Mystical Rebellion in Mexico

Where sexual rights and religion meet.

By Mónica A. Maher

Upon narrating, we prove that the experience of God is not the property of anyone, that there is not only one way to express God. . . . To narrate is to unfold veils, to lift anchors, to set sail and slide away toward the open sea of time . . . To travel . . . to find islands . . . Islands in whose tombs we extract vital hopes, islands of light that allow us ‘to pray from the depths of the ocean.’ We are companions of the sea, we feel the waves that rush, we carry with us the storm and the open heart. In the sea, it is impossible to hide the body, impossible to hide the soul. . . .1

While I was in Mexico conducting research several years ago, Guadalupe Cruz Cárdenas, a Mexican feminist theologian and then ecclesial program director and trainer with Catholics for the Right to Decide in Mexico (Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir, or CDD), turned to me and asked, “Do you think there is such a thing as mystical rebellion?” Although she did not define the term, I understood it to mean the rebirth of women’s spiritualities and activism in the face of great suffering, oppression, and violence in church and society. So, I said, without hesitation, yes. The mystical rebellion I have witnessed, particularly from Catholic women in Mexico, is a profound shift in spirituality as a result of a newfound sense of both religious and sexual agency. Their questioning of internalized norms around sexuality and their assertion of sexual rights is thus grounded in a moral authority, a confidence in their wisdom, which is based in a new experience, and new definitions of God.

First, their experiences of God as loving presence, rather than punishing judge, have not only affected but been a determining factor in their views and behavior with respect to sexuality. Sister Janet Ruffing, a pioneer in the field of spiritual direction, explains how many Catholic adults in the United States, even after experiencing a loving God in contemplative prayer, nonetheless continue to relate to a law-centered God when making moral decisions. Ruffing notes that this is especially true for Catholic women in the area of sexuality, where official norms are most rigid.2

Second, unlike other Latin American Catholic women who have been studied, the women I met at Catholics for the Right to Decide do not express a need to ask for forgiveness when engaging in behavior that breaks from religious teaching. The celebrated study of the International Reproductive Rights Research Action Group (IRRRAG) describes that Catholic women of the popular church in Mexico and Brazil disobey official Catholic Church teaching to assert their reproductive rights, believing that God will understand and forgive their transgression.3 When discussing their sexual rights, the women at CDD, in contrast, describe God as the force behind and within their very actions and ideas; they do not perceive themselves as transgressors, but one with God in following their own wisdom and informed conscience. Rather than an attitude of forgiveness, they express an attitude “of rest” from having to ask for forgiveness so often, “an attitude of asking neither permission nor pardon.”4

Finally, because of their belief in the moral validity of their decisions, the women do not engage in a private/public double discourse with respect to sexual rights. This stands in marked contrast to many Latin American citizens and public/ecclesial officials whose private discourse and behavior does not follow the church’s sexual norms, regarded as too lofty an ideal, but whose public discourse does.5 When they use the term “double discourse,” they are usually referring to a double, public discourse: that of official church leaders and that of their own.

The mystical rebellion emerging within the women reflects a wider religious subculture. Indeed, it is the place of convergence of women’s rights and religion for a growing number of women in Latin America who are experiencing and expressing their spirituality and sexuality in new ways. This rebellious mysticism is increasingly challenging many official religious leaders, as well as feminist rights activists, to think differently about women’s sexual, spiritual, and religious agency and the necessarily “secular” nature of rights. Indeed, some leaders and activists are beginning to reconsider the relationship between religious discourse and identity and sexual rights discourse and activism.

The good news is that violence against women is on the public agenda. The  bad news is that increased awareness has not brought with it a clearly visible decline in gender violence.

It is illuminating to place this discussion of mystical rebellion within the broader frame of the international struggle of women’s rights as human rights, a struggle that emerged out of grassroots women’s efforts around the globe to address gender violence.6 Over the last decade and a half, due to women’s organizing, there has been a great increase in visibility of the problem of violence against women in Latin America and throughout the world. Today, gender violence is widely recognized as a public health and human rights issue, new legislation criminalizes the behavior (in the form of domestic violence) in many nations, and many more grassroots groups are addressing it. The good news is that violence against women is on the public agenda. The bad news is that increased awareness has not brought with it a clearly visible decline in gender violence itself. In fact, it appears that gender violence has not only continued but has actually increased and appeared in new forms around the globe over the last decade. As a result, definitions of gender violence and strategies to address it have been shifting.

From a concentrated focus on domestic violence, attention has expanded to address the mushrooming transnational industry of sexual trafficking, the growing incidence of women-killing, or feminicide, by intimate and nonintimate partners, the epidemic of sexual abuse by spiritual and religious leaders, the horror of state-sponsored mass rape as an act of genocide, and the wide-spread use of sexual violence as a weapon of war in conflict/post-conflict situations. These alarming developments underscore the ways that gender violence transcends traditional private/public dichotomies; perpetrators lie in every sector of society, including social institutions of government as well as family, business, and religion. They are both state and nonstate actors. Criminal acts of gender violence still take place in a systematic manner and with total impunity in many situations. At an October 2007 meeting on women, peace, and security of the United Nations Security Council dedicated to review implementation of U.N. Resolution 1325 (2000), the secretary general called current manifestations of violence against women “hideous,” and the Council asserted gender violence had reached “appalling” levels of “atrocity.”7

In the face of the increase and intensity of gender violence, responses to violence against women have broadened from a primary concern with legislation and prosecution to include a growing attention to implementation and prevention. There is now much interest in identifying the social values and norms which underlie gender inequity and sustain gender violence, in order to address the root causes and enabling cultural conditions. At meetings of the 50th Session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women in New York (2006), the United Nations special rapporteur on violence against women, Yakin Ertürk, quoted Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Legislation can’t change hearts, but it can restrain the heartless.” She added, “We want to change hearts as well.”8 Ertürk emphasizes confronting cultural arguments that justify violence against women and engaging in negotiations at the community level.9

Official United Nations documents, such as the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (1993) and the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), assert that states should not renege on their obligations to eliminate violence against women on the grounds of custom, religion, or tradition.10 And yet, in many places around the world, such arguments continue. In response, women around the world are claiming their authority as cultural makers and religious leaders, asserting the right to shape culture, to interpret religion, so that it supports their security and well-being. In doing so, activist scholars are refuting essentialist arguments that see both rights and culture/religion as static, insisting both are fluid, constantly remade, and internally contested.11 In the words of Ayesha Imam, former chief of the Culture, Gender and Human Rights Branch of the United Nations Fund for Population Activities and core member of Women Living Under Muslim Laws, we “need to move beyond the notion of culture (including religion) as a static barrier to human rights and toward a notion of culture as constantly remade historical constructions containing potential resources as well as obstacles.”12

Activists and scholars have thus been articulating an approach to religion that recognizes its complexity, including its potential contribution to women’s rights, including sexual rights. In the past two decades, concern has emerged among activist scholars of women’s rights about the public imposition of narrowly defined religious moralities by religious extremists and about the growing social inequalities fostered by neoliberal economic globalization. At the same time, there has arisen a simultaneous concern to understand and ground rights language in the values and specificities of women’s multiple identities and cultural realities. This reflects a change from the tendency to dismiss religion as a barrier to women’s rights to a desire to understand the diversity within religious traditions and the ways religious beliefs influence women’s sexual identities and agency.13 International sexuality research and education has also turned from analyzing and attempting to modify individual behavior to focusing on community-based, culturally sensitive interventions out of an appreciation for the socially variable nature of sexuality.

In working with women in Mexico, my original idea was to glean from observation, conversation, and documentation how they conceive of and negotiate their sexual rights. When I began, I often asked, “What does ‘sexual rights’ mean to you?” Women frequently responded with a surprised look, and a quick answer. The most common response by women working in Catholic parishes in Mexico to “What does ‘sexual rights’ mean to you?” was a short, one-word response, “pleasure.” By pleasure, Mexican women are referring not only to a narrow definition of sexual pleasure, but to a broad concept of general enjoyment of their sensuality, their bodies, and their lives.

Guadalupe Cruz soon told me that the women consider these words cold and abstract, that women, especially those from Chiapas, often speak in personal and metaphoric terms. So, I started to think that “sexual rights” wasn’t a term that had emerged from the women themselves. I knew that I needed a way to speak to women with words that would make them feel comfortable and allow them to share their perspectives and passions freely. Asking directly about “sexual rights” seemed to be a conversation stopper, not starter. I read some material Guadalupe Cruz gave me that women had written as a parable about their search for authentic words, for words not copied or imitated, but which had passed through their bodies. This parable explained women’s longing to speak about God, about the one they had been told demanded their silence, but whom they found growing inside with them in a new way.14 I realized I needed to invite women to share their personal experiences of God. When I did, women overflowed with words, words filled with emotion, longing, sorrow, excitement, amazement, resistance, hope. These were words which life had produced, words growing within life, within the women, which they wanted to share, and did share very generously with me, when I finally found a way to invite the conversation.


In participating in meetings with indigenous women in Chiapas, I became aware of a striking emphasis on two things: first, the insistence on women’s right to “dar nuestra palabra,” to give our word, to speak. This right to participate is central to their conceptualization of all rights, and has been a part of the broader Zapatista discourse for indigenous rights, in which word is seen as a weapon of resistance to more than 500 years of imperialist domination.15 The right to speak underlines the right to choose a partner, to choose how many children to bear, to be free of physical and sexual violence, and to receive health care, food, education, paid work, and leadership opportunities, all of which are outlined in the Zapatista “Revolutionary Law on Women.”16 Sexual and reproductive rights are thus understood as an integral and inseparable platform of human rights based on the right to be seen, heard, and taken into account, all of which are characteristic of democratic citizenship.

A second and related emphasis is indigenous women’s descriptions of their reality as marked by the absence of eyes, ears, nose, mouth, feet: “Someone sees through our eyes, someone walks with our feet,” they say. The indigenous women thus describe their work as a struggle to help other women reclaim their senses of sight, smell, sound, speech, and movement. They express anguish at the prevailing conditions of poverty, militarism, fear, violence, and insecurity in which women live. They express suspicion of family planning programs as attempts to eliminate them as a community, describing forced sterilizations and other so-called public health “services” which do not respect their personal and communal agency. Their desire is to connect to the hearts of the poorest women, to help other women awaken to their bodies, to their right to exist as human beings, and to live with tenderness, health, hope, and justice.

The women’s experiences differ from traditional Western European interpretations of mysticism as mainly subjective or private, and therefore unrelated to public participation.

The mystical experiences of these women are marked by certain key qualities: they are communal, embodied, and tied to expression and action; moreover, they are concretely connected to a clear awakening of collective self-esteem, sexuality, and public voice and political/ecclesial agency. The women’s experiences differ from traditional Western European interpretations of mysticism as mainly subjective or private, and often indescribable or ineffable, and therefore unrelated to public participation. For this reason, Guadalupe Cruz speaks of “mystical rebellion,” because the women’s mysticism is directly linked to resistance of religious, economic, political, and cultural forces that deny women voice and participation.

This mystical rebellion in Mexico reflects a broader cultural religious movement of personal and social transformation throughout the continent. It demonstrates principles central to Latin American feminist theology, which dates back to the late 1970s, principles outlined by Mexican feminist theologian María Pilar Aquino: women’s experiences, subjectivity, body wisdom, daily life, the practice of tenderness and integral justice (above all for the most marginalized women), women’s historical memory and biblical feminist hermeneutics (where the goal is not to save the text but to save life.)17 The mystical rebellion in Mexico reveals holistic ecofeminist and indigenous theologies, includes a Mayan cosmology and a vision of rights of the community of all sentient beings. Like the feminist theological movement throughout the continent, it arises out of a critique of the cultural-religious myths and symbols that underlie the discrimination of women, like the Christian myth of creation, the symbol of God as punisher and of women as evil seductresses. And it expresses the emancipatory traditions of both Christianity and Latin American ancestral cultures. The mystical rebellion occurring in Mexico takes place in spaces of encounter between women, spaces simi-lar to those throughout Latin America, where women pray, sing, dance, celebrate life, renew energy, and revitalize hope for a world without violence where God is more present.18

Rosalind Petchesky has highlighted the ways in which activists tend to advocate for sexual rights in negative terms, focusing on women as victims of violence, rather than speaking of pleasure.19 The Mexican women, in contrast, speak often with hopeful images filled with energy, desires, and dreams. This is true despite the fact that most are living under multiple forms of violence that threaten their very existence.

Thus, their positive language expresses a vision of justice in which their multiple rights are inseparable, in which sexual rights are inclusive of the enabling economic conditions—of the rights to health care, food, water, security—as well as the enabling religious conditions—of the rights to religious experience, voice, participation, power. Their struggle for sexual rights, then, is part of a broad, communal struggle to recover both material and religious/spiritual resources in a search for economic and ecclesial justice. The overall right, if any, would be the very right to exist, both literally/physically, and existentially/spiritually. In fact, CDD director, María Consuelo Mejía, asserts, “We reclaim our right to exist, to be, with freedom and self-determination, in the Church and society.”20

Indeed, sexual rights must stress the right to exist, to be alive in one’s body, connected to one’s senses, to be able to feel pleasurable sensations and desire. “Without desire and sensations of our body, we would not exist as persons.”21 Sexual rights, then, include the right to relationships marked by pleasurable affection, tenderness, and love with others, oneself, and God. Here, the right to sexual pleasure assumes the right to spiritual pleasure, for, in their words, “the point of departure of our experience of God is our skin, our body that is our life, footprint of our histories. . . . God is in the surprising mystery of sight, sound, touch, taste, smell.”22 It is the pleasurable, sensate experience of God within and among them that has facilitated the women’s development of moral agency with respect to sexual rights.

Their language to enflesh “rights” is a word, una palabra, that is collective, creative, contextual, and contemplative, connected to memory/history of their personal/communal body, with an emphasis on surviving and thriving. This stands in contrast to a concept of rights as solely individualistic, analytical, discursive, abstract, and universal. The women have embraced “sexual rights,” not as an abstract concept separate from themselves that simply replaces the external moral code of Catholic sexual norms. Rather, through personal and group reflection, prayer, and ritual, they have appropriated the language to reflect their own experiences and inner wisdom with words that have passed through their bodies. Their language does not dwell on theoretical considerations of single issues, such as abortion and contraception, in isolation from the web of life.

These women’s transformation and ongoing concern with respect to sexuality involves something very inclusive and fundamental: the capacity to feel love for themselves, others, and God within their own bodies in such a way as to become active agents for justice with other women in church and society. Their focus is women’s well-being, happiness in all its interconnected facets, sexual, spiritual, political. The religious dimension of their conceptualization and negotiation of rights is critical, central to the ability to embrace themselves as subjects of their bodies. A case study with this group of women underscores that the struggle for sexual rights and autonomy is inextricably linked to the struggle for spiritual or religious rights and autonomy. Unfortunately, to date, international activist scholars have not made explicit this connection.

Justice within religious structures is as vital a prerequisite for the implementation of sexual rights as justice within economic structures.

The mystical rebellion taking place in Mexico has implications for the international struggle for sexual rights in terms of policy-making. International activists can and should work in consultation with local activists to ensure that the enabling conditions for sexual rights include not only economic factors, but also religious/cultural factors. Such a principle entails, of course, continuing to work for the separation of church and state (nowhere mandated in current human rights standards), to ensure a democratic society that respects, protects, and promotes the right to religious expression in a multiplicity of forms, not only across but also within religious traditions. This implies recognizing the dynamism and diversity internal to religious cultures,23 honoring minority religious voices and movements for change, and demanding compliance to human rights standards of religious institutions which actively engage in sexual and gender-based discrimination, violence, and abuse. Justice within religious structures is as vital a prerequisite for the implementation of sexual rights as justice within economic structures.

Providing the social and cultural conditions for sexual rights with respect to religion has the potential to lead to progressive transnational ecumenisms to counter transnational religious extremisms. Rather than approaching religion as a forever-frustrating obstacle to sexual rights and focusing on securing secularism as a necessary precondition,24 international activists can begin to recognize the power for progressive change within religious cultures and subcultures and can provide support to faith-based discourses and activism emerging around the world out of women’s experiences.

We are a spiritual body and an embodied spirit: the Spirit looks for us and finds us in the surface of the skin, and the skin looks for us in the intimacy of the soul. The mystery of divinity dwells in our nudity, in the size of our waist, in the width of our breasts, and in the movement of our hips.25


  1. Guadalupe Cruz Cárdenas, Catholics for the Right to Decide, “Story: God Growing in Us,” in “Discovering God Growing With Us: Construction and Deconstruction of the Image of God,” Christus: Revista de Teología y Ciencias Sociales, November/December 2001, 30 (my translation).
  2. Janet Ruffing, “Unacknowledged Conflicts: Prayer and Morality,” The Way Supplement: Spirituality and Ethics 88 (Spring 1997): 70–72.
  3. Negotiating Reproductive Rights: Women’s Perspectives Across Countries and Cultures, ed. Rosalind Petchesky and Karen Judd (Zed Books, 1998), 61–62, 164, 306.
  4. “Una actitud de pedir ni permiso ni perdon”; personal interview with Alma Boletello and Guadalupe Cruz Cárdenas, September 7, 2004, Mexico City.
  5. See Bonnie Shepard, “The ‘Double Discourse’ on Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Latin America: The Chasm Between Public Policy and Private Actions,” Health and Human Rights 4, no. 2 (2000): 110–134, esp. 116–117.
  6. These observations are based on the perspectives of Charlotte Bunch presented during the panel “Strategies, Struggles and Moving Forward: Perspectives on Working to End Violence Against Women,” 10th International Forum of the Association of Women’s Rights and Development (AWID), October 28, 2005, Bangkok, Thailand.
  7. “United Nations Security Council Deeply Concerned About ‘Pervasive’ Gender-based Violence as It Holds Day-long Debate on Women, Peace and Security,” Association of Women’s Rights in Development E-News, week of October 24, 2007, item 18.
  8. Yakin Ertürk, “Searching for the Roots of Violence: The Research Paradigm” panel at the 50th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women meeting, “Violence Against Women: From Critical Concerns to Collective Action,” co-sponsored by the U.N. Committee on the Status of Women, the Wellesley Centers for Women, and the New York County Lawyers’ Association, New York, March 4, 2006.
  9. Yakin Ertürk, “Eliminating Violence Against Women: Where Does Due Diligence Fit In?” panel at the 50th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women, co-sponsored by the U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Permanent Mission of Canada to the United Nations, New York, March 1, 2006.
  10. The 1993 Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women, Article 4, and the 1995 Beijing Platform for Action, Chapter IV, 124a.
  11. Wendy Chavkin, “Conclusion,” in Where Human Rights Begin: Health, Sexuality, and Women in the New Millennium, ed. Wendy Chavkin and Ellen Chesler (Rutgers University Press, 2005), 274–275.
  12. Ayesha M. Imam, “Women’s Reproductive and Sexual Rights and the Offense of Zina in Muslim Laws in Nigeria,” in Where Human Rights Begin, ed. Chavkin and Chesler, 67.
  13. The IRRRAG study is a prime example of the attempt to describe the complexity of women’s multiple identities in relation to their understanding of sexual and reproductive rights. To its authors, I am indebted for the inspiration to pursue the present work.
  14. Laura Figueroa, Catholics for the Right to Decide, “Parable About Words That Tell the Story of Life,” in “Discovering God Growing With Us,” 31, 33.
  15. See Subcomandante Marcos, Our Word Is Our Weapon: Selected Writings, ed. Juana Ponce de Leon (Seven Stories Press, 2001), 84: “This is the weapon, brothers and sisters. We say, the word remains. We speak the word. We shout the word. We raise the word and with it we break the silence of our people. . . .”
  16. This law was established on International Women’s Day, March 8, 1993, which Marcos refers to as the true date of the first Zapatista uprising. See Guiomar Rovira, Women of Maize: Indigenous Women and the Zapatista Rebellion, trans. Anna Keene (Latin American Bureau, 2000), 93, 94.
  17. Ivone Gebara, Teologia al Ritmo de Mujer (San Pablo, 1995), 83: “Lo importante para nosotros no es salvar el texto, sino la vida.”
  18. Maria Pilar Aquino, “Latin American Feminist Theology,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 14, no. 1 (Spring 1998): 104–106, 102–103, 98–99. Aquino does not discuss “mystical rebellion” as such, but describes principles of Latin American feminist theology which underlie the broader movement.
  19. Rosalind Petchesky, “Sexual Rights: Inventing a Concept, Mapping an International Practice,” in Framing the Sexual Subject: The Politics of Gender, Sexuality and Power, ed. Richard G. Parker, Regina Barbosa, and Peter Aggleton (University of California Press, 2000), 88–91, 98.
  20. María Consuelo Mejía, “Derechos sexuales y reproductivos: Para elevar la calidad de vida y promover la justicia social,” Conciencia Latinoamericana: Sexualidades 13, no. 3 (September 2001): 5 (my translation).
  21. K’inal Antesetik and Católicas por el Derecho a Decidir, Conociendo Nuestros Derechos Humanos Como Mujeres Indígenas (2004): 27 (my translation).
  22. Cruz Cárdenas, “Story: God Growing in Us,” 727.
  23. Martha Nussbaum writes about the “diversity” and “dynamism” within religious traditions in her Women and Human Development: The Capabilities Approach (Cambridge University Press, 2000), 181–182.
  24. Of course, it is important to secure a secular state, which respects a plurality of religions and religious beliefs or nonbelief, but it is not possible to create a secular society. For an original discussion of modernization, secularization, and sexual rights, see Juan Marco Vaggione, “Entre reactivos y disidentes: Desandando las fronteras entre lo religioso y lo secular,” CLADEM, 2004.
  25. Guadalupe Cruz Cárdenas, Catholics for the Right to Decide, “Memoria: Encuentro-taller Regional del Sur,” Cuerpo, Mujer, Território y Autonomía (Chiapas, Mexico, May 27–29, 2004), 4 (my translation).

Mónica A. Maher received an MDiv degree from Harvard Divinity School in 1998 and is currently a Research Associate in the Women’s Studies in Religion Program and Visiting Lecturer at HDS. She is working on a book addressing gender violence, religion, and human rights in Latin America.

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