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© Adolfo Lujan | Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) - modified

United against the violence

Karina Ocampo (@kariu2), Buenos Aires / Mexico    

In a hidden corner of Chiapas, Mexico, women and sexual dissidents have come to organize our actions. It’s December and the Christmas holiday has just passed, but those of us traveling through Chiapas have another celebration in mind.

Women and dissidents of all creeds and colours are on our way to the seedbed Huellas del caminar de la comandanta Ramona [In the Footprints of Comandanta Ramona], in the Tzotz Choj caracol in the community of Morelia, municipality of Altamirano. There the women compañeras of the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, in Spanish) have organized the Second International Gathering of Women Who Struggle.

The caracoles [literally, conches or snails] are closed autonomous spaces which Zapatista men and women have won by marking their territories and defending them with their lives. Inside, the communities feel safer. They hold their own assemblies and gatherings of Good Government; they do not recognize the Western capitalist paradigm and consider that model of representation Bad Government.

Local women wear ski masks or bandanas over their faces, partly for protection but also so they all look alike. Those receiving us new arrivals stop each vehicle, and the men cannot go any further. After registering a long line of us there under the intense sun of the mountains, they take us in their vehicles to the place where we are to spend the next three days.

We spread out on the land, camping in tents or in enormous rooms on wooden planks. “No drugs or alcohol,” as substance use is prohibited in all of the caracoles, so the first night we dance moved only by our emotions and the joyous cumbia rhythms which leave us worn out but happy in our new Sisterhood.   

“We are the daughters of the witches they couldn’t burn,” reads a flag flying over a window on a big platform which is somewhat like a shrine. The likeness of Marielle Franco, the Brazilian activist who was assassinated, casts her gaze at us from another poster as if to ask, “Where to from here?”   

A lively ambiance lights up the faces and colourful clothing of the intrepid women who have gathered here. Feminist chants can be heard. “Ni una menos, vivas nos queremos [Not one (woman) less, we want all of us alive],” we yell, fists in the air.

We are women and witches, rebels and diverse bodies, who have all come following the animal instinct of gathering to protect ourselves, and also to reflect, dance, and speak freely without fear.

We are women who struggle, about 4000 of us from 49 countries as different as Austria, Turkey or New Zealand.

During the opening, Zapatista activists perform a choreography to a traditional song called “The Blue Angels.” In the middle of the enormous field, surrounded by cement and wooden buildings, dozens of them march in line, dressed in green and brown uniforms, pointing to the sky as if shooting arrows; then they form a human snail, symbol of all that is sacred, water and life, and their dialectic strategy of resistance. It is surprising and brings on applause.

Then comandanta Amada gives a welcome speech: “More than a year after our first gathering, we can take stock of what is happening. Throughout the world women continue to disappear and are raped; this year the number of women raped, disappeared and murdered has not stopped.”

What is said is very different from what is actually happening, is the message of the comandanta. Never before have we heard so much about the progress of feminism, but they are still killing us. According to the National Citizen Observatory on Femicide (Mexico), ten women are killed per day but only 25% of those cases are considered femicide. “We Zapatista women consider this very serious, which is why we are inviting the women to focus on one topic alone—violence against women.”

The proposal has been made. We will talk about the violence we have suffered and carried in our bodies throughout centuries of normalization of patriarchal dictatorship. But what would appear to take a few hours continues long into the night and carries over into the following day. The testimonies are so raw there is no escaping them. No matter where we were born, or whether we had access to a good education or a good family, all of us had suffered violence at the hands of men.

This is the opportunity we needed to stop hiding it: abuse and rape by strangers, and by acquaintances, family members, and friends. Women who were called crazy and left on the street trying to escape their abusers. Mothers who lost their daughters to boyfriends or trafficking networks and are still looking for them. Trans women who are discriminated against and persecuted. We are all the one with the microphone in hand.

“You are not alone!” we scream. “I believe you, my sister!” And we cry from the open wound but know that one day those same tears will heal and make us stronger.

Still wracked with pain, I make my way to one of the cafeterias run by the Zapatista compañeras together with my new friends, a group of Mexican and Argentine women who had spent the day together.

The Zapatistas participate in all aspects of the event organization, not only in preparing the food which they sell at affordable prices; they take turns cleaning the bathrooms, providing security, and taking care of our needs. Others document and film or work on the sound and technical aspects. Several live there, others have come from another of the 18 caracoles in the region. Among themselves they speak in their original languages, mostly Tzotzil, Tzeltal or Tojolabal, and most also speak Spanish.

We smile at one another, we need one another and nothing more; our gazes understand when words do not. That night there would be more music, instruments and voices giving a beat to our feminist song. Artists like Audry Funk or Mon Laferte would be among others lesser known, but I will only hear it from afar since I need to sleep.

Dawn awakens us, energy renewed. The compañeras, leading with their example of autonomy, give us minimal instruction and leave the rest up to us. We are free to plan our own activities. In the hours that follow we will meet in rounds to organize ourselves by interest. I choose a yoga workshop and another on moving meditation. After breakfast I walk on the grass from tent to tent listening in on some of the talks.

As the testimonies on the bandstand continue, in another area a Mexican woman speaks about traditional weaving, a group discusses abolitionist arguments about prostitution, another talks about cannabis, and yet another group practices self-defence techniques. There are meetings by topic and by country, and though the debates get heated at times, sisterhood prevails. I stay to attend  the talks by Argentines, travelers, and communications people.  

It’s impossible to be everywhere at once, so the only rule is to share and interact. I also enjoy the contact with the abundant earth here in Chiapas, as I sit down to feel the sun.

Night finds us dancing around the fire, in a group embrace, voicing our desire out loud, “Patriarchy is going to fall!”

The last day is dedicated to artistic expression. On the stage are women expressing themselves through theatre, music, dance, and poetry. I interview my peers, asking them why they had come. Julia, who is from Berlin and belongs to an anarchist group, tells me, “one of the reasons why I am here is because the capitalist system is a global system, so it doesn’t make sense to have isolated struggles. We have to find a way to create networks. I take with me the idea of women’s strength and the heavy experiences they shared. In Germany we have the same statistics of women dying at the hands of their ex-partners or husbands, or uncles who murder them and people don’t talk about it. It is something we should talk about.”

Behard is from Kurdistan and lives in Norway. “I learned about the Zapatistas and I am interested because they do not fight against the state, they go beyond that idea. I do not believe in the nation-state; I consider myself a Kurdish anarchist and I am interested in seeing how to apply this in real life. Here I can see and feel how it works.

The movement is happening, it’s not theory, and it’s important for all of us women to see ourselves and feel ourselves because it gives us hope to go and build new societies.

We have shared our solutions. I do not think we can copy them because we are from different lands and languages, but we can all be inspired by seeing how people live beyond capitalism. We are different and that is fine. We do not want to become Zapatistas, but we do have a lot in common and it is good to see other revolutions happening.”


When the gathering ends the men will return to the caracol, but the feeling of empowerment endures. We, women who struggle, have been given the task of “carrying forward the little light we have been given.” Thank you, sisters and compañeras, for that flame which still burns in this awakened conscience.


Photography project: “La muerte sale por el Oriente” [Death leaves by the East]

by Sonia Madrigal (@sonicarol), Ciudad Nezahualcóyotl, Mexico

Images created in Mexico which are part of the photography project “Death leaves by the East.” The women in the Periphery exist because we resist.

Sonia Madrigal - photo 1
Sonia Madrigal (@sonicarol)
Sonia Madrigal - photo 2
Sonia Madrigal (@sonicarol)
Sonia Madrigal - photo 3
Sonia Madrigal (@sonicarol)
Sonia Madrigal - photo 4
Sonia Madrigal (@sonicarol)


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