Picking her way between bodies in a sea of purple, Elena carries a sign that reads “feminism in our veins” in one hand and pushes a pram with the other. Two small children are at her side. She is flanked by a group of older work colleagues, they are all striking together. Around them, lining one of the fountains in Madrid’s central square, are dozens of university and high school students. Together they make up one of a series of lilac clusters that stretch back to the far corners of the vast plaza.
Streaming in and out of the winding streets that lead to Madrid’s Puerta del Sol, thousands of protestors are arriving to mark International Women’s Day. Demonstrators are marching against domestic violence, inequality in the workplace, unrecognised forms of labour and transphobia, among other issues.
“The number of women assaulted or even killed by their partners today in Spain is both shocking and deeply worrying for any parent,” Elena says, gesturing to her two girls.
“And in spite of acts like this one, things seem to be getting worse year on year. What kind of a society are these two going to grow up in?”.
According to official statistics, a woman is raped once every 8 hours in Spain and 2017 proved the worst year on record for rates of violence against women in the country. While this is in part to do with more women reporting sexual assault (there was a rise of 28.4% last year, yet up to 80% are still estimated to go unreported), it must also be viewed in the context of a changing political climate in which a growing far-right movement has found purchase in leading a conservative backlash against feminism’s social and political demands. Women’s rights have now become a pivotal topic in campaigning for upcoming elections.
A number of Spain’s major trade unions have called for a 24-hour strike to mark International Women’s Day, while others have said people should leave work for two hours. The strikes cover four key areas of activity – paid work, (a rather vague criteria of) consumption, study and domestic tasks. By going beyond the professional sphere and extending the strike into care and domestic work, the action aims to take into account forms of labour that are often unrecognised and undervalued.
The 8M Commission, an umbrella organisation made up of Spanish feminist groups, underlined earlier this week that “Women stop [on 8th March], but care work doesn’t”.
Care work shouldn’t just fall to women, the group argued, in a statement, but should be converted into a “social responsibility that is shared and distributed [evenly]”.
“The [original] idea,” the group said, “was to show that when women stop functioning as ‘normal’, the world would stop”.
Last year’s march brought out over 5 million demonstrators across the country. Up from the hundreds of thousands reported the previous year, it was considered a historic walkout that helped to galvanise a series of other actions – in particular pensioners’ and taxi workers’ strikes last spring – as well as kick-starting a wave of feminist protests.
These further mobilisations were often triggered by developments in the lightning rod ‘Wolfpack’ rape case at various points in 2018. Sharing some similarities with Ireland’s rugby rape trial last year, the lawsuit saw a group of Spanish men acquitted of gang-raping an 18-year-old girl after the annual Running of the Bulls ceremony during Pamplona’s world-famous San Fermín festival.
The ‘Wolfpack’ case – which involved disturbing revelations of the victim being pursued by a private investigator, as well as having her personal details published online – triggered demonstrations in major Spanish cities as late as December last year. Having entrenched a hostile debate around gender violence in the country, it emerged this week that the growing far-right party Vox attempted to recruit the lawyer who defended the young men in the case.
Such moves by major political actors have not gone unnoticed by protestors out this year. “I wouldn’t have tended to vote for the Right traditionally”, Cristina, a 26-year-old teacher, told Novara Media. “But this time, with general elections around the corner, it’s personal”.
The re-emergence of the Spanish far-right – in a country that had been considered as an anomaly to the broader reactionary lurch in post-2008 European politics – has culminated in the recent breakthrough of the Vox party, explained journalist Antonio Maestre. “Although not fascist [outright],” he said, “[Vox] is the closest thing to fascism in Spain since the [early years of the Transition in the] 1980s”.
Vox registered its breakthrough in December’s regional elections in Andalusia, where it picked up 12 seats. Now polling at 12-14% nationally, it is aiming to replicate Podemos’ 2015 electoral assault in April’s snap general elections along with municipal, regional and European ballots to be held in May.
As activist and MP Isabel Serra notes, feminism has been one of the central targets of Vox’s discourse: “this is because feminism is charting the path for progress and social advances in Spain, pushing back forcefully against neoliberalism. The broader right knows it and this is why it has joined forces with the far right for this battle,” she said. “It’s undoubtable that this alliance has identified women and their rights as its main enemy”.
Vox’s language is pointedly “anti-left” and is steeped in anti-immigrant, anti-LGBT and anti-feminist sentiment. In a typical recent intervention its secretary general Javier Ortega Smith complained that “there are no [official government] figures on men who are killed by women. The figures are hidden because it’s not of interest to recognize that men are also killed by women”.The statistics do in fact exist. The party was forced to suspend one of its members this week over sex offence allegations.
In an attempt to curb the party’s rise and claim the growing ‘Vox vote’, the established right-wing Popular Party has undergone a neoconservative turn that sees it regularly hit out at feminism. The party’s new leader Pablo Casado, for instance, has proposed rolling back Spain’s statutory abortion protections to the considerably reduced provisions of a 1985 bill. Casado said he would not attend today’s “partisan” women’s rally, which he argues has been “monopolised” by “far-left parties”.
His statement frames a wider culture war over gender issues in Spain, which in the past week has extended to controversies surrounding a notorious campaign bus protesting Spain’s gender-violence laws. Irene Montero, interim leader of Podemos, argued recently that “the main error [the Right] has made” with respect to previous International Women’s Day marches has been to “argue that the strike was somehow [uniquely] the preserve of Podemos or of communists [and consequently to distance itself], when feminism obviously transcends party politics”.
Ione Belarra, who was involved in negotiating the 2019 national budget deal, spoke recently about how last year’s mobilisations facilitated the materalisiation of some of the gender measures that featured in the recently-defeated budget. Despite the plan having been voted down in the Spanish parliament last month, some of the social gains incorporated into the agreement have been passed through other channels. One such example is an initiative to equalise legal allowance for paternity and maternity leave, which was passed by the Socialist Party’s interim government this week.