Feminism in the spotlight: The impact of social and political tension around the pandemic on International Women’s Day

Right-wing politicians attack International Women’s Day protest rallies, which will be very different this year because of the restrictions in place due to the global pandemic and because of dissension within Left-wing parties and feminist groups.

A year after the controversy caused by right and far-right parties due to their criticism of last year’s International Women’s Day’s protests, held on 8th March days before the health emergency was announced, feminism returns to the public eye. The same parties who remained silent while other demonstrations and protests took place, like those against the ‘Celaá-Law’[1]  or the rallies against government measures to curb the virus (sometimes without respecting minimum covid-19 prevention measures), are once again raising their voices when it comes to taking to the street to defend women’s rights.

In addition to criticism from right – wing politicians, some members of Cabinet have sent warning messages. The Minister of Health and member of the Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party, Carolina Darias has stated that the International Women’s Day rallies do not have a place this year given the current pandemic. Darias’ views contrast with epidemiologist Fernando Simón, who pointed out that ‘being under a 2,000 kg float, carried by large numbers of people, during Holy Week celebrations is not the same as a protest of 500 where people can spread out’.

Political representatives and analysts from all parties have been exchanging arguments for and against these rallies for days. Feminist organisations consider these protests key to continue progressing in the area of gender equality and in fighting violence against women, but the focus of the debate is on the current limitations on public gatherings, as a result of the pandemic, rather than on the causes that drive hundreds of thousands of women to protest each year. However, feminist organisations are clear that it is still key ‘to occupy public spaces’ and ‘to take to the streets’ especially after the pandemic has spotlighted and deepened ‘the gaps and inequalities between genders’, particularly regarding the wellbeing of women and violence against women, two of the key themes of this year’s campaigns.

The government representative against gender violence, Victoria Rosell, recently reflected in an interview that the Constitutional Court has already ruled that ‘the street is a space for political participation not just for controlling and policing traffic. In this country, rights have been won in the streets, too.’

The long responses and counter-responses as to whether the rallies called by various feminist groups throughout Spain should be held has once again reached a climax with the words of the president of the Madrid Regional Government and member of the right-wing Partido Popular, Isabel Ayuso. She has declared that the celebration of last year ‘stopped being International Women’s Day and instead witnessed a day of infection among women’. According to Rosell, these words ‘discredit those who utter them’. In her opinion it is ‘truly an attack against International Women’s Day’ by those who ‘would attempt to boycott it with or without a pandemic’.

‘Taking to the streets is non-negotiable’

8M Commission

Although the mass demonstrations of recent years will not be repeated on 8th March this year, there will be rallies held across the length and breadth of the country. The 8M commission, the national working group that organises the peaceful annual demonstrations, recently stated that ‘taking to the streets is non-negotiable’. Feminist organisations this year are supporting decentralised demonstrations with a limited capacity, negotiated with government delegations and in line with health recommendations to ensure that the events are safe in the current context of the pandemic. Because of this, focus will be placed on mobilisations in urban neighbourhoods and villages, rallies with limited numbers of people and events that can take place from balconies and private spaces.

Nor will it be a univocal movement. This year’s feminist celebration will also be marked by a climate of evident social and political disagreement over the legislation of some key issues in relation to equality. Among the main disagreements of the last few weeks has been Minister Irene Montero’s wish for the Council of Ministers to approve the draft bill for ‘la Igualdad Real y Efectiva de las Personas Trans[2] (True and Effective Equality of Trans People), an initiative that her PSOE[3] government partners curbed from the Palace of Moncloa[4]. They argued that the bill was not a government proposal but a draft from the Ministry of Equality that still needed contributions from different ministries to be added.

Disagreement within the feminist movement itself has led to various collectives holding separate independent demonstrations to mark the 8th of March this year. In Madrid, for example, the 8M Commission has organized four rallies with a maximum capacity of 500 people to take place in the different squares of the capital on 8th March. Under the shared slogan ‘in the face of social emergency, feminism is essential’, each of the rallies will have a specific focus: care, public services and job insecurity, sexist violence, diversity, anti-racism and the climate emergency.

The 8th March Feminist Movement in Madrid, made up of more than 350 grassroots feminist organisations, has called for various events throughout the week, which will culminate in a rally in the Plaza de Callao, in the city centre with capacity restricted to 250 registered participants. Under the slogan ‘Feminist women fighting for gender equality’, they will stand against the latest draft bills promoted by the Ministry of Equality.

The various collectives are playing down the level of potential conflict and affirm that regardless of whether separate events are organised the important thing is to take to the streets in order to advance women’s rights. According to the 8th March International Women’s Day Movement of Madrid, ‘The key is to show that the movement has strength’ .

All agree that the key to the battle, is to further women’s rights, many of which have been set back during the pandemic, and to counteract the voices of the far-right who are targeting the rights of women and the LGBT population.

[1] Celáa Law: an education law named after Isabel Celáa, minister of Education and member of the Socialist Party of the Basque Country.

[2] Known as ‘lael ley trans’, a draft bill put forward by the coalition government of Unidos Podemos and PSOE.  The draft of the law allows free gender self-determination, which means that anyone can change their name and sex in the civil registry with only an expressed declaration from the age of 16, the recognition of non-binary identities and the possibility of eliminating a person’s sex in their official documents.

[3] Partido Socialista Obrero Espanol: Spanish Socialist Worker’s Party

[4] The Palace of Moncloa is the home and workplace of the Spanish Prime Minister. It is located in Madrid