Mexico: Reflections on the Struggles of Zapatista Women. Feminists?


Notes to reflect and clarify some of the epistemic challenges between the theory and the concepts that serve as bases for urban and/or North geopolitical feminisms. Their internal variants are recognized, and this comparative essay presents proposals emerging from the Zapatista movement. These struggles by Zapatista women focus simultaneously on their rights as women and on those they share in the defense of their land and territory. They are struggling against the dispossession caused by megaprojects and how these impact multiple communities and “indigenous” peoples, not only against their land, territory, but also against their epistemic particularities.

Image for Sylvia Marcos article on Zapatista feminism.

Towards an epistemic plurality

The feminist discourses and proposals of recent years are beginning to incorporate philosophical perspectives anchored in the emerging indigenous women’s movements. These are forms of resistance that resignify and transform the dominant forms of knowledge from the viewpoint of “subalternized” subjectivities that feel/think from epistemologies that we could call “decolonial.”

However, the “epistemic erasure” that occurred during the confrontation of two worlds and the subjugation of one by the other has not disappeared, it is still in force. What we have to ask ourselves is: at what levels of subjectivities? How are the “other” feminisms that coexist within and in interaction with our urban ones forged? How to conceive those contributions to feminist practices that we sometimes do not recognize as such?

I take the voice of my origins: although I try not to merge myself with the perspectives of dominant urban feminisms, I recognize that I am partly the product of that place of enunciation. That is why I also recognize that my knowledge is situated; I can only distance myself from it by walking on the edge or the limit, that is, on the flexible and fluid border between symbolic and epistemic worlds.

How to reflect 27 years after the public emergence of the Zapatista women, on their claims, their trajectories, their demands and statements? How to also understand those coming from the multiplicity of women’s voices from indigenous organizations and social movements? And, finally: what is the path that would be reformulated today? To what extent would it reinforce –or deny– our early complaints, denunciations and indignation when, at the beginning of the 70s, the groups of women called “the second feminist wave ” appeared, for example, in Mexico?

The arrogant affirmation of the superiority of some ways of knowing over others and not just of one “race” over another, prevailing since the conquest and colonization of Mexico, is implicit in the epistemic subjugation of local ways of apprehending the world that survive in indigenous worldviews. In opposition to these hegemonic claims, several indigenous women’s movements –among them the Zapatista women– have built their objectives, e.g. their forms of autonomy and their demands for “women’s rights”, based on a recreation of ancestral knowledge. It is a proposal defined as “dialogical” -by several philosophers and anthropologists-, because they have known how to incorporate and resignify some feminist statements to their objectives of struggle. With this they are in permanent dialogue with us. But, their requests, revindications and demands do not imply an uncritical acceptance of ours, nor their emphatic rejection. They do not incorporate all our demands, and when they subscribe to some, their way of doing so follows their own path and, furthermore, the order and/or urgency of their priorities sometimes eludes our understanding.

The Zapatista women summon us to try to get out of our world of references and, with the glorious and pertinent metaphor that they frequently use, to walk by their side. Trying to fully understand their particularities within feminist practices necessarily implies denouncing, with our interpretations, the class ethnocentrism of the dominant feminist theory. We are demanding, from “below and to the left”, recognition, power and respect for the perspectives emanating from socially and economically disadvantaged situations of indigenous and peasant women. At the same time, it is crucial to invent new conceptual tools that account for the specific forms that gender oppression takes on in contexts such as that of indigenous Mayans, Nahuas, Purépechas, Mijes, Mixtecs, Zapotecs…

Several questions should be asked: what can feminism, as a critical social theory, contribute to the knowledge produced by an indigenous movement? How does the link between community identity/fusion and gender identity mark paths for the indigenous movement and feminism? These questions invite us to debate the place given to the analysis of gender oppression in the political agendas of social movements that claim ancestral roots.

Equality and difference: we are the same because we are different

In her speech at the beginning of the so-called Intergalactic Encounter, Major Ana María pronounced a phrase that has gone almost unnoticed, perhaps because of its hermetic quality or because of the impossibility of capturing its deep epistemological implications. She said: “we are the same because we are different”. This is a deep Zapatista/Maya saying and concept. It would seem a paradox, inconceivable, incoherent, a nonsense. This apparent dislocation must be interpreted from another place. I think we must understand it from the Mayan worldviews, in which the cosmic whole is made up of different and complementary parts. Being different makes the parts equal in value. What’s more, because they are different, they complement each other, for that very reason they are “equal”… Has it occurred to us to think like this? Has it occurred to us to decipher this sentence in this way? I leave the question. I myself am asking it. We must cross the abyss as Boaventura de Sousa said, the abyss or incommensurability that separates one episteme from the other (De Sousa, 2009).

It would be innovative and very respectful to be able to grasp the otherness of the “other” from the phrase “we are the same because we are different” and come to live accepting an “epistemic plurality”.

We feminists have put together a very prolific theoretical framework in analyses and publications on “feminism of difference”(1). I myself titled one of the books I edited: Dialogue and Difference. In this publication, we already conceptualized “difference” as a starting point to build a respectful dialogue between differences. It was already moving away from the hierarchical, individualistic order in which the different, the difference, is hierarchical and placed in an inferior, subaltern, subjugated situation, and which gave rise to the demands of “equality feminism”.

We might think that Ana María’s phrase means “we are the same despite being different”. But she has said clearly: “we are the same because we are different.” Hers is a whole other proposal.

What do we make of this statement? We must migrate from the epistemology that fetters us and that sustains a proposal in which the same cannot be the different; and what is different cannot and should not be worth and be the same. Zapatismo, with its own philosophy, opens up that possibility. It is the concept of “Zapatista equality” in which, to begin with, women can nourish ourselves to move towards that harmonious statement: we are the same because we are different. Could it also be said that this phrase expresses “ethical equality”?

Here is another possibility of interpreting this apparently paradoxical phrase –for us–: ethically, all of us who are diverse and different are worth the same, we are equal and have equal rights. We must “radicalize the notion of equality” says R. Grosfoguel (2013), and resignify it from other worldviews/epistemes and from the concrete and not abstract. For this reason, the Zapatista practices of both genders (men and women) express their specific philosophical proposals and show us in actions, in “embodiments”, their staging, and the experiential nature of their impact on the political. “…right now we have opened our eyes, we are here to organize ourselves, we do not let bad governments bother us.” (Comandanta Dalia) (2). Equality does not erase faces, genders, but rather keeps them separate, diverse (and this is perceptible in all communities), thus giving new meaning to the notion of equality. This has been called, by various scholars, creating, as Zapatismo does, a “concrete universal” that includes all particulars.

In our feminist reflections we have crossed several rivers, we have gone through several stages. Many of them have been shaped as responses to the times, to external situations, to contexts. Now it is our turn to accept and recognize the often implicit philosophical proposals that emerge from women who claim the right to their own ways of apprehending the world and their place in it.

Feminist Zapatistas?!

Feminist theory, as it is constructed and studied today, is not enough to understand the proposal of the Zapatista women. It can appear as egalitarian feminism and also as difference feminism, however, these interpretative possibilities are annulled when analyzing how they live their practical demands.

Let us first acknowledge the advances in the implementation of the Women’s Revolutionary Law. Inserted in the Zapatista collective, this women’s law cannot be read in the light of any conventional feminist approach, neither theoretical nor practical.

Given the above, we see that some practices of the Zapatista women could be interpreted as subscribing to the demands of feminism for equality. It would seem at first glance that they come into convergence, due to this type of demands, with strictly egalitarian feminisms. However, how to interpret their concept of “equality” when they say “we are the same because we are different”? Are they similar and antithetical at the same time?

Reviewing the apparently egalitarian proposal of the Zapatista women, we find a level to which it is irreducible with equality feminism. Its support is not based on the concept of being individual as it is in equality feminism. On the contrary, they are inscribed in a concept of collective subject. This collectivity or collectivism forges a very particular demand for equality.

Adding this to “we are the same because we are different”, it is possible to delve into the philosophical foundation so other that it manages to propose and build equalities in daily and political practices without implying an identity of individual self-contained subjects. In addition, being “different” makes them equal, not inferior.

This is why “egalitarian” aspirations are deeply understood in another way. It would seem that they speak of the search for proportionality beyond the numerical arithmetic narrowness of some feminist demands. The Zapatista women, inserted in a whole that runs through them, have their demands nourished by requirements so that men and women are in proportion. This has been expressed in terms of “balance”, a very dear and very basic concept in Mesoamerica to express harmony in communities and with the environment (natural environment). Thus they will say, for example, “the balance between men and women is what for feminists is gender equality.”

Beyond these considerations on the differences between the demands of the Zapatista women and those of feminism for equality, it is necessary to reveal (touch down on) the implicit concepts of being and being in relation to. For the Zapatista women and the people in the Mesoamerican worlds, their being is not encapsulated. The other, male, be it a woman, son, mother, grandmother, is not outside themselves. The collectivity is part of itself. The self is lived, traversed by this community collective. Even the external “reality”, the hills, the plants, the corn, are part of myself.

They are “women and men of corn.” The ears of corn, in the mural paintings of the Zapatista territory, are formed by faces with ski masks. Frequently in the embroidery there is a Zapatista face on each ear of corn. This is told to us without words. Their cosmoexperience (Lenkersdorf, 2005) expresses these fusions with symbols and metaphors. They are proper ways to express deep meanings of an embodied philosophy (Marcos, 2010). In this way, they also present their fusion of being in the environment that we call nature.

That is why land and water are respected as part of one’s own being. The propitiatory rites to celebrate water reveal it to us. You walk, you pray, you visit lakes, rivers, waterfalls, and even ponds with a commitment and ceremonial parsimony that allows us to glimpse what water means and embodies: it is them and only through them (3). Nature is not outside, as for us. In our environment, when we visit the countryside, we feel that we see and enjoy nature, but it is outside of us, and sometimes we exploit it to sustain ourselves. For the Zapatista beings, it is an exchange -as it is described in multiple ethnographies. It is a giving and receiving in a reciprocal whole that feeds back and complements and sustains itself, sustaining it. It is a whole that is myself.

They are experiences and philosophical cultural perceptions that are very difficult to understand. It is part of what allows an almost elusive, immediate and lasting community conjunction. Something that always surprises outsiders. How do they manage –in this case Zapatista men and women– to immediately create such sustained communal ties? If we do not attend to these deep layers of being and their proprioceptions, we can only interpret them from the outside, reduce them to our own.

“…there are other worlds yet to be discovered…there is still a lot to look at and listen to…what is different is proof that all is not lost” (SCI Marcos, 2013).

Women are part of this all. When they ask for “equality” in tasks and in rights and responsibilities, we cannot interpret them from our self-contained and individual being. Nor is it possible to understand them from the subject or the individual subject of women’s human rights. What they ask for and expect cannot be conceived as demands of equality feminism.

How these simultaneously singular and collective subjectivities articulate inward and outward remains to be worked out in words and fully discovered. But they don’t need to theorize like we do. They live it and those concrete practices are what we were able to verify and perceive during the Escuelita (4). “You are teachers, researchers, we live it in practice,” they insisted. Their egalitarian aspirations do not strictly correspond to feminist requirements, no matter how similar they sound to us. They are diverse, especially from their psycho-philosophical substratum, and this is so, although, from the outside, they seem similar to us.

If we do not respect their particularities, we destroy the true meanings and contributions of their struggles. We also prevent the expansion of the multiple and enriching dimensions that feminist theorizing and practices can achieve.

It would be very easy to hold on to Eloisa’s claims during the Escuelita. This 17-year-old girl and teacher told us how difficult it was to share domestic chores equally with men “because when men turn the tortilla on the griddle they burn their fingers.” The deafening murmur of the 300 intellectuals in the auditorium testified to their surprise on seeing how concretely the Zapatista women took their demands for equality in housework. This deafening murmur probably came from male intellectuals who, although politically committed, had never made such advances in the reality of cooking in their homes.

We could also interpret it as demands for numerical equality in positions of authority, when verifying that they share the teaching tasks in the Escuelita in an exact amount with the boys. Also when we see Comandantas participate in positions of political authority, it seems to us that they are demanding feminist-style equality in these positions. One might think that they also demand “gender quotas” as we demand from the national State.

We get confused because we do not consider the horizontal structure of power and authority in the Zapatista project. They are immersed in this authority contained in the collective. Gradually and through all these last 20 years, positions of authority for women have increased. There is an increasing number of authorities: autonomous councils, agents, commissioners, health and education promoters, and countless more and more positions that spread throughout the collective, becoming a social fabric made up of obligations for each one: for everyone. An ideal of governance where everyone has or will have a position. Everyone is going to know how to govern, that is why we cannot speak of “leaderships” within the new and creative structure of this other world as it emerges in the Zapatista civil proposal, in its Caracoles and in its Good Government Councils.

Their positions as women are built with others in a collective policy. But of course, they want to share everything with men: equality in housework, equality in positions of collective authority. This, within a social and political fabric generated internally by collectivism, in a communal process that requires a dialogue on equal terms for the male model of being. It is proud of the feminine ways of acting and reacting, of caring and healing.

With this own female methodology, the canons of how everything is done in male-dominated societies are reversed. I, woman, reinvent everything from us women. It’s a wonderful plan to offset the predatory hyper-masculinization of the capitalist corporate world. There is a long way to go from there, from difference feminism.

But that we are the same because we are different is not we are the same, although we are different. The latter is what is frequently subscribed to in difference feminisms. The difference is accepted, recognized, highlighted, appreciated, emphasized. Yes, although we are different from the male model that dominates (of hegemonic domination), we are “equal” in rights, in access to all the privileges and obligations that being a citizen implies. Although the Zapatista proposal seems to follow some of the legacies of difference feminism, at the same time it disrupts them, surpasses them and contravenes them with the demand and implementation of certain “egalitarian aspirations”.

They provoke the Zapatista whole to include them in balance, in harmony with the men of the community. It is not difference feminism, it is an drill to bring together and refound the communal whole in proportion. Perhaps it is the longing for ancestral times that illuminates the present with sudden lightning bolts in order to be able to live a better future (Benjamin, 2018). A future that promises something beyond the hopes of difference feminism.

Conceptually reviewing the various feminist theoretical proposals elaborated as feminisms of equality and feminisms of difference, we see that, although there are partial overlaps between some of the postulates of both, there are substantive displacements that do not allow us to assimilate the proposals of the Zapatista women to any of these theoretical currents.

It is necessary to venture into its epistemic, ontological particularity to find the deep root of these particularities and its proposal so alien to what we women outside it want.

Likewise, some of the Zapatistas women’s demands seem to reproduce those of Ecofeminism. Ecofeminism considers the subjection of nature to be linked to the subjection of women and also shows that women are the first to suffer in ecological disasters. In this ecofeminism, the body of women is considered to be linked to the body of the Earth and frequently both are considered as passive beings.

It proposes to fight together against the concept of development and neoliberal progress that are linked to patriarchal values. Thus, development and patriarchy go hand in hand. Diversity is the enemy of capitalist progress and uniformity. The defense of seed diversity does not only refer to agriculture but to the diversity of ways of thinking and ways of life. Diversity is closely linked to self-organization.

In development thinking there is a “monoculture of the spirit” that reflects how the world is thought to be uniform and one-dimensional. Diversity is perceived as the weeds that must be extracted, and it is in this diversity that the Zapatista proposals rooted in ancestry flourish.

When the Zapatista women claim the “rights” to the land and territory and demand their own rights, as women, to the land, these demands are sustained in another universe of philosophical references. “The land does not belong to us, we belong to the land” they say. The Earth is a being which is also thought of as a terrible Mother, who, just as she nourishes, destroys. The affectivity and defense of the Earth does not come from wanting to “protect” it or from protecting nature. Within the internal variants of the various ecofeminisms, the relationship with an emotionally sweet Mother Earth entity prevails, the Earth is always a provider and protector and, in turn, requires our protection. It eludes the conception of a relationship in ambiguous and complementary asymmetric duality (Robert, 2017) with the presence of the Earth as a powerful being to whom propitiatory rites must be offered to appease it and not harm it (Marcos, 2011: 62-70).

The water, the hills, the land are sacred, and they are divine entities that must be appeased. Native peoples in the American continent and in other indigenous contexts share this perspective. The Earth, just as it feeds, can damage, create droughts, floods, storms and earthquakes, landslides and catastrophes for humans. A number of “evils” come from the Earth itself or the deities that symbolize it.

The Zapatista proposals for the relationship with the land are based on this duality of life-death, beneficial Earth and harmful Earth. It is also a collective interaction always where the whole, woman, man or other (“otroa”) (6), support the territory, and are nourished by it.

The symbolism of the body and of the feminine fettered and always assimilated with the beneficial Earth is very much outside their symbolic and spiritual horizons.

Once again, it is urgent to let people speak and be able to listen to what comes from the worlds of subalternized epistemologies in reference to women’s struggles, the defense of their mistreated and abused bodies, and the defense of their territories that, beyond urban ecofeminist thought, avoid the categorization of the fusion of the female body with the Earth body.

To close, we must think of ourselves as feminists with the metaphor of the Zapatistas women: we are a forest of women. A forest that, in its unity, allows all the variability of each tree: we women.

Cuernavaca, Morelos, March 8th, 2021.

PS: With gratitude to Diego Ferraris as he managed to join two of my fabrics to which I have now added a piece.


1 See the works of Monique Witting, Luce Irigaray and Julia Kristeva.

2 Oral presentation at the American Continental Meeting against Impunity, held at Caracol IV “Torbellino de nuestras palabras” (Morelia, Chiapas), on June 20th and 21st, 2009.

3 It is scientifically stated that the human body is 70% water!

4 La Escuelita Zapatista was a convocation of the Zapatistas in 2013, to share with thousands of people, “students” from around the world, what freedom is for them. For this, they received them in their Caracoles and communities, where they showed through theory and practice, how they have built their political project: successes, errors, obstacles, results and beliefs.

5 See the works of Julia Kristeva, Monique Witting, and Luce Irigara.

6 The concept of “otroas” has begun to emerge with more intensity in recent years, from within Zapatista thought as one more category of struggle. And it implies a new conceptualization that Zapatismo makes of a “sex-generic” reality that is very present in the struggles of the LGBTTTI+ movements. However, this category of “otroas” (children, compas, etc.) implies the recognition of this reality that emerges from a thought of political struggle that is frequently based on categories of Mesoamerican philosophy.

Thus we can think that it is a contemporary emergence of what ancestrally was experienced as gender fluidity. It is the identity of being in fluidity.


Benjamin, W. (2018). Iluminaciones. Taurus.

De Sousa, B. (2009). Una epistemología del sur: la reinvención del conocimiento y la emancipación social. Siglo XXI-CLACSO.

Grosfoguel, R. (julio-diciembre 2007). Diálogos descoloniales con Ramón Grosfoguel: Trasmodernizar los feminismos.

Tabula Rasa, 7, 323-340.

Lenkersdorf, C. (2005). Filosofar en clave tojolabal. Rosa María Porrua Ediciones.

Marcos, S. (2011) Tomado de los labios: género y eros en Mesoamérica. (1a ed.). Ediciones Abya-Yala.

Marcos, S. (marzo 2010). Feminismos de ayer y hoy. Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México.

Robert, J. (2017). El género vernáculo: un concepto heurístico. Voz de la tribu, 12, 33-37.

Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos. (November 17, 2013).

Rebobinar 3. Enlace Zapatista.


Dr. Sylvia Marcos

The original article can be found in PDF format at
Also available at
Translated by Schools for Chiapas. Abstract reproduced as in original version.

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