Santiago Abascal, leader of Spain's far-right party Vox | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Imags
MADRID — There's a new force in Spanish politics and it has its sights set on women's rights.
Support for feminism has snowballed in recent years, but now there's a backlash led by the far-right Vox party, whose success in a regional election in Andalusia has propelled it into the mainstream.
The party recently posted a video online that shows women’s rights activists shouting "abortion is sacred" in the parliament and a politician from the leftist Podemos party bemoaning the situation of women in modern Spain and their vulnerability to violence at the hands of men. After each clip, female Vox supporters respond by saying: “Don’t speak on my behalf.” The video ends with the words: “I am a woman and I don’t want your ideological burqa.”
Andalusia has become the epicenter of Spain’s gender debate. For the first time in 37 years, the Socialists are not in power in the southern region, replaced by a right-leaning coalition of the Popular Party (PP) and Ciudadanos that has the support of Vox, which made a battle against what it calls “supremacist feminism” a key part of its electoral campaign. Vox’s leading candidate in the Andalusian election, Francisco Serrano, complained about being the victim of “gender jihadism.”
Last week, feminist groups staged demonstrations outside the Andalusian parliament as the new administration was sworn in. “No governing pact should undo what we have achieved together and with so much effort,” read a statement issued by groups involved in the protest.
In post-electoral negotiations, the PP rejected Vox’s demands for funding to be withdrawn from women’s groups and legislation protecting women from gender violence to be revised. However, Vox entering the political mainstream has alarmed feminist campaigners, who fear that the far-right party’s influence is spreading.
The campaign for gender equality in Spain has come a long way in a short time.
Under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco, women’s rights were stripped away, with a married woman requiring the permission of her husband in order to open a bank account or obtain a passport.
Women during a women's demonstration against the far-right party Vox in Barcelona | Josep Lago/AFP via Getty Images
The arrival of democracy and the 1978 constitution legally enshrined women’s right to equality, laying the foundations for four decades of substantial, albeit sporadic, progress. A 2017 European Commission report found that Spain performed credibly compared with its EU neighbors in areas such as the proportion of women in the national and regional parliaments and the gender pay gap. The arrival of the Socialist Pedro Sánchez as prime minister in June 2018 saw what was billed as the developed world’s most feminist Cabinet, with women filling two-thirds of senior ministerial posts.
Feminism has also become more visible on the street. On International Women’s Day on March 8 last year, Spain saw a bigger response than most countries. As well as demonstrations across the country, many women downed tools for the day as part of a strike.
A notorious sex crime and its fallout have been key in galvanizing such support. Last year, a group of five men went on trial for allegedly gang-raping an 18-year-old woman during the Running of the Bulls festival in Pamplona in the summer of 2016. The defendants, known as the Manada, — or “wolf pack” — were all given nine-year jail sentences for sexual abuse but were absolved of rape, triggering widespread outrage and a wave of demonstrations against the judiciary.
Vox’s crusade against political correctness appears to have encouraged others to speak in similar terms.
That case came to light as a ground-breaking, cross-party agreement was being drawn up to counter gender violence. Despite all the moves toward equality in Spain in recent years, the high number of deaths of women at the hands of their partners or ex-partners has been a major problem. The new accord, approved in the fall of 2017, suggested that Spain’s main parties were united when it came to gender equality.
But now Vox has become a political force. Its leader, Santiago Abascal, has attributed much of the recent success of his party to the fact that it has fought such trends and “rebelled against the politically correct.” In particular, he is waging a campaign against what he sees as the criminalizing of men by former partners who falsely accuse them of violence. Abascal has claimed that 87 percent of accusations by women against men for alleged violence are dropped, suggesting many of them are false.
Judicial experts have undermined those claims, pointing out that such data is not available and that the dropping of a case does not necessarily mean it is false. The legal system’s high prosecution rate tells a different story to Abascal’s assertion, with 72 percent of gender violence cases brought by women in the third quarter of 2018 leading to guilty verdicts.
New Andalusian President Juanma Moreno, right, with regional Vox leader Francisco Serrano | Cristina Quicler/AFP via Getty Images
Iván Espinosa, Vox’s head of international relations, acknowledges that his party is breaking the national consensus on the gender issue.
Radical feminism, he said, is “installing fear in anybody who dares to even question this whole mantra — it’s like a religion: You can’t question it because you’re considered a male chauvinist, a fascist, a radical right-winger.”
Moving into the mainstream
Vox’s crusade against political correctness appears to have encouraged others to speak in similar terms. Public figures, media commentators and senior members of the Catholic Church have joined the backlash. The archbishop of Seville, Juan José Asenjo, has said that radical feminism is “inflated with supremacism, resentment and gender ideology, with unmistakably Marxist origins.”
This has put the PP in an awkward position. It insists that it never even considered Vox’s demands to roll back measures and funds aimed at supporting women and LGBT groups when negotiating with the party in Andalusia. However, PP national leader Pablo Casado has appeared to drift into Vox territory, including by highlighting that a quarter of those who suffer violence in the home are not women.
In addition, one of his party’s senior spokeswomen, Isabel Díaz Ayuso, recently declared that she is “in favor of breaking the dictatorship of radical feminists” and, echoing Vox, warned against criminalizing men in gender violence cases.
A protest against Vox in Madrid | Gabriel Bouys/AFP via Getty Images
Vox’s Espinosa said his party should take the credit for the way the debate has developed.
“Things are changing very quickly as we speak,” he said. “That’s not because the PP wants them to, it’s because we’re forcing them into this.”
But the PP’s ambiguous stance on the gender debate has triggered internal dissent. Several senior PP politicians have appeared uncomfortable at the hard line taken by Casado and Díaz Ayuso, warning about the perils of using the debate for political ends.
Marta González, a PP congresswoman who handles equality issues, seemed genuinely repelled by Vox’s stance. Nonetheless, she accused some of her leftist adversaries of trying to hijack the feminist cause.
A demonstration called by Vox against Catalan separatists | Oscar del Pozo/AFP via Getty Images
“I don’t think it’s a problem in terms of feminism as a doctrine or school of thought,” she said. “But certain political parties do manipulate some feminist organizations.”
It’s no coincidence that Spain’s feminist resurgence has coincided with the arrival of the leftist Podemos, which has many prominent female leaders and has made women’s rights a priority. “Feminist men are better in bed,” party leader Pablo Iglesias told an interviewer recently, as he started a three-month paternity leave to look after his baby twins.
Sofía Castañón, a Podemos congresswoman who represents the party on feminist issues, said that by pandering to Vox and its voters, the PP is in danger of destroying a consensus that it helped to build. However, she is confident that Spain’s feminist momentum will continue.
“Every time women’s rights have moved forward they have had to face resistance,” she said. “We have made a lot of progress and I understand that this makes those who don’t believe in democracy and equality nervous, but they are a minority.”
This spring, the resilience of Spain’s feminist campaign is likely to be tested. In May, local elections will be held across the country after which Vox could be instrumental in forming new regional governments. If so, its rebellion against the prevailing winds of gender politics will almost certainly be firmly on the table.