Monday, May 18, 2009

On the Women of the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional 3

The advent of women’s only spaces (such as the Primer Encuentro de las Mujeres Zapatistas con las Mujeres del Mundo, which I will discuss later), where men are not allowed unless they are silent, instead taking care of children or cleaning and cooking or carrying water, displays this change vividly. Such duties being performed by men would be unimaginable in another place and time in Chiapas, and still many men refuse to perform these “womanly duties”. Yet the women’s only events continue to occur, and so it appears that traditional gender roles are slowly becoming more malleable, at least in some contexts. The co-operatives have worked in a similar way, where “relating as friends in base meetings and gossiping while baking bread has created a space for women to talk about their personal problems, such as domestic violence and family members who drink too much. Women are beginning to express their anger in ways they rarely did before” (Eber 23). While the co-ops are not formally “women’s only” spaces, because of the way labor is distributed, in practice they end up that way. As we have seen in similar spaces in the U.S., the kinds of opportunities offered by these spaces can be critical in ending the social isolation often felt when consumed by solitary domestic duties and in creating solidarity between women, thus facilitating the creation of new ideas.

To be sure, there are still problems with alcohol, domestic violence (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen), militarized violence and prostitution in Chiapas (Clayton). But, despite the realization that the Women’s Revolutionary Laws were a dramatic change from traditional Mexican Indian ways of life; they were also seen as important and formally adopted. “What remains important to keep in mind…is that this unique articulation of rights did not grow out of a vacuum but is connected to the larger context of rural and indigenous and feminist organizing in Mexico during the [prior] thirty years” (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen 41). In other words, there is a history which this activism has arisen from. The feminist work of the Zapatista women[i], as unique and revolutionary as it is, would not be possible without that long history of women’s movement in Mexico (Speed, Hernandez Castillo and Stephen).

In an effort to continue and evolve this work, the Zapatista women reached out their hand to their counterparts in other nations and communities in the Primer Encuentro de las Mujeres Zapatistas con las Mujeres del Mundo (or, First Gathering of the Zapatista Women with the Women of the World) the weekend of Jan 1st, 2008 in La Garrucha, Mexico. As the title indicates, this was the first gathering of its kind (though there had been women’s panels present at previous Zapatista Encuentros); a gathering not only for Zapatista women, but open to any female activist who could make it to La Garrucha. Women from each of the five autonomous regions (or “caracoles,” literally “snails”), 200 in all, came to speak with over 3000 activists from around the world about what it was like to live in resistance to “el mal gobierno” (the bad government) (Fisher-Hoffman, Landreau-Grasmuck and Weidman). It in within the context of this first event of its kind that I would like to discuss the implications of the work the EZLN has been doing for the activist communities in the U.S. who are working “from the bottom and to the left”.

Three attendees recounted the event in this way; “as the voices of the women rose up from behind their pasamontañas and paliacates (the ubiquitous ski masks and bandanas that have come to symbolize autonomous resistance in Chiapas) and began to echo each other, the significance of the testimonies became clearer to those of us from the outside. The voices being amplified were not individual voices, but reflections of a collective experience, a collective resistance. And while we national and international women listened, the lessons of the Other Campaign filtered through the plenaries like the fingers of sunlight sneaking through the wooden slats of the walls; in order to build a world in resistance, a world in which many worlds fit, we must listen and we must organize” (Fisher-Hoffman, Landreau-Grasmuck and Weidman). In all the coverage of the Encuentro this quote stands out because it shows the reason the women in the EZLN are there is not because of some individualistic power play, but because of a collective experience of exploitation which they have utilized to create solidarity with each other, and not just with each other but with anyone dedicated to their goals and willing to struggle and resist in their own communities.

Women at every level of the Zapatista organization spoke about their lives and organizing at this Encuentro; from the compañeras to the General Command leadership. They spoke about what their lives were like before the uprising and afterwards, as well as how their resistance informed their everyday lives. Specific topics included the co-operative organizations I mentioned previously as well as the importance of female economic independence. There was a heavy emphasis on practical, concrete measures; how to organize to “achieve liberty, democracy, justice and self-determination in one’s community” was the main focus (Fisher-Hoffman, Landreau-Grasmuck and Weidman). After decades of figuring out effective methods of organizing a society from the “bottom and the left” autonomous of the power structures of neo-liberal society, the Zapatistas know they have learned a lot which is useful to activists in other areas of the world. Likewise, in the reporting of the event, it appeared they also understood that others engaged in similar efforts have something to teach them. The free exchange of ideas has been something the EZLN has publicly stood for since their emergence, and I was personally inspired by their continuing, and expanding, efforts in pursuit of that goal.

[i] It should be noted that in their own writings Zapatista women as a rule do not self-identify with the term “feminist”, as it is largely associated with urban mestiza activists, but I use it here as a signifier for the purposes of easy interpretation.