Margara Millan, Mexican sociologist and Professor at the Universidad Autonoma de Mexico, visited NYU last month to discuss the role of indigenous women within the Zapatista movement in Mexico. What I found most interesting about her lecture was the way in which she described the various roles played by women within the Zapatista civilian governments—called the Juntas de Buen Gobierno. Each of these Juntas requires 30 percent of the members to be female and the role of women extends much further than simply filling a quota. Women were integral in shaping a feminist Zapatista discourse, the topic of Millan’s dissertation, and the policies adopted in Zapatista territory.
For example, Millan discovered during her research in Chiapas that women played an important role in banning alcohol within Zapatista communities. When the Zapatistas first rose up against the Mexican government in 1994, the Zapatistas enforced strict prohibition because they were at war. Once the Juntas formed, however, the indigenous women belonging to the communities discovered that by enforcing the sobriety of indigenous men, the rate of domestic abuse drastically decreased. Thus, they strongly pushed to enforce sobriety within the civilian territory.
Millan’s research is important in challenging the perception shared by some that passing laws protecting indigenous people’s “usos y costumbres” (roughly translated as culture and traditions), essentially legalizes the abuse of women when such abuse is a part of indigenous culture. Millan’s research demonstrates that at least in the case of the Zapatistas, women are slowly shaping those existing usos y costumbres to empower women and create more egalitarian communities.
After her presentation some of the attending students accompanied Millan to lunch. Overall, it was an exciting and thought-provoking event.
MA Candidate, CLACS