How Zapatista women learned to wear the pants—literally

Despite isolation and oppression, these women transformed their status. A new book by Hilary Klein explains how

Published April 16, 2015 9:15PM (EDT)

  (Tim Russo)
(Tim Russo)

The  Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or EZLN, began as a clandestine organization in 1983, and spent ten years recruiting people from rural, indigenous villages in the mountains and jungles of Chiapas. Located in Chiapas, one of the poorest states in Mexico, the group comes out of the region's long legacy of indigenous resistance. Named after Emiliano Zapata, a hero of the Mexican Revolution, the Zapatistas have taken up his banner of “land and freedom.”

It held a brief armed uprising in January 1994, which captured the world’s attention as the Zapatistas declared war on the Mexican government and famously challenged global capitalism itself. Although it’s still an armed struggle, the EZLN has not used its weapons since then. The Zapatista movement is now known more for its peaceful mobilizations, its dialogue with civil society, and its project of indigenous autonomy. In the two decades since then, this indigenous rebellion has inspired grassroots activists throughout Mexico and around the world.

Hilary Klein's new book, "Compañeras: Zapatista Women's Stories," traces the remarkable transformation of Zapatista women from second-class citizens with no say in who they married or how many children they had, dependent on their husband’s permission even to leave the house, to being on the front lines of the struggle for autonomy.

Klein and I first met while organizing in Chiapas, Mexico, ten years ago. Recently, we talked about how she sees Zapatista women fitting into third-wave feminism, global struggles in places like Palestine, and contemporary Mexican politics. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.

Reading in your book about the lives of indigenous women in Chiapas before Zapatismo, I’m astounded by how quickly centuries of gender oppression were seemingly upended. It’s like women went from from zero to ten in under a decade. How was that possible?

That’s the central question of my book. The transformations were so dramatic—changes that usually take generations to unfold were happening in years. Almost overnight (relatively speaking), women began holding key positions in the resistance army and autonomous government, taking part in land recuperation, speaking out against domestic violence, and developing their own micro-economies. My theory is that the push from above, from the EZLN’s (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional) leadership, coincided with a strong push from below, from the women themselves. Together, this was a force to be reckoned with – it created a groundswell that led to rapid, unprecedented change.

There has been much speculation about the original group of leftist, urban intellectuals (Subcomandante Marcos, et al.) who came to Chiapas in the early 1980s to encourage indigenous people to start a revolution. On the surface, this structure appears paternalistic, yet these same outsiders emphasized the importance of women’s participation and equal rights. In this sense, do you think the form feminism took among Zapatistas was at least partially due to that outside influence?

The form that feminism took in the context of the Zapatista movement was a combination of the early Zapatista leaders having a clear commitment to women’s rights (but they wouldn’t have called themselves feminists) and the ways that women exercised their leadership and shaped the Zapatista movement. The fact that the EZLN evolved from being a core nucleus of Marxist/Leninists into what we now know as the Zapatista movement says a lot about its ability to adapt and draw from different political traditions. In the same way, it developed a more nuanced view of gender and patriarchy over time. The original organizers were clear about the importance of women’s participation in the movement, and they deserve credit for that. But where do you draw the line between outsiders who bring their own ideology and a grassroots movement that develops those values on its own?

If feminism was imposed on anybody, it wasn’t on the women; maybe there were indigenous men who felt that way at the time. But Zapatista women never talk about feminism as being imposed on them; they talk about space that was opened up, and opportunities that they made the most of.

The politics around sexuality raised in your book are really interesting. Some women, after finding a voice in community meetings and/or handling money for the first time, literally began wearing pants or demanding that their husbands use contraceptives. Did any of the women you interviewed ever talk to you about their sex lives?

In informal settings, women who I knew well would sometimes talk or joke about their sex lives, but sex is still something pretty rare for women to open up about. This isn’t in the book, but once I did a basic presentation on reproductive health at a women’s gathering. We broke into groups and were studying a diagram of women’s anatomy, and one woman asked, “Is the clitoris that thing that’s like a chili that gets tingly when you touch it?”

Women’s spaces have made conversations like that possible. In their rhetoric, Zapatistas also include the LGBTQ community. I didn’t come across any gay couples in Zapatista villages, but their rhetoric shows openness to new ideas and differences.

Many of Zapatista women became insurgents as a direct response to the inequality they'd experienced in their own homes; it wasn't necessarily the Mexican government that they saw as their primary oppressor. On the other hand, the Zapatista style of feminism emphasizes community rights as more important than individual rights. How has this tension between women’s rights and community solidarity played out?

Women became insurgents in part to escape domestic abuse but they were also responding to a call—to struggle against the rich, the landowners, all the injustices that their communities faced. For women in particular, fighting for their own liberation and for the liberation of their people might often be more integrated than for men. Zapatista women have always been clear that individual and collective rights are not mutually exclusive. The Zapatista brand of feminism is different from Western feminism in that way.

When Comandanta Ester spoke to the Mexican Congress in 2001, she responded to that kind of charge—that if indigenous peoples were granted autonomy (by the San Andrés Accords) women’s rights would suffer. She made it clear that wasn’t true, that collective rights for indigenous people and women’s rights are not mutually exclusive.

 The Zapatista movement never seems to idealize a fictional pre-colonial past. This seems especially true for women, who seem committed to conserving the good in their culture but are also focused on looking forward. Do Zapatista men and women tend to differ on their relationship to the past?

The Zapatistas have generally been willing to examine their own culture and adopt new ideas. After the 1994 uprising, for example, they were very successful at using the Internet to get their message out to the world. Gender is another example of this blending of new and traditional ideas. They very consciously hold onto their own language, food, and connection to the land, but have worked to change traditions that are oppressive towards women, like women getting married very young and against their will.

The Zapatistas acknowledge that indigenous culture is fluid, and if they change patriarchal practices, that doesn’t make them any less indigenous. You might see some resistance from men to making these changes, but I think you’ll find that anywhere, indigenous or non-indigenous.

After the initial blush and excitement of revolution, when everything seemed possible and the deep-seated notion of women as inferior was radically challenged, how much of women’s progress has stuck 30 years later?

There were definitely a few years around 1994 when the pace of change was extremely accelerated; I think this plateaued somewhat in the early- to mid-2000s. More recently, there’s been another wave of change with the new generation. Young people in their teens and early 20s today were born after the uprising; in many ways they embody the lasting change that revolution made possible. Sometimes you need a new generation to see the effects – and you can see it in the way young women carry themselves with confidence, and the way young men and women relate to each other. Zapatista women often talk about their hope for the future in terms of their daughters.

You and I met while organizing in Chiapas ten years ago; we were both shaped by the Zapatista struggle in some of our most defining years. Do you see Zapatista women’s gains and experience contributing to third-wave or contemporary feminism?

I’ve often found in the U.S. that community organizing tends not to have a feminist focus, and efforts to end violence against women tend to be more focused on social services. When I got to Chiapas, I saw how closely these things were integrated. There was the broader movement fighting for dignity and justice for all, and within that a very clear place for women’s rights. That was something I’d never experienced anywhere else, and that’s why I ended up staying for so long. It felt important to be in solidarity with that, because you can’t disconnect patriarchy from economic justice or racial justice, and the reality is that these systems are interconnected.

There’s evidence that feminist values have been strengthened in Zapatista communities. For example it’s no longer common for families to be disappointed when they give birth to a girl and women more often marry for love. However, there’s still a long way to go.  You quote a Zapatista woman lamenting that her “daughters still sleep on a dirt floor. They are hungry and sick … but my thoughts and my heart have changed, they are no longer in silence.” Is poverty the biggest concern holding back Zapatista women today?

The Zapatistas have been able to improve their economic conditions in some pretty significant ways. For example, by taking over land that historically belonged to their ancestors, and by organizing economic cooperatives that invest resources back into the community. But they still exist within global capitalism, and Zapatista communities are mostly still poor, rural villages of subsistence farmers. There’s a limit to what can be done to change the reality of poverty without changing those larger economic structures. You can’t separate women’s rights from economic justice. So I think you’re right, that poverty is one of the biggest remaining challenges for women in Zapatista territory.

Though a largely non-violent movement, their global image still, as you wrote, "has teeth." Is this simply because they were willing to take up arms? Is their image inside Mexico as a largely peaceful or violent movement?

Since 1994, the Zapatistas have acted as a peaceful social movement, but they never put down their guns. When they decided to organize an armed uprising, it was because they had concluded that violent struggle was the only path open to them; but conditions changed and they turned to other tactics, including peaceful mobilizations and dialogue with civil society. Still, that militant edge never went away – that willingness to defend themselves.

The Zapatistas have done an incredible job of controlling and shaping their image, especially among those who are sympathetic, but the Mexican government has also waged an intense propaganda campaign against them, portraying them as violent terrorists, which I think has been more successful within Mexico.

What lessons do you think other indigenous struggles or popular movements can learn from the Zapatistas?

During much of the twentieth century, the global left was dominated by one particular ideology (Communism, Marxism etc.), which had a particular vision of the path to liberation. In the post-Cold War era, the Zapatistas offered a humbler approach – that we need to figure it out as we go. “Make the road by walking,” or, as the Zapatistas say, “Walking, we ask questions,” is a very brave approach, if you think about it. It takes a lot of chutzpah to throw your self into new territory and take on the impossible, but that’s exactly what they did. They set out to do the slow work of creating a just society, and building it and trying new things as they go. I think that’s one of the lessons that other popular movements might take from them. The Zapatistas have always been clear that none of us have all the answers, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t set out to accomplish the impossible.

By Sarah Shourd

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Activism Chiapas Feminism Hilary Klein Mexico Zapatistas