Clara Isabel Girón Pacheco
On the 11th of March 2020, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. By this date, the number of confirmed COVID-19 global cases had surpassed 100.000 and Europe had become the epicentre of the pandemic. Spain subsequently became one of the main European hotspots of the virus. By the 15th of December 2020, Spain counted with over 48 thousand deaths related to COVID-19, situating it as the fourth European country with the most COVID-19 related deaths, only preceded by Italy, the United Kingdom and France.
On the weekend of the 7th and 8th of March 2020, alike any other weekend previous to that date, millions of people in Spain travelled on public transport, went to bars, restaurants, concerts, sporting events, political rallies etc. Additionally, on Sunday the 8th, on International Women´s Day, tens of thousands of people took to the streets to participate in marches across the country to protest against gender violence, the gender wage gap and the burden of non-remunerated work, amongst other issues. At that time, and for many weeks after, the use of a face mask was not advised, and the Spanish government, following the World Health Organisation´s guidelines, recommended basic hygiene measures as protective actions against the coronavirus. Likewise, no regulations or restrictions were put in place, the only exception being that soccer matches played with teams that came from the most COVID-19 affected areas (at that time referring mainly to the north of Italy) were to be held behind closed doors without a live audience. It is safe to say that daily life remained largely unaltered. However, the false sense of normalcy witnessed that infamous weekend did not last long.
Following the rapid increase of COVID-19 cases in Spain in the subsequent days, which led to the declaration of a state of emergency and one of the harshest initial lockdowns worldwide, Spanish media, prompted by the more conservative and right-wing factions of the Spanish political spectrum, proceeded to vilify and blame the International Women´s Day marches as guilty of the accelerated speed in which the virus was expanding throughout the country. It is interesting to note that the some of the voices which were at that time vehemently criticising the calling and organising of the feminist marches, had been spreading (and continue to do so today) denial and scepticism in the media in regards to COVID-19 and the protective measures, equating it frequently to the common flu. Furthermore, on that same weekend, Vox, the Spanish far-right party, had celebrated its annual rally in Madrid, indoors with thousands of supporters.
The aim of this article is not to justify the celebration of the feminist marches on the 8th of March 2020, nor do I aspire to support or legitimise the Spanish government´s decisions and measures regarding COVID-19, instead I wish to shed light on how the Spanish feminist movement was used as a scapegoat during the initial days of one of Spain´s most important security crises.
In the last couple of years, in particular since 2018, Spain´s feminist movement has gained much momentum and strength, leading to successful marches and protests throughout the country which would culminate yearly on the 8th of March with the International Women´s Day demonstrations. In 2018, Spain made international headlines with its historic and unprecedented 24-hour strike and impressive street protests which targeted gender inequality and sexual discrimination. In 2019, the demonstration turnout was equally notable, achieving greater crowds in most Spanish cities and more than doubling from 170,000 to 375,000 attendees in Madrid. In 2020, as a result of the increasing fears of the slinking COVID-19 pandemic, the turnout significantly lowered, 120,000 people attending in Madrid and 50,000 people in Barcelona instead of the 200,000 attendees of previous years. Nonetheless, crowd numbers continued to be high.
The rise of feminism in Spain has developed in parallel to the various high profile violent crimes committed against women and girls in the last years which created outrage throughout the country. The rape trial of the “manada” (“wolf-pack”) has been notoriously the most influential. The infuriating and revolting law verdict which acquitted the five men of rape galvanised women throughout the country and unearthed the deep misogynistic culture present in Spanish society and the Spanish judicial system.
On a personal note, as a participant in the 2018 and 2019 8th of March demonstrations of Madrid, the power that emanated from chants such as “¡Sola, borracha, quiero llegar a casa!” (Alone, drunk, I want to get home), “! Tranquila, hermana, ¡esta es tu manada!” (Keep calm, sister, this is your wolf pack), or “! No estamos todas, faltan las asesinadas!” (Not all of us are here, the murdered women are missing), felt at the very least intoxicating.
Bitterly, this prominent legal case has also become a rallying point for the far-right as a reactionary counter-movement of people who feel threatened by what is described as “radical feminism”. Feminism and women´s rights became therefore key issues in the context of the Spanish General Elections of April 2019, later repeated in November of that same year. The results of the Spanish General Elections were bittersweet for the feminist movement. Despite a left-wing governing coalition being now in power, Vox, became the third most voted party in Spain gaining impulse and legitimacy. The right-wing battle against feminism reached its pinnacle in the aftermath of the 8th of March 2020 protests.
The Feminist demonstrations on the 8th of March, during the first COVID-19 wave in Spain, became the symbol of the Spanish failure to manage the pandemic in the minds of many. Throughout social and mass media, images of the various protests were condemned and the marches were heavily criticised as representing arrogance and the prioritization of symbolic gestures over common sense. Furthermore, although social activities had not ceased until a state of alarm was activated on the 14th of March, the 8th of March protests were portrayed as the single most important contributor to the excruciatingly difficult situation that the Spanish population was suffering from. Although today experts agree that the various demonstrations which occurred on the 8th of March had a marginal impact on the way the COVID-19 pandemic evolved in Spain, for many months, the Spanish feminist movement was tarnished and marked by the deaths of thousands of people, polarizing Spain´s equality debate further, in an attempt to undermine the feminist movement as a whole.
These events are particularly discouraging as we witness women becoming significantly disadvantaged as a consequence of the COVID-19 health security crisis. In its annual report, the Banco de España warned in June that women and persons under 35 years were becoming the biggest victims of the economic consequences of the coronavirus crisis in Spain. Furthermore, a seroprevalence study presented recently by the Spanish Ministry of Health identified that being a female immigrant from a lower socioeconomic status substantially increases your chances of being infected of COVID-19. This group coincidently represents the bulk of essential domestic and care workers which have been unprotected throughout the crisis. Finally, it is no secret that the COVID-19 health crisis has been accompanied by a global increase in domestic violence. According to the data presented by the Spanish Government in September 2020, 14,040 arrests for crimes related to gender-based violence were made between the 14th of March and 21st of June 2020. Dismally, the very issues put forward on the 8th of March are today being exacerbated by the pandemic.
As we are slowly approaching the one-year anniversary of the declaration of the COVID-19 pandemic, we, as citizens, have comparatively much more information on the virus and its impact than we did in the early phases of the crisis, and can hence evaluate more effectively the actions taken as a response to the emergency of the coronavirus outbreak. Therefore, I wish to conclude this article by assessing the situation of the current public opinion regarding the issues put forward in this piece. In November 2020, I circulated a Spanish written voluntary questionnaire through social media (WhatsApp, Instagram, LinkedIn & Facebook) in which I inquired about people´s opinion concerning issues relating to the COVID-19 pandemic, the position of women in that context and the feminist demonstrations of the 8th of March 2020 in Spain. The survey was completed anonymously, the only conditions being that the participant had to either live in Spain or have Spanish nationality. In total, 180 people filled out the questionnaire, 135 women and 44 men, ranging from the ages of 16 to 70+ years. The most relevant results are shown in the annex found at the end of this article.
The results of the questionnaire exhibit that despite the incessant attempts to spoil the feminist movement in Spain, the majority of people which participated in the survey, continue to believe that feminism is relevant today, with only 12,2% of participants perceiving the feminist struggle as irrelevant. Similarly, more than 60% of participants observed that the social and economic situation of women in Spain had worsened since the birth of the pandemic.
Regarding the treatment of the 8th of March protests by the media, almost 70 % of the participants agreed that the role of the demonstrations in spreading the virus had been grossly exaggerated, and 58,7 % believing that the cancelling of the demonstrations would have not changed the course of the virus in Spain. Moreover, over 60 % of the participants believed that the 8th of March demonstrations and their relation to the spread of COVID-19 in Spain had been used as a political weapon against feminism. It is interesting to note that when approached with questions with only yes or no options as answers, such as this last one, those who had previously chosen not to voice their opinion or did not have a formed opinion, were more inclined to respond in line with the statement that the 8th of March demonstrations had strongly impacted the COVID-19 virus expansion in Spain.
Even though the public opinion continues to be heavily cleaved, in general, today the public does not believe that the 8th of March demonstrations were decisive in the rapid rise of COVID-19 cases in Spain. It is also important to note, that although I made an effort to include as many voices as possible in the questionnaire, 75 % of the participants were women and 47,2% were in the 16 to 20 age range, possibly distorting the overall results. Nonetheless, the fact that the young female population of Spain is concerned with feminism and is not influenced by right-wing anti-feminist propaganda can only lead to a hopeful feminist future. During crises, such as periods of post-conflict reconstruction, gender equality is seldom a priority. During the initial Spanish response against COVID-19, not only was gender equality not a priority, but it was used as a scapegoat during the early stages of the crisis. What is more, the crisis was used as a political opportunity to undermine the Spanish feminist movement, which is today more relevant than it has ever been in the 21st century.