Relegated to the floor

Women in Santa Maria Quiegolani, Oaxaca, Mexico are not allowed to vote in local elections because the men say they don’t do enough work.

It was here, in a village that has struggled for centuries to preserve its Zapotec traditions, that Eufrosina Cruz, 27, decided to become the first woman to run for mayor – despite the fact that women aren’t allowed to attend town assemblies, much less run for office. The all-male town board tore up ballots cast in her favor in the Nov. 4 election, arguing that as a woman, she wasn’t a “citizen” of the town. “That is the custom here, that only the citizens vote, not the women,” said Valeriano Lopez, the town’s deputy mayor.

Yes, that used to be the custom in a lot of places, indeed in most places, that women were not considered citizens and that they didn’t vote. Not all customs are good customs, and saying something is the custom here does not always settle the matter.

Rather than give up, Cruz has launched the first serious, national-level challenge to traditional Indian forms of government, known as “use and customs,” which were given full legal status in Mexico six years ago in response to Indian rights movements sweeping across Latin America. “For me, it’s more like ‘abuse and customs,”’ Cruz said as she submitted her complaint in December to the National Human Rights Commission…But the male leaders are refusing to budge. “We live differently here, senor, than people in the city. Here, women are dedicated to their homes, and men work the fields,” Apolonio Mendoza, the secretary of the all-male town council, told a visiting reporter.

Right. Who’s ‘we’? When the male secretary of the male council says we live differently here, he may not be speaking for the women of the place. That ‘we’ can cover up a lot of dissension and struggle to get out from under.

At a recent meeting of several dozen Cruz supporters, most of them voteless, women in traditional gray shawls recalled being turned down for government aid programs because they weren’t accompanied by a man. Martina Cruz Moreno, 19, said that when her widowed mother sought government-provided building materials to improve her dirt-floor, tin-roofed wooden home, village authorities told her, “Go get yourself a husband.”

See? There are some of those women now! I have a feeling Apolonio Mendoza is not speaking for them.

During all-important village festivals, women are expected to cook for all the male guests. But instead of joining them at the table, Cruz says, they are relegated to straw mats on the floor…Cruz decided to escape that life after she saw her 12-year-old sister given to an older man in a marriage arranged by her father. The sister had her first child at 13, and has since borne seven more.

That’s that living differently from people in the city business. Doing all the work, not being allowed to sit at the table, giving birth at 13. Custom.

In Mexico, many local governance rules date to before the Spanish conquest and weren’t given national legal recognition until a 2001 Indian rights reform was enacted in the wake of the Zapatista rebel uprising in Chiapas. The law states that Indian townships may “apply their own normative systems … as long as they obey the general principles of the Constitution and respect the rights of individuals, human rights, and particularly the dignity and well-being of women.” Despite this specific protection, about a fourth of the Indian villages operating under the law don’t let women vote, putting human rights groups in a dilemma: Most actively supported recognition for Indian governance systems, and few have therefore taken up the women’s cause.

Because…women aren’t human?

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