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The Zapatista Movement and Indigenous Feminism

Globally, indigenous peoples occupy or use resources on some 22% of the land area, harboring 80% of the world’s biological diversity (Nakashima et al., 2012). According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI, 2022), in Mexico, 23.2 million people over the age of three identify as indigenous. This number represents 19.4% of the total Mexicans in that age group, of which 51.4% (11.9 million) are women and 48.6% (11.3 million) are men. Mexico has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and has been declared a pluricultural nation since 1992 (United Nations General Assembly, 2007). However, the country’s indigenous population still faces several challenges, such as recognition of territories, funding, access to justice, and social and political representation.

Indigenous women’s vulnerability is a reflection of their levels of identity construction and where they are situated as subjects at the intersection of power (Kaijser & Kronsell, 2014). The division of labor, responsibility within and beyond the home, resource ownership and control, legal, social, and political status, and involvement in family and collective decision-making, among other issues, are starting points for understanding the diversity and complexity of Indigenous women’s lives, as well as their socially constructed and deeply gendered vulnerability (Vides-Almonacid, 2014). Nonetheless, sexism coupled with anti-indigeneity makes their experiences as indigenous women much more unique, as they must fight for their rights inside and outside their communities (Hernandez, 2022). The Zapatista movement, which emerged in Chiapas in 1994, is a significant resistance movement that advocates for indigenous rights. It is of particular importance for indigenous women, as it represents the first space that allowed them to organize and fight for their communal and individual rights as women (Hernández Castillo, 2002). This article contains a brief history of the Zapatista movement, as well as its importance and connection to indigenous feminism.

Figure 1: Oventic girls study their lessons in a makeshift school in Chiapas, Mexico (Jiménez, n.d).

History of the Zapatista Movement
“We agree to fight together as different as we are against the patriarchal capitalist system which is the one that is killing us…We agree to live and for us to live is to fight.” - Zapatista Women, 2018 (Bellamy, 2021).

The Zapatista movement emerged in Chiapas, Mexico, on January 1, 1994, when the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) launched an armed insurrection from the mountains of southeastern Mexico, particularly in Chiapas, seizing control of San Cristóbal de las Casas and other key locations (Ávila, 2011). The movement draws its name from Emiliano Zapata, a key figure in the Mexican Revolution advocating for agrarian rights and social justice. Led by Subcomandante Marcos, the movement gained international recognition. The insurgency movement coincided with the implementation of the Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by President Carlos Salinas de Gortari and Article 27 of the agricultural law (Ávila, 2011). 

The origins of the Zapatista movement lie in decades of grievances among indigenous communities in Chiapas, facing discrimination, marginalization, and exploitation by the Mexican government and powerful landowners (Harvey, 1998). Chiapas was one of the richest states in Mexico in terms of natural resources, while its people were some of the poorest (Cornwin, 2004). For them, NAFTA represented just another one of many debilitating, undemocratic policies put forward by a “homogenizing and exclusionary government” (Cornwin, 2004). The demands of the Zapatistas were centered around indigenous rights such as education, food, health, and land (Ávila, 2011). However, the Zapatistas were also fighting for the acknowledgment of indigenous women's autonomous rights, which was reflected in the 16 points demanding rights to land from the Revolutionary Women's Law (Ley Revolucionaria de Mujeres, 1993) (Ávila, 2011).

Figure 2: Zapatista women walk with their faces covered in Guadalupe Tepeyac, Chiapas (Fernando Pérez Lira, 2017).

The protest methods of the Zapatistas changed over time, ranging from the military occupation of certain small cities and villages in highland Chiapas in 1994 to meetings, marches, and seizures of towns after the 1997 and 2000 elections (Inclán, 2018). Establishing Zapatista-controlled municipios (municipalities) was a significant outcome of the land invasions, creating Zapatista-controlled territories within and beyond the conflict region (Inclán, 2018). Indigenous women, as highlighted in Bellamy's (2021) article, emphasize the pivotal role of land in their pursuit of freedom. Notably, the land utilized for Zapatista autonomous projects was acquired through "revolutionary recovery," underscoring the intrinsic link between autonomy, land, and insurgency (Bellamy, 2021). The Mexican government responded with a military campaign, resulting in a ceasefire brokered by international entities. This eventually led to the formation of the San Andrés Accords in 1996, which pledged significant indigenous rights and autonomy. Regrettably, the government failed to uphold these commitments, prompting the Zapatistas to denounce the accords (Khasnabish, 2010). Despite the Mexican government's reluctance to acknowledge the Zapatistas' autonomy demands, many benefits came from the indigenous resurgence in Chiapas. One such benefit was the catalyzed cultural shift within indigenous communities, with the Zapatista agenda actively promoting greater political engagement among indigenous women (Baretto Avilla, 2011). In this sense, the Caracoles in Garrucha and Morelia have distinguished themselves in championing women's rights and political involvement (Baretto Avilla, 2011).

Since the uprising, the Zapatistas have focused on building autonomous self-governing communities in Chiapas and implementing alternative education, healthcare, and economic systems based on participatory democracy, collectivism, and indigenous traditions. Since 2001, the Zapatistas have limited their demonstrations but continue to fight for the autonomy of indigenous communities and various causes and domestic conflicts (Inclán, 2018). Analysts view the Zapatista movement as offering a novel approach to politics, with some describing it as the first post-communist social movement, emerging at a time when neoliberal capitalism was ascendant following the collapse of state socialism (Millán, 2006). Millán (2006) explains the Zapatista uprising in 1994 as the confluence of four paths: agrarian struggle, ethnic tradition, the church's advocacy for the poor, and armed resistance (Millán, 2006). The rebellion represented a critique of existing forms of citizenship, particularly rural corporate citizenship and narrow electoral democratic citizenship (Millán, 2006). Consequently, it aimed to construct a new, autonomous form of citizenship characterized by radicalism, which also included the consideration of women's issues and sought to reorder gender dynamics toward an ideal democracy (Millán, 2006). 

Figure 3: The EZLN Guerrilla Group (Eloy Valtierra, n.d.).
Indigenous Feminism

Indigenous women within feminist movements navigate dual demands: advocating against the state for recognition and redistribution and challenging cultural norms within their own communities for gender equity (Millán, 2006). This "double gaze" is observed in other Latin American contexts, highlighting the complexities indigenous women face (Millán, 2006). For instance, Alma López, a Quiché woman and councilmember in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, outlines her vision of indigenous feminism and cultural revitalization:

"As an indigenous feminist I intend to recover the philosophical principles of my culture and to make them fit into the reality of the twenty-first century. That is to say, to criticize what I don’t like about my culture while proudly accepting that I belong to that culture. Indigenous feminism is to me part of a principle—women develop and make revolution to construct themselves as independent persons who become a community that can give to others without forgetting about themselves. The philosophical principles that I would recover from my culture are equality, complementarity between men and women, and between men and men and women and women. That part of the Mayan culture currently doesn’t exist, and to state the contrary is to turn a blind eye to the oppression that indigenous women suffer. The complementarity is now only part of history; today there is only inequality, but complementarity and equality can be constructed. I would also recover the double vision, or the idea of the cabawil, the one who can look forward and back, to one side and the other, and see the black and white, all at the same time. To recover this referent, as applied to women, implies knowing one’s self with all the sad and terrible things that are part of my reality as a woman and reconstructing myself with all the good things I have. It means to recognize that there are women different from me, that there are Latinas and indigenous women, that there are black, urban, and campesina women" (Hernandez Castillo, 2002).

Francesca Gargallo (2013) articulates that indigenous feminism is inherently political, as it goes beyond addressing individual experiences or personal empowerment. Instead, it focuses on understanding and challenging the systemic power dynamics that perpetuate oppression and marginalization within indigenous communities and societies at large (Gargallo, 2013). In this sense, indigenous feminism seeks to dismantle these oppressive structures by advocating for social, cultural, and economic transformations that address the root causes of inequality and injustice (Gargallo, 2013). Moreover, indigenous feminism emphasizes the importance of collective action and solidarity in challenging these power dynamics, as it recognizes that liberation and empowerment for indigenous women cannot be achieved in isolation but require broader social and political movements aimed at challenging colonial legacies, state racism, and patriarchal systems (Gargallo, 2013).

Indigenous feminism is often believed to have started with the presentation of the Revolutionary Women’s Law that Tzotzil and Tzeltal female leaders and the Zapatista National Liberation Army bases announced in December 1993. Although of significant importance, indigenous women acted in defense of their individual rights before the rise of the Zapatistas. Despite facing repression and violence, indigenous women have increasingly voiced their demands for indigenous rights and gender equality in the public sphere (Hernández Castillo, 2002). The formation of the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women (CNMI) in 1997 is highlighted as a significant milestone in organizing Indigenous women at a national level (Hernández Castillo, 2002). Although not always explicitly named as feminists, demands made in such specific movements indicate the emergence of a new indigenous feminism (Hernández Castillo, 2002). For the scope of this present article, we are going to look only at how the Zapatistas' story reflects indigenous feminism, keeping in mind that there are as many forms of indigenous feminism as there are indigenous peoples.

Figure 4: Aquí seguiremos: niños zapatistas (Cristina Rodriguez Pinto, n.d).

Indigenous feminism questions that the only domination that women suffer is derived from the sex-gender relationship and takes into account other types of discrimination, such as class, culture, aesthetics, patriarchal domination, colonial racialization, and so on (Gargallo, 2013). The Zapatista Comandante Esther describes three types of discrimination:

“Primarily, we women are exploited in three ways. One, because we are Indigenous women, and because we are Indigenous, we do not know how to speak, and we are despised. Two, because we are women, they say that we do not know how to speak, they say that we are stupid, we do not have the same opportunities as men. Three, because we are poor women. We are all poor because we do not have good nutrition, dignified housing, we do not have good health. Many women hold their dying children in their arms due to curable illnesses” (Mason, 2011).

The current Mexican social foundation is shaped by the intersection of indigenous patriarchal traditions and Western patriarchal norms, along with the promotion of Mexican machismo since the establishment of the nation-state (Bellamy, 2021). Lorena Cabnal and Julieta Paredes explain how patriarchy in Abya Yala (the indigenous name for the American continent) takes on unique forms due to the convergence of two patriarchies with distinct expressions and historical contexts. This phenomenon is termed a "patriarchal junction," characterized by the merging of the original ancestral patriarchy, often associated with ethnic and essentialist ideologies, with the colonialist Christian Western patriarchy, resulting in a revitalization of the former (Gargallo, 2013).

Figure 5: A supporter of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, EZLN, holds up a poster in Mexico City in June (Fernando Llano, n.d).

Millán (2006) argues that within Zapatismo, women are seen across three discursive horizons: concerning the nation, their community, and themselves. In each context, women emerge as active social actors, demonstrating agency, self-reflexivity, and a willingness to challenge traditional customs while affirming their culture and confronting ethnic discrimination (Millán, 2006). Membership within the EZLN facilitated spaces for discussion, defiance, and political evolution for Zapatista women (Bellamy, 2021), shaping what can be termed the movement's "gender policies" (Millán, 2006). Many women joined the Zapatista army at a young age, often as teenagers, as an alternative to working as domestic servants in San Cristóbal (Millán, 2006). For some, this can be a path to autonomy and education, challenging traditional community expectations, particularly regarding marriage (Millán, 2006). In this sense, the EZLN offered young women paths of development that neither the government nor their communities offered (Millán, 2006). This involvement provided an organizational structure that expanded the scope of their activism to encompass both collective and individual concerns (Bellamy, 2021). Notably, figures such as Comandantas Ramona and Susana played crucial roles by traversing communities to gather and articulate women's voices and key demands (Bellamy, 2021).

Zapatista women became prominent indigenous women's rights advocates, particularly through the Women's Revolutionary Law. The law holds significant symbolic value for numerous indigenous women in peasant, political, and cooperative organizations. Comprising ten articles, the law delineates various rights specific to indigenous women, as follows:

  1. "Women, regardless of race, creed, color, or political affiliation, have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in the place and ranks determined by their will and capacity.

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

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

  4. Women have the right to participate in community affairs and take charge if they are elected freely and democratically.

  5. Women and their children have the right to primary care for their health and food.

  6. Women have the right to education.

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

  8. No woman may be beaten or physically abused by relatives or strangers. The offenses of attempted rape or rape will be severely punished.

  9. Women may hold management positions in the organization and have military ranks in the revolutionary armed forces.

  10. Women will have all the rights and obligations indicated in the revolutionary laws and regulations. (Hernandez, 2007)."

Figure 6: Comandancia del EZLN (Daliri Oropeza, n.d.).

The Zapatista movement stands as a beacon of resilience and grassroots empowerment in the face of formidable challenges such as government oppression, paramilitary aggression, and corporate exploitation. Through their steadfast resistance, Zapatista women have confronted the symbolic dominance of patriarchy and forged a new paradigm of indigenous and rural feminism (Hernandez, 2008). Their unwavering commitment to promoting human rights has reshaped the status of indigenous women, garnering significant support from international agencies and civil society (Baretto Avilla, 2011). Together with members of the National Coordinating Committee of Indigenous Women (CNMI), Zapatista women have underscored the interconnectedness of struggles against racism, sexism, and economic exploitation. By challenging the ethnocentric tendencies of mainstream Mexican feminism, they compel a reevaluation of ethnicity and class in understanding women's identities in multicultural Mexico. The voices of indigenous women, documented in their congresses, meetings, workshops, and publications, underscore the imperative of constructing a more inclusive and multicultural feminism, urging us to heed these dissenting voices.

In summary, indigenous feminism within the Zapatista movement represents a nuanced approach to gender equity, weaving together struggles for indigenous autonomy, rights, and gender equality. This intersectional framework has not only reshaped feminist discourse within indigenous communities but has also left an indelible mark on global feminist thought and praxis. The Zapatista insurgency has played a pivotal role in catalyzing the emergence of indigenous feminism, challenging entrenched patriarchal structures, amplifying women's agency, and promoting intersectional understandings of oppression. By centering indigenous women's experiences and advocating for their rights within broader struggles for autonomy and social justice, the Zapatistas have made enduring contributions to feminist theory and activism. The impact of the Zapatista movement reverberates far beyond the borders of Chiapas, serving as a source of inspiration for indigenous women's movements worldwide (Stephen, 1997). Its emphasis on collective action, grassroots mobilization, and solidarity resonates deeply with indigenous feminist struggles elsewhere, amplifying the voices of marginalized women and fostering intersectional analyses of oppression.

Bibliographic References

Ávila, M. B. (2011, December). The Mayan Indigenous Women of Chiapas: Lekil Kuxlejal and food autonomy. Development, 54(4), 485–489.

Bellamy, C. (2021, March 2). Insurgency, Land Rights and Feminism: Zapatista Women Building Themselves as Political Subjects. Agrarian South: Journal of Political Economy: A Triannual Journal of Agrarian South Network and CARES, 10(1), 86–109.

Gargallo, F. (2013, January 1). Feminismos desde Abya Yala.

Hernández Castillo, A. (2002, May). Zapatismo And The Emergence Of Indigenous Feminism. NACLA Report on the Americas, 35(6), 39–43.

Inclán, M. (2018, August 30). Zapatistas between Sliding Doors of Opportunity. The Zapatista Movement and Mexico’s Democratic Transition, 131–144.


Kaijser, A., & Kronsell, A. (2014). Climate change through the lens of intersectionality. Environmental Politics, 23(3), 417–433.

Khasnabish, D. A. (2010, February 11). Zapatistas. Bloomsbury Publishing.,+D.+A.+(2010).+Zapatistas:+Rebellion+from+the+Grassroots+to+the+Global.+Bloomsbury+Publishing.&hl=&cd=1&source=gbs_api

Masson, S. (2011, September 1). Sexo/género, clase, raza: feminismo descolonial frente a la globalización. Reflexiones inspiradas a partir de la lucha de las mujeres indígenas en Chiapas. Andamios, Revista De Investigación Social, 8(17), 145–177.

Millán, M. (2006). Participación política de mujeres indígenas en América Latina: el movimiento zapatista en México. Instituto Nacional de Investigaciones y Capacitación de las Naciones Unidas para la Promoción de la Mujer. Agencia Española de Cooperación Internacional. Santo Domingo, República Dominicana.

Nakashima, D., Galloway McLean, K., Thulstrup, H., Ramos Castillo, A., Rubis, J., & Traditional Knowledge Initiative. (2012). Weathering uncertainty: traditional knowledge for climate change assessment and adaptation; 2012.

Stephen, L. (1997). CHAPTER 5 The Unintended Consequences of "Traditional" Women's Organizing: The Women's Council of the Lazaro Cardenas Ejido Union, Nayarit. In Women and Social Movements in Latin America: Power from Below (pp. 158-194). New York, USA: University of Texas Press.

United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. (2007, November). International Journal of Cultural Property, 14(04).

Vides-Almonacid, R. (2014). Bases conceptuales y enfoques estratégicos para la adaptación al Cambio Climático en América Latina. Sabiduría, 13.

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