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“It’s too soon to tell.”
That’s what Mao Zedong’s premier and foreign minister Zhou Enlai said when he was asked, in the 1970s, about the effects of the French Revolution. It’s too soon to tell. The same can be said of all revolutions – from the sexual to the digital – and, indeed, of all revolutionaries.
Despite how often they’re to be found on the history syllabus, revolutions are slippery, historically and sociologically speaking. In the public imagination, they are fixed: they start on one date and end on another. They’re events. In truth, revolutions aren’t events, but processes. The most memorable moments in a revolution – marches, boycotts, battles, coups – are just that: moments. It’s the movement – the process, which is often slow and hard to understand as it’s happening, especially if it’s happening all around you – that makes a revolution. It’s not so easy to determine precisely when revolutions begin and end, and what their effects are. Outside the obvious leaders and icons – Aung Sang Suu Kyi, Martin Luther King, Gandhi – revolutionaries are hard to get a handle on, too.
Are you a revolutionary only if you take to the streets, if you chain yourself to something, if you take up arms? Or are you a revolutionary simply because you live through revolutionary times, because you are swept up in the process of questioning, undoing, and remaking?
Most of us, if we are revolutionaries, will be revolutionaries of the latter kind, those who live through revolutionary times and who will be talked about, decades from now, in the passive voice. This is in part because many of us in the affluent West live in relatively orderly societies, where the taste for taking to the streets, let alone taking up arms against our government, has been eroded – particularly in the millennial generation.
There are occasional suggestions of another way, like the Occupy movement, the People’s Climate March, and the nationwide demonstrations against police brutality in the United States. But there are few among us who imagine that armed rebellion is the right way to effect change.
What would it mean if we gave ourselves the right to rebel? What if the right to revolt were written into our laws? For some Mexican women, this isn’t simply a hypothetical question.
Their official name is the Ejército Zapatista de Liberación Nacional, but they’re more commonly known as the Zapatistas. More than twenty years ago, they declared war against the Mexican state, agitating and sometimes doing violence in the name of Indigenous land rights and a global justice movement known as alter-globalisation. Blending Indigenous Mayan beliefs with anarchism, libertarian socialism, and Marxism, the Zapatistas set themselves against neoliberal ideas, particularly around economics. The same day that the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – which left Indigenous land vulnerable to sale and privatization and Indigenous farmers vulnerable to competition from cheaper imports – went into effect, the Zapatistas announced their existence to the world.
The Zapatistas are also, on paper and in practice, committed to gender equality. In that January 1994 announcement, they published their Women’s Revolutionary Law, which outlined their vision of women’s roles in their movement. In so doing, they affirmed women’s rights to education, medical care, fair pay, reproductive freedom, and participation in the political process. It also asserted a woman’s right to marry freely and to live without the threat or experience of violence – domestic, sexual, or otherwise.
The Zapatistas’ Women’s Revolutionary Law
- Regardless of their race, creed, colour or political affiliation, women have the right to participate in the revolutionary struggle in any way that their will and capacity dictate.
- Women have the right to work and receive a fair salary.
- Women have the right to decide the number of children they have and care for.
- Women have the right to participate in the matters of the community and hold office if they are free and democratically elected.
- Women have the right to primary care with regard to their health and nutrition.
- Women have the right to an education.
- Women have the right to choose their partner and are not obliged to enter into marriage.
- Women have the right to be free of violence from both relatives and strangers.
- Women can occupy positions of authority in the organisation and earn military rank in the revolutionary armed forces.
- Women have all the rights and obligations set out by the revolutionary laws and regulations
It’s unclear how many Zapatistas there are in Mexico, or even how many live in the mountainside village of Oventic, near San Cristóbal de las Casas, in the southeast of the country. In 2012, forty or fifty thousand of them – reports differ – marched in silence, quelling mainstream media depictions of their numbers as dwindling and their movement as dead. “Did you hear that?” read the press statement released on that day. “It is the sound of your world crumbling. It is the sound of ours resurging.” They no longer employ armed rebellion as a tactic against the Mexican government; their methods now are far more about hearts and minds.
The Zapatistas have no official leaders, but of the six current spokespeople two are women. Last year, at an event marking the twentieth anniversary of their First Declaration of the Lacandon Jungle, a woman known as Commandante Hortensia spoke before a crowd of thousands. “We’re learning to govern ourselves according to our own ways of thinking and living,” she told them. “We’re trying to move forward, to improve and strengthen ourselves – men, women, youth, children and old people.”
Iconic though they are, the Zapatistas are a minority in Mexico. Inspiring though they may be to foreigners who come to study with them and to tourists curious about how they have structured their small society apart from the rest of the world, they remain isolated. Indeed, that is the only way they can maintain their small society, so different from the rest of the world. Who of us, in the relative comfort of the wealthy West, would choose the life of the separatist rebel, armed or otherwise? Most of us would wish for ourselves and our children the courage to stand up for what we believe is right, but few of us would tolerate the isolation, the uncertainty, the extremism, and the illegal activity demanded by revolutionaries like the Zapatistas.
Few of us – virtually none of us – will become icons and leaders of revolutions. Few will find the stakes high enough, or find the courage required, to take the risk of a huge act of revolution. The magic of Mandela, of Guevara, of Malcolm X, was in their courage and their vision, but the real magic was in the number of people who followed them. Without a movement behind them, the men we point to as our most respected revolutionaries were simply men – remarkable men, to be sure, but men alone. People make a revolution. Few of us will give the speeches or serve the prison sentences or lead the marches, but whatever revolutions happen in our lifetime cannot happen without us. We will all live through revolutionary times. We are, at this very moment.
History teachers test children on the big events, the momentous days – the first shots fired and the truces signed. But revolutions are processes, not events. Day by day, moment by moment, the small revolutions are what turn moments into movements – they’re what make revolutions happen.
From the ‘Frida’ edition of Womankind.