The General Secretary of Podemos, Pablo Iglesias, wrote in April 2014 on Twitter that positive discrimination in favour of women is a mechanism whereby women get back through the law that which a macho society has taken from them; a comment that may have led many to believe that Podemos, the new left-wing party in Spain, was in favour of positive discrimination for women.
Less than a year later in February 2015, results in the primaries for the Autonomous Elections, to be held in May this year, show that of the seventeen Podemos candidates for Regional General Secretary, one for each of the seventeen regions, thirteen are men. The voters, signed up members of the Podemos circles, had to choose between thirty four candidates in each region, seventeen women and seventeen men, equal numbers to their credit, being part of the rules set up for choosing candidates. However the Podemos voters assigned 76% of the top positions in the regions to be fought for in the elections by men. These positions are immensely powerful. General Secretaries and Presidents of the autonomous regions are described in the established parties as “the barons” of the political scenario. If Podemos were to win in all the regional elections with this same proportion of men to women, it would appear that the new party will have done little to create conditions for women to emerge as political leaders.
The Podemos platform includes the creation of a public bank, restructuring debt, a shorter working week and an increase in public spending, just for starters and most importantly, wants to focus on a form of direct democracy which allows for far greater participation of the electorate in the development of their programme than exists in the traditional parties.
The circles of debate and discussion are open to all and are where the arguments are hammered out. “Los Circulos Feminismos”, (Feminist Circles) opened in September 2014 in response to demand and set up specifically to sort out issues that concerned women. A man describing himself as a militant in the Podemos Feminist circles in Madrid and writing in the magazine Pikara, admits to Podemos having got off the ground slowly on feminist issues, but points to “guiños” (literally “winks”), or a nod in the direction of feminism in speeches by Juan Carlos Monedero, one of the male leaders of the party. It is unlikely that Spanish feminists are going to be satisfied with “winks” in their direction, or that “winks” or nods will be sufficient to ensure a new politics that takes women’s rights into serious account.
And it is not just the men: the number 4 in the Podemos leadership, Carolina Bescansa, and one of only two women at the top level, when asked why the right to a free and legal abortion had stopped being expressly advocated by Podemos said that abortion was not a priority for the party.
Since for many women the right to control their own bodies is fundamental, and a priority, in their fight for equal rights, her comment was not well received. It is a puzzling position to take, for a so-called revolutionary party, and for the many women who remember the bitter fight in the 80’s to get a minimal abortion law through the first socialist government in Spain.
Although Podemos seems to have been able to connect with a wide range of political opinion, the polls indicate support comes more from people disaffected with the current political scene, rather than supporters of their programmes. That can create a problem where the electorate may not share the values of the leadership in a society where equality between women and men is still a long way from reality and there is no evidence that it is seen as an important social issue. In the regular and respected Centre for Sociological Investigation opinion polls, eagerly awaited by the media, there are no questions relating to the electorate’s views on equal opportunity and women’s right. There is a section that asks the respondents what they consider to be the top three problems facing Spain: with prompted questions on unemployment, rated by 76% as in the top three, corruption and fraud, 62%, the economy and much more. There are two prompts which mention women: the first “the problems associated with women” which gets a nil importance rating perhaps due to incomprehension on the part of the respondents, and the other is “violence against women” which gets an importance rating of 0.4 on average, around the bottom of the range; not a high level of interest in “problems associated with women”.
There is no prompted question on “problems associated with men”
The notion that true democracy cannot be achieved without equal opportunities for women as well as men, postulated by the left, and indeed originally by Podemos has apparently been thrown out and is no longer part of the discussion as the new party programme develops. The disappointments for women accumulate. To take just three very different examples that are of major concern to women which either have no programmes in the Podemos published information to date, or have only a sketchy reference. There are no details in the section on equality about how to dismantle the steel ceiling that stops women from achieving executive jobs in the society in spite of the fact that more women leave university with better qualifications than men. There are no major programmes detailed on how to combat the horrendous figures of violence against women, which one might assume would be at the top of any revolutionary government’s agenda, nor how to deal with the high levels of sexual abuse of children within the family in which Spain has one of the highest rates recorded in Europe.
Abortion is not mentioned specifically in the programme, the word has been deleted, although it appeared in the original European Election Programme. Violence against women is treated in a section dealing with the rights of women, lesbian, gay and transsexual members of the electorate, underlining the sense that the core of the programme refers to heterosexual men. Their economic programme has a lot more to say about changes for men than any specific plans directed at women. These are subtle, but they are changes towards a centre politics and away from “the revolution” with women’s rights being marginalised.
Why is this such a bumpy road? Apart from the possible explanation that Podemos is just another socialist male club and equal opportunities for women is, as before, an add on, it may be that the new party is understandably fearful of alienating the electorate, in view of what happened to the last Socialist Government under José Luis Rodrigues Zapatero, 2004 to 2011. That was a Government that openly supported the rights of women, appointing equal numbers of men and women to the Cabinet in 2004 and creating a Ministry for Equality in 2008. They created new laws and specialist courts on gender violence, legalization of same sex marriage, the most liberal abortion law in Europe, gender mainstreaming in all public organizations, and a new powerful dependency law to give jobs and status to the millions of women who acted as carers of the dependent without the most minimal recognition. It was a revolutionary step forward for women.
Most of those programmes are now being dismantled by the current Conservative Government, one of the classic effects of a bi-partisan political system which in reality simply means governments taking turns to destroy the changes the previous government imposed. Perhaps Podemos understands only too well that the final failure of the Zapatero Government was its inability to change attitudes and that its openly stated stance on women’s rights had zero support from the electorate. Podemos is not standing openly in favour of policies that many feminists have made clear are essential: that it is the way society functions, by marginalising and silencing women in the belief that men’s contributions are intrinsically more valuable, that has to be changed if gender equality is to be achieved.
If a reporter from Mars who had just landed were to hear any one of the top half-dozen “faces” of Podemos defining what the new politics could do for Spain she/he could be forgiven for thinking that either the society was made up of only one sex, or if more than one, the only inequality based on gender was that 51% (women) were paid less than 49% (men) for identical tasks. The same Martian reporter might then discover, by chance, that in Spain more than one woman is killed every week by a known male aggressor, up to 60 a year according to recent figures and even more in the past.
Where are the plans to make it possible for women to achieve truly equal opportunities in a society where sexist notions of femininity and its limitations continue to restrict the lives of most women in Spanish society? Women do not receive equal pay for equal work, do not receive the same pensions, do not have access to positions of power in the same ratio as men, are not safe in their own homes, are still expected to be housewives teachers or nurses rather than astronauts or political and business leaders.
Some women make it through, but the results of the coming general elections late this year, can, it seems, only mean at best a nod in their direction in the struggle for equality of opportunity and equal rights. The reconstruction of society to eliminate women’s secondary status in relation to men may indeed still be some time in coming, but it is beginning to look as if Podemos has already thrown in that particular towel.