Zapatismo: a feminine movement

IssueJune - August 2001
Feature by Gustavo Esteva, Nicole Blanc

In this article we present the conjecture that Zapatismo is a feminine movement. It is not feminist: it was not organised mainly, exclusively or expressly for the defence of women's rights, nor was it based on the conventional claims of many feminist traditions. In describing it as feminine we want to suggest not only that women had and have a decisive role in its conception and realisation, but also that they gave it colour and meaning. The orientation and practices of Zapatismo openly struggle against all forms of patriarchy, including those of modern Western sexism, and also reflect a feminine style of leadership and action.

According to the Zapatistas, its army is the heart of its movement, not the movement itself. For them, to follow your heart is to find the path towards dignity. Both notions, of feminine inspiration, contribute to explain why the Zapatistas put their weapons to silence, 12 days after using them; and why they became models of nonviolence, opposed to all forms of militarism and clearly separated from all guerrilla tradition.

Beyond symbolism

Women have been prominent in all the public events of the Zapatistas. Comandanta Ramona, known since the Dialogue of the Cathedral two months after the uprising, received special notoriety as the only representative of the Zapatistas at the First National Indian Congress, held in Mexico City in 1995. Comandanta Ana María pronounced the main speech of the Zapatistas in the First Intercontinental Encounter for Humanity and Against Neoliberalism, held in 1996 in La Realidad, Chiapas. Comandanta Ester was the main speaker of the Zapatista delegation in the Federal Congress in 2001.

All of them, and many others, revealed on a number of occasions both their personal talent and the prominent role of women in the Zapatista movement. They also showed how much the movement appreciated the historical and symbolic importance of presenting its main proposals, in critical moments, through the voice of a woman. Beyond symbolism, it is significant that women have had significant participation in all Zapatista delegations, and that its largest delegation, when 5000 Zapatistas travelled all over the country, was made up of couples of men and women.

In the Zapatista communities, daily exposed to the pressure of the military siege, women have directly confronted the troops with no other weapon but their dignity, in the best tradition of civil resistance. When the aggressions increased, and the army were killing the men before their eyes and forcing them to escape to the mountains, many women decided to stay in the communities and confront the troops—to protect the community, the children ... and the men. “What else could we do?”, commented Comandanta Margarita, of Morelia.

The Revolutionary Law of Women

Due to all these entirely visible facts, it is said that Zapatismo could not exist or be understood without the participation of women. That is true but insufficient. The same can be said about almost everything happening in the world. We still need to ask ourselves: To what extent is or is not such participation an additional burden imposed on women? Does Zapatismo really include, in its orientation and practices, the struggle against the oppression of women?

Hard facts offer an answer to these questions. The new burden on women was not imposed: they courageously and responsibly assumed it, as part and the expression of their own struggle. And this struggle, the women's struggle, publicly appeared with Zapatismo itself and within it, on 1 January 1994, through its Revolutionary Law of Women. Women's claims were also included in the national and international consultation on the destiny of the movement in 1996. They were also included in all the negotiations with the government, as one of the issues or themes requiring specific treatment. The march of the International Day of Women, in San Cristóbal, in 1996, was probably the first march of indigenous women in history.

Women's claims are not just prominently included in the Zapatistas proposals. They also define a pattern of internal changes in the Zapatista communities. Within them there is increasing participation and influence of women in the decision processes and community affairs. There is a continual correction of the patriarchal bias of rooted customs or the sexist bias of new behaviour; the communities advance every day towards the elimination of all traditional or modern forms of masculine violence.

This is not idealisation or romanticism. Women's oppression in indigenous communities, Zapatista or not, is still there. The comandantas celebrate women's advances, but denounce at the same time the problems that persist and the resistance of men to their solution. Before the Federal Congress, Comandanta Ester exposed a lucid account of such oppression. On that occasion, María de Jesús Patricio, speaking in the name of the National Indian Congress, talked about the subject at great length. She celebrated valued indigenous customs or recent changes, but at the same time identified many customs in relation to women that should be modified, observing that this applies not only to indigenous communities but to the whole of society.

A feminine character

Communiques, documents and facts associated with the Zapatistas clearly demonstrate their full acknowledgement of the gender question and their decision to approach it in depth. As Comandanta Ramona said, Zapatismo implied “an awakening to a struggle against a present and a past that threaten the women as a probable future”. The Zapatista women have concentrated in one struggle the many facets of their oppression. Azucena Santys, a young Zapatista from Morelia, synthesised it in the following terms: “We were used to having two governments, that of our men and that of the State. We are now organising ourselves to learn more about our rights, educate our men and govern ourselves.”

All this has begun to be acknowledged and is awakening increasing interest. But we would like to go a little farther. We believe that women's participation in Zapatismo has not only implied an inclusion of their claims, as women, and a stimulation of profound transformations of gender relations in the communities. It has also given to the movement an original and distinctive character. Some of its peculiarities that attract a lot of attention come from the mark made on it by the women, to the point of giving to it what we describe as a feminine character.

Gender is not broken in the indigenous communities. Areas and functions still subsist and are reserved for each gender, and an asymetric and complementary relation between genders that does not necessarily imply oppression of one by the other. This situation gives women a decisive weight in the life of the community, comparatively higher than that of women in the modern society, where they have been reduced, together with the men, to genderless economic individuals, and where women tend to be treated as the second sex. Such conditions may produce the worst of all possible worlds in the communities, when patriarchal oppression is combined with sexist discrimination, but it also has vigorous liberating elements.

In the communities, the women struggle for equality as justice, which requires treating the different differently, rather than equality as sameness—which requires treating everyone in the same way. This attitude that women were adopting in their struggle against patriarchal oppression in the communities, was extended to their indigenous condition, within national society. It clearly marked Zapatismo in its defence of indigenous rights, which never fell to the temptation of homogenising egalitarianism.

Shaping the movement

This situation helps to explain the great importance of the women since the beginning of the movement: without their full acceptance and courageous participation, the movement could not have taken place. This also helps to explain what happened later, when the feminine form of perceiving the world, the basic attitudes of the women, their conceptions of politics and power, got an increasing influence in the shape of the movement.

Some of the main principles of Zapatismo, like “commanding by obeying”, “to walk at the pace of the slowest one”, and “to listen as you walk”, are not theoretical statements or abstract values of a new utopia, but concrete shapes and styles of the movement as it is formed and reformed. For us, these are expressions of women's practices, rather than men's. It has been their inspiration and influence that determined this specific character of Zapatismo.

It is well known that a small guerrilla group, made up of of indigenous and non- indigenous “ideologised” men, attempted in 1983 to start a revolutionary action in Selva Lacandona in the Latin America guerrilla tradition, following the steps of Che Guevara. This group lost in its confrontation with the communities, as they themselves confessed later. But they learned to listen to the other, and Zapatismo was born after this interaction. We can speculate that the women helped to produce the defeat of the ideologised group and the new spirit that created the movement. And that it was also their influence which determined the movement's lack of interest in “seizing power”, the power up there, the power that in time attempts to impose from the top down, in a very masculine way, the project of society proposed as revolutionary goal.

Gender reaffirmation

In the indigenous world, there is the trend—and in many cases the real possibility—that women contribute the content of political action, its substance and orientation, while the practical exercise of this action and particularly the mediation with the external world remains in the hands of men. Even today, many indigenous women refuse to accept “political” functions, which until now have been exclusive to men but which they are now willing to share with women. This attitude, considered by some feminists as an expression of the ideological backwardness of women, may be seen instead as a gender reaffirmation, when they protect their own areas and functions in a way that far from marginalising them from political action, put them in its centre. It is our conjecture that the Zapatista women have defined the main content and orientation of the movement. In any case, given the importance of women in Zapatismo, its reduction to the figure of the now famous subcomandante Marcos, whose great qualities we fully recognise, seems to us a racist and macho prejudice. It attributes all the capacities and virtues of the movement to its only white man, as if the indigenous people could not conceive and promote it and the women have no importance in it. This prejudice has been disseminated by the media and the government, not by the Zapatistas. It is time to dissolve it. We can not, in this brief text, elaborate more on our conjecture of the feminine character of Zapatismo or on the more fundamental question of the importance of women in any project of social transformation. In our view, such question should occupy a central place in the debate about the political agenda in the current conditions of the world. To include women in the army or the police does not change the character of militarism. Perhaps we can only leave it behind and pave the way for nonviolence when the organisation of the society become inspired by the feminine ethos.