Tuesday, May 19, 2009

On the Women of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional 4

Another area of interest and discussion at the Encuentro (and another topic close to my heart) was the role and development of education and health care in women’s lives. These were emphasized as having “been long understood [as] a major deterrent to women’s participation in society” (Fisher-Hoffman, Landreau-Grasmuck and Weidman). The method of addressing these issues adopted by the Zapatistas was the creation of their own autonomous educational system; a communal system with a series of regional and local councils. The autonomous health care system is rooted in respect for traditional (woman-centered) models of care; “medicinal plants, parteras (midwives) and hueseros (bone-setters)” are still employed (Klein). This is yet another area where dialogue between activists in divergent communities would, in my estimation, be incredibly fruitful. The homebirth and woman-centered medical models advocated by many midwives and doulas (as well as Naturopathic and holistic healers) working in the U.S. undoubtedly would find they had much information to swap with the healers of these autonomous systems, as both are trying to build models of care which do not rely on an exploitive established system.

In reviewing the goals of and progress made in the Zapatista communities there is, in my opinion, much going on in these communities that is not only working, but that international activists could learn a lot from. Not least of which is their incredible patience. The EZLN spent ten years organizing amongst themselves before the 1994 uprising. They’ve spent the 15 years since remaining tirelessly active as a community; working together through what must be an incredibly tedious process of reaching consensus before acting. There have developed no splinter groups, no factions, and no betrayals of the identities of the leadership (the last being a life-threatening possibility for revealed leaders). Nor has an authoritarian regime popped up to keep order or establish “safety”. This doesn’t seem the likely result from a masked, armed uprising. Yet here we are; Zapatista women and women of the world able to gather together and exchange ideas in pursuit of the time consuming task of building a better world.

On the other hand, it cannot be ignored that some of their choices remain questionable, maybe even problematic. While more recent militant activism consists only of an attack of their (paper airplane) Air Force on local military bases (Lane and Dominguez)[i], when they came out of the jungle in 1994 they held real guns (if not in great condition, still working) and wore real masks. If the end aims of the EZLN is a peaceful “libertarian socialist”[ii] society as their later efforts to diligently abide by the peace agreements with the government and avoid being goaded by federal military troops suggest, is it realistic to expect those goals to be realized through armed revolution? If anything, it seems to be truer that violence begets more violence. History shows us that “revolutions have usually led to stronger - more centralized, bureaucratic, and coercive - national states than the old regimes they replaced” (Johnston 7), examples ranging from the Cuban revolution of Fidel Castro, to the Bolsheviks and most pertinent to the EZLN, the Mexican revolution. Such is the risk the EZLN runs with its military tactics, and such is the history that haunts the minds of middle class mestizo Mexicans and white Americans. Given that the EZLN still appears on lists of active terrorist groups (Gonzalez-Perez), can their vision of a world created “from the bottom and to the left” ever receive the support it needs to be fully realized?

Some point out: “when you are caught in a war in which the great powers have huge weapons and complete control of the mass media, you have to do something extraordinary to make yourself heard” (Johnston 4). In looking at what it takes to be covered by that mass media (a survival necessity) it must be admitted that there is a point to be made here; no publicity really is the only bad publicity. No publicity and the world doesn’t know anything about you and doesn’t care when the government violently silences you. So, does the question of validity come down to how the EZLN has chosen to use their weapons? Does fifteen years of careful non-use afterwards and ten years of non-use beforehand compensate for three days of (restrained) bloodshed in the minds of neo-liberal society? Will any length of time of non-use of their weapons suffice to get them off those many governments’ “terrorist” lists (Gonzalez-Perez); and what about the fact that the EZLN has yet to take off their masks? Is it possible “mainstream” white norteamericano society will give armed, masked, indigenous peasants, often led by women, a chance?

These questions are larger than the scope of this paper can answer. But, I would suggest that the thousands of female activists who came to La Garrucha to talk with Zapatista women about movement making points to the possibility that, yes, white and mestizo North Americans can see past the guns and masks to the communities where lives are improving and a new society emerging. And, when it comes to the women in Chiapas since the uprising of the EZLN, there can be no doubt that conditions have improved. More and more women are being educated, more and more able to pick their own partner, pick how many children they have, or choose to forgo both marriage and children in favor of holding military rank in the jungle (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen). Ramona and Susana and Esther and Ana Maria, among so many other faceless women have paved the way for growing possibilities.

There is still much work to be done in Chiapas for the dignity of women. But the leadership and community roles women can now hold, as well as the individual rights they can claim, have come to be possible with the Zapatistas. The EZLN has allowed women even tangentially related to the movement to claim and assert an agency it was not possible to imagine before (Eber). The women in military leadership and working in the co-ops have served as role models and examples of what indigenous women are capable of, and of what they can achieve. And in the process of making this situation work for themselves, the Zapatistas have also taught many of us on the outside of their movement quite a lot about patiently and painstakingly organizing and building “from the bottom and the left”.

[i] “Did you say the Zapatista Air Force? The Zapatistas have airplanes? Well, yes: paper airplanes. The Zapatista Air Force attacked the Federal soldiers with paper airplanes, which flew through and over the barbed wire of the military encampment, each carrying a discursive missile: messages and poems for the soldiers themselves” (Lane and Dominguez 3).

[ii] This is my designation/label based upon the goals and methods of the EZLN which are in line with the tenants of socialist libertarian thought as well as certain forms of anarchism prevalent in Mexico.