Zapatismo and the Emergence of Indigenous Feminism

September 25, 2007

One thing I am clear about is that since I realized, at the age of 13 or 14, that something is not quite right with being a woman, I had a change of conscience. That was when I discovered that there were injustices done towards women. Why didn’t anyone ask me if I wanted to be married at that age? Many things that happened to me that seemed unjust happened to me because of the fact that I happened to be born a woman. And I started to be aware that changing one’s consciousness meant an important step for indigenous women themselves. To change one’s consciousness is not easy, nor is it something that happens all the time—it is achieved little by little. At the same time that I realized that the life we were living as women was unjust, I developed a restless desire to work directly with women. I wanted to find ways, spaces, places, something that had to do with our rights. Why don’t women have the right to education? Why didn’t we have birth certificates? Why couldn’t I go out on the street without being persecuted or harassed? Why are so many things made difficult for us?... These were my worries in the 1970s. It was difficult to find women’s spaces then.… Ever since I began to look for spaces that would allow me to directly tackle the problems of women, I started to work freely and openly on women’s rights.… I discovered that there are independent organizations, civil associations and collectives that work with women. I discovered that there are other visions, other alternatives and many hopes that there will be change. That is how we began talking with other women of this state [Oaxaca] and from other states. We began to realize there were other indigenous women who thought the same way—they wanted something different. And we have also found the new spaces, which in 1997 came together to form the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women.

—Marta, Mixtec woman from the organization, Et Naaxwiihy (The Space We Live In) [1]

As an indigenous feminist I intend to recover the philosophical principles of my culture and to make them fit into the reality of the twenty-first century. That is to say, to criticize what I don’t like about my culture while proudly accepting that I belong to that culture. Indigenous feminism is to me part of a principle—women develop and make revolution to construct ourselves as independent persons who become a community that can give to others without forgetting about themselves. The philosophical principles that I would recover from my culture are equality, complementarity between men and women, and between men and men and women and women. That part of the Mayan culture currently doesn’t exist, and to state the contrary is to turn a blind eye to the oppression that indigenous women suffer. The complementarity is now only part of history; today there is only inequality, but complementarity and equality can be constructed.

I would also recover the double vision, or the idea of the cabawil, the one who can look forward and back, to one side and the other and see the black and white, all at the same time. To recover this referent, as applied to women, implies knowing one’s self with all the sad and terrible things that are part of my reality as a woman and to reconstruct myself with all the good things I have. It means to recognize that there are women different from me, that there are ladinas and indigenous women, that there are black, urban and campesina women.

—Alma López, Quiché woman, councilmember of the City of Quetzaltenango, Guatemala.[2]

Marta and Alma are not alone in their search for new conscioussness and organizing spaces. Many indigenous women like them have started to raise their voices in the public sphere, not only to demand cultural and political rights for their communities, but to signal that the construction of a more just society must begin within the family itself. Some of them, like Alma, have opted to self-identify as feminists. A minority (but very important part) of indigenous women have made women’s rights the principal demand of their organizations.

To speak of indigenous feminisms would have been unthinkable ten years ago. Nevertheless, whether they identify as feminists or not, beginning with the 1990s we have seen the emergence of indigenous women’s movements in different Latin American countries that are struggling on different fronts.[3] In Mexico, organized indigenous women have joined their voices to those of the national indigenous movement to denounce the economic and racial oppression that characterizes the insertion of indigenous communities into the national project. At the same time, these women are struggling within their organizations and communities, to change those “traditional” elements that exclude and oppress them.

An analysis of indigenous women’s demands and strategies in their struggle points to an emergence of a new kind of indigenous feminism. Although in some ways their demands coincide with those of urban feminists, they have substantial differences as well. The economic and cultural context in which indigenous women have constructed their gender identities marks the specific forms that their struggles take, as well as their conceptions of “women’s dignity” and their ways of building political alliances. Ethnic, class and gender identities have determined their struggle and they have opted to incorporate themselves in the broader struggle of their communities. But at the same time they have created specific spaces to reflect on their experiences of exclusion as women and as indigenous people.

The public appearance of the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) in 1994 served as a catalyst in the organization of indigenous women in Mexico. Zapatista women became some of the most important advocates of indigenous women’s rights, through the so-called Women’s Revolutionary Law. This charter, created in consultation with Zapatista, Tojobal, Chol, Tzotzil, and Tzeltal women, was made public on January 1, 1994 and has been of great symbolic importance for thousands of indigenous women who are members of peasant, political and cooperative organizations. It contains ten articles, which enumerate a number of rights of indigenous women. These include the right to political participation and to hold leadership posts within the political system; to a life free of sexual and domestic violence; to decide how many children they want to have; to a fair wage; to choose a spouse; to an education; and to quality health services. Although many indigenous women are not aware of the detailed contents of the charter, its mere existence has become a symbol of the possibility of a fairer way of life for women.[4]

Since the emergence of Zapatismo, a movement of indigenous women from different regions of the country has not only voiced their support for the demands of their compañeros and the interests of their communities, but also pressed for the respect of their specific rights as women. Parallel to their participation in the struggle for land and democracy, this wide sector of women has begun to demand the democratization of gender relations within the family, the community and the organization. The emergence of this new movement is the expression of a long process of organizing and reflection involving Zapatista and non-Zapatista women.

Although Zapatismo played an important role in the creation of national spaces for organizing and reflection, thus making indigenous women’s movements’ demands more visible, it is impossible to understand the force of these movements without considering the experience of the indigenous and campesino struggles of the last two decades. Beginning in the 1970s, an important indigenous movement in Mexico began to question the official discourse stating the existence of a homogeneous, mestizo nation. Indigenous women incorporated themselves into these emerging spaces for collective reflection. Together with the demands for land, they voiced cultural and political demands that later became couched in the general demand for the autonomy of indigenous peoples.

Much of the academic research on indigenous movements of this time, however, does not mention women’s participation. But we know from testimonies of women participants that they were in charge of the “logistics” of many of the marches, sit-ins and meetings that those studies document.[5] This “supporting role” excluded them from the active participation and decision making in the organizations, but still allowed them to come together and share expereinces with indigenous women from other regions.

At the same time that women actively participated in the campesino mobilizations, important changes in the Mexican economy pushed them into the informal sector, selling agricultural products and handicrafts in the local markets. The “oil boom” of the 1970s, together with the scarcity of arable land, caused many indigenous men from Chiapas, Oaxaca, Tabasco and Veracruz to migrate to the petroleum zones, leaving the women to deal with the family’s economic matters.[6] Indigenous women’s entry into the money economy has been analyzed as making their domestic work evermore dispensable to the reproduction of the labor force and thus reducing women’s power within the family.[7] Nevertheless, at the same time that their position within the family was restructured, they entered into contact with other indigenous women and mestizas in the infomal sector, and they began to organize spaces for women’s collective reflection outside the home.[8]

The Catholic church, through priests and nuns influenced by liberation theology, also played a very important role in the promotion of women’s spaces, especially in the diocese of San Cristóbal (in Chiapas), Oaxaca and Tehuantepec (in Oaxaca), and Tlapa (in Guerrero). Even though the liberation theology that guided the work of these dioceses did not promote a gender-based analysis, its workshops and courses on social inequality and on mestizo society’s racism led indigenous women to also question gender inequalities they experienced in their own communities.

Parallel to this, feminist nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) began to take their work into rural areas to support development projects for women and gender consciousness-raising among indigenous women. In this line, the feminists of Comaletzin A.C., an organization founded in 1987, were pioneers in working with indigenous women of Morelos, Puebla, Sonora and Chiapas.[9] The Center for Research and Action for Women (CIAM) and the Women’s Group of San Cristóbal de las Casas, both founded in 1989, initiated work against sexual and domestic violence and in support of organizing among indigenous women of the Chiapas highlands and Guatemalan refugee women. Women for Dialogue, working with women of Veracruz and Oaxaca, and the consultants of Women in Solidarity Action (EMAS), who work with Purépecha women of Michoacán, were also early promoters of indigenous women’s rights. The Church’s discourse on the “dignity of women” was in some regions replaced by a discourse about women’s rights and claims for gender equality, which indigenous women appropriated and gave new meanings in their dialogue with feminists.[10]

Migration, religious groups, feminist NGOs, government development programs and the experience of organizing itself, have all influenced indigenous men and women in such a way that they have restructured their relations within the family and are rethinking their strategies for struggle. But it was starting in 1994, with the public debut of the EZLN, that indigenous women began to raise their voices in the broader public sphere, not only to demand indigenous rights, but to make claims for the respect of their specific rights as women. Under the influence of Zapatismo, a national movement emerged in Mexico—although incipient and full of contradictions—articulating different local efforts to incorporate gender demands into the indigenous movement’s political agenda.

Nevertheless, indigenous women have paid a high price for this political participation. They are the ones most affected by the militarization of society and by the paramilitary attacks against the autonomous regions. The establishment of military bases and military patrols in ejidal lands has disrupted their everyday lives. They denounce drug and alcohol sales as corollaries of the military’s presence in their communities. “We want the military to leave. They use our houses as brothels; the few classrooms we have for our chidren are used by soldiers. They use sports fields to park their tanks, helicopters and the bad government’s armored cars.”[11]

Paramilitaries are using rape as an instrument of repression and intimidation in the communities that are trying to establish auonomous government or communities allied to the EZLN. The 1994 rape of the three Tzeltal sisters Méndez Sántiz by the Mexican military, the rape of three nurses in San Andrés Larraínzar by paramilitaries, the rape of Chicana activist Cecilia Rodríguez in 1995, and the December 1997 massacre and mutilation of 32 Tzotzil women in Acteal by paramilitaries are only a few examples of the specific way that women are experiencing the low intensity war in Chiapas.[12] This violence against organized women is both a “punishment” for their activism and a message aimed at the men in their families and organizations. Nevertheless, the repression, harassment and terror sown by the military and paramilitaries in different indigenous regions have not been able to stop women’s struggle for democracy inside and outside the home.

In 1997, during the National Meeting of Indigenous Women titled “Constructing Our History,” with the attendance of 700 women, the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women (CNMI) was formed. This national-level organization includes women from approximately 20 indigenous communities from Mexico City and the states of Chiapas, Michoacán, Morelos, Guerrero, Hidalgo, Jalisco, Puebla, Querétaro, San Luis Potosí, Sonora, Veracruz and Oaxaca. Their mission statement says that they aim to “strengthen indigenous women’s leadership from a gender perspective; establish a communication network of indigenous women at the national level; provide skills training for indigenous women at the national level; raise funds to implement regional development, training and service projects for indigenous communities; sensitize indigenous peoples on indigenous women’s human rights, utilizing a gender analysis... .”[13]

Although the members of the CNMI have not publicly declared themselves feminist, their gender-based demands and their interest in struggling against indigenous women’s subordination allow us to speak of the emergence of a new indigenous feminism.[14] We can say that even if women’s participation in the indigenous and campesino struggle is not a new phenomenon, and even precedes the Zapatista movement by centuries, what is new is the creation of a space within the national indigenous movement for indigenous women to organize and struggle for their specific demands as women.

Contrary to the urban feminist movement in Mexico, indigenous women have maintained a double militancy, linking their gender-specific struggles to struggles for the autonomy of indigenous communities, while continuing to be part of the National Indigenous Congress (CNI). This double militancy has nevertheless confronted resistance from both the feminist movement and the indigenous movement.15 Yet both movements have benefited from this double militancy; feminists benefited by incorporating cultural diversity into its analysis of gender inequality and the indigenous movement benefited by incorporating gender into its perspectives of the ethnic and class inequality experienced by indigenous peoples.

The members of the CNMI have maintained a double militancy as members of the CNI, the most important national-level independent indigenous organization in Mexico. Since its creation in 1996, the CNI has enjoyed the active participation of women in its various areas of work. Women leaders in the CNI have tried to include a specific agenda for women. At the CNI meeting in Nurío, Michoacán in March 2001, with the Zapatista leadership present, indigenous women activists achieved the creation of a women’s panel. Despite the commitment by the CNI leadership, when the discussion began, many indigenous leaders insisted that this space be opened to the participation of men. Purépecha, Mixtec, Zapotec and Chocholtec women patiently explained to their male compañeros that their initiative did not intend to divide the CNI, but rather to provide a strategy for creating a supportive context in which indigenous women, who are mainly monolingual, could express their feelings. A male Purépecha leader interrupted the discussion by abruptly grabbing the microphone from the coordinator of the panel and insisting that the audience turn to “more serious issues.” The panel ended up mainly being made up of women. This apparently unimportant incident shows the difficulty that indigenous women face, even within the CNI, to democratize internal relations.

The incident also shows men’s and women’s different styles of discussion within the CNI. Women tended to focus on daily problems, the specific ways that they experience racism and exclusion, while the men made political pronouncements. Indigenous women nevertheless took advantage of this space to declare that the way to strengthen the CNI is by democratizing it, permitting the active participation of women in the leadership of the movement and working to develop a gender perspective within the organization. The three years of internal work and organizational consolidation since the formation of the CNMI became evident in the debate’s level of instensity in the Women’s Panel of Nurío and in the arguments the women used to defend their space.

Although it is still premature to speak of a consolidated national movement of indigenous women or of a national indigenous feminism, the Zapatista women, together with the members of the CNMI, have made us recognize that the struggles against racism, sexism, and economic exploitation, can and should be complementary and simultaneous struggles. The ethnocentrism of Mexican feminism is being questioned and the movement is being challenged to re-examine the importance of ethnicity and class in understanding the processes of women’s identity in multicultural Mexico. The contributions of indigenous women, whose voices we can find in the documents produced in their congresses, meetings, workshops and essays and interviews in feminist journals, tell us of the necessity to construct a more inclusive and multicultural feminism. It is up to us to learn to listen to the claims made by these dissident voices.

R. Aída Hernández Castillo is a researcher-professor in the Center for Advanced Studies in Social Anthropology (CIESAS) and her latest books are Histories and Stories from Chiapas: Border Identities in Southern Mexico (University of Texas Press, 2001) and The Other Word: Women and Violence in Chiapas (Ed. IWGIA, 2001). Translated from the Spanish by NACLA.

1. Patricia Artía Rodríguez, Desatar las Voces, Construir las Utopías: La Coordinadora de Mujeres Indígenas en Oaxaca, MA Thesis in Social Anthropology, 2001, CIESAS, Mexico City.
2. Interviewed by Ixtic Duarte for Estudios Latinoamericanos de la Facultad de Ciensas Políticas de la UNAM.
3. For the experience of Guatemalan women, see Morna McLeod, ed., Identidad: Rostros sin máscara. Reflexiones sobre Cosmovisión Género y Etnicidad (Guatemala City: Oxfam-Australia, 2000) and Algunos colores del arcoiris: Realidad de las Mujeres Mayas, Document by Fundación para la Democracia “Manuel Colom Arqueta” and Grupo de Mujeres Mayas Kaqla, Guatemala, November 2000.
4. For a description of the ways the EZLN has appropriated gender demands through the Revolutionary Women’s Law and its impact on the organizing processes of indigenous women, see R. Aída Hernández Castillo, “Reinventing Tradition: The Women’s Law,” in Akwe Kon: A Journal of Indigenous Issues, Vol. XI, No. 2, Summer 1994, pp. 67-71; Margara Millán “Mujeres indígenas y zapatismo: nuevos horizontes de visibilidad” in Cuadernos Agrarios, No.13, January-June 1996, pp.152-167; Giomar Rovira, Mujeres de Maíz (Mexico City: Editorial Era, 1997).
5. For an example of how academic work silences the voices of indigenous women in Chiapas, see Jesús Morales Bermúdez, “El Congreso Indígena de Chiapas: Un Testimonio,” in Anuario 1991, Instituto Chiapaneco de Cultura, Tuxtla Gutíerrez, 1992, pp. 241-371.
6. For an analisis of these changes in the campesino economy, see George Collier, Basta! Land and the Zapatista Rebellion in Chiapas (Oakland: Food First, 1994), and Diana Rus, “La crisis económica y la mujer indígena: El caso de San Juan Chamula, Chiapas,” INAREMAC, San Cristobal de las Casas, 1990.
7. See Collier and Merielle Flood, “Changing Gender Relations in Zinacantán, Mexico,” in Research in Economic Anthropology, Vol. 15, 1994.
8. See June Nash, ed., “Maya Household Production in the Modern World,” in The Impact of Global Exchange on Middle American Artisans (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993).
9. This organization plays a very important role in the formation of the National Network of Rural Consultants, which brought together organizations working on gender issues from various parts of Mexico.
10. This brief survey of feminist organizations’ work in rural zones is by no means exhaustive. Many other organizations have followed the work of the pioneer organizations that established dialog with indigenous women. An important example of these is K’inal Antzetik, whose work with women from the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women (CNMI) and other feminist organizations that are part of the National Network of Rural Consultants.
11. “Mujeres Indígenas protestan contra el Ejército,” La Jornada, April 9, 1996, p.12.
12. See R. Aída Hernandez Castillo, “Fratricidal war or Ethnocidal Strategy? Womens’ Experience with Political Violence in Chiapas,” in Victoria Sanford, ed., Engaged Anthropologies, forthcoming, University of Arizona Press, 2002.
13. CNMI, 1997.
14. See Sylvia Marcos, “Mujeres indígenas: Notas sobre un feminismo naciente,” in Cuadernos Feministas, Año 1, No. 2, 1997; Sara Lovera and Nelly Palom, Las Alzadas (Mexico City: Ed. CIMAC, 1999); R. Aída Hernández and Olivia Gall, “La Historia Silenciada: el papel de las campesinas indígenas en las rebeliones coloniales y poscoloniales de Chiapas,”in Patricia Revelo, Debates Actuales en los Estudios de Género (Mexico City: CIESAS, forthcoming, 2002).
15. R. Aída Hernández Castillo, The Other Word: Women and Violence in Chiapas (Santa Cruz, Bolivia: Ed. IWGIA, 2001).

Tags: Zapatistas, Mexico, Chiapas, indigenous politics, feminism, identity, women

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