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5. BULLETIN "CHIAPAS AL DIA" No. 242 ==================================================
BULLETIN "CHIAPAS AL DIA" No. 242 CIEPAC, CHIAPAS, MEXICO (30 of May 2001)
WOMEN AND INDIGENOUS AUTONOMY
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 Culture." 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 childbirth."
"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 store)
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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