On opposite sides of the globe, women in the Zapatista and Kurdish national movements continue to transform their comrades, compatriots and countries as well as inspire women everywhere.
The struggle of both groups of women “is a reminder that a holistic transformation of interlocking systems of oppression is not a utopian endeavor”, write researchers Anya Briy and Ariella Patchen for The Nation.
“They have shown that with patience and persistence women can radically transform patriarchal attitudes and practices within their communities,” Briy and Patchen said. “Women and their communities are changing the ways in which people relate to each other –and to nature– across all spheres of life, building new worlds within the decaying shell of the old one.”
The Kurdish women’s movement has long been an integral part of the national struggle for freedom and equality, with women taking part in all organisations at all levels. Autonomous organising particularly picked up speed following the establishment of a women’s army in the mid-1990s, and women’s liberation “became a central pillar of the movement’s new philosophy”, they added. The ideology of democratic confederalism considers the nation state, capitalism, patriarchy and eco-exploitation to be “manifestations of male domination”.
Kurdish women have been in solidarity with Zapatista women for a long time, and they also share “deeply resonant histories of developing women’s struggles within liberation movements”, the researchers said. Both have been fighting for their rights as women and for their communal right to autonomy.
The Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) actively recruited indigenous women in Mexico to join their resistance that started in 1994 against the government’s privatisation of peasant-held lands and joining NAFTA.
Women joined the EZLN both for ideological reasons and to escape their patriarchal communities, as did Kurdish women with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), Briy and Patchen explained. EZLN leadership have promised women an equal role, enabling them to challenge patriarchal aspects within the movement.
Where Zapatista women differ from their Kurdish sisters is their analysis of Mexico’s unique conditions. The patriarchal dynamics indigenous peoples of the Americas stem from 16th century colonialism and later capitalism, according to the EZLN, and via this process of colonisation women were transformed from whole persons with agency into property.
Briy and Patchen quoted EZLN’s Comandanta Esther, who said indigenous women faced oppression three times over, “because we are poor, because we are Indigenous, and because we are women”. The 2001 text mirrors another struggle for freedom, this time in Catalonia.
Maria-Mercè Marçal’s 1977 poem Divisa points to the struggle of Catalan women, who have also offered solidarity to both the Zapatista and the Kurdish movements and suffered greatly under the Spanish state. She writes:
A l’atzar agraeixo tres dons: haver nascut dona,
de classe baixa i nació oprimida.
I el tèrbol atzur de ser tres voltes rebel.
I am grateful to fate for three gifts: to have been born a woman,
from the working class and an oppressed nation.
And the turbid azure of being three times a rebel.
(Translation by Sam Abrams)
Three times rebels, women have had to confront their fathers and husbands as well as their bosses and the state to leave the house and be part of social movements.
The Zapatistas have put into their laws women’s right to education, reproductive autonomy, choice in partners, protection from violence as well as to occupy positions of leadership.
Kurdish women in the movement and in Rojava, the Kurdish enclave along Syria’s border with Turkey whose name refers to Western Kurdistan, have established their own rules. Women have their own armed forces in both, and are also entitled to autonomous councils within all organisations. These councils can veto any decision taken in the general assemblies they deem to be harmful to women. There are no ‘chairmen’ to be found, as all leadership positions are shared between one man and one woman under the co-chair system.
Both experiences, now going back decades, have “created spaces for building women’s collective power”, the researchers said. Both groups of women work diligently to protect and expand their rights in the face of lingering patriarchal tendencies, they added.
Women’s quotas in organisations, a focus on education and economic independence have enabled both groups to stand on their own and empowered them against male objections.
There is pushback of course, especially in more conservative areas, however, women know that their revolution “won’t happen overnight”, and is a “slow, intergenerational process of transformation”, they said.
The pushback is also global, with women everywhere facing attacks on their reproductive rights, economic autonomy, and right to live free from violence.
However, their struggle has shown that the fight against patriarchy and the transformation of power relations within communities are “of no lesser importance than resistance to external capitalist, colonial and statist powers”, the researchers noted, adding that while other liberation movements saw women excluded from the new order after their struggles ended, Zapatista and Kurdish women have made sure that their achievements will remain in place.