R. Aída Hernández Castillo

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Constructing Subordinated Identities

As indicated above, significant differences exist throughout Chiapas in the way that ‘traditional’ indigenous authorities and ‘custom’ (la costumbre) deal with cases of marital breakdown and domestic violence. However, in general terms, both state law and custom demand that indigenous women affirm traditionally ascribed gender roles in order to gain legal support. It is all too easy to represent women suffering domestic violence as victims - the fact that many of them decide to denounce their situation is in itself an act of resistance and social agency that is important to recognize. Yet in order to gain access to justice, women invariably emphasize their role as passive victims. In this way the law contributes to the construction of women’s identities as victims and subordinates. In their complaints to both the state public prosecutor’s office and to community authorities, women try to present themselves as ‘good’ women who comply with their domestic ‘responsibilities’.26 This signals an attempt to counter the masculine discourse which generally tries to justify violence as a way to discipline women who do not fulfil their domestic tasks or who talk with other men in the absence of their husbands (‘bad’ women).

A powerful idea exists that there is legitimate violence, violence that has a corrective goal, and that there are individuals who are authorized to exercise it. This idea is present both in state law and custom, and is indeed so widespread that it has become part of women’s common sense throughout the region. Article 122 of the Chiapas Penal Code, recently modified to increase the penalization of domestic violence, specifies that there is a ‘right to correct, and persons with the ability to enforce it’, and that these persons may cause ‘unintentional lesions’ without being penalized. In the same manner, traditional and autonomous authorities ask men to explain the reason why they resorted to domestic violence, in order to see if its use was justified. Many ‘traditional’ authorities are of the opinion that women can ‘provoke’ episodes of domestic violence by not being punctual in the cooking, the laundry, or the house cleaning.27 In such cases the indigenous authorities’ public trials reprimand the battering husband and the ‘irresponsible’ wife alike. In other words, the conciliation arrived upon in ‘traditional’ courts legitimizes gender roles - women are asked to continue complying with their domestic and marital responsibilities, whereas men are asked only not to batter their spouses again. Re-analyzing her 1973 work from a gender perspective, Collier realized the profound inequalities that underlay the conciliation process among the Zinacatecans, and began to question the mechanisms she had formerly valued. ‘[T]he Zinacatecan authorities generally solved matrimonial disputes admonishing both the wife and husband and asking them to behave better in the future. But whereas women were asked to comply with their conjugal obligations, men were only asked not to hit their wives again. In other words, the Zinacatecan solutions tended to confirm and reinforce the unequal relationship between men and women’. (Collier, 1995:10).

The notion that a woman can be ‘eloped’ against her will, and that this constitutes a minor offense, rectifiable by marriage, is another idea shared by positive law and indigenous customary law. In many cases of ‘rape’ where legal assistance was sought from women’s legal defense NGOs in Chiapas, the parents of the victim asked lawyers to negotiate ‘reparation’ in the form of a promise of marriage and payment of a dowry. Cases tended to be pursued by the girls’ (bilingual) fathers, and legal prosecutions for rape were often dropped if the accused agreed to the proposed settlement. Lawyers slowly came to understand that in many of these cases the feelings of the young victim were valued the least of all, and often her father did not even allow her to speak. In many instances, when they occurred beyond community boundaries, both the rapes themselves and the accusations of rape served as weapons in the hands of quarrelling political groups.28 The situation, however, is not much better with state law, since Chiapas distinguishes between kidnapping and forced elopement, assuming the latter has a romantic intention in contrast to the former. Legislation regarding elopement was formulated in the nineteenth century, when it was a common practice, and remains on the books. The law describes forced elopement as something that happens to women, whereas kidnapping happens to men. The penalty in cases of elopement is less severe than it is for kidnapping, and can usually be mitigated by ‘reparation’ through marriage. Significantly, the law does not specify whether the woman needs to declare that she eloped intentionally in order to establish the crime as elopement.

Clearly with regard to ideas about discipline, maternal responsibility, and the relations between men and women, law and custom overlap and mutually constitute each other. Indigenous women, both within their communities and from without, find themselves controlled and disciplined by both legal discourses. Legislative changes aimed at improving women’s rights may have relatively little impact if they are not accompanied by comprehensive structural and ideological transformations. For example, although the new modifications to Article 122 of the Penal Code increase the punishment of domestic violence, as long as they have no possibilities of financial independence, these penalties negatively affect women, because they are left without the financial support of the husband while he is in prison. Alternatively, in the case of customary practices, women may demand their right to choose whom they will marry. But when they override paternal decisions and do not comply with ‘tradition’ they are cast out from the support network of the family, and their possibilities of receiving support in the face of domestic violence are reduced. Such women may become ‘free’ from community tradition, but they also lose the protections the community previously afforded them.

In short, legislating for equality or difference will not achieve a more just life for indigenous women if changes are not successfully implemented in the socio-economic and ideological structures that exclude women and construct them as passive victims. The mechanisms that enforce these identities operate within families, in the educational system, the health system, the media, within religious institutions, and other forums. The battle to improve indigenous women’s access to justice and exercise of their rights is a battle with many fronts. It is a battle which organized indigenous women are only just beginning to fight.


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  • Translated by María Vinós


Reseach for this project was partly funded by a grant of the Sistema Benito Juárez del Consejo Nacional de Ciencia y Tecnología (SIBEJ-CONACYT) and by CIESAS. I am grateful to all the Maya women who participated in the legal workshops, and to the research team, formed by Guadalupe Cárdenas, Martha Figueroa and Anna María Garza. Valuable comments on earlier versions of this article came from Jane Collier, Teresa Sierra, Maxine Molyneux and Shahra Razavi.

1 The nationalism promoted by the state in post-revolutionary Mexico upheld the mixed-blooded Mexican as the foundation of national identity. The mestizo nation was the result of the union of two cultural traditions: the European, represented by Spain, and the Mesoamerican, represented by the Aztecs. This dichotomy reduced the spaces for indigenous peoples to engage in political action, and their presence was subsequently formulated as a national ‘problem’, to which anthropologists set to work to find a solution, creating the integrationist state policy known as indigenismo. Manuel Gamio, who studied with Franz Boas at Columbia University, was the first exponent of this movement, and is recognized as the pioneer of modern anthropological practice in Mexico. His book, Forjando Patria (Forging the Fatherland) set the ideological foundations for official nationalism. For an analysis of the transition from a mestizo to a multicultural Mexico, see Hernández Castillo and Ortíz Elizondo, 1993.

2 The term neoliberalism is used in the Mexican context to refer to a set of policies based on the diminished importance of the state, privatization and economic and financial deregulation, together with the promotion of the export of manufactured goods. This economic model replaced the statist model, which was protectionist and based on import substitution industrialization, prevailing since the 1930s to the beginning of the 1980s. In the economic terminology of international organisms, these policies have also been called ‘structural adjustment programs’ and became generalized throughout the developing world at the beginning of the 1980s.

3 NAFTA, known in Mexico as the TLC (Tratado de Libre Comercio), was one of the main initiatives promoted by Carlos Salinas’ government in order to lock in economic reforms, especially commercial and financial liberalization. It is the first agreement of commercial liberalization in the world signed between two developed countries, the United States and Canada, and a developing country, Mexico.

4 For a detailed analysis of Zapatista and non-Zapatista autonomy demands, see Mattiace 1997. The history of the EZLN and its impact on the lives of indigenous communities in Chiapas can be found in Collier 1995, Harvey 1999, and Rus, Hernández Castillo and Mattiace, forthcoming.

5 This demand is central to the Acuerdos de San Andrés (San Andrés Agreements), which were signed by representatives of the federal government and the EZLN on 16 February 1996. These were converted into proposals for a legal initiative by delegates of the different parties forming a body called the Comisión de Concordia y Pacificación (COCOPA) (Concord and Pacification Commission). On 19 December of the same year, President Ernesto Zedillo rejected the agreements that his own representatives had reached with the Zapatista command. This arbitrary decision closed the dialogue between the parties, and meant that the threat of war loomed in southeast Mexico.

6 These demands are contained in the Ley Revolucionaria de Mujeres (Revolutionary Law of Women). For a description of this law, see Hernández Castillo 1994.

7 For a history of the process of organization of indigenous women in Chiapas, and of the national indigenous women’s movement that emerged in 1994, see Hernández Castillo 1998b, Millán 1996, Rojas 1995.

8 Propuestas de las Mujeres Indígenas al Congreso Nacional Indígena (Proposals of the Indigenous Women to the National Indigenous Congress). From the seminar Reformas Al Artículo 4to. Constitucional (Reforms to the Fourth Article of the Constitution). 8-12 October 1996, Mexico City.

9 A comparative analysis of the Acuerdos de San Andres, with the counter-proposal the government offered after breaking the signed agreements can be found at www.laneta.apc.org
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