Feminist Hero Friday: Zapatista Women

by Abaki Beck

Women played an important, though often overlooked, role in the Zapatista Army and uprising in Mexico. They advocated for equal access to education and healthcare, and for the denormalization of rape and arranged marriage. Today, Zapatista women continue to resist capitalism and advocate for community-driven solutions to global problems. Because of this resistance to the Mexican state, neoliberalism , and Westernization, Zapatista women brought indigenous feminism to the international stage, even if only for a fleeting moment. 

The Zapatista Army of National Liberation, a revolutionary leftist group, started in 1994 in Chiapas, a poor state in Mexico with a large concentration of indigenous people. The Zapatistas started organizing secretly in 1983, primarily recruiting indigenous people from rural villages. They caught the world’s attention in January of 1994 when they declared war against the Mexican government, a war which has not formally ended (although the Zapatistas generally use less armed resistance today). The group embraced anarchist and Marxist strategies while integrating indigenous beliefs. The armed uprising on January 1st occurred the same day that NAFTA went into effect - indeed, the uprising was in opposition to global capitalism itself.

In addition to poverty and discrimination against indigenous people in Mexico, women in Chiapas also faced sexism. Women were involved at all levels of the movement - from health and education promoters to insurgents and political leaders. Before the uprising, indigenous women were often forced into arranged marriages and their private lives were closely controlled by their husbands. Unlike men, few women spoke Spanish and formal education was less accessible to them. Because of the Zapatistas, women gained more agency both as activists and within their communities.

The Zapatista movement operated by consensus of all involved - including women and children. In fact, about one-third of the Zapatistas were women as were half of their supporters.  The supporters were often older women or women with families who could not actively be involved with the Zapatista militia. This radical inclusivity proved powerful to the movement. In conjunction with the uprising in Chiapas, they developed and released the Women’s Revolutionary Laws calling for gender equality. The laws advocated for both policy changes - that women receive equal salary to men - and cultural changes - that women had the right to marry who they choose. In addition to explicit and specific support of women’s rights, some of the actions of the Zapatistas unintentionally impacted women's lives. When they banned alcohol for example, women saw a decrease in domestic violence.

The Zapatista movement continues today, as indigenous people continue to demand rights and recognition. The Zapatistas began creating autonomous communities that support health clinics and schools in the 1990s. According to members of the Zapatistas, women play a more equal role in there than in other rural communities in Mexico. Some of these communities also run Mayan Schools of Dignity, community-controlled schools that center indigenous knowledge and experience. Zapatistas continue to rebel and reimagine inclusive communities. Today, Zapatistas are focused on climate change and traditional ecological knowledge. In 2015, they began creating 18 “food forests” in Chiapas as a way to revitalize indigenous agricultural techniques and resist capitalist food systems.

This Friday, we celebrate the power and beauty of indigenous people. We celebrate their right to exist and resist. And we celebrate the unnamed women who continue to empower themselves and their communities.

Want to know more? The School for Chiapas created a lesson plan to learn more about Zapatista women. You can start by watching the video about women in the Zapatista movement below: