I joined the International Women’s Day march in Valencia on Saturday night. Sources estimate between 10,000 and 20,000 people turned out for the event, from my perspective about 40 percent of those marching were men. Valencia is Spain’s third largest city, after Marid and Barcelona, where marches also took place. This day is usually a day of celebration of women in history and society as well as a chance to draw some attention back to the gender inequalities still present in work and pay. However, yesterday’s event also provided an opportunity to demonstrate the anger and exasperation building up around the new anti-abortion law being carried through the Spanish parliament by the conservative Partido Popular.
The proposal would overturn a very recent law (2010) that legalises abortion on demand in the first trimester, meaning that rape or a serious threat to the woman’s health – currently the conditions for abortion in the second trimester – would have to be proven by anyone seeking an abortion. I have read that somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of the Spanish people oppose this bill. I’m not sure how accurate that is but the big turnout across Spanish cities for what is normally a fun family event was telling. The day before the protests I attended an assembly of women from the trade union Comisiones Obreras. The hall was filled with about 200 women and was brimming with anger. In one of the opening speeches tribute was paid to a lady called Concha Carretero who died on January 1st this year at the age of 95. Carretero’s story, as I grasped it in my broken Spanish, reminds me of the potency behind the word often used at Spanish protests – indignada.
Carretero, born in 1918, was first imprisoned when Franco’s army entered Madrid in 1939. Arrested after attending a meeting of the Juventudes Socialistas Unificadas (United Socialist Youth) on her first night in prison, she was beaten and electrocuted and made to clean up the blood of her fellow captives. Lying unconscious after a beating on the night of August 4th, 1939 her cellmates, thirteen women, were taken and executed by firing squad. Almost a year later, Carretero was released only to be quickly re-arrested. This time she avoided freezing to death when stripped naked and doused in buckets of cold water by exercising all night in her cell. By then Carretero’s father, an anarchist, had been found dead on the street, and her mother, who had suffered a serious injury when a lift fell on top of her while cleaning in the dark shaft, slept unbeknownst to her daughter under the archways of the prison where she was held. Not long after her release Carretero’s husband and father of her first child was arrested and shot by firing squad. Carretero’s crime had been her involvement and work with the Republican army, making clothes and minding the children of men and women on the front during the Civil War. But more than that it had been to dare challenge the might and divine authority of fascist Spain. Going on to re-marry and have five more children, Carretero attended the Almudena cemetery in Madrid every year to mark the anniversary of the execution of her thirteen cell mates, the Thirteen Roses, and every year she called for the “Third Republic”. (Further info here: Fallece Concha Carretero, compañera de las trece rosas rojas, by Gustavo Vidal Manzanares, nuevatribuna.es).
The thread of Carretero’s life running from 1918 to 2014 ties Saturday’s protests into a bitter continuum and links today’s abortion debates to unfinished battles. Listening to the language used by Spanish politicians is to acknowledge that the Civil War and the Dictatorship are not distant memories here. The constant references to ‘democracy’ and ‘rule of law’ at press conferences and parliamentary debates ring more like subtle threats and hints at their alternatives than statements of fact. Moreover, to push through a law that will almost certainly send the vast numbers disaffected voters rushing to the polling booths to get rid of the government, seems a strangely suicidal move by the Partido Popular, even separating the old guard from younger conservatives.
On Thursday a Spanish bishop said that abortions in Spain since 1985 had caused more ‘deaths’ than the Spanish Civil War, calling it a “silent holocaust”. But using language like this gives the game away. Women ovulate once a month for about forty years, a woman could get pregnant every nine months for decades. Of course prevention is better, but its not prefect. So occasionally a single teenage girl or a married mother of four is going to have to terminate an unwanted pregnancy. To accuse women who refuse to become baby mills of perpetrating a holocaust is an unforgivable act for many people of both sides of the camp in Spain. Figures here show that during this period of economic recession birth rates have gone down, indicating that women make decisions on what they believe they can afford to do. Many women are asking themselves ‘can I really feed and cloth another child?’ and finding the answer is no. To take the option of abortion away from women in emergency situations, at a time when jobs are few (a quarter of the population are unemployed) and when social security for an unemployed mother works out at about 400 euro a month for rent, bills, food etc., can only be described as a merciless attack.
It also unveils the paranoia and megalomania stalking the ultra-conservative rump within Spain’s ruling elite, as convinced as ever that its own power and perspective is somehow the only way and must be forced on an unwilling population. Recently this rump has made itself more visible, and serves as a reminder of the forces that turned violently oppressive during and after the Civil War. But Spain’s traditional left looms large, if somewhat weary of political corruption and disappointment. On topics like abortion the PP are really touching a nerve and opponents of this legislation do not need the discredited socialist party PSOE to mediate this debate for them, the bishops and ultra-conservatives are bringing it right into peoples homes; and the people, especially the women won’t let this one go without a fight.
For more info on social security in Spain.