February 03, 2010

Emancipating Women Through Autonomous Education

by Sarah Reader

A year ago I wrote an article for Dissident about women in the Zapatista movement which provided an introduction to the issue and reflected how the Zapatistas are a movement which has always placed women as equal alongside men. However, it is easy to question the extent to which this remains at the rhetorical level and is reserved for Marcos’ communiqués or whether a growing respect for women is being manifested in practice. Although spending two months in Chiapas is far from sufficient to garner a deep understanding of the movement or build the relationships necessary to know how people truly feel and act, one thing that was made clear during our time there was how progressive the autonomous schools are and how far they had come since they first were set up in 1990. Although gender issues are far from resolved and the Zapatista schools are very much dealing with women’s rights as opposed to engaging with other sexualities and gender relations, the movement is constantly questioning itself and embracing new issues.

Given the neoliberalisation of higher education which is taking place across Europe, the Zapatista project of autonomous education should provide us with some inspiration and demonstrate the power of grassroots social movements to challenge an oppressive system and set up an inclusive and autonomous alternative. The schools are not defined by the demands of the labour market or the Mexican government’s neoliberal agenda, but rather determine their education in terms of the direct needs of the communities that are served by them. This has enabled them to challenge traditions and norms which are ingrained in the rest of the country and promote a newfound respect for women.

The general aim of the autonomous education system is to promote indigenous culture, history and language and to counteract the racism towards the indigenous population which characterises the state system. It also emphasises the importance of equality, community and collective learning and labour; something very much absent from our schools and colleges. One of the ways in which the successes of the autonomous alternative are made clear is by the way in which it is challenging gender relations and the machismo which dominates Mexico.

The Zapatistas are constructing a system in which education is based on mutual learning and respect. They are redefining the relationship between teachers and students and providing an alternative to the racist and inaccessible Mexican state system. They view education as a fundamental tool of resistance against the state and the capitalist system and as an important means of being able to defend their communities and reclaim their history, their culture and their lives. The importance given by the Zapatistas to inclusivity, dignity and respect is reflected in their autonomous education and this has had an impact on the way women are treated. The autonomous schools welcome children from all backgrounds regardless of their race, class or gender. In contrast to this, state schools are rife with racism and sexism. We heard first-hand accounts from students at the secondary school in Oventic about the ways in which they regularly suffered physical and verbal abuse from the mestizo teachers at the state schools and this abuse was disproportionately aimed at the girls. One girl spoke of how some girls had been forced to urinate in the classroom as they were denied permission to go to the toilet. These teachers have little to no understanding of, or concern for, indigenous communities, their culture or their needs and are directly perpetuating a racist and sexist culture.

The Zapatista schools, however, place great importance on gender equality, which partly explains why there is a growing respect for women’s rights and the challenging of traditional gender roles amongst younger generations. Unlike in the state system where girls had no choice in the subjects they studied and were excluded from many which were reserved for the boys, in the Zapatista schools boys and girls take part in the same classes and there are no restrictions according to gender. Whereas girls were previously forbidden from playing sports, in the Zapatista schools they can be seen alongside boys on the basketball courts and football fields. Furthermore, there is an effort to emphasise that household tasks and childrearing are not just women’s roles and boys are also being taught how to weave and make tortillas. The Zapatistas are even challenging Castilian grammar rules by using the feminine form of ‘we’ when there are more women in the group than men (as opposed to the masculine form which is the standard practice).

The autonomous schools are also beginning to engage and promote issues that are contextually radical such as abortion and the freedom to decide when to have children and how many to have. Although the continued influence of Catholicism amongst the indigenous population presents significant obstacles to surmount, the autonomous schools endeavour to ensure that girls are aware of their rights and have control over their bodies and choices.

Through their autonomous schools the Zapatistas are actively overcoming problems of marginalisation and prejudice with respect to race, class and gender. By providing a non-hierarchical and inclusive education which does not discriminate or position people above one another they are promoting the respect of women’s rights and challenging their traditional roles as housewives and child-bearers. Although there is still far to go, this provides us with an example of how alternatives can be constructed and these can be instrumental in combating inequalities and prejudice.

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