This chapter analyzes indigenous women’s strategies to secure gender justice in the context of complex legal pluralism in Mexico. It refers to the obstacles they face to access justice before indigenous and state authorities and underlines indigenous women’s efforts to redefine indigenous law. The official recognition of legal pluralism in the country has provoked both a discussion of multicultural forms of justice and of gender rights, with different consequences for indigenous women’s demands. The two emblematic experiences of women’s organization within collective forms of indigenous justice in Mexico analyzed in this chapter point to the complex realities of women’s lives and the ways in which the tensions between individual and collective rights are played out in context of extreme marginalization and gender violence. The struggle for gender justice is one of the main agendas for indigenous

women in Mexico and throughout Latin America today. Indigenous women have not only organized to demand their rights, they are also taking the lead in the redefinition of indigenous law from their own cultural frames of reference. In different forums they have developed a critique that addresses the impunity, gender violence and discrimination they experience as indigenous women, within their communities and in society as a whole. They are determined to confront gender oppression at different scales and levels, drawing on the support of national and transnational networks of human rights organizations. In a recent analysis, Aida Hernández has described how indigenous Meeph’a women living in conditions of extreme marginalization and poverty in Guerrero who were raped by soldiers confronted the Mexican state at the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and achieved a historic legal victory against a regime that had denied them justice (Hernández 2011). The Inter-American court’s ruling resulted in the case being transferred from a military to a civilian court, an unprecedented occurrence in Mexico.1 At the same time Meeph’a women from the mountain region of Guerrero are fighting to ensure that their community-based systems of

justice reflects a vision of gender equity, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.2 This dual process of appealing before state and indigenous authorities reveals the new conjunctures and contexts that indigenous women now confront, placing them center-stage in the struggle for their rights. By analyzing such processes I intend to demonstrate indigenous women’s active role in the building of their own agendas particularly their effort to fight for their rights in different institutional settings without leaving aside their own cultural frameworks. Indigenous women’s rights are in fact at the center of a major controversy regarding culture and rights, one which becomes particularly relevant in the context of legal reforms to recognize indigenous law. In fact, the new context of legal pluralism in Mexico – established via

constitutional reforms on indigenous issues approved in 2001 – has opened up the possibilities for women to discuss the nature and limits of both state and indigenous justice systems.3 Perhaps more than in other countries in Latin America, in Mexico the recognition of indigenous rights has generated considerable concerns about gender inequalities and the observance of human rights standards in indigenous regions. In fact state officials refer to these topics in order to justify a limited recognition of indigenous rights, voicing fears that “savage” indigenous customs may violate human rights, and particularly those of women. Rather than expressing legitimate worries about women’s rights, such political uses of human and gender rights discourses reproduce colonial strategies of power and restrict the recognition of indigenous jurisdictions and rights to autonomy.4 Thus, the recognition of indigenous peoples’ collective rights and indigenous women’s rights occurs in a context of strong tensions that reveal the structural racism of the state and the preeminence of universalist discourses about rights; these discourses tend to disqualify culture as oppressive for women. Women’s active role in ethnic mobilizations and the politicization of their

rights have created alternatives for their participation in different areas of social life, permitting them to hold positions from which they were previously barred. This process is particularly notable within the spaces of community justice. Not only in Mexico, but in Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Guatemala, the USA and Canada, indigenous women are actively defending their peoples’ collective rights and at the same time introducing changes in key institutions within their communities and organizations (Sieder and Sierra 2010). Women are attempting to redefine their rights from a gender perspective, something that triggers off diverse reactions and challenges within and outside their communities.5 Within this process global discourses of gender and law are being activated and redefined by local actors; they are imbued with new meanings, incorporating local knowledge and a critical reflection about traditions and justice. This process of vernacularization of gender rights (Merry 2006) is one of the principal challenges indigenous women confront when having to discuss and legitimate their demands in face

and legal

of their communities. It is therefore critical to study indigenous women’s concrete efforts to promote gender justice and the challenges they encounter. In this chapter I first discuss how the recognition of indigenous rights

came about in legal reforms in order to signal the specific characteristics of legal pluralism in Mexico. I will then refer to the particular ways in which indigenous women are discussing gender rights and access to justice, stressing gender ideologies and the consequences of women becoming organized. In order to illustrate these processes I analyze two contrasting experiences in Mexico: the case of Nahua women in Cuetzalan, in the state of Puebla, and that of the Na’savi, Meeph’a and mestiza (non-indigenous) women of the policía comunitaria in the state of Guerrero. These are two emblematic experiences demonstrating indigenous women’s contribution to local dynamics of law and gender justice, as well as the ways in which local power structures permit or impede the exercise of women rights. In both cases the politicization of gender and ethnic identities pose new challenges for justice practices. The contrast between these two experiences furthermore reveals the importance of both context and legal consciousness when analyzing gender rights, as well as pointing to the impact of neoliberal governance in the definition of law and autonomy. Lastly I discuss the challenges in conceptualizing gender justice from a perspective of cultural diversity and plural legal rights within the contemporary context of legal pluralism in Mexico.