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Guiomar Rovira, 'Women of Maize: indigenous women and the Zapatista rebellion'

Latin America Bureau, 2000. ISBN 1 899365 30 3. £8.99

This is a book to make you cry with pain or inspiration and joy. Some of the testimonies in it come from the depths of a misery that drives young women, just starting out in life, to declare that “we prefer to die fighting than because of cholera or dysentery”.

Others speak of the incredible strength and determination of women rejecting their traditional roles in order to struggle against poverty, domestic and political violence, the absence of healthcare and education. Mention of the Zapatistas usually conjures up images of balaclava'd guerrillas, especially the now- legendary Subcomandante Marcos. The masked women of the EZLN are here. They include Comandante Ramona and Major Ana Maria, senior members of the army and of Zapatista decision-making bodies. They also include women in their teens, recently joined up as part of a growing resistance by indigenous peoples to the oppression and degradation imposed by the Mexican government and mestizo society.

One of the important aspects of this book, however, is its emphasis on the EZLN and its brief excursion into armed rebellion as just one facet of the Zapatista struggle. These accounts are more concerned with the way that Zapatista politics in Chiapas have empowered indigenous peoples, including women, to analyse traditional culture and to reject those aspects of it which collude with external oppression to marginalise and degrade them.

Zapatista questioning of power relations is seen to have opened up spaces for women in the Zapatista communities to demand rights such as healthcare, contraception and education, and to reject practices such as forced marriage and lifelong childbearing. The assertion of those rights within their communities is then seen as informing the outward struggle, making demands of the Mexican government and Chiapaneco state authorities as well as their own menfolk.

Within a framework of radical democratic means of decision-making, these women are seen as developing their own means of resistance, both violent and non-violent. Their struggle has a long way to go – there are some damning accounts of chauvinism and insensitivity from Zapatista men too – but the accounts of women already empowered and dignified by it are incredibly emotive.

As a source of anger, information and inspiration, this book cannot be recommended too highly.

Topics: Women | Global South