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Indigenous women in politics: a complex proposition

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Jorge Luis Plata/Reuters

(Read caption) A woman casts her vote at a polling station on the outskirts of Oaxaca, Mexico, July 1, 2012.

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A version of this post ran on LatinAmericaGoesGlobal. The views expressed are the author's own.

In Santa María Quiegolani – an indigenous town of the Sierra Sur in Oaxaca, Mexico – the women wake up at 3 a.m. to work in the kitchen and do domestic chores; their parents decide who they should marry; and they take care of the children. Eufrosina Cruz Mendoza was only 12 years old when she decided to escape her closed future and left her hometown to study in high school. She continued on to the university where she earned a degree in accounting.

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At age 27, Eufrosina returned to Quiegolani and ran for municipal president under the usos y costumbres system – the traditional norms by which indigenous communities choose their leaders. But in spite of her educational accomplishments, she was reminded of her status back in her community. Municipal authorities voided the ballots cast for her.

Despite the setback, Eufrosina’s challenge to traditional authority eventually changed elections in Oaxaca’s indigenous communities. However, many women in the communities don’t think it’s all been for the good.

But first, some context. Oaxaca is the only Mexican state that formally recognizes the autonomy of indigenous communities in choosing their leaders. There are 570 municipalities in the state of Oaxaca; 417 of them select their authorities through usos y costumbres. Instead of using a secret ballot and having political parties, the members of the community “earn” their right to participate, both as candidates and electors, through public service activities called tequios. 

Those members who complete the tequios participate in the assembly that chooses the municipal authorities. Each community decides how to exercise its vote (show of hands, making a mark next to the candidates’ name on a blackboard) and has a different number of positions, depending on the population and their own tradition. The system tends to be hierarchical: Members need to be elected to lower-ranking positions before being considered for the more important ones.

In fact, those members of the community who nullified Eufrosina’s votes alleged that she hadn’t conducted the corresponding tequios, and she was trying to jump the line by being elected to a higher office without serving in a lower one before.

Eufrosina’s electoral disenfranchisement drew national attention to the low participation of indigenous women in these traditional systems. A common belief is that indigenous peoples don’t allow women to participate at all; in reality only 18 percent of the municipalities in Oaxaca banned women from voting in 2015. Of course, 18 percent is still too high, but the myth that all indigenous communities repress women’s right to vote is just that, a myth; 343 municipalities did allow them to have an electoral voice.

But being able to vote doesn’t mean that women have open access to run for office – or, that when they do, they get elected. As of 2015, there were only eight female municipal presidents in the 417 municipalities with usos y costumbres, less than 2 percent of the total.

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Eufrosina was unsuccessful in challenging the election results. The officials at Oaxaca’s electoral institute decided that she was not able to access the position since she hadn’t completed the tequios. But this setback didn’t stop her, and she decided to immerse herself in politics. She was launched to the national stage after a fortuitous encounter with then-president Felipe Calderon during an event commemorating Women’s Day, when she was invited tell her story to the audience that had come to see the president.

After that, Eufrosina was incorporated in the National Action Party’s list for state legislature and won; two years later, she was elected as national deputy. She became the president of the Commission of Indigenous Issues and sponsored a change to the second article of the Mexican Constitution. Originally added in 2001, the article recognizes the autonomy of the indigenous communities and their right to self-government. Eufrosina’s reform introduced a new line that stated that under no circumstance would this right undermine the right of women to participate in politics.

Enter federal electoral reform

Last year, Oaxaca’s electoral institute imposed a new measure, forcing communities under usos y costumbres to present and elect female candidates. From a Western perspective, this sort of affirmative action measure is seen as a common way of overcoming structural and attitudinal barriers to rights and opportunities. But many indigenous women in Oaxaca believe the requirement is an imposition on their traditions.

In a recent trip to Mexico with Global Americans, I had the chance to interview a number of indigenous groups and their leaders. All of them were against this new measure.

I was particularly intrigued by the opinion of Zaira Hipólito López, a community psychologist, who participates in the Assembly of Oaxaca’s Indigenous Women (Asamblea de Mujeres Indígenas de Oaxaca). Why would a politically active indigenous young woman be against affirmative action under usos y costumbres?

In her words: “There are many indigenous women working on the political participation of women, and we are criticized for not taking a radical feminist discourse.... But the current norm only puts colleagues in certain positions of authority within the community but it doesn’t help them stay there.”

She had two main arguments.

First, most of the positions in Oaxaca’s system of usos y costumbres are voluntary. Zaira explained that for most women being elected is a double burden, because not only do they have to work for the community, but they still have to take care of their domestic chores. Making women’s representation a requirement makes sense in the state legislature where there is a monthly salary, but in indigenous municipalities being a female official – given tradition in other spheres – is an additional chore few can manage.

And second, she mentioned that the norm doesn’t value other ways in which women participate. According to her, many women feel that they are participating when their husbands are elected to office, since they assume many of the men’s regular responsibilities.

So, if there is so much resistance by both women and men in the communities to these changes, why don’t they speak up?

When I asked this question, many of the leaders I interviewed raised the following point. Whenever a community doesn’t comply with all of the federal election rules or when there is an internal conflict after the elections, the state government can assign a “municipal administrator” that intervenes in the community. Formally, they are only supposed to stay for three months and help set up a new election, but they have been known to stay for much longer and manage community resources at their own discretion.

My interviewees mentioned that the indigenous communities were not fighting this newly imposed rule because they feared intervention.

Is the government advancing female participation with a secret agenda, hoping that they won’t comply with the new norms so that they can intervene and gain access to the communities’ resources? That’s hard to know. Some indigenous leaders suspect so.

More likely is a well-intentioned Western-based idea that collided with local traditions and a legitimate fear of corruption. The more important lesson is that policies and programs implemented from our Western perspective – in this case affirmative action to advance female participation – may, even with the best intentions, violate other rights. The leaders I spoke to feel that the electoral reform violates their customs and their right of self-determination.

A better course of action may be a “do-no-harm” approach that focuses on consultation with the affected women and a gradual process of raising awareness about the importance of women's participation in decision-making with the collaboration of men.

Mercedes Hoffay is an editor of LatinAmericaGoesGlobal and program manager for the project on social inclusion.