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Revolution from within: Zapatista women demand equality.

(CHIAPAS) - "We don't want the soldiers in our communities. Not because we are afraid, but because we don't need them."

The speaker is Comandanta Susana, member of the Zapatista National Liberation Army's (EZLN) highest command and the instigator of what is sometimes called the "first Zapatista uprising." In March 1993, Susana met with thousands of indigenous women in Chiapas, Mexico, and formulated the Revolutionary Women's Law, a 10-point manifesto that asserts women's equality and right to self-determination, in the home as well as in the ranks of the rebel army. Now, Susana and six other comandantas express their rage at the military occupation of their region.

While it is commonly reported that there have been no battles and no casualties since the first weeks of the EZLN's uprising against the Mexican government in January 1994, the women's testimony reveals the damage wrought by over two years under siege.

The village of Oventik is surrounded by four military camps, a situation that has devastated the village's economy and rendered normal social and productive activities impossible. Not only does the military occupation mean curtailed access to marketplaces and supplies for their work, but women also report being harassed and attacked by soldiers.

According to lawyer Marta Figueroa of the Grupo de Mujeres (Women's Group) of San Cristobal, sexual violence has doubled since the beginning of the war. Cecilia Rodriguez, spokesperson for the Zapatistas in the US was raped and threatened by three armed men last year. Rodriguez's refusal to be silenced has given strength to other victimized women, whose bodies have become a battleground.

The militarization of Chiapas, with its climate of violence, intensifies conditions of poverty for all of its residents, but indigenous women suffer from other aftershocks of militarism. The lack of health care is acute: maternal mortality is high, thousands of children die each year of disease that are curable. Instead of addressing women's concerns, the government has introduced population control, including the sterilization of Mayan women.

When soldiers enter their communities, women are forced to provide food and shelter and are interrogated about absent male relatives.

Women have also been coerced either by force or by poverty and desperation into prostitution, an institution previously unknown in Mayan culture.

Most women in Mayan communities work as artisans. The occupation has made it difficult both to buy materials and to sell the finished products, for which there is a high demand. And in a social system more accustomed to government patronage than autonomy and self-sufficiency for indigenous peoples, women's interest in strengthening financial cooperatives is viewed as a threat.

The Zapatista women are determined to achieve justice for women, their communities and Mexico, and for women. Although the goals articulated in the Revolutionary Law have by no means been fully realized, some things have changed. The authority exercised by women in the ranks of the Zapatista military-30 percent of EZLN combatants are women-has empowered them to begin to bring about changes for women's lives that will outlast the context of war.

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Author:Elissa Rashkin
Date:Sep 22, 1996
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