BY Brenda Lozano in Features | 08 JAN 19
Featured in
Issue 200

Brenda Lozano on The Zapatista Women’s Movement

‘By changing oppressive patterns on many levels, the movement has much to say about feminism in the present moment’

BY Brenda Lozano in Features | 08 JAN 19

With their uprising in Mexico on 1 January 1994, the soldiers of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) brought about a critical social awakening. Giving voice to those who had none, they fought against the marginalization of indigenous peoples, against racism, classism, colonialism, capitalism. As the NAFTA treaty between Mexico, Canada and the US loomed, the clandestine guerrilla operation was also preparing, in the broiling Lacandon Jungle, the Ley revolucionaria de mujeres (Women’s Revolutionary Law), which was made public on the day of the Zapatista uprising. Unlike other guerrilla forces in Latin America, the EZLN has, from the start, stood against the patriarchy. 

In indigenous communities, women are often subject to the control of men and families tend to have rigid hierarchical structures; mothers teach their daughters to do what men tell them, no questions asked. Twenty-six indigenous communities from different states around Mexico participated in debates and working groups as the Ley revolucionaria de mujeres was being written. This work allowed women to cast off the control of men and the mandate to have children at a young age; it allowed them to gain access to education, to exercise their political rights and to be represented equally in the leadership of the EZLN. By changing oppressive patterns on many levels, the Zapatista Women’s Movement has much to say about feminism in the present moment. Ana María, who at 29 was a member of the High Command, explained in Guiomar Rovira’s 1996 book Mujeres de maíz (Women of Corn), what the EZLN meant to them: ‘Many women choose to join because they see they have no rights in their own communities, they have no right to education or to develop; it’s like they have them blindfolded, kept from knowing anything; they’re mistreated, exploited, I mean, the exploitation that a man suffers, a woman suffers much worse, because she is much more marginalized.’

For Subcomandante Marcos, the first uprising of the EZLN actually took place on 8 March 1993, when the revolutionary laws to include women were approved. (They made a point of meeting on International Women’s Day.) This is how he describes it in Mujeres de maíz: 

‘Susana – a Tzotzil commander – refused to be intimidated by anything or anyone and pressed on: “We want not to be forced to marry against our wishes. We want to have only as many children as we want and can care for. We want the right to participate in community affairs. We want the right to speak our mind and have our word be respected. We want the right to an education, and even to be drivers.” She went on in a similar vein until she had finished. A heavy silence fell over the group. The women’s laws that Susana had just read meant a real revolution for indigenous communities. The men looked at one another nervously, uncomfortably. Suddenly, almost simultaneously, the translators – women speaking in different indigenous languages – finished translating and, in a movement that kept growing, the compañeras involved began applauding and talking among themselves. Needless to say, the women’s laws were unanimously approved.’

The Women’s Revolutionary Law of the EZLN contains, among others, the following statements: ‘Women have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in the place and at the level that their capacity and will dictates without any discrimination based on race, creed, colour or political affiliation. Women have the right to work and to receive a just salary. Women can hold leadership positions in the organization and hold military rank in the revolutionary armed forces.’ Sylvia Marcos’s Mujeres, indígenas, rebeldes, Zapatistas (Women, Indigenous, Rebels, Zapatistas, 2011) recounts something said in 1994 by Comandanta Ramona, one of the principal women of the EZLN, which resonates with the same force today: ‘The Zapatistas would not be the same without its new and rebellious women, and we Indian women have also raised our voices to say: Never again to a Mexico without us. Never again to a revolution without us. Never again to a life without us.’ 

In a December 2017 communiqué from the Indigenous Revolutionary Clandestine Committee’s website, General Command of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation and on behalf of all the girls, young women, adult women and women elders, as well as women living and dead, councilwomen, women representatives of the Good Government Council, promotoras, milicianas, insurgentas and the Zapatista bases of support, the Comandantas Jessica, Esmeralda, Lucía, and Zenaida, and little Defensa Zapatista extended the following invitation:

Compañeras, sisters:

We greet you with respect and affection as the women that we are – women who struggle, resist and rebel against the chauvinist and patriarchal state. We know well that this bad system not only exploits, represses, robs and disrespects us as human beings, but that it exploits, represses, robs and disrespects us all over again as women. And we know it because, worse still, all over the world we are being murdered. And the murderers – always the system behind a man’s face – don’t think twice about killing us because they are covered up for, protected and even rewarded by the police, the courts, the media, bad governments and all those who remain at the top thanks to our suffering. But we are not afraid, or if we are we control our fear, and we don’t give in, we don’t give up, and we don’t sell out. So, if you are a woman and a fighter, and you are against what is being done to us as women; if you are not scared (or you are, but you control your fear), then we invite you to gather with us, to speak to us and listen to us as the women that we are […] If you want to bring your sons who are still small, that’s fine, you can. The experience will begin to get it into their heads that we women will no longer put up with violence, humiliation, mockery or any other fuckery from men or from the system. And if a male over 16 years of age wants to come with you, that’s up to you, but he won’t get past the kitchen. He might be able to hear some of the activities and learn something, though. In sum, men can’t come unless they are accompanied by a woman. That’s all for now; we await you here, compañeras and sisters. 

From the mountains of the Mexican southeast

Main Image: Zapatista Encuentro: the 1996 Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism. Courtesy: Flickr; photograph: Julian Stallabrass

Brenda Lozano is a writer, essayist and editor. Her latest novel, Witches, was released in April 2022 and is published by Hachette.