Gender and Power in Indigenous Communities in Mexico

For many leftist academics and solidarity activists, the 1994 Zapatista uprising in Mexico was seen as opening important political spaces for Indigenous women in a broader male-dominated machista society.

Three images helped shape these views: 

1. Although the charismatic Subcomandante Marcos often captured the media spotlight, at the peace talks in the San Cristóbal cathedral and elsewhere he was matched with the diminutive and increasingly frail Comandanta Ramona who had gained her own cult following.

2. Media images of unarmed Indigenous women chasing soldiers out of their communities, including those in Saul Landau’s documentary The Sixth Sun and a famed January 1998 La Jornada photo, reinforced an idea that Indigenous women led subaltern protest movements.

3. In 1994, we were told that a significant portion of the Zapatista army was made up of Indigenous women, and that the EZLN was committed to equal rights and would not tolerate sexism within its ranks.

The Zapatistas drafted the ten Revolutionary Women’s Laws which stated that:

1. Women, regardless of their race, creed, color, or political affiliation, have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in a way determined by their desire and ability.

2. Women have the right to work and receive a fair salary.

3. Women have the right to decide the number of children they will bear and care for.

4. Women have the right to participate in the affairs of the community and to hold positions of authority if they are freely and democratically elected.

5. Women and their children have the right to primary attention in the matters of health and nutrition.

6. Women have the right to education.

7. Women have the right to choose their partner and are not to be forced into marriage.

8. Women shall not be beaten or physically mistreated by their family members or by strangers. Rape and attempted rape will be severely punished.

9. Women will be able to occupy positions of leadership in the organization and to hold military ranks in the revolutionary armed forces.

10. Women will have all the rights and obligations elaborated in the revolutionary laws and regulations.

Mexico has long been plagued by what is called the "dead letter of the law," a serious gap between delightful proclamations and the shortcomings of lived realities. These laws say more about desires than reflections of realities. But ten years on, has any real progress been made? Is gender equality even a goal? Does equality extend any farther than trite tokenism?Chiapas

Within Zapatista communities and more broadly in Maya society, there appears to be a gap between what leadership projects and what communities experience. For example, the Zapatista Junta de Buen Gobierno that governs the Caracol of Morelia is comprised of three men and three women. Plenaries at the Zapatista Encounter with the Peoples of the World in July at the Caracol of Oventic were heavily dominated by women. But during a short visit to the autonomous Zapatista community of Olga Isabel, we only met with three men and it appears that women played an insignificant role in community governance.

Furthermore, during a meeting with the Junta de Buen Gobierno at Morelia it was a man who led the discussion with a woman adding her voice of thanks at the very end. Perhaps this was a simple function of literacy. Historically, it has been men who have had most contact with the outside world and hence have gained most fluency in the dominant colonial language. Women, on the other hand, have remained at home and in the private sphere which leads anthropologists to see them as the bearers of tradition and culture since they tend to hang on to Indigenous languages and dress longer than men. (The same thing happened in my own immigrant family to the United States, with women holding on to the Low German language longer than men). Very possibly, talking to a man was simply a pragmatic function of having the one most skilled in the Spanish language carrying on the conversation. It appeared that one of the women spoke little if any Spanish, and we spoke no Tzotzil.

During a meeting with the Abeja (Bee) community of El Nuevo Paraiso it was Manuel, a male representative of the community, who guided the conversation and translated for everyone, for both the men in western dress and rubber boots and the traditionally dressed barefoot women. First, all the men shared their stories and then we moved on to the women. Manuel paid little attention to the women as they spoke. Was this a dismissive attitude, or did he know their stories so well that he did not have to listen closely? Was this an example of a domineering personality who insisted that everyone speak through him, even though others may also have spoken Spanish? If we had translation from the Tzotzil at El Nuevo Paraiso, could we not also have had this translation in Morelia at the Junta de Buen Gobierno? But for the first time we were "hearing" women’s voices. Before traveling to El Nuevo Paraiso we stopped at Acteal where we met with the Abejas leadership-all men, even though they consciously addressed us as "sisters and brothers" rather than the more traditional but exclusive "brothers" (hermanos).

The contrast between-male dominated communities and an overt female presence at the Zapatista Encuentro alternatively points to either a serious desire to engage issues of sexism and exclusion, or it simply highlights the level of tokenism on which these issues are addressed. For example, in the fifth plenary on women at Oventic Lora read a statement that she had written with María Luisa and Verónica on the issues that women faced in Zapatista communities. Women, she read, were mistreated, ignored, forgotten. But rather than blaming Indigenous cultures, it was the Bad Government that treated women as if they served no purpose except to have kids and take care of animals. Lora emphasized that at first there were few women in charge of community responsibilities, and that there is need for more formation and training so that women can do more work. Both the presentation and follow-up questions seemed to follow preconceived notions instead of deeply probing the contradictions we observed in the communities. The Zapatista General Command has declared that women have equal rights, and if there are problems the Zapatista authorities in autonomous communities take care of them (although the presenters were very thin on how such problems would be dealt with). The presenters, however, did seem to concede how difficult it is to change cultural traditions when they acknowledged that while some men try to help out domestically very few of them make tortillas.

Presenters engaged women’s empowerment issues more directly in the subsequent plenary on collective work. Paulina read a statement prepared together with Daniela, and Juan Manuel in which they explain how they had formed a cooperative so as not to have to sell their artisan crafts so cheaply. She explained how they took advantage of participating in the Zapatista struggle to avoid what they had suffered for years, and that a cooperative was a way for Indigenous women to improve their lives.Oaxaca

My disappointment in the lack of serious engagement of gendered issues was further reinforced during a short visit to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec. My images of the region had largely been shaped (and perhaps reified) by Maureen Gosling’s excellent film Blossoms of Fire in which she depicts a strongly matriarchal society. Instead, we met with two social movement organizations at Santa María Jalapa de Marqués and La Venta that were exclusively dominated by men. At Jalapa, one woman sat at the front table during our meeting, but she was never given the opportunity to speak. Many women, however, were in the audience and when we left they proudly greeted us, hardly appearing to be marginalized or intimidated. At La Venta, women showed up only to play the traditional role of serving us drinks while men held forth on the more serious issues of the day. All of this seemed to replicate the traditional gender relations that we commonly see around us.

Ironically, we met with stronger women leaders in Oaxaca and in areas that had not gained a specific reputation for such leadership.

Estela Río González and Itandehuí Santiago Galicia from the Coordinadora de Mujeres Primero de Agosto (COMO) told us their history of taking over the state TV and radio station last year in the aftermath of the Asamblea Popular de los Pueblos de Oaxaca (APPO) protests against state governor Ulisis Ruiz. The Coordinadora emerged out of a group of women who decided to support the striking teachers, and realized that they needed to organize themselves to achieve their objectives. Copying protests in Argentina and Chile, they rejected their traditional domestic roles and instead carried out a cacerolazo, a march of banging on pots and pans. They expected a couple thousand women to join them, but 15,000 showed up for a march on government buildings. With this momentum, they seized 28 buses to travel from Oaxaca’s central Zocalo square to take over the state TV and radio stations.

Coordinadora Mujeres Primero de Agosto

Originally the women only demanded 30 minutes of air time to present their demands, arguing that as a state-run radio they had a right to have their voices heard. When the station refused this request, they took over the station. They decided that having men join them would be too provocative, so only women entered. Men remained outside as guards. The women deliberately chose to be respectful and not to destroy anything. No one knew how to use the equipment, so they had to coerce the technicians "with cariño" (with love) to show them how to run the station.

For the first day the women did not eat or sleep as they ran the station. Long lines of women wanted to go on the air to talk and express their demands. As the occupation drug on, people brought food to the station. Husbands asked when they were coming home to take care of their houses, but the women said that the men would need to learn how to take care of themselves. Estela noted the problems they faced of hard-headed and machista men, but their actions showed that women could accomplish a lot. The broadcasts lasted from August 1 to August 21 when the government destroyed the station’s antenna to knock it off the air. The occupation remained until October 28 to care for the station so that they would not be accused to destroying the equipment.

Estela emphasized that this occupation demonstrated that women can do more than be in the kitchen. They demanded justice, and lost fear of repression. Itandehuí noted how she was impressed with the initiative shown by young women. People were surprised to see women able to run the station. "The job was not easy," Itandehuí stated. The women were well aware of the repercussions of attacking a state institution. But they grew stronger as they went along.

Out of this occupation, the women decided to form a broad, inclusive, popular assembly of women. Their demands were to free political prisoners from the summer protests, and to address the issues of disappeared and tortured protesters. More broadly, they dream of a better world without poverty in which the government works for the people and for freedom and justice rather than enriching politicians. They want schools, hospitals, and funding for education. Itandehuí also pointed to the importance of including Indigenous women in the struggle since they are the most oppressed.

Dolores Villalobo from the Consejo Indígena Popular de Oaxaca "Ricardo Flores Magón" (CIPO-RFM) provides another example of strong female leadership. Although she did not introduce herself as such, she was the secretary of women’s issues in the CIPO. Although often in organizations this becomes a marginalized and somewhat token position for women, Dolores was clearly a central actor in the organization. She spoke strongly and forcefully regarding a broad range of issues that face her and her community. Flores Magón, an Indigenous anarchist from Oaxaca, once said "cuando una mujer avanza, no hay hombre que retroceda" (when a woman is advancing, no man can stop her) that has become a commonly repeated slogan.

Although obviously not necessarily a representative sample, in a visit to the community of Tres Lagunas in the northern Oaxaca municipality of Nochixtlan we met Domitla, a traditional healer, who explained the benefits of midwives and the negative consequences of western medicine that was too eager to deliver babies with cesarian sections. Unlike the women in the Maya communities we visited in Chiapas, she did not hang back but talked as an equal with the men around her. Domitla spoke Spanish and the community had strongly felt the impacts of immigration which perhaps meant that unlike in rural communities in Chiapas women were more acculturated and had more exposure to the outside world. Did this give her more strength to speak?

If acculturation translates into stronger female leadership this contradicts assumptions that Indigenous (ie, traditional) societies tend to be more egalitarian and place value on women’s participation. This perspective maintains that discrimination is a function of the imposition of hierarchies and state structures, and that machismo is an European import.

Alternatively, scholars have examined how subalterns invert dominant paradigms to their own advantage. Specifically in this case, women take marianismo (the cult of the virgin Mary) and use it to create spaces for protest. In the famed La Jornada photo, the assumption is that if it were men who were pushing back at the soldier they would be hit and imprisoned. But because they were women, the soldier was helpless to respond.

A colleague pointed out to me, however, the gendered nature of such oppression. It is not that the soldier would not hit the woman, but that he would not be allowed to do so in public and in the eyes of the media. Away from the cameras and the public eye, the women would be raped, tortured, killed. And, indeed, this is what we saw in Pinochet’s prisons in Chile. Marianismo did not protect women, and women often faced the worst abuse for having stepped out of their traditional roles.

Relations of gender and power are more complex than what an outsider would observe during a brief visit, and these roles are contingent on many factors present in different cultural spheres at any historical moment. Even so, rather than reinforcing our assumptions regarding special spaces for the unique and positive construction of gendered relations in Indigenous communities, the Zapatista and APPO experiences would seem to indicate that more-not less-exposure to the dominant culture fosters the development of strong female leadership within a social movement.

Marc Becker ( traveled to Mexico (Oaxaca and Chiapas) with the Marin Interfaith Task Force on the Americas (MITF).

Click here for more information on the trip