Rebel women

A report from the Zapatista Women's Encounter in Chiapas
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LA GARRUCHA CHIAPAS (Jan. 8th) - Dozens of Zapatista companeras, many of them Tzeltal Maya from the Chiapas lowlands decked out in rainbow-hued ribbons and ruffles, their dark eyes framed by pasamontanas and paliacates that masked their personas, emerged from the rustic auditorium to the applause of hundreds of international feminists gathered outside at the conclusion of the opening session of an all-women's Encuentro hosted by the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) here at year's end.

The Tzeltaleras' line of march, which resembled a colorful if bizarre fashion parade, seemed an auspicious start to the rebels' third "encounter" this year between "the peoples of the world" and the Zapatista communities and comandantes - an anti-globalization conclave last December and an Encuentro in defense of indigenous land this summer preceded the womens' gathering.

Although the call for the event was issued under the pen of the EZLN's quixotic spokesperson Subcomandante Marcos, the author of a recently published erotic coffee table book in which his penis plays the role of a masked guerrillero, the impetus for the women's Encuentro sprung from the loins of the Zapatista companeras.

Last July, at the conclusion of a meeting with farmers from a dozen counties in the hamlet with the haunting name of La Realidad ("The Reality"), a young rebel from that community, "Evarilda," apparently without clearing the invitation with the EZLN's General Command, called for the all-womens' encounter, explaining that men were invited to help with the logistics but would be asked to stay home and mind the children and the farm animals while the women plotted against capitalism.

True to Evarilda's word, at the December 29th-31st gathering, which drew 300-500 non-Mexican mostly women activists to this village, officially the autonomous municipality of Francisco Gomez, and which honored the memory of the late Comandanta Ramona (d. January 2006), men took a decidedly secondary role. Signs posted around the Caracol called "Resistance Until the New Dawn," a sort of Zapatista cultural/political center, advised the companeros that they could not act as "spokespersons, translators, or representatives in the plenary sessions." Instead, their activities should be confined "to preparing and serving food, washing dishes, sweeping, cleaning out the latrines, fetching firewood, and minding the children."

Indeed, some young Zapatista men donned aprons imprinted with legends like "tomato" and "EZLN" to work in the kitchens. Meanwhile, older men sat quietly on wooden benches outside of the auditorium, sometimes signaling amongst themselves when a companera made a strong point or smiling in pride after a daughter or wife or sister or mother spoke their histories to the assembly.

The role of women within the Zapatista structure has been crucial since the rebellion's gestation. When the founders of the EZLN, radicals from northern Mexican cities, first arrived in the Tzeltal-Tojolabal lowlands or Canadas of southeastern Chiapas, women were still being sold by their families as chattel in marriage. Often, they were kept monolingual by the husbands as a means of control, turned into baby factories, and had little standing in the community. Those from the outside offered independence and invited the young women to the training camps in the mountain where they would learn to wield a weapon and use a smattering of Spanish and become a part of the EZLN's fighting force. Fourteen years ago, on January 1st 1994, when the Zapatistas seized the cities of San Cristobal and Ocosingo and five other county seats, women comprised a third of the rebel army.