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Against the erasure of women: interview with Spanish feminist and politician Angeles Álvarez

We are delighted to feature an interview with Spanish feminist and socialist politician Angeles Alvarez. Born in Zamora in 1961, she was a PSOE (the Partido Socialista Obrero Español, the main left-wing party in Spain) deputy (member of the Spanish parliament) for Madrid in the X and XII Legislature, serving as equality spokesperson for the party in Congress. Together with fellow congresswomen, she was instrumental in the National Pact Against Sexist Violence, which came into effect in 2017.

At the moment she is involved in an international alliance which brings together feminists from the Spanish-speaking world in order to fight against the erasure of women’s rights, which results from the conflict between sex-based rights and ‘gender identity’ policies. Dominican writer Raquel Rosario Sánchez spoke to her about her roots in the women’s liberation movement, her career as a socialist politician and the new project she coordinates: Contra el Borrado de las Mujeres (Against the Erasure of Women).

Raquel Rosario Sánchez: Dear Angeles, thank you very much for agreeing to do this interview with Woman’s Place UK. Before we begin, could you explain your biographical trajectory to our English audience, please?

Angeles Álvarez: I am a Spanish woman who, since the age of 17, has been involved in feminist activism. I have fought many battles. Often very long battles, but we’ve always been victorious. I am a member of the main socialist party in Spain (PSOE). In the last decade, I was involved in politics as a councillor in Madrid City Council and later on, as a national MP. From Congress, I was able to exercise my feminism, and now I get to do it as an activist with the Alliance Against the Erasure of Women.

RRS: Which came first in your life, feminism or socialism?

AA: Feminism came first. By the time I joined the PSOE, I already had a background of deep reflection and of feminist militancy. The Socialists were the only political party with a commitment to feminism, which was a public commitment.

RRS: What inspired you to run as a candidate for the Madrid seat, as an MP?

AA: There is usually a confluence of interests in the co-option processes of political parties. I had been militant within the PSOE structure for years, with a very close connection with the Equalities Office. When you are offered the opportunity to go, all you think about is that this will be an opportunity to push what you are already fighting for at the highest level of government.

RRS: How was your experience within the Spanish Congress, as a socialist feminist?

AA: When you arrive in Congress, you become aware that you are an heir to the legacy of highly prominent feminists who have been influential in Spanish socialism. These are women who were in the governments of Felipe González and Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, but also during the opposition periods. That legacy makes you realize that you have been tasked with an extraordinary responsibility.

In the two legislatures that I was a congresswoman for Madrid, I was heavily involved in the defense of sexual and reproductive rights. For example, this included a conservative attempt in 2015 to bring down a progressive law which dealt with the legalisation of abortion.

The political purpose of the Spanish right has been to go back in time when it comes to rights which have already been conquered. But despite this opposition, I am nevertheless particularly proud to have woven, together with fellow female congresswomen of other political formations, the National Pact Against Sexist Violence. Regaining consensus in this area was essential for the success of the institutional response to sexist violence.

RRS: Tell us about Spain’s violence against women law, which you’ve just mentioned. This was a project that you were heavily involved in as a congresswoman.

AA: Yes, but I started working on it as an activist. In the late 1990s, women’s associations made a commitment to focus our efforts on that particular issue of the feminist agenda. I was lucky enough to be one of the spokeswomen for the alliance. The situation was unbearable. We had an average of 70 murders a year and a hidden vault of male violence that did not emerge due to a lack of social support to the victims. The State’s lack of diligence in dealing with the problem was insulting.

We committed to a daunting task which culminated in President Zapatero’s commitment to create a legal norm that went beyond the punitive aspects. This campaign lasted years, but those years, were fundamental to “feminist pedagogy.” What I mean by this is that we did activism with the purpose of raising social awareness. Eventually, Spanish society did wake up and became more demanding of the conservative government. The law was a wake-up call to the country’s social conscience when it comes to equality between the sexes.

RRS: Women who enter politics often face sexist abuse. What would you recommend to a woman interested in entering politics?

AA: In Spain, the presence of women in elected positions must be equal. That’s another battle won by feminism. We all know that politics is not a space of comfort for us, but no amount of hostility will force us to leave. Attempts to abuse women who are in politics are generally crass so political sexism is generally frowned upon by Spanish society. My only advice to women is to expose these attacks for what they are, and demand that they be socially condemned.

RRS: Tell us about this brand-new feminist project we mentioned in our introduction. It is called Contra el Borrado de las Mujeres. In the spirit of transparency, I am also a contributor to this project. What is the catalyst for it?

AA: Contra el Borrado de las Mujeres is the answer to an intolerable situation which had been left unattended. The Spanish philosopher Amalia Valcarcel describes “an agenda” as those priorities of the feminist agenda which emerge to face the backlash against equality. This issue is on the agenda now.

After facing another attempt to limit abortion rights in 2015, Spanish feminism got involved in the battles against sexual exploitation (prostitution) and the rental of women for reproductive purposes (surrogacy). We had to respond to these efforts, just like now we have to respond to these ones, as well.

Generally, at a global level, the women’s liberation movement did not anticipate the practical consequences of legislation which treats gender as an identity. In Spain, we have 17 regional laws in autonomous regions which have been used to introduce elements of the erasure of women. Once we realised what was happening, we had a duty to articulate an alliance among organisations. We are barely starting, and the road will be long, but we are ready.

Witnessing what has been happening in the United Kingdom, in Canada and in Argentina has been enlightening for us. What opened the door in Spain was that, starting on January 2018, the platform Tribuna Feminista (which is a reputable publication in the Spanish-speaking world dedicated to women’s rights), started publishing long-form articles by Raquel Rosario Sánchez which made a fundamental contribution by explaining, and raising awareness to the conflict.

RRS: Thank you, Angeles. I really appreciate this coming from you. You have argued that women’s rights are threatened by ‘gender identity’ policies. What do you mean by this?

AA: I prefer to refer to them as “policies which aim to turn gender into an identity”. That nuance is important. There is no ‘gender identity’ that is not sexist. We need people to understand what these laws seek to implement. Sports competitions represent an excellent way to highlight the problem.

Legislation which aims to turn gender into an identity tell us that “you are what you feel.” The practical implication of this belief is that it forces society to accept that sport categories must be established based on whether “you feel” male or female, while failing to consider the biological reality which gives one set of people advantages over another. If we accept this, then we are defrauding female athletes.

A male person develops a body which grants them competitive advantages which do not disappear, even if they reduce their testosterone. Therefore, they should not be allowed to compete against women. The categories of age and sex are essential, and they are meant to safeguard against the erasure of women from the podium by those with an advantage.

Sports federations need to be blunt in this matter, otherwise women’s competitions will disappear. Transsexual people must have the same civil rights that any other citizen have, but that catalogue does not include falsifying material realities.

RRS: What inspired you to express yourself publicly about the conflict between women’s sex-based rights and ‘gender identity’ public policies?

AA: It wasn’t an inspiration; it was a shock. I was alarmed by the third paragraph of a law project put forth by Podemos in Congress which defined gender as “a human identity.” All the red lights went off! I’m a lesbian. I was the first woman to publicly declare myself as such in Congress. When I read that law proposal, it became clear to me that someone was using social sympathy towards the the LGTBI movement to “sneak in” regulations that went far beyond the defense of civil rights and the fight against discrimination of a community to which I belong.

A law is a very serious thing. I am sorry that my party has to correct Irene Montero, the Minister of Equality from Podemos. But equality policies cannot be turned into a learning laboratory for Podemos, putting at risk the social commitment to equality between women and men.

RRS: What has been the reaction you’ve received from feminists in Spain, after going public with your opinions? What was the reaction you received from the trans collective?

AA: When Philosopher Amalia Valcarcel decided that the 2019 Feminist Training School Rosario de Acuña should address this issue head on, the eyes of Spanish feminists opened to a reality that had been going unnoticed. There were groups of women who were alerting us about this issue, but there was no organised activism. The school ran by Professor Valcarcel provoked two reactions: feminism in Spain was initially stunned, but becoming aware of what is really going on has always proved very stimulating to us.

Articles and long-form essays written by specialists on different areas of the conflict have been spreading quite rapidly. Transactivists were angered by this consciousness-raising and began to seriously insult and harass us. But none of the women present, myself included, are cowardly people. The insults made us stronger, personally and politically. They took off their mask. These activists do not debate, they just threaten. That’s how people with no ideas operate.

RRS: Did you express doubts about this issue while you were in Congress? Did you feel alone or did you receive support from your colleagues?

AA: I had absolute support within my party and from many others. What happened is that Congress became embroiled in an identarian debate, where many parliamentarians were coming into contact with something which was absolutely unknown to them. What is surprising is that the political party that introduced that law project, a left-wing populist party, is consumed by queer theory. And this is a problem, because today the Government of Pedro Sanchez (PSOE), relies on their votes in order to govern.

RRS: Interesting. This brings us to a statement by PSOE on sex-based rights and ‘gender identity’ theories which leaked into the public sphere in early June. Could you explain to us the relevance of this document and the current state of the discussion within the party?

AA: These types of statements are internal documents, position statements on a particular issue, addressed to the party’s base and its activists. The importance of this document is that it reaffirms the defense of women’s sex based rights. The document begins with an affirmation that calls into question policies based on queer theory. It states: “sex is a biological fact and gender is a social construction.” It is remarkable that something so evident has to become a statement, coming from the highest level of a political party

This document tells socialist activists that this debate is about “how a sentiment and its expression – especially when it does not remain stable over time – moves to the legal system and the implications of doing so.” This has encouraged consciousness-raising among many people, and I think this has rattled those who seek to adopt wide reaching legislation while eluding public debate.

I think it is essential to establish a subcommittee in Congress that allows people to hear all the arguments. Now every law presented in Parliament is full of queer theory and that is what we are denouncing. The populist left is in a hurry to legislate, because they know that Spanish society will not accept a law in the terms that they intend to impose it.

RRS: What is something that would you like to express to the English-speaking audience who will read this interview?

AA: From the Alliance Against the Erasure of Women, we are analyzing the channels of dissemination of these theories, their strategies and their funding. Our initial data is alarming. We are reacting late, but we are finally here. International collaboration will be essential, because we are facing the most organised, systemic backlash of the last decades. For example, right now, Latin America is currently a field of experimentation in three areas:

  • legalizing sexual exploitation
  • legalizing reproductive exploitation
  • erasing sex as a legal category.

To me, the most alarming thing is that these are discourses which are disseminated by feminist organisations themselves, in part because they receive funding from international organisations or from Global North governments. It is paradoxical but the left which describes itself as a post-colonial left is currently colonising Latin America with neoliberalism’s most elaborate product: queer theory.

UN Women, for example, but also academic institutions, are promoting unscientific narratives which harm women’s rights. Queer theory has been using institutional channels to promote ideologies which erase women. To see UN Women referring to women as “menstruating people” is unconscionable.

The problem is that we are facing very weak states, that are incapable of upholding solvent institutions which are not influenced by external financing. In the face of such a conundrum, first we would like to thank feminists in the United Kingdom because we have watched what has been happening over there and it has opened our eyes. Your experiences and your resistance have been inspiring. Now, we have to be capable of acting in solidarity together. The world must know that “WE, THE WOMEN” exist. This international alliance cannot be postponed.

Thank you to Angeles for her hard work on behalf of women, both in Congress and as a feminist campaigner. You can follow Contra el Borrado de las Mujeres on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram to stay up to date with their upcoming campaigns and public events.

Raquel Rosario Sánchez is a writer and researcher from the Dominican Republic. She specialises in ending male violence against girls and women and is currently pursuing a PhD with the Centre for Gender and Violence Research at the University of Bristol. 

@AAlvarezAlvarez

@8RosarioSanchez

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