Women’s strike a new cause of Spanish discord

Madrid Letter: Political right accuses leftists of commandeering protests

The “March for Women” in Vigo, Spain this week. Thousands attended the march ahead of International Women’s Week calling for gender equality. Photograph: Salvador Sas/EPA

The “March for Women” in Vigo, Spain this week. Thousands attended the march ahead of International Women’s Week calling for gender equality. Photograph: Salvador Sas/EPA

 

In Spain’s fraught and fractured political arena there are few issues capable of uniting left and right – and feminism isn’t one of them.

On Thursday, the country will mark International Women’s Day by staging marches in cities across the country, as well as a first-ever strike by women to demand equality. Some of those taking part will stage two-hour stoppages, while others will down tools for 24 hours.

Political parties on the left have thrown their support behind the gesture, which is organised by feminist organisations and backed by labour unions. The Socialist Party endorses the two-hour stoppages, but falls short of backing the full-day strike. Podemos, to its left, has been more outspoken, with party leader Pablo Iglesias insisting that on Thursday, “we men will have to shut up and stay in the background”.

In February, all the congresswomen and female parliamentary staff of Podemos gathered for a photo, wearing t-shirts that said: “I am taking part in the feminist strike”.

“This isn’t about flags or political parties,” Iglesias added. “March 8th is about Spain’s future – a feminist future.”

Hijacking the day

But parties on the right accuse the likes of Podemos of hijacking the day and they claim the strike will not represent all women.

In an internal party memo, the governing Popular Party (PP) described the planned action as “a strike by feminist elites, but not by real women with real problems”.

Ciudadanos, the liberal party which has been leading many opinion polls recently having stolen voters from the PP, took a similar line. But with a more modern, reformist image than the corruption-plagued PP, the strike is a thorny subject for Ciudadanos. Its solution is to send a delegation to the demonstration in Madrid, but without backing the strike, which it claims is politically skewed.

Ciudadanos leader Albert Rivera said that “being feminist doesn’t mean being anti-capitalist and nor does defending women’s rights mean you have the obligation to belong to one ideology or another”.

Unprecedented action

However successful the strike is – and it looks likely to see substantial participation – it will be an unprecedented action for a country in which women’s rights have seen enormous advances in recent decades, yet continue to lag behind many European nations in a number of areas.

Under the deeply conservative regime of dictator Francisco Franco, Spanish women were victims of an ideology based heavily on repressive male chauvinism. A married woman, for example, needed her husband’s permission to sign a work contract or open a bank account.

That changed following Franco’s 1975 death and the return to democracy. As the country modernised at breakneck speed, women joined the workforce, started up companies and took up political positions, as abortion and divorce laws were introduced.

By 2004, the Socialist government of José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero had even introduced gender parity in his cabinet as part of a drive to advance social rights.

But Zapatero would eventually ditch that policy, and a decade-and-a-half after those landmark ministerial appointments, Spain’s record on equality is chequered.

Today, women make up only a third of the Spanish cabinet and just under 40 per cent of parliamentarians. Although several women hold positions of influence in politics, in four decades there has not be a female leader of any of the main parties.

Glass ceiling

In the labour market, women earn on average 13 per cent less than men and the glass ceiling is all too apparent in the corporate top tier. These are common problems for EU countries, but in Spain, they are barely on the radar of the current government.

When asked about possible initiatives for pay parity between men and women recently, a flustered prime minister Mariano Rajoy replied: “Let’s not go there.” The backlash was fierce, particularly from the left.

But discord over women’s rights and how to improve them is not restricted to the political sphere – the Catholic Church has also got involved.

As International Women’s Day looms, two bishops have railed against what they call “radical feminism” in Spain. Bishop of San Sebastián José Ignacio Munilla on Monday claimed that “feminism, having taken on its gender-based ideology, has committed a kind of hari-kari”. The Bishop of Alcalá has expressed similar views.

By contrast, Archbishop of Madrid Carlos Osoro announced his support for the strike. “I understand it, of course,” he said. “[Women] have to defend their rights. So too would the Holy Virgin Mary – and in her own way she does.”

Amid all the disagreement between politicians and clerics over recent days, one statistic is particularly illustrative: more than four out of five Spaniards believe the upcoming women’s strike is justified.

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