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Book: Explorations in Women, Rights, and Religions

Chapter: Understanding Human Rights from Indigenous Women’s Perspectives

DOI: 10.1558/equinox.38842


The movement of indigenous women in the Americas, through their organizations and political associations, has issued documents containing declarations, plans of action, demands, and proposals to rework the traditional concept of human rights. An analytical reading of some of these key texts has emerged from the main meetings during these last years. It is based both on their understanding of themselves as women in a context of gender relations and, at the same time, as belonging to a collectivity that encompasses communal values and practices. Within these notions of indigenous communities [pueblos originarios], women do not stand alone and neither do they perceive themselves as “individual subjects.”
In the social space that they occupy, indigenous women are placed at the intersection of multiple identities: gender, race, ethnicity, and class. They contribute significantly to the reformulation of a new world that is more just, and that critically examines not only their role as poor, indigenous women, but also questions the role and power structures of the neoliberal state. They are gradually transforming the meanings of “human rights” within their own struggles as indigenous women.
In the analysis that follows, I highlight the voices of organized indigenous women in the Americas by quoting extensively from key texts and interviews. There, it can be discovered how the internal logic of their speeches, while not always explicit, transforms the language of human rights and redefines it. In analyzing this redefinition, we find some main axes around which they formulate their struggle for social justice. Among them, we find a unique vision of the concept of gender; a defense of their indigenous spirituality; and a revision of responsibilities and rights within their communities.
For the last twenty years, I have been participating in and closely linked to indigenous women’s social and political organizations. Always by their invitation, I have been a part of many meetings. This has been a privilege that allows me to do a “hermeneutics of orality” recording not only their words, but trying to uncover the philosophical context by which we can understand the deepest meanings and the ontological dimensions of their struggles for justice.
The main countries in Latin America where these meetings have been held and from which its documents have emerged are Mexico, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Ecuador, Colombia, Chile, Peru, and Venezuela. National, regional, and continental reunions have taken place where indigenous women collaborate and make their statements from the Mesoamerican region in Central America as well as the Andean region in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia.
In the declaration, “Building our History,” from the National Meeting of Indigenous Women, Oaxaca, México, in 1997, the indigenous women state:

Indigenous women form an important part in the development of our peoples and of the country;
That the rights of women, and in particular, of indigenous women, are not recognized by the Constitution;
That the right to parity and equity constitute part of the demands that we presented at the meeting on Indigenous Rights and Culture in San Andres, Chiapas;
That we seek to change Article 27 of the Constitution to allow women the right to inherit land. (“Building our History” 1997: 29)

The ideas and practices of gender relations in the different indigenous communities began to interact intensively with the proposals that emerged from the Zapatista revolutionary movement in 1994. For some indigenous people, belonging to independent organizations, Zapatismo opened the possibility of new expectations by broadening their perspectives and expressing their demands and aspirations in the language of rights. It was this language of rights that allowed them to communicate with other organized women, despite class and ethnic barriers. More recently, there is a broad movement of indigenous women of the Americas that is constantly growing, and that now transcends even national boundaries.
This movement has been the organized by the women themselves, who have figured out ways to express their demands in the context of their own communities, seeking to challenge and transform those traditional practices that negatively affect them. They also affirm their wish that indigenous normative systems [usos y costumbres] be recognized, as well as the autonomous governance in their communities. In this regard, what needs to be respected is that it is the women of the indigenous communities themselves who make these decisions that are incumbent upon them in their own spaces. It is here that they manage to verbalize their most heartfelt demands regarding participation, equity, and a life free from violence. For these reasons, they consider it is important to discuss their traditions and customs, analyzing which of them they will determine to nurture and recover, and also which they will determine to discard. A human rights perspective features as central to this task, as is confirmed in the following statement.

[T]he human rights framework expands social justice issues beyond the relatively narrow focus of civil rights, which seek only to punish the guilty. Human rights provide a broader perspective of social justice by combining civil and political rights with social, economic, and cultural rights. A human rights perspective on the problem of domestic violence, for example, considers the right to live free of violence together with the right to health, housing, education, and employment. In addition, the human rights perspective is built at the intersection of gender, race, language, religion, national origin, and a variety of additional factors.

The human rights framework, in the opinion of the same author, is helpful because it provides:

… a broad framework of social justice based on ideas of equity and dignity, and the aspiration to attain its universal application. In essence, this is a morally based claim on the idea that equity and dignity are international ideas, shared by others. The universality of this claim provides a very powerful moral attraction. The perspective from a social movement implies that civil and political rights are inseparable from the social, economic, and cultural.

Importantly, the “universality” of this claim has been gradually channelled and re-created from below by women who come from different cultural contexts. These cultural contexts are often based on a “formation of a subject that is not necessarily aligned with the conception of the European Enlightenment’s notion of individual empowerment” (Mahmood 2005: x) Rather, this “re-semanticization” (Hernandez 2004: 3), expresses specific characteristics that are part of the Mesoamerican cultural universes.
Foucault (1981) and Bakhtin (2011) have argued that every discursive act implies a dialogical process, i.e., an answer to the discursive act that preceded it. In this way, a discourse (in our specific case, of human rights) only exists in the context of prior discourses and is in dialogue with them. In this way, although discourse is influenced by prior discourses, there is simultaneously a re-formulated and new discourse that will serve as a base for those that will follow later. In relation to the discourse of rights, this implies that its origins as “Western,” or as a product of capitalist neoliberal philosophy does not determine its potentialities when discourse is adopted and used in a dia-logical way. Quite often, these new meanings, which arise from the practice of dialogue, question and critique the original discourse that preceded it.

Chapter Contributors

  • Sylvia Marcos ( - sylviamarcos) 'Universidad Nacional Autonóma de Mexico '