chiapas (the primary state where it is located in Mexico), and what is its current status within Mexico?

Hilary Klein: The EZLN is an insurgent army and a grassroots social movement fighting for land and indigenous rights in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The structural inequalities in Chiapas are a legacy of colonialism. Chiapas is rich in natural resources such as land, oil, natural gas and water, yet it is one of the poorest states in Mexico. It has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, but some of the highest rates of malnutrition, maternal mortality and illiteracy.

Hilary Klein. (Photo: Mike Ricca)Hilary Klein. (Photo: Mike Ricca)On January 1, 1994, the EZLN captured the world’s imagination when it rose up to demand justice and democracy – taking on the Mexican government and global capitalism itself. The EZLN is named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, and it adopted his rallying cry of tierra y libertad (land and freedom). Since its brief armed uprising in 1994, the EZLN has been known more for its peaceful mobilizations, dialogue with civil society and construction of indigenous autonomy. Throughout Mexico and around the world, the Zapatistas also catalyzed a wave of solidarity with their struggle and inspired a generation of young activists to organize for social justice in other contexts.

The Zapatista project of indigenous autonomy has meant that rural villages in Chiapas have gained access to rudimentary health care and education. They exercise self-determination through village and regional governments and generate resources back into their communities through economic cooperatives that organize the production of goods. In this small corner of the world, the Zapatistas are experimenting with their own government, alternative education and health-care infrastructure, and an economic system based on cooperation, solidarity and relationships of equality.

Even though the Zapatista movement is not in the international spotlight as much as it was 10 or 15 years ago, it’s still alive and well. (This is no small achievement, by the way, given the consistent counter-insurgency waged against it by the Mexican government for more than two decades.) The Zapatista project of indigenous autonomy still resonates as an example of local and regional alternatives to global capitalism, and the Zapatistas continue to support and inspire other social movements around the world.

Your book is about the revolutionary empowerment of women in the Zapatista movement. Can you address the multiple levels of oppression that women face? That includes achieving acceptance of gender equality in many revolutionary movements?

Women’s leadership within the EZLN is one of the most compelling aspects of the Zapatista movement. Zapatista women have served as insurgents, political leaders, healers, educators and key agents in autonomous economic development. Women’s participation in the EZLN has helped shape the Zapatista movement, which has, in turn, opened new spaces for women and led to dramatic changes in their lives. It is difficult to appreciate the enormity of the changes, however, without understanding women’s starting point.

During a speech she gave in Mexico City’s central plaza in 2001, Comandanta Ester, a Zapatista leader, said, “We are oppressed three times over, because we are poor, because we are indigenous and because we are women.” Before the Zapatista uprising, women in the indigenous communities of Chiapas had limited control over their own lives and many of the decisions that impacted them. They were often married against their will. With little access to birth control, it was common for women to have a dozen children or more. Domestic violence was generally considered normal and acceptable behavior, and a woman could not leave the house without her husband’s permission. There was also a strict and gendered division between public and private spaces. Women’s confinement to the private sphere translated into very limited participation in public life, and it was rare for women to attend public meetings or community assemblies.

From the civil rights movement in the United States to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, women have fought side by side with men for their people’s freedom. Women have made invaluable contributions to grassroots social movements and national liberation struggles all over the world. Many of these, while not women’s movements per se, have created new opportunities for women and catalyzed changes in their lives. At the same time, women almost invariably face discrimination within their own organizations and have often had to fight for women’s rights to be included in the vision of a just society.

To its credit, the EZLN has always had a clear and stated commitment to women’s rights. At the same time, women certainly encountered resistance from within their own movement. In its early years, the EZLN stressed women’s participation in the movement – because the revolutionary struggle needed them, rather than promoting women’s liberation as a goal in itself. As women’s leadership evolved over time, the Zapatista movement began to develop a more nuanced gender analysis and began to explore strategies to uproot patriarchy.

You address the difference between idolizing and attributing women’s empowerment between individuals and group efforts. Why is it so important, as in the case of women in the EZLN, to recognize and foster group efforts?

The Zapatista communities’ sense of collective identity is one of the EZLN’s sources of strength. This begins with indigenous culture, which prioritizes collective over individual well-being. But the Zapatista movement has also worked hard to foster this closely held group identity, for example forging a common identity as indigenous people, rather than as Tzeltal, Tzotzil, or Tojolabal Indians. (There are a number of different ethnic groups in Chiapas, all descended from the Mayans, but who speak different languages and have often been divided along those lines.)

I believe this group identity has enabled Zapatista women to achieve many of the remarkable changes that have taken place in their communities. For example, instead of treating domestic violence as a private matter, Zapatista women worked to change an institutionalized culture of violence. Violence against women was outlawed in the Women’s Revolutionary Law (passed by the EZLN in 1993); women fought to ban alcohol in Zapatista territory; and they have carried out ongoing political education and consciousness-raising about violence against women.

And while individual women leaders have been important role models, women’s cooperatives have always been the key building blocks for women to learn about their rights, voice opinions, and begin participating in other areas of the Zapatista movement.

How does this relate to, as you call it, “the courage to organize”?

Many women were drawn to the Zapatista movement because of its commitment to women’s rights. Joining the EZLN offered an escape from an arranged marriage or abusive family members. It gave women the opportunity to learn to read and write, to study political theory, and to become community leaders. And it offered a broader vision of equality between men and women. But the Zapatista movement was also a struggle for land, for economic justice, for indigenous rights, for dignity, and Zapatista women were never asked to separate these things.

The phrase “courage to organize” comes from Comandanta Sandra, one of the women who helped build the Zapatista movement in the years leading up to the Zapatista uprising, when the EZLN began organizing in the mountain and jungle villages of Chiapas. “Our struggle was clandestine when it first began,” she said at a women’s gathering in 2007. “It was not easy. We couldn’t organize, but then again we could. We organized family by family, village by village, neighborhood by neighborhood – depending on the geography of each region. We had to organize clandestinely, but we were not afraid. We had to walk from village to village to talk to different people and find others who felt the same pain as us, and the same courage to organize.”

You have a chapter entitled, “Women who give birth to new worlds.” What kind of new worlds are envisioned?

That quote comes from Subcomandante Marcos describing Comandanta Ramona when he received the news that she had passed away in 2006. “The world has lost one of those women who gives birth to new worlds,” he said. “Mexico has lost one of those fighters that it most needs. For us, it is like a piece of our heart has been torn out.”

Comandanta Ramona was one of the Zapatista leaders who worked with women throughout Zapatista territory to collect their ideas for a new world. In the early 1990s, these proposals were discussed and then distilled into the Women’s Revolutionary Law, which includes the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle and in community affairs at all levels; the right to choose who to marry and how many children to have; the right to health care and education; and the right to live free of violence.

After the 1994 uprising, the EZLN began an ongoing dialogue with other sectors of the population in Mexico and around the world. The Zapatista movement has consistently presented a vision universal enough to appeal to anyone who is marginalized or oppressed, while inviting people around the world to dream together about what a new world would look like. For example, the EZLN set forth 11 demands: work, land, housing, food, health care, education, independence, freedom, democracy, justice and peace; but one of its slogans is “a world where many worlds fit,” acknowledging that there are many different ways to implement these demands.

In the Zapatista communities, what kind of alternatives to punishment systems of mass incarceration in Mexico are being utilized to achieve a healed community without large-scale prison systems?

When those of us who grew up in the United States think of the physical characteristics of the criminal justice system, we might think of a massive jail with hundreds or thousands of black and brown men behind bars, or a judge in long robes, holding a gavel and sitting high above us to pass judgment. In the Zapatista communities, justice is carried out in humble, one-room buildings. A group of five or six elders, some men and some women, sits behind a long table hewn out of rough wooden planks. Wearing worn work clothes, they probably walked several hours to get there. They ask questions, listen carefully and bow their heads together to consult with one another. When they speak, it is to ask the person before them to consider their responsibility to their community.

The Honor and Justice Commission is something like the judicial branch of the Zapatista autonomous government. Each region has an Honor and Justice Commission, generally made up of indigenous elders because of their traditional role in resolving disputes and their moral authority with other members of the community. This commission resolves individual, family, community and political disputes.

The autonomous justice system could loosely be characterized as transformative or restorative justice because it looks at disagreements and disputes in the context of the larger community or society, seeks to transform the attitudes or behavior of the person who committed wrongdoing, and focuses more on healing than imprisonment or punishment. When someone is considered to be at fault, the Honor and Justice Commission offers words of advice to ensure that the person understands what he or she did wrong and encourages them not to do it again.

In most cases, they facilitate an agreement to resolve the dispute. But there may be a punitive element as well, in which case the Honor and Justice Commission may determine who was at fault and impose disciplinary measures. Punishment usually involves making reparations to whoever was directly impacted by the wrongdoing, or making amends to the community as a whole in the form of community service. There are jails in Zapatista communities, but people are rarely detained for more than a day or two. The most common use of the jails is to lock someone up for being drunk, and they are usually in jail only until they are sober.

Having women on the Honor and Justice Commission is important in facilitating other women coming forward with cases of family violence. In Compañeras, a Zapatista woman named Carlota describes how she began experiencing abuse from her husband but, instead of remaining silent, she brought her case to the Honor and Justice Commission in search of a solution. Carlota and Ruth, who sits on the Honor and Justice Commission in her region, together describe how Carlota’s case of spousal abuse was resolved by the Honor and Justice Commission.

How is the empowerment of women in the Zapatista movement being passed on between generations?

While Zapatista women have already achieved remarkable changes in a relatively short time, some shifts take a generation to fully implement. Some of these changes are being put into practice in the way that families raise their children. During an interview, a Zapatista woman named Celina said, “Among my children, the work is equal. When I’m away from home, my children share the work between my daughter and my two older sons. It was not like that before. Before, only girls worked in the kitchen. Sometimes girls didn’t even go to school because they had to stay home and help their mothers. The biggest change in our communities has been with the children.” The EZLN has sought to reinforce these changes, by emphasizing gender equality in the autonomous schools, for example.

The young women who have grown up in the context of the Zapatista movement manifest the transformations that have taken place in Zapatista territory. Many young women are flourishing in the spaces opened for them by their grandmothers, mothers, aunts and older sisters. Not only are these young women taking on key roles of responsibility at an extraordinarily young age, they also carry themselves with strength and confidence, and they exhibit leadership and maturity. Their romantic relationships with young men are based on a much greater degree of equality, and their communities treat them with a level of respect that their mothers fought for, but could never take for granted.

What kinds of mutual support do Zapatista women provide each other in order to allow time for participation in the EZLN?

Zapatista women support each other through extended family networks, as well as through more formal mechanisms. Within the family, there has been an ongoing push for men and women to share domestic tasks equally – and one of the reasons given is so that women can participate more fully in the Zapatista movement. But many women express that, in reality, it still makes a difference if they live with other women family members who can help take care of the children, cook and look after the house while they are away from home at a meeting or a workshop.

Zapatista women have also organized women’s economic cooperatives to be able to respond to collective needs. These women’s cooperatives often pay the transportation costs for women to travel to regional meetings or gatherings, ensuring that women can participate at the regional level.

There has been a proverb used in some Mexican social justice movements: “They tried to bury us: They didn’t know we were seeds.” Does this apply to the women of the Zapatista communities?

Definitely. A great example of this is Zapatista women defending their communities against attacks by the Mexican armed forces. The Mexican government has been waging low-intensity warfare against the Zapatista support base since 1994, but the first half of 1998 was a period of heightened state violence against Zapatista communities. Hundreds of Zapatista civilians were beaten, arrested and jailed; homes were illegally searched; buildings were burned down; and property was destroyed and stolen.

In the face of this violence, women organized to confront the Mexican armed forces, based on the assumption that the Mexican army was less likely to respond to women with force. Forming a barrier with their bodies, lines of women blocked soldiers from entering their communities, sometimes physically pushing them back, and sometimes armed with sticks or rocks. Tiny indigenous women successfully drove heavily armed soldiers out of refugee camps, remote villages and Zapatista strongholds. Faced with the women’s fury and determination, the soldiers did not know how to respond. Many times, confused and startled, they turned on their heels and fled.

Zapatista women became the public face of the indigenous communities’ militant but unarmed resistance. The Mexican government had sought to undermine the EZLN with this series of attacks but, instead, the Zapatista communities – and Zapatista women in particular – emerged from this period with a tremendous sense of their own strength and power.

How can other social justice movements learn from the role women have established in the EZLN?

During the years I lived in Chiapas, I had the incredible opportunity to witness women’s leadership in the Zapatista movement strengthen over time, to see women confront and overcome obstacles, and to observe the interconnected relationship between women’s increased political involvement and changes in so many other areas of life – in the family, in health care, in education, etc. I was always struck by the parallels between women’s involvement in the Zapatista movement and in other social movements, in the United States and around the world. They are very different contexts, of course, with different challenges and opportunities, but so many of the same themes come up again and again.

In this country, feminism is often framed in very individualistic terms. One concrete lesson from Zapatista women is how they have consistently defended their rights as women and their collective rights as indigenous people at the same time. Zapatista women – and their stories of courage and dignity – remind us that revolutionary struggles cannot achieve collective liberation for all people without addressing patriarchy, nor can women’s freedom be disentangled from racial, economic and social justice.

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