Celebrating Zapatista and Kurdish Women’s Struggles, on International Women’s Day

In 2021, 500 years after the Spanish conquest of the Indigenous communities in what is today Mexico, the Zapatistas launched an “invasion” in reverse, sailing across the Atlantic to Europe. This was not your usual invasion. The Zapatista delegation landed to discover the “other” Europe—in their words, the Europe of “those who fight, resist, and rebel,” as a way to share and learn from each other’s struggles, successes, and failures. Given the centrality of women in the Zapatista struggle, it is not surprising that one of the delegation’s encounters was with members of the Kurdish women’s movement, active in Europe. Kurdish and Zapatista women share more than just long-standing solidarity with each other. They share deeply resonant histories of developing women’s struggles within liberation movements.

Women in both movements have successfully pushed against the internal patriarchal tendencies—engaging in a double struggle for their rights as women, and for the right of their communities to be autonomous. Far from being the only examples of women’s organizing within broader social struggles, they have arguably been the most successful in resisting opposition to women’s liberation within movement spaces. So how did they do it, and what can we learn from them to fight patriarchy in our own communities? And how—in the spirit of International Women’s Day—can we stand in solidarity with both movements as they face increasing attacks that threaten to undermine their achievements?

On January 1, 1994, the Zapatistas surprised the world with an armed uprising of masked Indigenous men and women who took over several towns within the Mexican state of Chiapas. With the battle cry of “¡Ya basta!”—enough is enough—the Zapatista Army of National Liberation, or the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional (EZLN), called for resistance against the Mexican government’s decision to privatize communal peasant held land, and to enter into the North American Free Trade Agreement. This was seen as yet another instance of the 500 years of racism, exploitation, and dispossession Indigenous people faced leading to resistance. What is less known however, is that this spectacular takeover was preceded by another “revolution,” as Subcomandante Marcos, now Galeano, one of the movement’s spokespersons, puts it, that is, the women’s revolution.

When the EZLN emerged in the Lacandona Jungle in 1983, the group’s leadership, including its first female commanders, actively recruited Indigenous women to join the revolutionary struggle. Women did so both to support the movement and to escape gender-based restrictions in their communities. While in its early years the EZLN had little discussion of the solutions to gender-based violence and inequality, its leadership nonetheless promised women an equal role within the movement enabling them to challenge internal patriarchal relations.

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