The Zapatista Women

By Jan Chaiken and Marcia Chaiken

The Zapatistas are an organized activist group in the Mexican state of Chiapas, east of the state of Oaxaca and bordering on Guatemala. They perhaps are best remembered for their military occupation of numerous towns in Chiapas and hostile takeover of city squares in 1994 during their march to demand changes from the federal government in Mexico City. Currently, however, they are a peaceable, grassroots leftist movement that works in cooperation with the federal government of Mexico and the state of Chiapas.

The Zapatistas are recognized for developing successful local structures for political, economic, and cultural autonomy. Their adherents are mostly indigenous people (primarily Mayan), although the leader of the movement from the beginning (then known as Subcomandante Marcos) is not indigenous Maya. The Zapatistas went public and began taking control of territory in Chiapas on the day that NAFTA went into effect in 1994, as a symbolic way of emphasizing their opposition to globalization and their anticipation that NAFTA would have deleterious effects on rural and indigenous communities – an assessment which turned out to be basically correct.

From their founding in 1983 until they went public in 1994, the Zapatistas gradually built their membership, organizational structure, and laws that would govern their operations. In December 1993 they enacted their “Revolutionary Law of Women,” which was the foundation for the role of women in their movement. This 1993 law provided that women, without regard to their race, creed, or political affiliation, could hold positions in battle or leadership according to their desire and ability. The law stated that women would have equal pay, access to employment and land; could decide how many children to have; had first preference (along with their children) for medical attention; could select their partners; were not obligated to marry; and were protected by legal provisions against assault and maltreatment.

Although these idealistic assertions seem forward-looking even today, they were in marked contrast with the actual status of indigenous women elsewhere and represent continuing aspirations for activist Zapatista women in their own communities. Elsewhere in Chiapas and many other Mexican states, indigenous women are normally prevented from owning or inheriting land. They are typically forced into arranged marriages at young ages and often have 10 or more children.

Still, at the turn of the millennium, over half of indigenous women had no knowledge of contraception and a larger proportion had no access to contraceptives. Obtaining an abortion was very difficult and, if done, often fatal. As among many other indigenous groups in North America, domestic violence was widespread and the disappearance of many women without explanation was relatively commonplace.

According to historians, the participation of women as Zapatista guerrillas far exceeded their role in any other revolutionary or political movement in Latin America. Two women, Comandanta Ramona and Comandanta Susana, were top-ranking and well-known figures in communicating between the armed forces and the pueblos being run by the Zapatistas. By 2004, women constituted a third of the armed forces of the Zapatistas, and half of the support personnel. The influence of a handful of women in key leadership roles transformed the lives of women in the movement. Working within the Zapatista structure enabled the women to free themselves from the misery of their previous ways of living, to take on a wide range of responsible occupations, to select when and whom they marry, to have 2 to 4 children, and to fight for better conditions of health, literacy, education and justice for their communities, particularly women.

Initially the focus of women’s participation was to support the revolution, but gradually the Zapatistas took on a statewide and national mission of ending economic gender inequality, dismantling patriarchy, fighting violence against women, and investigating the disappearance of women. At the national level in Mexico, the Zapatistas have taken an unwavering anti-capitalist stance and are committed to local solutions to problems. For example, alcohol is prohibited in Zapatista-controlled villages — a measure that has reportedly substantially reduced domestic violence.

Beginning in 2018, the women Zapatistas have expanded their horizons by sponsoring international “gatherings of women who struggle.” Their invitation to participate in the 2019 gathering stated, “We fight against discrimination at home, in the street, at school, at work, on public transportation, against both those people we know and those who are strangers. . . . [Some] want to tell us we’re asking for it, that we are at fault for dying. No, we aren’t simply dying, we are being raped, murdered, cut up and disappeared. Anybody who faults us is sexist, and even women can demonstrate sexist thinking.” They are highlighting and addressing a problem that persists not only in Chiapas, not only in Mexico, but among indigenous women in numerous countries. Activists have established the social media hashtag #MMIW (missing and murdered indigenous women) to bring attention to this violence.

In the run up to the 2019 international gathering in Chiapas, the US president issued an executive order to establish a task force on missing and murdered American Indians and Alaska Natives. It stated that there is an ongoing and serious problem of missing and murdered indigenous people in the US, especially women and girls. Federal studies in the US have shown that native women are killed at a rate 10 times the national average. Other studies have made clear that men who rape, assault and murder indigenous women in the US are more likely to be white than Indian. Simply convening a task force to talk about these statistics is unlikely to bring about any change.

Twenty years ago pioneering collaborations between US city police, county sheriffs, tribal police, tribal councils and victim service organizations were making progress toward establishing networks that endangered women could access and escape violence. The amount of federal funds needed to foster these local collaborations was minimal and served primarily to validate and bolster these services. When the US federal administration changed, the funds and focus were withdrawn. It is about time that, heeding the cry of the Zapatista and other indigenous women, federal, state and local governments collaborate to provide access to services so desperately needed to save lives.

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