[News] Zapatista Women Encounter Themselves
news at freedomarchives.org
Tue Jan 8 14:50:55 EST 2008
January 8, 2008
As the Rebel Year Turns
Zapatista Women Encounter Themselves
By JOHN ROSS
La Garrucha, Chiapas.
Dozens of Zapatista companeras, many of them Tzeltal Maya from the
Chiapas lowlands decked out in rainbow-hued ribbons and ruffles,
their dark eyes framed by "pasamontanas" and "paliacates" that masked
their personas, emerged from the rustic auditorium to the applause of
hundreds of international feminists gathered outside at the
conclusion of the opening session of an all-women's "Encuentro"
hosted by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) here at year's end.
The Tzeltaleras' line of march which resembled a colorful if bizarre
fashion parade, seemed an auspicious start to the rebels' third
"encounter" this year between "the peoples of the world" and the
Zapatista communities and comandantes - an anti-globalization
conclave last December and an "Encuentro" in defense of indigenous
land this summer preceded the womens' gathering.
Although the call for the event was issued under the pen of the
EZLN's quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, the author of a
recently published erotic coffee table book in which his penis plays
the role of a masked guerrillero, the impetus for the women's
"Encuentro" sprung from the loins of the Zapatista companeras.
Last July, at the conclusion of a meeting with farmers from a dozen
counties in the hamlet with the haunting name of La Realidad ("The
Reality"), a young rebel from that community, "Evarilda", apparently
without clearing the invitation with the EZLN's General Command,
called for the all-womens' encounter, explaining that men were
invited to help with the logistics but would be asked to stay home
and mind the children and the farm animals while the women plotted
True to Evarilda's word, at the December 29th-31st gathering which
drew 300-500 non-Mexican mostly women activists to this village,
officially the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez, and which
honored the memory of the late Comandanta Ramona (d. January 2006),
men took a decidedly secondary role. Signs posted around the
"Caracol" called "Resistance Until the New Dawn", a sort of Zapatista
cultural/political center, advised the companeros that they could not
act as "spokespersons, translators, or representatives in the plenary
sessions." Instead, their activities should be confined "to preparing
and serving food, washing dishes, sweeping, cleaning out the
latrines, fetching firewood, and minding the children."
Indeed, some young Zapatista men donned aprons imprinted with legends
like "tomato" and "EZLN" to work in the kitchens. Meanwhile, older
men sat quietly on wooden benches outside of the auditorium,
sometimes signaling amongst themselves when a companera made a strong
point or smiling in pride after a daughter or wife or sister or
mother spoke their histories to the assembly.
The role of women within the Zapatista structure has been crucial
since the rebellion's gestation. When the founders of the EZLN,
radicals from northern Mexican cities, first arrived in the
Tzeltal-Tojolabal lowlands or "Canadas" of southeastern Chiapas,
women were still being sold by their families as chattel in marriage.
Often, they were kept monolingual by the husbands as a means of
control, turned into baby factories, and had little standing in the
community. Those from the outside offered independence and invited
the young women to the training camps in the mountain where they
would learn to wield a weapon and a smattering of Spanish and become
a part of the EZLN's fighting force. 14 years ago, on January 1st
1994, when the Zapatistas seized the cities of San Cristobal and
Ocosingo and five other county seats, women comprised a third of the
rebel army - women fighters were martyred in the bloody battle for Ocosingo.
Key to bringing the companeras to the rebel cause was "The
Revolutionary Law of Women", officially promulgated that first
January 1st from the balcony of the San Cristobal city hall which
decreed that women should have control over their own lives and their
bodies. The law, which had been carried into the Indian communities
by Comandantas Susana and Ramona, often meeting with hostility from
the companeros, was "our toughest battle" Sub Marcos would later note.
Integrating women into the military structure, which was not tied to
local community, proved easier than cultivating participation in the
civil structure, which was rooted in the life of the villages.
Although women occupied five seats on the 19-member Clandestine
Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI), the EZLN's General
Command, their numbers fell far shorter in 29 autonomous municipal
councils and the five "Juntas de Buen Gobierno" ("Good Government
Committees") which administrate Zapatista regional autonomy.
But as the Zapatista social infrastructure grew, women became health
and education promoters and leaders in the commissions that planned
these campaigns and their profile has improved in the JBGs and autonomias.
Women's Lib a la Zapatista has been boosted by the rebels'
prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol in their communities.
Whereas many inland Maya towns like San Juan Chamula are saturated in
alcohol with soaring rates of spousal and child abuse, the Zapatista
zone has the lowest abuse indicators in the state, according to
numbers offered by the womens' commission of the Chiapas state
congress. As a state, Chiapas has one of the highest numbers of
feminicides in the Mexican union - 1456 women were murdered here
between 1993 and 2004, more than doubling Chihuahua (604) in which
the notorious "Muertas" of Ciudad Juarez are recorded. The low
incidence of violence against women in the zone of Zapatista
influence is more remarkable because much of the lowland rebel
territory straddles the Guatemalan border, a country where 500 women
are murdered each year.
With the men tending the kids and cleaning latrines, the women told
their stories in the plenaries. Many of the younger companeras like
Evarilda had grown up in the rebellion - which is now in its 24th
year (14 on public display) - and spoke of learning to read and write
in rebel schools and their work as social promoters or as teachers or
as farmers and mothers. Zapatista grandmothers told of the first
years of the rebellion and veteran comandantas like Susana, who spoke
movingly of her longtime companera Ramona, "the smallest of the
small", recalled how in the war, the men and the women learned to
share housekeeping tasks like cooking and washing clothes.
"Many of the companeros still do not want to understand our demands,"
Comandanta Sandra admonished, "but we cannot struggle against the mal
gobierno without them."
The Zapatista companeras' struggle for inclusion and parity with
their male counterparts grates against separatist politics that some
militant first-world feminists who journeyed to the jungle espouse.
Lesbian couples and collectives seemed a substantial faction in the
first-world feminist delegations. Although no Zapatista women has
publicly come out, the EZLN has been zealous in its inclusion of
Lesbians and Gays and incorporate their struggles in the rainbow of
marginated constitutioncies with whose cause they align themselves.
Sadly, the Encuentro of the Women of the World with the Zapatista
Women did not provoke much formal interchange between the rebel
companeras and first-world feminists - who were limited to
five-minute presentations on the final day of the event. Nonetheless,
a surprise Zapatista womens' theater piece did imply a critique: in
the skit, a planeload of first-world feminists with funny hair
(played by the companeras) lands in the jungle to deliver the poor
Indian women from oppression.
Among international delegations in attendance were women
representatives from agrarian movements as far removed from Chiapas
as Brazil and Senegal, organized by Via Campesina, an alliance that
represents millions of poor farmers in the third world, and a group
of militant women from Venice, Italy who have been battling expansion
of a U.S. military base in that historic city. Political prisoners
were represented by Trinidad Ramirez, partner of imprisoned Ignacio
del Valle (67 year sentence), leader of the farmers of Atenco. A
message from "Colonel Aurora" (Gloria Arenas), a jailed leader of the
Popular Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI), who now supports the
EZLN, was read. Although he reputedly lives only a few villages away,
Subcomandante Marcos (or his penis) did not put in an appearance at
the womens' gathering.
Ladling out chicken soup at her makeshift food stand, Dona Laura told
La Jornada chronicler Hermann Bellinghausen that once the womens'
"Encuentro" had concluded, everything would return to normal - "only
normal would be different now."
Although the Encounter amply demonstrated the increasing empowerment
of the Zapatista companeras, how much of what was said actually
rubbed off on those who came from the outside is open to question. "I
didn't really get a lot of it," confided one young
non-Spanish-speaking activist on her way home to northern California
to report back on the womens' gathering to her Zapatista solidarity group.
Be that as it may, the EZLN is going to need all the women - and men
- it can muster in the months to come. 2008 looms as a difficult year
for the rebels with the "mal gobierno" threatening to distribute
lands the Zapatistas recovered in 1994 to rival Indian farmer
organizations and paramilitary activity on the uptick.
As has always been the case since this unique rebellion germinated,
the Zapatistas turn the corner into another year in struggle.
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