As well as direct leadership roles in the military structure, women also hold prominent positions as compañeras, working in co-operatives/collectives, such as weaving and baking (Eber), agriculture and artisanal, as well as other support services, such as making food and clothing for the community (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen). These co-operatives are vital to the survival of the community, not only economically, but politically as well, as they represent the success of Zapatista independence from the neo-liberal system they oppose. Such leadership and economic participation and independence are hardly a foregone conclusion in a movement like this one. In fact, in display of another possible paradox, as a community the EZLN has embraced lofty goals and rhetoric (the Women’s Law being a prime example, which I discuss below) even when those goals complicated the traditional culture they so treasure. But the women of the EZLN have repeatedly laid claim to the right to a non-essentialized version of traditional culture, and of the ability to reject traditions which are actively harming the people of their communities (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen).
This process formally began with the aforementioned Women’s Revolutionary Law[i] (just one of the EZLN Revolutionary Laws[ii]). What is often referred to as the First Uprising “was led by the Zapatista women. There were no casualties, and they won” (Marcos, On Misunderstandings about the EZLN and the Real First Uprising). In 1993, a committee of prominent female leaders was formed to address the concerns of women in soon to be autonomous communities. Comandantas Susana, Ramona, and others travelled from town to town in Chiapas, interviewing other women about what their and their communities needs were. The resulting document was the Women’s Revolutionary Law: a ten point “Bill of Rights” of sorts, approved by the leadership committees of the EZLN unanimously, although not without some male discomfort. [iii]
What are the contents of these laws? Provisions like: “Women have the right to education,” and “Women have the right to choose their partner and are not obliged to enter into marriage.”[iv] As well as, “Women have the right to decide the number of children they have and care for” which, as well as children being forbidden for soldaderas (female soldiers), has resulted in the use of contraceptives among both married and unmarried women of the EZLN and within the base communities, something not seen in the rest of Chiapas society (Gonzalez-Perez 46). Of special note to me is this provision; “Women and their children have the right to primary attention in their health and nutrition” [emphasis mine]. For the indigenous women of Chiapas, this is a giant demand “because women have been the most exploited since when? 500 years? And they are still oppressed. We still get up at three in the morning to prepare the corn for our husband’s breakfast and we don’t rest until it is late at night. If there is not enough food we give it to our children and our husbands first” (Ramona). Coming from a background where this is the expectation of how a woman will behave, to demand that they and their children be taken into account first with regards to medicine and food is simply impressive.
Contained in the Women’s Revolutionary Law is also a hint at another unique feature of the EZLN. That hint comes in the last of the Women’s Laws; “Women will have all the rights and obligations which the revolutionary laws and regulations give” [emphasis mine]. For Zapatista women, engagement with the movement is not simply about attaining or claiming “women’s rights,” but “dignity”. Dignity means involvement in movement is about obligations; to themselves, each other and their communities. For members of the EZLN, rights and obligations go hand in hand. Comprehending this is vital to understanding the movement as a whole because it goes back to their already mentioned goal of validating and retaining tradition while pursuing dignity for the poor and the indigenous, moving forward, away from repression and exploitation. But this concept is especially important to the involvement of women; both their own motivation and the room that was made for them to participate (even if, as Marcos observes in a communiqué in 2004; “respect for their rights is still, in some cases, just a declaration on paper”) (Marcos, Toward Freedom). If the peasants of Chiapas are going to demand their rights and respect from the government and the ability for autonomy, they cannot ignore the exploitation of their own women in their own communities.
[i] The Women’s Revolutionary Law (WRL) was passed on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1993. The Law was published by the EZLN and distributed in San Cristobal de las Casas during the uprising as part of a larger document called El Despertador Mexicano (EZLN, Zapatistas! Documents of the New Mexican Revolution).
[ii] Other laws include: Urban Reform Law, Labour Law & Industry and Commerce Law, Social Security Law, Justice Law, Revolutionary Agrarian Law, Law of Rights and Obligations of Peoples in Struggle, Instructions to Leaders and Officials of the EZLN, War Tax Law, Law of Rights and Obligations of the Revolutionary Armed Forces (EZLN, The EZLN Revolutionary Laws)
[iii] An anecdote too amusing not insert here is another from the same writing by Marcos; “A Tzeltal responsible for the law commented: "The good thing is that my wife doesn't understand Spanish, because otherwise..." An insurgent official who was a woman and a high infantry rank, jumped on him: "You're fucked, because we are going to translate it into all the dialects." The compañero looked down. The women responsible were singing, the men were scratching their heads. Such things happen in this land.”
[iv] The ten original provisions of the Women’s Revolutionary Law (since expanded) (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen): In the just fight for the liberation of our people, the EZLN incorporates women into the revolutionary struggle, regardless of their race, creed, color or political affiliation, requiring only that they share the demands of the exploited people and that they commit to the laws and regulations of the revolution. In addition, taking into account the situation of the woman worker in Mexico, the revolution supports their just demands for equality and justice in the following Women’s Revolutionary Law.
First: Women, regardless of their race, creed, color or political affiliation, have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in a way determined by their desire and capacity.
Second: Women have the right to work and receive a just salary.
Third: Women have the right to decide the number of children they will have and care for.
Fourth: Women have the right to participate in the affairs of the community and hold positions of authority if they are freely and democratically elected.
Fifth: Women and their children have the right to primary attention in matters of health and nutrition.
Sixth: Women have the right to education.
Seventh: Women have the right to choose their romantic partner, and are not to be forced into marriage.
Eighth: Women shall not be beaten or physically mistreated by their family members or by strangers. Rape and attempted rape will be severely punished.
Ninth: Women will be able to occupy positions of leadership in the organization and hold military ranks in the revolutionary armed forces.
Tenth: Women will have all the rights and obligations elaborated in the Revolutionary Laws and regulations.