Uprooting Patriarchy and Establishing Racial, Economic and Social Justice in Chiapas, Mexico
By Mark Karlin, Truthout | Interview
This is an excerpt. The article can be read in full here: http://www.truth-out.org/progressivepicks/item/32148-uprooting-patriarchy-and-establishing-racial-economic-and-social-justice-in-chiapas-mexico
Zapatista women standing outside a cathedral. (Photo: Oriana Eliçabe/Flickr)
After centuries of oppression, a few indigenous voices of dissent in Chiapas, Mexico, rose up to became a force of thousands – the Zapatistas. Hilary Klein’s Compañeras relays the stories of the Zapatista women who have overcome hardship to strengthen their communities and build a movement with global influence.
Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, a specialist in movements of resistance among indigenous peoples and feminism, writes in her forward to Compañeras that the book is "brilliant and informative." Dunbar-Ortiz praises Hilary Klein for detailing how Zapatista "women and girls … transformed the movement into something profoundly distinct from previous social movements of the post-feminist era." Klein notes in her introduction to the book that it "captures many individual stories, [but] it ultimately centers on Zapatista women’s closely held group identity."
The following is an excerpt from a Truthout interview with Hilary Klein.
Mark Karlin: Let’s start with some background. What is the EZLN (Zapatista Army of National Liberation), where is Chiapas (the primary state where it is located in Mexico), and what is its current status within Mexico?
Hilary Klein: The EZLN is an insurgent army and a grassroots social movement fighting for land and indigenous rights in the southern Mexican state of Chiapas. The structural inequalities in Chiapas are a legacy of colonialism. Chiapas is rich in natural resources such as land, oil, natural gas and water, yet it is one of the poorest states in Mexico. It has one of the largest indigenous populations in Mexico, but some of the highest rates of malnutrition, maternal mortality and illiteracy.
Hilary Klein. (Photo: Mike Ricca)On January 1, 1994, the EZLN captured the world’s imagination when it rose up to demand justice and democracy – taking on the Mexican government and global capitalism itself. The EZLN is named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, and it adopted his rallying cry of tierra y libertad (land and freedom). Since its brief armed uprising in 1994, the EZLN has been known more for its peaceful mobilizations, dialogue with civil society and construction of indigenous autonomy. Throughout Mexico and around the world, the Zapatistas also catalyzed a wave of solidarity with their struggle and inspired a generation of young activists to organize for social justice in other contexts.
The Zapatista project of indigenous autonomy has meant that rural villages in Chiapas have gained access to rudimentary health care and education. They exercise self-determination through village and regional governments and generate resources back into their communities through economic cooperatives that organize the production of goods. In this small corner of the world, the Zapatistas are experimenting with their own government, alternative education and health-care infrastructure, and an economic system based on cooperation, solidarity and relationships of equality.
Even though the Zapatista movement is not in the international spotlight as much as it was 10 or 15 years ago, it’s still alive and well. (This is no small achievement, by the way, given the consistent counter-insurgency waged against it by the Mexican government for more than two decades.) The Zapatista project of indigenous autonomy still resonates as an example of local and regional alternatives to global capitalism, and the Zapatistas continue to support and inspire other social movements around the world.
Your book is about the revolutionary empowerment of women in the Zapatista movement. Can you address the multiple levels of oppression that women face? That includes achieving acceptance of gender equality in many revolutionary movements?
Women’s leadership within the EZLN is one of the most compelling aspects of the Zapatista movement. Zapatista women have served as insurgents, political leaders, healers, educators and key agents in autonomous economic development. Women’s participation in the EZLN has helped shape the Zapatista movement, which has, in turn, opened new spaces for women and led to dramatic changes in their lives. It is difficult to appreciate the enormity of the changes, however, without understanding women’s starting point.
During a speech she gave in Mexico City’s central plaza in 2001, Comandanta Ester, a Zapatista leader, said, "We are oppressed three times over, because we are poor, because we are indigenous and because we are women." Before the Zapatista uprising, women in the indigenous communities of Chiapas had limited control over their own lives and many of the decisions that impacted them. They were often married against their will. With little access to birth control, it was common for women to have a dozen children or more. Domestic violence was generally considered normal and acceptable behavior, and a woman could not leave the house without her husband’s permission. There was also a strict and gendered division between public and private spaces. Women’s confinement to the private sphere translated into very limited participation in public life, and it was rare for women to attend public meetings or community assemblies.
From the civil rights movement in the United States to the Arab Spring uprisings in the Middle East, women have fought side by side with men for their people’s freedom. Women have made invaluable contributions to grassroots social movements and national liberation struggles all over the world. Many of these, while not women’s movements per se, have created new opportunities for women and catalyzed changes in their lives. At the same time, women almost invariably face discrimination within their own organizations and have often had to fight for women’s rights to be included in the vision of a just society.