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Sidebar: Revolutionary Laws of the Zapatista Women

Revolutionary Zapatista Women in Cultural Perspective

by Lea Clayton, Prism Mexico correspondent

"Prostitution...out! Drugs and alcohol...out! The Mexican Army...out!" These were the messages written on handpainted signs and chanted by more than 250 indigenous women as they marched on around the square of Altamirano. The women of Morelia (a town in the southeastern Mexican state of Chiapas) joined the women of neighboring Zapatista support communities in protest of the militarization and all of its by-products in this small Mexican pueblo. Altamirano hosts a Mexican army base and airstrip from which the Mexican army conducts surveillance on the nearby rebellious communities.

"We are here to protest what we see as direct threats to our homes and families," shouted a woman from the bed of the pickup truck that led the march. In the organizational meeting before the protest, some of the women discussed the problem of prostitution that lingers around the army base and threatens their communities. Other women voiced concerns over the rise in use of marijuana by their young people because of the drug's availability at the base. And all were fed up with the low-flying helicopters and military transports that frequently buzz the communities.

From behind a mounted machine gun on the street corner, a teenage Mexican soldier looked on the spectacle with feigned disinterest. For once at least the quiet streets of this spooky town were filled to overflowing with the uplifted voices of liberated women.

The liberation of the indigenous women of Chiapas is part of the Zapatista philosophy of social reform. The rebel leadership presents the world with powerful images of women in combat and with high-ranking positions. But how do the indigenous women interact with the ideas of liberation at home and in daily work? And what, if any, real progress is being made at this level, where it counts the most?

I lived and worked for seven months in Morelia, a Zapatista support community of Tzeltal-speaking farmers, where I worked on its first-ever organic gardening cooperative. I had the opportunity to witness the lives of a group of indigenous women dedicated to the Zapatista brand of feminism.

Oftentimes, I saw my friends work much harder than their husbands and fathers. The women pat out the day's tortillas before the rest of the village is awake, and the women put to bed the dying embers of the hearth fires at night after everyone else goes to sleep. Their days are full of chopping and carrying firewood, processing and cooking all the food, carrying water, having and raising the children and working alongside the men in the cornrows. The women are still expected to wait upon the men when they return home from the fields. The women do not have the same kind or amount of leisure time as the men. Traditionally, women have not had an official voice in community decisions and rarely have held office.

It took me quite awhile to see and understand what to everyone else is a clearly defined role for the woman. I finally realized that the pride many of my friends had in being women comes from their work. The men in the community recognize as well that the work of the women is the pulse of the Mayan rhythm of life and is essential to its survival.

A well-respected woman in Morelia is a capable wife and mother. She is the manager of the home and the family work schedule. Ultimately, she is responsible for the survival of her children. She has to see to it that everyone gets something to eat, even when there is a poor harvest or the husband is too drunk to work. And a large part of her life is spent in communion with the other women in the community. As a rule, men gather with other men and women with the women. Men and women sit on opposite sides of the church during mass and community meetings; boys and girls usually don't play together.

The work of the Mayan women is the key to the past and future of an ancient civilization. Many of the village grandmothers speak only their native tongue, while the rest of the community is bilingual, speaking Spanish as well. Mothers pass on traditional ways of work to their daughters. In most cases, but certainly not always, it is the women that carry the knowledge and skill of the textile weaving or pot-making characteristic of the village. And the women tend to be the most devout Catholics, providing a spiritual anchor for the community.

While providing stability and sense of continuity, the women are dedicated to changing their own lives and those of their children for the better. Together, they discuss methods of liberation that begin at home. One woman told me she had begun asking her son to sweep the floor, the kind of work historically reserved for women. Sometimes I saw little boys carrying their younger siblings in shawls tied to their backs; not just the girls are baby-sitting anymore.

During my stay, the women met every Sunday to create initiatives dedicated to act upon the Zapatista ideology of women's liberation. They elected women to represent them to a larger body that makes laws for the rebel communities. That they found the time and energy to organize apart from their already hefty list of responsibilities is a testament to their devotion to change. And everyday it seemed certain women were taking larger and faster steps to this goal. In my last days there, the community elected its first two women authorities ever that would help design community policy within the wake of war.

As a woman of the United States, I find it hard to understand some of the demands listed in the Revolutionary Law of the Zapatista Women. In fact, my initial impression of them was negative. It seemed to me that these demands could only come from a group of angry women fed up with being second-class citizens. For example, numbers 14 and 22 reflect an explicit desire to punish any person who may abuse or mock a woman. I also had trouble with what I saw as an attempt to enforce a strict code of moral behavior-exemplified in numbers 7, 17 and 31. Shouldn't single women have access to the birth control options that married women receive in number 4?

Upon further reflection, I've come to realize that my idea of what it means to be liberated is different from their idea. For me and many American women, liberation is an individualistic goal, a path of personal empowerment. In the US, women are encouraged to leave traditional roles in search of career or other fulfillment. I don't believe most Morelian women want to uproot their whole way of living. They view their liberation in the context of the wider community. Their feminism cannot be analyzed correctly if separated from the community it seeks to serve. I believe that they view the problem of the historical oppression of the indigenous woman as a community problem, one that will hold back progress if it continues. Aside from wanting more of an official voice in their village and more respect in general, the women basically ask for help with the work at home and accountability from their husbands in the raising of their children.

The women's movement is in my opinion one of the most important movements of our century. The liberation of the indigenous woman may be a larger issue than the Zapatista goal of social reform for Mexico. It is important for women of different cultures and world views to recognize an opportunity for collaboration to achieve the mutual goals of freedom, love and raised consciousness on behalf of the woman.

  Lea Clayton recently returned from seven months in Morelia, Chiapas.  

  Revolutionary Laws of the Zapatista Women

(written someplace in the jungle, March, 1996)

These laws (excerpted) are designed to be enforced inside the rebel communities as a semi-official working code to enable the liberation of the indigenous woman:

  1. The women have the right to be respected within family life and within the community.
  2. The women have the same rights as men in the community and municipality.
  3. The married women have the right to use family planning methods-natural or artificial-whichever they decide. The man has to agree with her decision.
  4. The women have the right to participate in meetings and in the decision-making process, without criticism. The women have the right ...to hold office....
  5. The Revolutionary Law strictly prohibits the sale, cultivation and consumption of drugs, marijuana, poppy, cocaine, etc.
  6. The sale and consumption of alcoholic drinks in our towns and communities is strictly prohibited because we are those who suffer most the bruises, poverty and misery as a consequence of this vice.
  7. The women and their children will have equal rights to the men in the health, clothing, expense, etc. and the maintenance of family economic resources.
  8. We, the women, have the right to rest when we really need it, be it because we are tired or sick or because we need to achieve other tasks.
  9. We have the right to defend ourselves verbally when we are offended or attacked in words by the family or others.
  10. We have the right to physically defend ourselves when we are attacked or aggravated by families or others, and we have the right to punish the men or person who aggravates, abandons and insults the women.
  11. The women have the right to demand that the bad customs that affect our physical and emotional health are changed; those who discriminate against, mock or abuse the women will be punished.
  12. The Revolutionary Law prohibits the abandonment of one's spouse without reason...or uniting with another man or woman when there hasn't been a normal divorce.
  13. The Revolutionary Law prohibits a man to have two women because this practice hurts the wives' feelings, violates her rights and injures her dignity as wife and as woman.
  14. The Law reclaims and considers valid indigenous societal norms. It is prohibited for some member of society to have amorous relations outside of community rules. In other words, men and women may not have relations without being married because this carries as consequence the destruction of the family and is a bad example to society.
  15. No woman will be mistreated, insulted, or physically abused by her husband for not having male children.
  16. In case of marital separation, the land and all family possessions are divided into equal parts between husband, wife and children.
  17. Women have the right to punish men who sell and take alcoholic drinks and drugs.
  18. Single women have the right of being respected and considered as a family.
  19. The woman has the right to support from the husband when she is organizing, and when women go to meetings, men will watch and feed the children and tend the hearth.
  20. The woman has the right to demand the eradication of prostitution in the communities.
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