Before the Zapatista uprising, women in the indigenous villages of Chiapas were often forced into arranged marriages, had little access to birth control, and domestic violence was generally considered normal and acceptable. A woman could not leave the house without her husband’s permission, and women’s confinement to the private sphere translated into very limited participation in public life. This history of marginalization serves as a backdrop for the striking changes that have taken place in Zapatista territory.
Women have played an important role in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN, as insurgents in the rebel army, as political leaders in the civilian support base communities, as health and education promoters in the construction of autonomous infrastructure, and as members of economic collectives in the development of the local and regional economy. Women’s involvement in the EZLN helped shape the Zapatista movement, which, in turn, opened new spaces for women and led to dramatic changes in their lives. Zapatista women have participated at all levels of the movement to fight for justice and dignity for the indigenous people of Chiapas and, at the same time, were able to transform their own lives, their families, and their communities.
In 1994, the EZLN captured the world’s attention with its brief armed uprising, demanding land and freedom, justice, and equality for the rural population of Chiapas, Mexico. In the two decades since then, this indigenous rebellion has inspired grassroots activists around the world.
That year, International Women’s Day was just two months after the Zapatista uprising. The world was just getting to know the Zapatista movement, and Zapatista women in particular touched many of the EZLN’s supporters. The EZLN had dubbed itself “the voice of the voiceless,” while the indigenous women of Chiapas were the most subjugated, the most forgotten of an already marginalized people, breaking this history of silence, rising up to take on their government, and inspiring movements all over the world to challenge global capitalism. During the EZLN’s first public celebration of International Women’s Day, Captain Irma made the following speech:
“I would like to invite all our compañeros, from the cities and from the countryside, to join in our struggle and our demands. Women continue to be the most exploited … In order for this no longer to be the case, we need to take up arms, together with our compañeros, so they will understand that women can fight too, with a weapon in our hands … We will continue onward with our struggle until we achieve our demands: bread, democracy, peace, independence, freedom, housing, and justice, because these things do not exist for us, the poor … We don’t want to live like animals anymore. Today, more than ever, we should struggle together so that one day we will be free.”
“Zapatista women have participated at all levels of the movement to fight for justice and dignity for the indigenous people of Chiapas and, at the same time, were able to transform their own lives, their families, and their communities.”
In the years before and after the 1994 uprising, Zapatista women experienced social changes that often take generations to unfold.
“The women organized to form a cooperative and we began to see that women can also participate in meetings and assemblies,” Comandanta Micaela told me in 2001. “From there we started thinking, little by little, about how we want our lives to be. We want to change all those ideas that have been put in our heads for the last five hundred years. So we organized and now women participate more. Even if they have children, they can leave the house for a while and go to a meeting or a women’s gathering, help out with the women’s cooperative, or go to a health workshop.”
It is impossible to separate this series of transformations from women’s involvement in the Zapatista movement. During a regional women’s gathering in the Zapatista village of Morelia in 2001, women described this process:
“Thanks to our organization (the EZLN), we have opened our eyes and opened our hearts. It was in the organization that they first began to tell us that how we were living was not right. We joined the struggle and that’s when things started to change and we stopped being oppressed. Now we can participate in political work. In community and regional assemblies we participate side by side with the men. We have the right to hold any position within our organization. We also have the right to leave the house, to dance, to sing, to play sports, to go to a community party. Today there is hope and freedom in our lives.”
Zapatista women from the village of Amador Hernandez prepare to stand off with Mexican soldiers.| Photo: Tim Russo
In the year 2000, Zapatista women joined forces with women from Mexican civil society to celebrate International Women’s Day with a large women’s march in the city of San Cristobal de las Casas. This joint effort was the first of its kind, and a manifestation of the close relationship that Zapatista and non-Zapatista women had built since 1994. On the morning of March 8, more than 8,000 women gathered on the outskirts of San Cristobal and then marched through the streets toward the center of town.
The Zapatista women marched first—faces covered by ski masks, some with babies in their arms, others carrying handwritten signs. One sign read, “I like when you give me hugs, I like when you give me kisses, but most of all, I like when you do the dishes.” A group of non-Zapatista women marched behind them.
“...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.”
While the Zapatista women were all from rural, indigenous communities, the non-Zapatista women were a more diverse group: indigenous and mestiza, urban and rural, poor and middle class. It was a typical women’s march in its demands to respect women’s rights and equality. It was a typical Zapatista march in its demands to demilitarize Chiapas and comply with the peace agreement that the Mexican government had signed with the EZLN, but never implemented. What was unique was the combination of the two.
Gloria, a young Tzeltal woman from the Zapatista village Diez de Abril, attended the march that year. “I was very impressed,” she told me at the march. “I really like that we marched together with women from civil society. It was encouraging to have them accompanying us. Now we know they are our compañeras and we are more united.”
Ending patriarchy does not happen overnight, even in the context of a revolutionary social movement with a real commitment to women’s rights, and Zapatista women recognize that there is still work to be done. Zapatista women often frame their hopes for their collective liberation in terms of the life they envision for their daughters. Guadalupe, an older woman from the Zapatista region Miguel Hidalgo, said, “I’m making this effort because, even if I never see it myself, I want my daughters not to suffer the way we suffered, with the landowners for example. They’ll be able to go to school, they’ll know how to read and write. We’ve already lived through what we lived through, but we want our daughters to have the right to an education.”
Eva, another Zapatista elder from Miguel Hidalgo, added, “The path of this struggle is long and there is much we still want to accomplish. There are many things we will probably not achieve ourselves. It will be up to our grandchildren, our great-grandchildren, and our great-great-grandchildren.”
From the civil rights movement in the United States to the Sandinista Revolution in Nicaragua, from the campaign against apartheid in South Africa to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, women have fought side by side with men for their people’s freedom. In recent months, many have noted women’s involvement in the Kurdish resistance to the Islamic State group.
As women all over the world celebrate International Women’s Day in 2015, 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.
This article is adapted from “Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories,” published by Seven Stories Press in February 2015.
Hilary Klein has been engaged in social justice and community organizing for two decades. She lived in Chiapas, Mexico, for several years, where she worked with women’s projects in Zapatista communities, and she is the author of “Compañeras: Zapatista Women’s Stories.”