[News] Women up in arms: Zapatistas and Rojava Kurds embrace a new gender politics

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Thu Mar 26 14:00:02 EDT 2015

    Women up in arms: Zapatistas and Rojava Kurds embrace a new gender

        Charlotte Maria Sáenz

        2015-03-25, Issue 719 <http://www.pambazuka.org/en/issue/719>


Resistance and strength manifest like weeds through cracks in Chiapas, 
Mexico, and transnational Kurdistan where the respective Zapatista and 
Kurdish resistance movements are creating new gender relations as a 
primary part of their struggle and process for building a better world. 
In both places, women’s participation in the armed forces has been an 
entry-point for a new social construction of gender relations based on 

While the Kurds have been fighting for their survival against ISIS in 
the Syrian/Turkish border town of Kobane, the Zapatistas put down their 
arms over 20 years ago and have maintained a non-violent struggle since. 
In both cases, women have fought alongside men against their own 
collective obliteration while making radical changes in their gender 
relations. Working towards more equity makes possible more direct 
democracy in building greater autonomy from the state.[1] In both 
efforts, there is also a deep connection to land[2] that regards the 
value of women and the environment as essential to life itself.

In both resistances, women took up arms to fight alongside their male 
counterparts showing both willingness and capacity to fight as soldiers. 
However their principal objective in the mountains is not military. 
Rather, their most important task is to form new persons: men and women 
in a more equitable relationship to each other--a relationship that is 
also anti-capitalist.

“Above everything, we want for our militancy to create a new 
personality, one that is in complete contradiction to capitalism,” says 
a representative of the Kurdish Committee of Jineology (a committee of 
and for women founded by the transnational PKK (Partiya Karkerên 
Kurdistanê), the Kurdish Workers Party.[3] Theirs is a commitment to 
building democracy, socialism, ecology and feminism.

The Zapatistas made a similar commitment to more equitable gender 
relations. One of the first things to come out of their armed uprising 
in 1994 was the Revolutionary Law of Women. This law spelled out 10 new 
rules giving women unprecedented power over their lives, including 
choosing whether and whom to marry, the right to serve on governing 
councils, and the right to bear arms as milicianas, militia fighters, in 
the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN in Spanish). Zapatista 
women also asked for the law to include a prohibition of drugs and 
alcohol, in order to address one of the main causes of domestic 
violence. After the ceasefire only twelve days after the uprising, many 
women soldiers transitioned to a non-military political life taking 
unprecedented positions of governance, education, administration, and 
decision-making—another way of taking up in arms, this time with each 
other and with men.

For the last 21 years, both men and women have been in a process of 
unlearning old gender norms, relearning how to be and relate to each 
other anew, sharing both domestic and public duties. Although the 
construction of gender equity is still in progress, these new relations 
between men and women have been a fundamental component of the 
construction of Zapatista autonomy itself.

These radical changes in gender relations are occurring in contexts of 
tremendous violence and war of both high and low intensity. In Kobane, 
near the Turkish border, Kurds have been upholding a heroic resistance 
to the ravages of ISIS on the one hand, and the racist and repressive 
manipulations of the Turkish State on the other. In Chiapas, the 
Zapatistas have been building their autonomy within the increasing 
violence of a narco-state that dominates much of the nation, where it is 
hard to discern the difference between government and drug traffickers.

In nearby Guerrero--a southwestern state in Mexico also known for its 
rich natural resources, intense drug trafficking, resistance movements 
and community policing--women have also joined the armed ranks of the 
policia comunitaria. These armed patrols have risen to fill the vacuum 
left by corrupt police on the narco-payroll, and are on the rise in 
various other communities across the country. Men and women are fighting 
together on these different frontlines, sometimes crossing state and 
national borders to join in combat, like the many young anarchist women 
from Turkey who crossed in busses into Syria to help the Kurds in Kobane 
resist ISIS in the past months.

Certain parts of the 30 year-old Kurdish resistance have also taken on 
the project of forging more equal relations between men and women as a 
crucial part of their political project. With Kurds spread across 
Turkey, Syria and Iraq, the geopolitical concept of Kurdistan has been 
expanded trans-nationally into what some are describing as a “Democratic 
Confederalism” that transcends nation-state borders. This is an 
aspiration as of yet, not a fully developed reality, nor one embraced by 
all Kurds. These ideas are mainly derived from the evolving writings of 
the leader of the Kurdish Workers Party (PKK), Abdullah Öcalan, who has 
been imprisoned in Turkey since 1999. His “Democratic Confederalism” 
aims to build a new system that works towards the just distribution of 
resources as well as the conservation of the environment. It seeks to 
create a society free of sexism, replacing traditional patriarchal 
societies, religious interpretations, and capitalist merchandising of 
women. The movement has undertaken an intense societal and educational 
labor to combat the patriarchal mentalities implanted in women, as a 
form of submission, and in men, in form of domination.[4]

Zapatista and Kurdish resistances have taken on a radical paradigm shift 
that changes everything. In the Zapatista autonomous municipal 
administration center called “Caracol de Oventic”, there is an “Office 
for Women’s Dignity” where women gather to discuss the successes and 
failures of the Revolutionary Law of Women. Similarly, the PKK’s 
“Jineology Committee” studies women’s histories to understand the 
construction of hierarchies and nation-states that erode women’s power 
in society. Both communities come from intense patriarchal histories and 
contexts, so there is still a long way to go in both movements. Yet in a 
short time they have made extraordinary gains. Women are increasingly 
represented on governing councils and active in their armed ranks, but 
the real revolution is seen within the domestic sphere, where caring for 
children, health and home are shared labor between men and women. Both 
Kurds and Zapatistas offer a living example of what is not only 
possible, but of what is already being practiced and grown.[5]

Working towards what the Zapatistas would call an “Other” way of 
relating to each other, men and women traverse spaces of war as well as 
of pastoral, agricultural and domestic care--learning with and from each 
other whether in the battlefields or making food. It is in these 
everyday practices of building autonomy that we begin to unearth the 
possibility of another kind of life, of another way of knowing, being 
with and relating to each other that can create and nourish better ways 
of living. It starts with making patriarchal habits visible. 
Constructing more equitable relations means a daily practice of better, 
kinder ways of relating between men and women. This is the learning for 
all of us to put into practice within our own places and with our own 
people, not only up in arms, but also arm in arm…abrazándonos, embracing 
each other.

* Charlotte Maria Sáenz is Media and Education Coordinator for Other 
Worlds and teaches at the California Institute for Integral Studies in 
San Francisco.


[1]For example, Mesoamerican asambleas or the first Sumerians and the 
decentralized organizations of clan and tribal configurations as 
described in “El confederalismo democrático: propuesta libertaria del 
pueblo kurdo.” ALB Noticias en Mar, 17 septiembre 2013.
[2] “Land and Liberty” has been the rallying cry of the Zapatistas, both 
then and now, while “Land or Death” the slogan heard in the Botan 
district today as reported by Heysam Mislim in “Kobane Diary: 4 Days 
Inside the City Fighting an Unprecedented Resistance Against ISIS,” 
Newsweek, October 15, 2014.
[3] Committee of Jineology as quoted by Jorge Ricardo Ottino, writing 
for Resumen Latinoamericano from mountains of Xinêre, areas of media 
defense, South Kurdistan, Republic of Iraq, 3rd July 2014.
[4] “El confederalismo democrático: propuesta libertaria del pueblo 
kurdo.” ALB Noticias en Mar, 17 septiembre 2013.
[5] For a more in-depth description of the Kurdish Women’s movement see 

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