The increasing demands of secessionist Catalan movements for independence, the unforeseen arrival of the far-right party VOX, and the recent overthrow of Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy of the conservative Partido Popular (PP) and his brief replacement by Pedro Sanchez from the socialist Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE), are factors contributing to the current unprecedented political instability in Spain.
Within Catalonia itself a struggle is taking place between its main political actors regarding its relation to the rest of Spain.
Beyond pro-independence and radical nationalist parties, other actors and political parties are heavily conditioned by the independence debate, an issue that is overshadowing any other in the region.
Although the commitment of the current Catalan government and various civil society organizations towards mainstreaming feminist concerns in Catalan politics is laudable, the recent fusing together of pro-independence movements and feminism requires a careful reading.
The “Feminist Republic” and the “Catalan Republic”, as they have been jointly sported on banners in recent pro-independence and feminist demonstrations, are a guarantee of nothing in themselves.
The pro-independence movement, backed by the Catalan government and its public media (mostly TV and radio but also heavily subsidised newspapers) has been gradually co-opting most of Catalan civil society.
Two organizations in particular have been at the forefront and have actively promoted the cause: the Catalan National Assembly and Òmnium Cultural. They enjoy governmental favour, and are able to raise substantial resources for promoting their agendas and mobilising their constituencies.
Divisions across territorial lines will naturally compromise the unity of feminist movements and jeopardise cross-regional solidarity due to the fact that feminism as an ideology is not geographical in nature.
In contrast, those that do not abide by secessionist ideas have no political allies in positions of power, and have limited agency. This has created an uneven playing field between the pro and anti-independence factions, a factor that has further polarised an already divided Catalan society.
The concept of a ‘Feminist Republic’, that has been recently raised along with the ‘Catalan Republic’, needs to be carefully understood in this context.
Surveys looking at the participation of women’s organisations before the first Catalan pro-independence popular mobilisation in the form of informal consultation, misleadingly called “referendum” in 2014, have shown that the involvement of women’s groups on the issue of independence was very low. Right before that “referendum”, only one autonomous feminist group called ‘Feministes per la Independència’ (Feminists for Independence) mobilised for the occasion.
Feminism and nationalism: an unlikely pairing?
Many scholars, such as Sara R. Farris who also coined the term ‘femonationalism’, have pointed out the risks that contexts of territorial identities and radical nationalist ideas represent for feminist concerns. Divisions across territorial lines will naturally compromise the unity of feminist movements and jeopardise cross-regional solidarity due to the fact that feminism as an ideology is not geographical in nature.
During Spain’s democratic transition (1975-1978) and after Franco’s death, many feminist groups attempted to create a discussion regarding gender and what the newly democratic Spain should look like. The Basque and Catalan territories however, two feminist strongholds, remained mostly tied to their nationalist parties.
The overall issue with joining feminism and nationalism together is nationalism’s inherently exclusive character. As an ideology it presupposes the existence of a difference between ‘us’ - the nation - and ‘them’, the others, against which it constantly needs to reassert itself.
Therefore, feminist nationalism cannot be inclusive of all women, as it will inevitably exclude those women who are not seen to be part of the nation state that is being fought for.
Likewise, patriarchy is based on distinctions between groups on the basis of their alleged gender differences and posits men above women.
A patriarchal society is a structure in which men hold the power. In nationalist political programmes, which often include patriarchal ideas, women usually take on the symbolic role as reproducers of a nation’s identity. National symbols and the overall practice of nation-building takes precedence over the fight for gender equality, endangering the feminist cause.
Feminism in Catalonia and beyond
The Spanish feminist movement has been a de-centralised phenomenon from the beginning. As an autonomous region, Catalonia has been a pioneer in promoting gender equality but other groups pushing for women’s rights in the Basque Country, Andalusia and many other regions in Spain have also had a significant impact on changing Spain’s overall laws with regards to gender equality.
A highly decentralised Spanish political system makes the central government extremely vulnerable to regional competition, creating multi-level opportunities for gender equality policies to grow.
While Catalonia has been at the forefront when it comes to the implementation of relevant policy instruments, the Basque Equality Act still represents the most comprehensive plan for achieving gender equality in Spain.
A good example is the introduction of participatory councils that would foster women’s participation in the drafting of equality policies. In 1989, Catalonia was the first region to form such a participatory structure and during the 1990s and 2000s, almost all regions set-up similar councils. The central government was late on setting-up the equivalent National Women’s Council, which only arrived in 2010.
The Basque country was also at the forefront of the feminist agenda. While Catalonia has been at the forefront when it comes to the implementation of relevant policy instruments, the Basque Equality Act still represents the most comprehensive plan for achieving gender equality in Spain.
Thus, Spain’s regions have had a positive influence on Spanish legislation on gender equality as a whole. While this is definitely noteworthy, it has also led to a series of ‘patchwork’ policies - an incongruous mix of measures that vary across Spain’s different regions - as dubbed by Alba Alonso and Tania Verge. What is still needed, apart from regional incentives and bottom-up action, therefore, is a concise overall national policy on gender equality.
In 2013, the government of Prime Minister Rajoy tried to pass ‘The Bill on the Protection of Life of the Unborn and the Rights of Pregnant Women’, which would significantly restrict access to abortion for Spanish women.
However, a huge campaign against the bill was coordinated across the country, unifying an otherwise decentralised and fragmented movement. In that same year, as a consequence, the National Coordination Group of Feminist Organisations became operative again, while in Madrid the first nationwide demonstration against the issue took place. It was the first of this kind in decades.
Spanish feminist organisations have traditionally advocated for changes in gender laws, targeting the local, regional or national level. On the issue of reproductive rights - a policy in the hands of the central government - feminists targeted their campaigns at Madrid. During periods of conservative rule, feminist organisations found the central government to be quite dismissive of their demands, and thus shifted their campaigning to the regional level.
Indeed, studies have found that, when the PSOE held political power (1982-1996 and 2004-2011), gender equality policies have generally advanced. The party’s feminist agenda and the important role played by the feminist movement within it have been able to get their ideas through.
Between 1996 and 2003, however, out of the five bills that were presented in the Spanish Parliament by progressive constituencies regarding gender quota adoptions, all were either not discussed or rejected due to the opposition of the conservative PP.
A combination of conservative party rule and austerity policies, which significantly lowered funding for feminist organisations and reintroduced a more conservative understanding of gender relations, have unfortunately had a negative impact on the provision of gender equality across the country.
The solution to this does not lie in independence however; rather, it calls for a much needed political reconfiguration of the country.
What the Spanish experience shows is the power of sorority, which is essential to feminism’s goal of emancipation. Radical nationalist and separatist ideologies like those currently taking hold in Catalonia must not blind feminists. Instead, feminists should focus on mechanisms that would bring about gender equality for everyone, within and outside their autonomous regions.
While Catalan women shouldn’t have to wait for independence in order to improve their positions in society, their campaigns for gender equality must stand in solidarity with women living in regions that have not yet developed the same representational institutions which would fully guarantee their rights.
Perhaps, within the Spanish political system as a whole, feminism is in a crisis. This might not be a bad thing. Feminism in itself is about generating crisis. And perhaps this one, where the struggle with integration and disintegration is at stake, feminism represents the moment in which already de-constructed paradigms can be further de-constructed in order to create unity.
Independence by itself is not a guarantee of anything, but confrontation with fellow citizens within the region and in Spain as a whole will do little to improve gender equality.
This article has been produced in partnership with CIVICUS in the context of the International Civil Society Week conference 2019, held this year in Belgrade, Serbia.