Feminist groups in Spain set aside differences to celebrate International Women’s Day

The movement has come together to call for an end of gender violence and a fairer division of caregiving duties, but events have been scaled back due to the coronavirus pandemic

Pilar Álvarez
A mural for International Women’s Day at the Equality Ministry in Madrid.
A mural for International Women’s Day at the Equality Ministry in Madrid.Santi Burgos

This year, the big day will not be celebrated on the streets. The coronavirus pandemic has led to International Women’s Day, March 8, to be celebrated without the usual crowded demonstrations seen in recent years. In Madrid, the courts have banned even small-scale protests despite there being more than ever for the movement to demonstrate about: wage gaps, gender violence, the lack of work-life balance, the rise of a political far right that denies that gender inequalities and women’s precarious work conditions are all being compounded by the other effects of the health crisis.

“Women in Spain work more than men today, but they are poorer,” the government said in its institutional statement for Women’s Day. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) has warned that 2.2 million women’s jobs have been lost in Europe, in particular in Spain, which saw a fall of 9.2% between the second quarter of 2019 and the same period in 2020.

Women in Spain work more than men today, but they are poorer
Government’s institutional statement for Women’s Day

Female workers account for 70% of the healthcare staff and carers who have been on the frontline to combat the virus, according to the United Nations (UN), which has warned that violence against women has become “a pandemic in the shadows.” One in five women has given up work during this crisis in order to care for someone else, according to a survey by online community MalasMadres (or, Bad Mothers).

The feminist movement is united in demanding solutions for all of these issues, but this year also has divisions in tow – a situation that is not new, but that has led to virulent confrontations in recent months, above all on social media. The controversy has been caused by the debate on the government’s draft “trans law,” and its possible effect on equality policy.

In February, the Equality Ministry – which is run by left-wing Unidas Podemos, the junior partner in the Socialist Party (PSOE)-led coalition government – made its draft legislation public. The text would allow for the free self-determination of gender (i.e. a change of sex on the Spanish DNI identity card with no more requisites than an express desire to do so).

Part of the feminist movement in Spain, including platforms such as Contra el Borrado de las Mujeres (Against the Obliteration of Women), considers the understanding that one’s sex can be chosen as putting at risk the achievements and laws related to inequality.

The 2019 Women’s Day march in Madrid.
The 2019 Women’s Day march in Madrid.Jaime Villanueva (EL PAÍS)

There is also division within the government. The PSOE has not, for now, permitted the draft to move forward. And there is also disagreement among the parties themselves. A common position is yet to be found among the Socialists nor within Unidas Podemos. Grassroots members and councilors from the latter party launched a manifesto on Sunday in which they demanded there be a “public and internal” debate about the “implications of policies” relating to self-determination of gender.

According to Rosa Sansegundo, the president of the University Platform of Feminist and Gender Studies and a professor at Madrid’s Carlos III University, feminism “is the most-attacked theory in history; this has always happened, it’s nothing new.” She argues that dividing the movement “is a major patriarchal triumph, and there are attempts to stop its major social advances and convening power.” She points to history to play down the most recent disagreements. “The better you know the past, the better you can interpret the present,” she explains. “In the French Revolution women were sent to the guillotine. And in 1931 when [Spanish politician and feminist] Clara Campoamor and many others defended divorce, the movement fractured within the political parties. There is nothing new, just advances and setbacks. After [Spain’s] Second Republic, women could not have imagined that in the dictatorship they were going to be considered to be minors. Perhaps now we couldn’t imagine that we could lose the rights that we have achieved.”

There can be a debate about different concepts, but for the rights of trans people to be denied is incomprehensible
Feminist activist Justa Montero

“The mutual reproaches are unnecessary,” argues Soledad Murillo, feminist and former secretary of state for equality in the previous PSOE government (2004-2011). She applauds the positive parts of the draft law, which “includes a guarantee that trans people will not be stigmatized.” But she is among those who are calling for a calm debate. According to Murillo, it is not transphobic to be against calling biological women “CIS or binary people, pregnant or bleeding,” as is done to separate their experience from trans women. She explains: “In the United Nations, the most-conservative countries talk about people and thus avoid recognizing the gender gap or the existence of discrimination. An analysis of the consequences is needed.”

The feminist writer and journalist Nuria Varela is calling for the same thing. “The draft of that law puts all of the equality and anti-gender violence laws that have been developed in Spain into question.” Varela denounces “false debates” within the disagreements related to the trans law. “There is talk about a fight between two political parties without taking into account that there is a lot of feminism outside of them. Nor is this a generational argument, nor do I believe that it is so big within feminism, but rather among a certain trans militancy and part of the LGTBI [community] against the majority of the movement.”

The feminist activist Justa Montero defends the draft and says that she is surprised by “so much aggression” about an issue that she considered to be already integrated, because trans women form part of feminism. “There can be a debate about different concepts, but for the rights of trans people to be denied is incomprehensible.” Montero, like the other experts consulted by EL PAÍS, does not believe that this clash is weakening feminism. “It’s a powerful and strong movement, which considers women to be individuals in their fight. But we are doing damage to ourselves. If you voice an opinion, you receive criticism, disqualifications and insults. It’s hostile.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

More information

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS