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Women have been influential in the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, EZLN), a revolutionary leftist group in Chiapas, Mexico, by participating as armed insurgents and civil supporters. One-third of the insurgents were women and half of the Zapatista support base was women. The EZLN organization style involved consensus and participation by everyone, including women and children.[1] Therefore, one aspect of the EZLN’s ideology was gender equality and rights for women. After the Zapatista uprising in Chiapas, the EZLN announced the Women’s Revolutionary Law which was a set of ten laws that granted rights to women regarding marriage, children, work, health, education, political and military participation, and protected women from violence. Prominent figures who joined the movement early on such as Comandante Ramona and Major Ana Maria encouraged other women to join the Zapatistas.


Indigenous Women of Chiapas[edit]

In Chiapas, indigenous women were married at a very young age, usually around thirteen or fourteen.[2] They tended to have little choice in the matter; the future husband selected a woman and the marriage was negotiated between the parents. Once married, the women fulfilled their primary roles of child-rearing, cooking, and housekeeping, though they also participated in other labor such as agriculture. Married women were often subject to mistreatment by their husbands, including physical abuse. In addition, indigenous women of Chiapas lacked access to formal education, and they typically did not learn Spanish like many men.[3] This inhibited their socioeconomic mobility because Spanish is the main language spoken in cities and used in business practices.

Indigenous Women and Internal Migration[edit]

In the 1950s, the Mexican government encouraged migration from the highlands to the Lacandon Jungle area of eastern Chiapas, the locus of the EZLN, because of demands for land reform.[4] In many cases, men forced their wives to accompany them to the jungle. Women did not want to leave because many of them had never left their villages in the highlands of Chiapas. Due to the mixing of various ethnic groups in the new location, women learned other indigenous languages and were able to communicate more broadly.[5]

There were some differences for those who stayed in the highlands. Men started working with the new businesses and industries, while women were not able to work as wage laborers. Women earned cash in other ways as street vendors or as maids in ladino homes.[6] Some of the street vendors sold handmade crafts to tourist in the cities, and these women organized into artisan collectives. They also formed other types of economic collectives such as for bread-making and vegetable gardening.[7] Rural women could also remain in their village and still contribute to the collective. This was an early instance of women organizing and working to better themselves. The maids earned cash, but suffered abuse in the ladino plantations. Physical and sexual abuse were commonly committed by the ladino landowners against the women who worked in their homes.[8] Independence, new skills, and grievances gained from these experiences led women to join the EZLN.[6]


Military and Political Involvement[edit]

The EZLN made its first appearance on the national and international scene with the seizing of San Cristóbal de las Casas as well as six other towns in Chiapas on January 1, 1994, which coincided with Mexico entering into the North American Free Trade Agreement. This uprising declared war against the Mexican state with the issuing of the First Declaration from the Lacandon Jungle and their Revolutionary Laws. Major Ana Maria, a woman, led the capture of San Cristóbal de las Casas.

Women comprised one-third of the EZLN army, and a significant portion of them held commanding offices.[9] In addition, about half of the EZLN’s support base was women.[9] Initially, the majority of the women insurgents were in the less-organized local militias, but later decided to join the actual EZLN.[10] The women who joined as insurgents had to renounce having a family of their own, because it was too difficult to care for children in the conditions they lived in. There was family planning for women insurgents, but for those who did get pregnant, they either went home or left the child with their parents. In the insurgent camps men and women share cooking and cleaning tasks equally.[11]

Joining the EZLN allowed women greater access to educational opportunities. Zapatistas spoke Spanish as a common language between the various Mayan languages. So the Zapatista women learned Spanish and also had the opportunity to learn to read and write.

Other Involvement[edit]

Despite not being actual insurgents in the EZLN, many indigenous women still supported the EZLN in other ways. These women were those who were typically older or had families to care for. The civilian women contributed by warning communities if the military arrived, operating radios to notify communities of federal troop movement, sewing uniforms, feeding troops, and more.[12]

Women's Revolutionary Law[edit]

On the day of the uprising, the EZLN announced the Women’s Revolutionary Law with the other Revolutionary Laws. The Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee created and approved of these laws which were developed through with consultation of indigenous women. The Women’s Revolutionary Law strived to change “traditional patriarchal domination” and it addressed many of the grievances that Chiapas women had.[13] These laws coincided with the EZLN’s attempt to “shift power away from the center to marginalized sectors."[14] The follow are the ten laws that comprised the Women’s Revolutionary Law:

  • First, women have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in the place and at the level that their capacity and will dictates without any discrimination based on race, creed, color, or political affiliation.
  • Second, women have the right to work and to receive a just salary.
  • Third, women have the right to decide on the number of children they have and take care of.
  • Fourth, women have the right to participate in community affairs and hold leadership positions if they are freely and democratically elected.
  • Fifth, women have the right to primary care in terms of their health and nutrition.
  • Sixth, women have the right to education.
  • Seventh, women have the right to choose who they are with (i.e. choose their romantic/sexual partners) and should not be obligated to marry by force.
  • Eighth, no woman should be beaten or physically mistreated by either family members or strangers. Rape and attempted rape should be severely punished.
  • Ninth, women can hold leadership positions in the organization and hold military rank in the revolutionary armed forces.
  • Ten, women have all the rights and obligations set out by the revolutionary laws and regulations.[15]


In December 2007, an encuentro (gathering) was held in la Garrucha, a small indigenous village in Chiapas, for Zapatista women to discuss issues related to women. Three thousand participants attended, including approximately three hundred Zapatista women. The encuentro was considered a space for women; so men were allowed to attend the gathering, but not to participate.

These women covered topics such as their lives before the uprising, what had changed since, and how women have participated in the EZLN. Also, the Zapatista women talked about the terrible conditions that women suffered which the Zapatistas sought to fix, including: the mistreatment from working for landowners, violence at home, discrimination faced in their own communities, and lack of access to health care and education. Then, the women went on to discuss how the Zapatista movement changed their lives such as decreasing domestic violence, more freedom in regards to marriage and children, and more rights in general. One way that women achieved these changes is through the women’s collectives which allowed the women to be more independent which led to increased participation in the Zapatista movement.[8]

Notable Women[edit]

Comandante Ramona[edit]

Comandante Ramona was the nom de guerre of one of the early political leaders in the EZLN.[8] She only spoke Tzotzil, and so used translators to translate between Tzotzil and Spanish.[16] Ramona worked in the communities with political organizing, but was not involved as an insurgent.[16] In February 1994 following the initial uprising, Ramona attended peace talks and served as a negotiator with the Mexican government. Ramona died on February 6, 2006 at the age of forty from kidney cancer.[17]

Major Ana Maria[edit]

Major Ana Maria is the nom de guerre of one of the first military leaders who led the initial 1994 uprising in San Cristóbal de las Casas.[8] She is from the Tzotzil[18] ethno-linguistic group and held the highest military rank in her area, Los Altos de Chiapas.[19] As a Major of Infantry, she commanded a battalion and led them in battle.[20] She began participating in peaceful protests at eight years old, and later joined the EZLN as one of the first women around the age of fourteen after her brother joined.[21]

See Also[edit]



  1. ^ Rodriguez, Victoria (1998). Women's Participation in Mexican Political Life. Boulder, CO: Westview Press. p. 155. 
  2. ^ Rovira, Guiomar (2000). Women of Maize: Indigenous Women and the Zapatista Rebellion. London: Latin American Bureau. p. 44. 
  3. ^ Kampwirth, Karen (2002). Women and Guerrilla Movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press. p. 85. 
  4. ^ Kampwirth 2002, p.90.
  5. ^ Kampwirth 2002, p. 91.
  6. ^ a b Kampwirth 2002, p. 93.
  7. ^ Klein, Hilary (30 January 2008). "We Learn as We Go: Zapatista Women Share Their Experiences". Toward Freedom. 
  8. ^ a b c d Klein 2008.
  9. ^ a b Kampwirth 2002, p. 84.
  10. ^ Rovira 2000, p. 39.
  11. ^ Perez, Matilde and Laura Castellanos (7 March 1994). "Do Not Leave Us Alone! Interview with Comandante Ramona". Originally published in Doble Jornada. 
  12. ^ Rovira 2000, p. 37.
  13. ^ Rovira 2000, p. 5.
  14. ^ Rovira 2000, p. 6.
  15. ^ Rodriguez 1998, p. 150.
  16. ^ a b Perez & Castellanos 1994.
  17. ^ Zwarenstein, Carlyn (11 January 2006). "Legacy of a Zapatista Rebel". The Globe and Mail. 
  18. ^ Kampwirth 2002, p. 83.
  19. ^ Rovira 2000, p. 30.
  20. ^ Rovira 2000, p. 42.
  21. ^ Rovira 2000, p. 40.


  • Kampwirth, Karen. Women and Guerrilla Movements: Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chiapas, Cuba. University Park, PA: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2002.
  • Klein, Hilary. “We Learn as We Go: Zapatista Women Share Their Experiences.” Toward Freedom. January 30, 2008.
  • Perez, Matilde and Laura Castellanos. “Do Not Leave Us Alone! Interview with Comandante Ramona.” Translated by Judith and Tim Richards. Originally published in Doble Jornada, March 7, 1994.
  • Rodriguez, Victoria. Women’s Participation in Mexican Political Life. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1998.
  • Rovira, Guiomar. Women of Maize: Indigenous Women and the Zapatista Rebellion. London: Latin American Bureau, 2000.
  • Zwarenstein, Carlyn. “Legacy of a Zapatista Rebel.” The Globe and Mail. January 11, 2006.