Rebel women

LA GARRUCHA CHIAPAS (Jan. 8th) – Dozens of Zapatista companeras, many of them Tzeltal Maya from the Chiapas lowlands decked out in rainbow-hued ribbons and ruffles, their dark eyes framed by pasamontanas and paliacates that masked their personas, emerged from the rustic auditorium to the applause of hundreds of international feminists gathered outside at the conclusion of the opening session of an all-women’s Encuentro hosted by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) here at year’s end.

The Tzeltaleras’ line of march, which resembled a colorful if bizarre fashion parade, seemed an auspicious start to the rebels’ third “encounter” this year between “the peoples of the world” and the Zapatista communities and comandantes – an anti-globalization conclave last December and an Encuentro in defense of indigenous land this summer preceded the womens’ gathering.

Although the call for the event was issued under the pen of the EZLN’s quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, the author of a recently published erotic coffee table book in which his penis plays the role of a masked guerrillero, the impetus for the women’s Encuentro sprung from the loins of the Zapatista companeras.

Last July, at the conclusion of a meeting with farmers from a dozen counties in the hamlet with the haunting name of La Realidad (“The Reality”), a young rebel from that community, “Evarilda,” apparently without clearing the invitation with the EZLN’s General Command, called for the all-womens’ encounter, explaining that men were invited to help with the logistics but would be asked to stay home and mind the children and the farm animals while the women plotted against capitalism.

True to Evarilda’s word, at the December 29th-31st gathering, which drew 300-500 non-Mexican mostly women activists to this village, officially the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez, and which honored the memory of the late Comandanta Ramona (d. January 2006), men took a decidedly secondary role. Signs posted around the Caracol called “Resistance Until the New Dawn,” a sort of Zapatista cultural/political center, advised the companeros that they could not act as “spokespersons, translators, or representatives in the plenary sessions.” Instead, their activities should be confined “to preparing and serving food, washing dishes, sweeping, cleaning out the latrines, fetching firewood, and minding the children.”

Indeed, some young Zapatista men donned aprons imprinted with legends like “tomato” and “EZLN” to work in the kitchens. Meanwhile, older men sat quietly on wooden benches outside of the auditorium, sometimes signaling amongst themselves when a companera made a strong point or smiling in pride after a daughter or wife or sister or mother spoke their histories to the assembly.

The role of women within the Zapatista structure has been crucial since the rebellion’s gestation. When the founders of the EZLN, radicals from northern Mexican cities, first arrived in the Tzeltal-Tojolabal lowlands or Canadas of southeastern Chiapas, women were still being sold by their families as chattel in marriage. Often, they were kept monolingual by the husbands as a means of control, turned into baby factories, and had little standing in the community. Those from the outside offered independence and invited the young women to the training camps in the mountain where they would learn to wield a weapon and use a smattering of Spanish and become a part of the EZLN’s fighting force. Fourteen years ago, on January 1st 1994, when the Zapatistas seized the cities of San Cristobal and Ocosingo and five other county seats, women comprised a third of the rebel army. Women fighters were martyred in the bloody battle for Ocosingo.

Key to bringing the companeras to the rebel cause was “The Revolutionary Law of Women,” officially promulgated that first January 1st from the balcony of the San Cristobal city hall, which decreed that women should have control over their own lives and their bodies. The law, which had been carried into the Indian communities by Comandantas Susana and Ramona, often meeting with hostility from the companeros, was “our toughest battle” Marcos would later note.

Integrating women into the military structure, which was not tied to local community, proved easier than cultivating participation in the civil structure, which was rooted in the life of the villages. Although women occupied five seats on the 19-member Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRI), the EZLN’s General Command, their numbers fell far shorter in 29 autonomous municipal councils and the five Juntas de Buen Gobierno (“Good Government Committees”) which administrate Zapatista regional autonomy.

But as the Zapatista social infrastructure grew, women became health and education promoters and leaders in the commissions that planned these campaigns and their profile has improved in the JBGs and autonomias.

Women’s Lib a la Zapatista has been boosted by the rebels’ prohibitions against the consumption of alcohol in their communities. Whereas many inland Maya towns like San Juan Chamula are saturated in alcohol, with soaring rates of spousal and child abuse, the Zapatista zone has the lowest abuse indicators in the state, according to numbers offered by the womens’ commission of the Chiapas state congress. As a state, Chiapas has one of the highest numbers of feminicides in the Mexican union – 1456 women were murdered here between 1993 and 2004, more than doubling Chihuahua (604) in which the notorious muertas of Ciudad Juarez are recorded. The low incidence of violence against women in the zone of Zapatista influence is more remarkable because much of the lowland rebel territory straddles the Guatemalan border, a country where 500 women are murdered each year.

With the men tending the kids and cleaning latrines, the women told their stories in the plenaries. Many of the younger companeras like Evarilda had grown up in the rebellion – which is now in its 24th year (14 on public display) – and spoke of learning to read and write in rebel schools and of their work as social promoters or as teachers or as farmers and mothers. Zapatista grandmothers told of the first years of the rebellion and veteran comandantas like Susana, who spoke movingly of her longtime companera Ramona, “the smallest of the small,” recalled how in the war, the men and the women learned to share housekeeping tasks like cooking and washing clothes.

“Many of the companeros still do not want to understand our demands,” Comandanta Sandra admonished, “but we cannot struggle against the mal gobierno without them.”

The Zapatista companeras’ struggle for inclusion and parity with their male counterparts grates against separatist politics that some militant first-world feminists who journeyed to the jungle espouse. Lesbian couples and collectives seemed a substantial faction in the first-world feminist delegations. Although no Zapatista women has publicly come out, the EZLN has been zealous in its inclusion of lesbians and gays and incorporate their struggles in the rainbow of marginalized constitutuencies with whose cause they align themselves.

Sadly, the Encuentro of the Women of the World with the Zapatista Women did not provoke much formal interchange between the rebel companeras and first-world feminists – who were limited to five-minute presentations on the final day of the event. Nonetheless, a surprise Zapatista womens’ theater piece did imply a critique: in the skit, a planeload of first-world feminists with funny hair (played by the companeras) lands in the jungle to deliver the poor Indian women from oppression.

Among international delegations in attendance were women representatives from agrarian movements as far removed from Chiapas as Brazil and Senegal, organized by Via Campesina, an alliance that represents millions of poor farmers in the third world, and a group of militant women from Venice, Italy who have been battling expansion of a U.S. military base in that historic city. Political prisoners were represented by Trinidad Ramirez, partner of imprisoned Ignacio del Valle (who is serving a 67-year sentence), leader of the farmers of Atenco. A message from “Colonel Aurora” (Gloria Arenas), a jailed leader of the Popular Army of the Insurgent People (ERPI), who now supports the EZLN, was read. Although he reputedly lives only a few villages away, Subcomandante Marcos (or his penis) did not put in an appearance at the women’s gathering.

Ladling out chicken soup at her makeshift food stand, Dona Laura told La Jornada chronicler Hermann Bellinghausen that once the womens Encuentro had concluded, everything would return to normal – “only normal would be different now.”

Although the Encounter amply demonstrated the increasing empowerment of the Zapatista companeras, how much of what was said actually rubbed off on those who came from the outside is open to question. “I didn’t really get a lot of it,” confided one young non-Spanish-speaking activist on her way home to northern California to report back on the women’s gathering to her Zapatista solidarity group.

Be that as it may, the EZLN is going to need all the women – and men – it can muster in the months to come. 2008 looms as a difficult year for the rebels with the mal gobierno threatening to distribute lands the Zapatistas recovered in 1994 to rival Indian farmer organizations and paramilitary activity on the uptick.

As has always been the case since this unique rebellion germinated, the Zapatistas turn the corner into another year in struggle.