[News] Zapatista Women Encounter Themselves

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Tue Jan 8 14:50:55 EST 2008


http://www.counterpunch.org/ross01082008.html

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 
against capitalism.

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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