[Ciepac-i] English Chiapas al Dia 242 I

Les Schaffer schaffer at optonline.net
Wed May 30 13:14:38 MDT 2001

[ Non-member submission from [CIEPAC <ciepac at laneta.apc.org>]]

(30  of May  2001)


When speaking of the Zapatista movement, one hears a great deal about the
struggle for autonomy and how the government has denied indigenous
communities their right to autonomy by refusing to implement the San Andres
peace accords. And many have asked, what exactly does this autonomy mean?

This question of autonomy has been a crucial theme in recent months and
will continue to be so, especially given that the ELZN has demanded the
implementation of the San Andres Accords as one of its three minimal
conditions to return to the peace negotiations. The San Andres Accords were
signed between the EZLN and the Mexican government in February 1996 after
the first round of peace negotiations addressing "Indigenous Rights and

We can study the concept of autonomy and know that it means the right to
self-determination, and the right of the indigenous communities to live
according to their culture and traditions. We can know that it means
constructing today the world we want to live in tomorrow. However, to truly
understand the Zapatista model of autonomy, it is important to understand
the reality of the indigenous communities making up the Zapatista support
base. With this series of articles on autonomy, we invite you to take a
glimpse at the reality of one particular autonomous municipality in
Zapatista territory: Francisco Gomez. In many ways, the experiences of this
municipality reflect the experiences of indigenous communities throughout
the conflict zone. In other ways, these experiences are specific to this
region. What we hope to offer, subject by subject, is a perspective of
autonomy based in this reality, as well as the opportunity to listen to the
voices of people from these communities about what autonomy means to them,
how it is being constructed, and how it is being lived.

"In the organization [the EZLN] womens lives began to change..."
"If we try hard enough, we can achieve anything..."

Fundamental to the concept of autonomy is the power to control our own
lives, to be the subjects of our history and our destiny. This implies the
ability to analyze our current reality, identify what we want to change,
and define the future that we want to construct. Within the indigenous
communities of Chiapas, indigenous women have historically been the most
marginalized. As Comandanta Ester said during a speech on March 8,
International Womens Day: "We have to struggle even more because we are
triply discriminated against: as indigenous women, as women, and as poor
women." But precisely for this reason, of the many profound changes brought
on by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN), it is the women of
these communities who have seen some of the most drastic changes in their
lives. This does not imply that womens struggle for respect and for a
dignified life is over. There is no question that true equality between men
and women is still a long way off, as is the full liberation of indigenous
women. Although much has changed, it is a long and arduous process and
there is still much work to do. The most important point, however, is that
this process has been set in motion.

During a workshop, representatives of several womens cooperative stores
spoke of the ways that womens lives have changed and reflected upon womens
participation in their communities. The most important changes include:
land distribution, the level of poverty, access to health care and
education, the participation and rights of women, the Zapatista law
prohibiting alcohol, and the organization of womens collectives. These are
their words:

What was life like for women before, for example when your grandmothers
were young?

"Before, they lived on a ranch with the landowner and the landowner was the
boss, he controlled their lives. The men had to ask the landowners
permission to work. The women had to take care of the landowners children.
The women got up very early, at 2 or 3 oclock in the morning to make pozol
for their husbands. They began working early: washing clothes, making
tortillas. The men beat them if they didnt make the tortillas fast enough;
the landowner hit them too."

"There were no schools; the women didnt know how to read and write. There
were no health clinics; the only medicine we had were plants and herbs."

"The men drank a lot; they spent all their money on liquor and abused the
women. Women didnt have any free time because there was so much work to do.
They didnt have corn grinders; they ground corn with stones. They didnt
have soap; they used ashes to wash. The women didnt participate. They were
told that women dont have rights, that only men have the right to leave the
house, to participate in community affairs."

What are womens lives like now?

"We are more free. Things have changed because now the landowner doesnt
control our lives. As women we can choose if we want to participate or not
because the work isnt quite as hard as it used to be and no one bosses us
around, but we still have a lot of work. We get up at 6 in the morning or
sometimes at 5 oclock and we work all day long: making tortillas,
collecting firewood, cleaning the house, washing clothes, taking care of
the children, cooking for our husbands, taking care of the animals. Now we
have a hand-grinder to grind the corn, and we do our washing with soap. We
also recognize our rights as women, we participate more, and we have womens
assemblies. We have womens collectives: a cooperative store, a sewing
collective, and a candle-making collective."

"Not all the women know how to read and write. We all want to learn more,
but at least now it is possible for women to study. There are schools in
some communities but other communities dont have schools. Many women get
headaches and stomach aches. Women get sick more because having children
causes many sicknesses. Now we have clinics and doctors. There is a little
bit of medicine but its never enough. We know more about health but not
enough. There are women doctors and health promoters but only a few. The
men drink a little bit but not every day, not like before. They dont spend
all their money on liquor and they dont beat their wives as much."

What would you like womens lives to be like, for example for your daughters?

"We want women to have more freedom, more time to learn and to study. Its
important to recognize that women can also have good jobs, for example be
teachers or lawyers."

"We want teachers for all our children. We want women doctors and nurses."

"We want women to get up at 8 oclock, and have electric corn grinders to
grind their corn."

"We want more womens collectives: community bakeries, chicken raising
collectives, and vegetable gardens."

"We want the men to not drink at all, or waste their money on liquor, or
beat their wives."

How have these changes come about and how can women achieve the future that
they want?

"The conflict began in 94 and many of the landowners fled. We received a
lot of support from other parts of Mexico and other countries."

"The communities had already agreed to the law against drinking but after
94 this agreement was respected."

"Women began to participate in the community assemblies, also in church
every Sunday, and later in the womens cooperative store. Thats how we
overcome our fear and embarrassment."

"We decided to organize womens collectives. We formed collectives and saw
that we have strength as women."

"The cooperative store helps us in many ways: we can buy the merchandise
that we want; the store loans money to the community; it helps us resolve
any necessity that comes up; it supports us in learning many things; it
helps us begin to participate."

We like that the store is an all-womens space. And with the profit from our
collectives, we can form other collectives that we want. If the store
advances, then we can buy an electric corn grinder."

"We need to organize ourselves to form more collectives, make agreements in
every community. We can support each other, for example in the communities
that already have collectives, we can teach the rest of the women."

"We should choose women in every community to study to become community
health and education promoters, also to learn more about dentistry and

"If we try hard enough, we can achieve all this."

And womens participation?

"When women dont participate its because we are afraid, embarrassed, we
feel ashamed. We feel timid and we dont speak up in the community assembly.
We feel that we dont know anything: we dont know how to participate, we
dont know how to read even one word, we dont speak Spanish, and we dont
know about our rights as women."

"There are still very few women that participate because we dont have much
experience. Women participate more when they are in a group of all women."

"When we begin to participate, we learn to get over the fear; we stop
feeling embarrassed. Before we didnt know how to participate but now we do;
we participate wherever we want, even in the assembly with men and women.
Because now we know that we have rights as women. We like seeing women that
participate. We think that the women who participate actively have good
ideas, more experience. They are not embarrassed or nervous to speak up.
When one woman participates more, other women feel encouraged to
participate also."

I spoke with several women who describe in greater detail how womens lives
have changed, touching on many of the same themes.

"In the organization [the EZLN] womens lives began to change and we are not
as oppressed. Womens lives have changed because the men dont drink anymore.
Before, when the men drank, being abused was part of womens lives, but not
anymore. Now, when women want to participate in a community project, more
or less they give them permission.

"They tell us how it was before, when there were government schools in the
communities, that the teachers didnt explain anything and the children were
afraid because the teachers beat them. Back then, very few girls went to
school; thats why the older women today, none of them know how to read or
write. Now its different because we have community teachers. They teach
well because they explain things in our own language. Now almost all the
girls go to school." (Otelina, representative of a womens cooperative store)

"Before we didnt have any kind of health care. For example, God sent me 12
children. Now the women know a little bit about family planning; they have
2 or 3 or 4 children. Many women plan their families; others have
operations to not have any more children. Things also changed a lot when
the men stopped drinking. Before, they beat their wives a lot. Now that
they have stopped drinking, they dont beat their wives as much, and things
are much better for women." (Josefa, representative of a womens cooperative

There have been several key factors in the process of opening space for
womens participation. Probably the most important has been the recognition
of women s rights within the Zapatista movement. Other important factors
include the creation of womens collectives as autonomous womens spaces, the
role of the Church, and women taking part in defending their communities
against the Mexican army. In addition to these social and political
factors, women must also overcome the historic obstacles that they face,
obstacles that they experience on the personal, psychological level. When
women speak of their participation, they recognize how space has opened up
for them; but they also invariably explain how they personally have had to
overcome fear, shame, and embarrassment.

"Before we joined the organization [the EZLN] women did not participate.
Now that we are in the EZLN women participate more. They told us that men
are not the only ones who have the right to participate, that women also
have rights. The organization [the EZLN] says one thing but it is not
always respected in all the communities. It depends on the community, it
also depends on the man. There are some men that really get it and there
are others that still dont understand. Things have changed because they let
us leave the house, they let us participate a little bit, even if its only
a little bit. Before they didnt even let us leave the house. The men began
to change because they learned that women have rights too. They were told
that women have the right to participate, to leave the house.

"I began to participate first in the Church, and then with the organization
[the EZLN] in the womens cooperative store. I dont feel embarrassed anymore
when I participate. I feel good because I used to feel ashamed but now I
dont. Now I speak up whenever I want to. But not all women participate. Its
still very hard for them, especially the young women, like the young women
who work in the store with me. Sometimes theyre too shy to even say their
names. But I have seen how much they have grown and changed. They begin to
stop feeling embarrassed and then they begin to participate. Its a
beautiful thing to watch: they begin to speak up, to participate, and they
know how to do their work in the store. Once women get over feeling ashamed
and begin to use their voice, they feel ready to participate in other
community activities: in the Church, in health projects, in the cooperative
store." (Josefa)

"Before 94 we had never seen a woman participating, or women that left
their communities to travel to other places. In some communities where the
soldiers attacked us in 1995, many women organized to defend their
communities; they protested, they spoke out against the soldiers and drove
them out of their communities. Afterwards many of these women began to get
involved in community projects because of this new strength they felt.

"When I began to participate it was as a community health promoter. At
first I hardly said a word, I felt very nervous. But I began to
participate, and then I realized how good it feels to speak up. It is still
difficult for many women to begin to participate, there are only a few
women that really participate actively." (Segunda, health promoter)

Womens collectives

Womens collectives have been critical in terms of creating an all-womens
space. Within these collectives is where many women participate for the
first time; it is where they overcome their fear, their shame, and their
embarrassment; it is where they learn about their rights as women and where
they come to voice. In addition, since womens collectives are community
projects, integrated into the Zapatista movement, they have won a great
deal of legitimacy for womens participation, proving that women have much
to offer to their communities and to this movement.

"The first project we organized as women was a sewing collective. Between
all of us we got together to organize the work. It was our own idea - we
organized this collective because we saw it as a first step towards other,
broader projects in the future that would help us support each other, but
we didnt get that far. But organizing ourselves as women, we began to get
over our fear, our shame. When all the women participate together is how we
get past our fear. I think this is important because it is how women begin
to participate more." (Otelina)

"In the [womens] store we work well as a collective because we really care
about the work. In workshops we learned how to sell in the store, how to go
buy merchandise. I dont know how to read but now I can sell, I can buy
merchandise, I know how to do everything in the store. We feel good when we
work together because there are more of us taking care of the store. It is
all women participating in the store. Since it is a womens store, we
support each other as women, for example, even if we dont always have money
to pay, we can buy things on credit. The store is moving forward because we
have a lot of profit. We have thought about what to do with the profit, and
we would like to buy an electric corn grinder as a way of helping the
women, to help us grind our corn, to not have so much work to do in the
house." (Josefa)

"Working in collectives is how the indigenous communities used to live, how
our ancestors lived. Whenever they organized some community project, they
included everybody. This way of working together, of living collectively
had been lost. People did their work individually, every person for
themselves. For example, when somebody got sick, there was no structure to
help each other out. So we began to think about whether there was another
way to do things. We began to see that many solutions are possible if
people agree to work together. When indigenous communities began to work in
collectives again it was through the organization [the EZLN]. Men and women
both work in collectives. When men start working in collectives, the women
see them and decide they want to work in collectives too. Now the women
want to start more collectives, well see if were able to or not." (Otelina)

Customs and Traditions

Much of the struggle for indigenous autonomy focuses on defending the right
to live according to traditional indigenous customs. Women have always
played a particularly important role in the maintaining indigenous customs;
for example, it is almost always women who speak the indigenous language
and continue to wear the traditional clothing. At the same time, indigenous
women have participated in a very interesting process of analyzing the
sexism within certain indigenous customs: deciding that some traditions
represent oppression of women and must be left behind, such as the marriage
custom where the father of a young woman decides to whom she will get
married. At the same time, other traditions represent a fundamental element
of the indigenous culture and must be respected and maintained, for example
the mother tongue.

"Our language is still alive. It is important to maintain our language; we
must not lose it, or forget it. It is good to learn other languages as well
but not forget our mother tongue. Within the indigenous customs I think
there is respect for women. But this respect for women is something new,
before women were not respected. But now its different, they have begun to
respect women and give them positions of community authority. But these
changes are because of the organization [the EZLN]. Women are also
realizing that they have rights and that they can participate. We want to
recognize our rights, that we have rights also. We want the men to
recognize that we can participate too, we dont want to be locked up in the
house." (Otelina)

Autonomy and Womens Participation in the Autonomous Municipalities

The relationship between the growing participation of Zapatista women and
the construction of indigenous autonomy lies in the autonomous
municipalities. The EZLN opened the space for a certain amount of womens
participation; this participation has been formalized in the autonomous
municipalities and there can be no doubt that the participation of women is
one of the fundamental building blocks in the construction of autonomy.

"Some communities have womens representatives. This woman has to be a real
leader because her responsibility is to organize the rest of the women,
organize the womens collectives, and resolve problems that come up. She has
to explain to the other women that they can participate, and the different
community projects they can participate in. The structure of womens
representatives was organized by the EZLN and has been around since before
1994. Before 1994 some women participated but only a few. After 94 we saw
that more women began to participate. When we see a woman participating we
feel more encouraged to participate too. In the autonomous municipalities
there are women that have community responsibilities in their villages. Its
not like the official government municipalities. In the government
municipalities, women dont ever participate.

"When they name a woman to a certain responsibility, they dont ask if you
know how to do this job or not. If they elect you it is because they are
confident that you can do the work. And if you dont know how, you can
learn. We like this because we have begun to participate in many community
projects that we didnt participate in before. If we are told our whole
lives that we dont have rights, then we are going to believe it, for
example when the government used to tell us that women dont have rights.
But since it is an autonomous municipality they tell us that we do have
rights and that is why we see it as different from the government.

"What I understand by autonomy is an autonomy of the poor. We want to
control our own lives and not have to do whatever the government tells us
to do. Things have changed a lot; now indigenous people can live according
to our customs and organize ourselves and the government cant come in and
create divisions in the communities. Because in the communities when we
organize a project, its not just one person that organizes it: the
authorities have to lead by obeying the people, they have to take the rest
of the people into consideration. The government rules however it wants to.
Indigenous people govern but we rule by obeying the people.

"When the autonomous municipalities were formed, we recognized it as an
important step forward for indigenous people, for indigenous women and
indigenous men. It is an especially important step for indigenous women
because before women did not participate. When we created the autonomous
municipalities we decided that women were to have responsibilities within
the autonomous municipalities because that is what we wanted. There are not
many women with responsibilities within the autonomous municipalities but
there are a few. We have seen that there are women participating,
explaining to the rest of the women how we can work together. The rest of
the women realize the strength that we have as women and they feel more
confident." (Otelina)

On a personal note, I would like to add that I have been working with these
women for almost four years, accompanying them in their collectives. I have
seen their personal growth; I have seen the collectives moving forward; I
have seen the space that they have won for themselves within the autonomous
municipality. I have also been at their side to experience the frustrations
and the incredible obstacles that they continue to face in their struggle
for a life with dignity. Interviewing them almost brought tears to my eyes
because during these four years I have seen over and over the internal
strength that they possess, because they have inspired me so much, because
I think it is so important that the world hear their voices, and simply
because I care about them so much.

Translated by Hilary Klein 

Hilary Klein

Center   of    Economic   and    Political    Investigations   of
Community   Action,   A.C.  CIEPAC.

CIEPAC, member of the "Convergence of Civil Organizations for Democracy"
National Network (CONVERGENCIA), and member of RMALC (Mexico Action Network
on Free Trade)

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Eje Vial Uno Numero 11
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Centro de Investigaciones Económicas y Políticas de Acción Comunitaria, A.C.

Eje Vial Uno No. 11
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