50.50: Feature

How Andalucían feminists are resisting pressure from far-right Vox

Activists in Spain’s most populous region are fighting back despite a raft of regressive legislation and funding cuts

elena ledda foto 2022
Elena Ledda
23 January 2023, 10.25am
Ángeles Leal, a volunteer with Women Survivors, cooks aubergines with white sauce and peppers for the association's twice-weekly hot lunch. November 16 2022 | Elena Ledda

On a warm, rainy lunchtime in November, the Casa Grande community centre in the Pumarejo neighbourhood of Seville is heaving. On the radio, a woman is singing Manu Chao’s ‘Clandestino’ to the accompaniment of flamenco-style hand clapping. Many people have arrived for the twice-weekly hot lunch, which disappears in the blink of an eye.

This popular community centre is home to around 20 groups, including Women Survivors of Gender Violence (Mujeres Supervivientes de Violencias de Género). The group offers support and training to women survivors of violence, and most of its members are migrant women.

Soda Sokhna from Senegal is here with her recently arrived cousin, who is looking for Spanish lessons. María Luisa Sánchez, a Honduran refugee, recently lost her job as a careworker and has dropped in “to see how I can help, how I can get help, and to join the group”.

Women Survivors is one of 78 organisations working to eradicate gender violence in Andalucía, Spain’s most populous region, whose public funding was cut off overnight in 2019. The Women’s Institute of Andalucía (IAM), part of the regional government, cut funding to about 240 feminist groups.

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IAM had been awarded such funds since 2016 to groups working against gender violence, for gender equality or against the social exclusion of women, with an overall budget of €4m. The cuts were due to a last-minute change to the eligibility criteria.

It came after discussions between the right-wing Popular Party (PP), the centre-right Citizens party and its external ally the far-right Vox party, which together managed to wrest control of Andalucía from the Spanish Socialist Workers Party (PSOE) after 36 years.

Vox took 12 seats in Andalucía in 2018 – the first time it had achieved electoral success in a regional parliament – giving it the power to exact concessions from other parties.

Like many far-right groups including its political allies in Italy and Hungary, Vox has ultra-conservative attitudes towards women, is obsessed with traditional notions of ‘family’ (a man, a woman and their offspring) and opposes abortion. The party has consistently spoken against the concept of gender violence, arguing that “violence has no gender or labels”.

Related story

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The far-right party’s behaviour has been very controversial, to say the least, in many aspects concerning women’s issues.

Housing shelter closed

Women Survivors has survived thanks to local neighbourhood support and the work of volunteers, but other women’s groups – derisively referred to as “chiringuitos feministas” (“feminist beach bars”) by Vox – have closed or cut back their operations.

For example, in a seaside town near Cadiz, Learn to Live (Aprende a Vivir), an organisation combating drug dependency, had to close its shelter, which provided free housing to women undergoing detox.

“Some women had to go home, some to public outpatient facilities, and some ended up on the street,” said its president Ángeles Moreno.

Maria*, a 35-year-old nurse, lived in the shelter for 11 months following a decade-long drug habit, gender-based violence from her then partner, and a suicide attempt. “I recovered thanks to this housing,” she said via Zoom from her kitchen, her pet canary chirping in the background.

“Women addicts are judged more harshly than men, and it’s more difficult to find a way out. If you come up against government policies that do not recognise the importance of supporting recovery, you can end up with nowhere to go, even though you’re broke.”

In 2020, more than 150 Andalucían social organisations and women’s groups protested publicly against the “full frontal attack on human rights” implicit in the “sudden” changes by the regional government.

Learn to Live and others appealed for their funding to be reinstated, but were refused. “The Junta [regional government] has not called for subsidies from which we could benefit and it has tightened the application criteria, so we have given up. We are discouraged,” said Moreno.

Other Vox initiatives

Although the PP achieved an absolute majority in 2022’s elections and no longer needs the support of Vox to govern Andalucía, Vox continues to push its regressive agenda regarding women’s rights there. Last year, it presented a draft resolution calling for the region and the country’s gender violence law to be replaced with a domestic violence law “for all Spanish people”; an end to budgets earmarked for “gender policies”; the exclusion of “gender ideology” from educational programmes; the closure of the Women’s Institute of Andalucía; and the immediate expulsion of “all illegal immigrants”.

Two items were approved in the end, thanks to the support of the PP. One called for “measures to protect the family from all types of violence”; the other condemned the so-called “only yes means yes” law, which criminalises all non-consensual sexual relations and was passed by the Spanish government last year.

“The PP could have outright rejected a male chauvinist, racist initiative that contributes nothing and undermines basic rights, but it has supported part of it simply to oppose the Spanish national government [led by the PSOE] and to foreground the issue of ‘families’ once again,” said Mercedes Gámez, equality secretary of the PSOE in Andalucía.

Vox, the PP and the Andalucían Junta did not respond to requests for interviews from openDemocracy.

Normalisation of xenophobia

For Seville’s Women Survivors, there are other consequences of the rise of the far right in Andalucía. “Vehicles have driven past our office on three occasions with people shouting ‘fucking South American trash, go back to your own country’. They threw a brick through a window, and painted swastikas on the building,” said Mexican historian Antonia Ávalos. She founded the organisation in 2013, after fleeing gender violence in Mexico to live in Spain.

“When Vox came to Andalucía, people stopped being ashamed to say things that had been politically incorrect until then, such as referring to migrants or racialised people in racist ways,” she said.

Sandra Heredia, a Roma activist and councillor for the left-wing Adelante Andalucia party in Seville, said that racism was “already in the streets, but it didn’t have a party giving it a voice in Parliament. Now that it does, hate speech is accommodated within public institutions”.

Gender “is fundamental to Vox in its definition as the defender of the traditional values of the average Spaniard,” according to Julia Espinosa, a University of Seville sociology professor specialising in gender equality and the radical populist right. “It is a response to the feminist movement. For them, the only gender issues in Spain relate to Muslim women, and this helps them to build an electoral base on the concept of what it essentially means to be Spanish.”

Andalucía was ahead of the game on gender equality in Spain. It’s had a trans rights law since 2014, while a similar law for the whole of Spain was only approved by Congress a month ago, after long and bitter debate.

“The problem is the PSOE has failed to show the outcomes of progress made towards equality, and Vox has taken advantage of this fact to claim they are wasting good money on ridiculous policies,” Espinosa said.

When PP leader Juan Maneul Moreno was being sworn in as president of the Andalucían government in 2019, thousands of feminists demonstrated in front of the parliament building with one message: “No backtracking on equality.” But now there isn’t a united response from Andalucían feminist movements to the extreme right, according to everyone interviewed by openDemocracy.

According to Espinosa, the distance between grassroots feminist groups and public institutions is key in explaining the lack of a united response to Vox in the region. “Most feminism is not involved in mainstream politics; it is taking place in the streets,” she said.

Vox’s appeal to youth

Back at Seville’s Women Survivors, the community kitchen has closed for the day, but visitors are still arriving. A small group of high-school students are sitting on the plant-filled patio.

One of them, 16-year-old Rodrigo*, finds feminism confusing: “There are some very strong statements being made out on the street, saying that men are totally evil.”

The latest youth and gender survey from the Centro Reina Sofia youth research centre shows a hike in the percentage of males aged 15 to 29 who believe that gender violence is an “ideological invention” – from 11.9% in 2019 to 20% in 2021.

Journalist Isabel Morillo, who has frequently covered Vox meetings, said: “It’s incredible how many young people attend [Vox events] – it’s become fashionable.”

Nuria Alabao, a journalist specialising in feminism, said: “Young people identify anti-feminist positions as anti-establishment, as resistance against what they see as the power.”

Juan Antonio González, a teacher and equality coordinator at a high school in Seville, has noted an increase in “anti-establishment attitudes” in the workshops he organises. He says concepts that were previously accepted as mainstream – the idea, for instance, that being controlling in a relationship is a form of violence – are now once again being challenged. “We are also seeing more aggression, especially among the younger boys,” he added.

For many of the activists interviewed, the response to the extreme right lies in their daily work. “We resist through spaces like this – we support each other when complaints are lodged, evictions are made, or whatever,” says Silvia Talavera, a 22-year-old volunteer with Women Survivors.

As evening falls, Casa Grande has emptied of visitors, but she and the other volunteers still have work to do. Two young Iranian women arrive wanting to raise awareness of women’s struggles in their country. Later, Talavera will work on the group’s fanzine ‘La Tribu’ (‘The Tribe’) because “we want to keep spaces open for us to share our wisdoms and feelings."

Translated by Sarah Bawa Mason

* Some names have been changed

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