I spent three days with the Zapatistas. Here's what happened.

“Capitalism converts everything, absolute everything into commodities. For it [capitalism] we women are propaganda, decorations…Down with this capitalist system!”

This 8 March, as women across the world took part in strikes, demonstrations, and walkouts to mark International Women’s Day, thousands gathered in the mountains of Chiapas, Mexico, for a three day summit filled with debates, theatre, art, and even sports, all dedicated to ’women in the struggle’. I was lucky enough to be one of them.

Arriving in Cancun I thought that it would be a simple three-bus journey to traverse the better part of Mexico to Chiapas. Four buses and two taxis later I was dropped off in Morelia where I was welcomed by four men in balaclavas having lunch and a sign that read ‘You are now in Zapatista territory’. After over 20 hours of travelling, I had made it. Or so I thought.

In fact, I was informed by four of my fellow travellers, the summit was going to be held in the Zapatista school a kilometre away. Walking along the dusty road we turned a curve and a large red star upon a hilltop became clear. Now I was really here.

Across a field two large gates adorned with banners welcomed us to the summit. One read: ‘Here is for women only’. The other: ‘Men are prohibited from entering’. And that’s exactly what happened. All the men who arrived, Zapatista or not, were stopped at the gates and were instead given the task of cooking and then, once the summit was over, cleaning.

Walking through the gates the energy was immediately palpable. The sheer size of the undertaking was incredible. Ahead of the event, up to 1,000 women were expected, but in the end, far more turned up – a daily minimum of 5,000 with probably more than double that on the Friday. The Zapatistas had spent the last year planning and preparing, a process which included 10,000 of them. New auditoriums, dormitories and stages were built to be able to accommodate us all.

But who are the Zapatistas and why did they call this summit?

Banner reading: Here, is for women only

A brief history of the Zapatistas

Mexico has one of the highest indigenous populations in Latin America; 12.7 million self-define as indigenous and speak 62 languages between them. Chiapas is arguably the most multi-ethnic state in Mexico – 27.2% of its population is indigenous. It’s also the richest in natural resources. Nonetheless, it’s still one of the poorest. The poverty level is inextricably linked to the number of indigenous peoples.

For hundreds of years Chiapas existed on the periphery of Mexican society. The indigenous population was systematically ignored and marginalised, particularly by the central government. They were denied basic human rights and services such as education and healthcare. And they often faced, and sometimes still do, abuse from other Mexican citizens and even officials for who they are, their beliefs and their way of life.    

To this end, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN in its Spanish initials) was formed in 1983 to fight for the rights and aspirations of the indigenous peoples of Mexico.

The group takes its name from Emiliano Zapata, the main leader of the peasant revolution in the Mexican state of Morelos from 1910 until his death in 1919. However, Zapata himself was not the only source of ideological inspiration. The EZLN, rather, combined the agrarianism of Zapata with a host of indigenous beliefs and broader left traditions including anti-capitalist, anti-globalisation, feminist, Marxist, and anarchist movements.

On 1 January 1994, the EZLN propelled Chiapas from the periphery to centre stage. As the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) came into effect, the Zapatistas launched their attack and occupied four towns in Chiapas. That same day they issued their First Declaration and Revolutionary Laws declaring war on the Mexican government.

As well as calling for the protection of indigenous rights and an end to human rights abuses, the EZLN demanded the protection of communal lands and the right for indigenous peoples to determine what occurred on them. Among other things, NAFTA opened doors for big agribusiness from the US and Canada to buy or rent this land.

Fighting continued for eleven days and included men and women – at the time women made up a third of the Zapatista army. On 12 January a ceasefire was agreed. The following year the Mexican government launched a surprise breach of the peace treaty and managed to regain some territory from the Zapatistas. In 1996, the Mexican government and the Zapatistas signed the San Adrés Accords which, among other things, granted autonomy to indigenous communities.

Today the Zapatistas control about half of Chiapas, which is divided and governed via five areas known as caracoles. Although they have moved away from military offensives and towards garnering Mexican and international support, they are still subject to sporadic attacking force from the Mexican government. This is why, when holding international gatherings, they will not take off their balaclavas, as revealing their individual identities can be problematic and lead to them facing individually aimed repression. 

“Our autonomous government understands our struggle and our problems because it is born from them”. These words were read out from Caracol 1 ‘La Realidad’ (the reality) as part of the opening ceremony of the summit. Listening to these words and speeches that were given, you realise the incredible advances that the Zapatistas have made with very few resources. Each Caracol has schools, hospitals and is organised horizontally. Upon entering their territory you become aware that, as they say, this is a space in which the people rule and the government obeys.

Workshop and discussion on migration as a women's issue

Why an international summit for women?

There are a myriad of problems affecting women in Mexico, which are heightened when you are an indigenous women. Women all over the country face high levels of domestic abuse, rape, femicides and disappearances. On top of that, indigenous women face other problems. For example, they are less likely to speak Spanish than their male counterparts and therefore more likely to be exploited by employers, government officials and the judicial system.  

The Zapatistas have fought to eradicate inequality between men and women for decades now. The Women’s Revolutionary Law was discussed long before it came into effect in 1993. It is often seen as the first guerrilla movement to explicitly include a law on women’s rights within its guiding principles. The law covers a variety of areas, from the right to participate in revolutionary struggle, to the right to health and education, to the right to have protection against violence and rape.   

While the Zapatistas fight against traditional gender roles on a daily basis, with many men staying to help care for children and many women in work and being part of the army, they recognise that there is still further to go. That’s why they called the summit. Its aims were: “To bring women together, for us to learn from each other, listen to each other, cry and heal together and go back to the corners of the planet to carry on fighting against capitalism and the patriarchy that is inherently tied to it.”

“Our struggles are unique but simultaneously united”. Reflecting this, the activities were varied and lead by both Zapatistas and attendees. As well as more formal discussions there were other activities to get involved in such as football and volleyball matches, workshops on dance and theatre and art making sessions. In total there were over 200 activities which shone a light on the diversity of our experiences as women. This also created a space for us not only to learn and share knowledge but also reflect and make friendships.

The Zapatistas set a lot of store by symbolism and poetry, so it’s no accident that the name of their autonomous governments is caracol, which means snail. Like the Zapatistas, snails advance slowly, but without pausing. And so it is with the struggle of the Zapatista women against gender inequality. This summit was as much about their encounter with the world of feminist politics and women’s struggles beyond Chiapas as it was about us learning from them. By holding it, they’ve shown how far they have come, and how much further we all have to go.

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