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Gender (in)equalities in Catalan politics

Women gain ground in public institutions but are still far from achieving parity

Inés Arrimadas, the most-voted candidate in the recent Catalan elections.
Inés Arrimadas, the most-voted candidate in the recent Catalan elections. EFE

Many assume gender equality is a fact in most European countries, and that this is the case in Spain and Catalonia too. However, gender violence still takes the lives of many women: at least 44 in Spain in 2017, according to the Spanish government. Moreover, women do not achieve the same representation in public institutions as men. In the political campaign for the Catalan elections on December 21, only one out of six candidates heading up party electoral lists was a woman. There was a fairer distribution in the lists themselves, since 39% of politicians elected were women. In fact, the proportion of female representatives in the regional Parliament has been growing in recent years. The Law of Effective Equality between Women and Men, passed in the Catalan Parliament in July 2015, is aimed at ensuring that at least 40% of the representatives in public administration are women.

The evidence is clear that, at the present time, the political arena is still difficult for women. The candidate of center-right party Ciutadans to the regional elections, Inés Arrimadas, stated in an interview in the Catalan newspaper Ara that “there is also sexism in politics, because it is the reflection of a sexist society.” Women who are interested in politics are “more questioned” than their male counterparts and “less valued,” states political scientist and feminist Adriana Llena. According to her, when women are in `positions of power they must make a greater effort to be recognized and listened to, while men have always more legitimacy for the simple fact of being men. Education plays a very important role in this regard. For Janet Sanz, Councilor for Ecology, Urbanism and Mobility at Barcelona City Hall, “the social construction of gender roles takes women away from politics” and makes them rule themselves out from being involved in the political sphere.

Many factors dissuade women from holding positions of power in politics. Public exposure sometimes implies a constant judgment of their body, their sexuality and other aspects that have nothing to do with their professional work. “Most of the criticism you receive will have to do with the fact that you are a woman,” says Llena. One example of this is the insults received on social networks by the women of CUP, a Catalan far-left party, who are, on a daily basis, branded as “whores, ugly and fat.” For Anna Gabriel, one of the representatives of this formation and a former deputy in the Parliament of Catalonia, these insults must be read “in a patriarchal key.”

The role of public policies

The feminization of politics is one thing but the implementation of feminist public policies is another. “These include tackling gender-based violence,” says professor María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop, who explains this “is structural and therefore should be considered an aggravating circumstance during trial.”

Another aim of these kind of feminist policies should be to fight the gender salary gap and a lack of representation of women in politics, she adds.

For Palop, implementing this kind of policies is “easier at a local level.” Since the election of mayor Ada Colau in 2014, Barcelona City Hall has adopted a new, gender-conscious approach to politics. Barcelona City Hall passed a proposal earlier this year aimed at integrating a gender perspective in all measures related to urbanism. “We want the streets to be discrimination-free places, where everybody, especially women, feels safe, comfortable and a fellow citizen,” said councilor Janet Sanz, presenting the initiative. A study carried out by the City Hall shows men and women use public space in different ways and therefore public policies regarding urbanism have a different impact on each sex. “Including a gender approach in city planning contributes to solving inequalities and achieving a fairer city,” said councilor for Feminism and LGTBI Laura Pérez.

In addition, despite a certain formal equality regulated in the Catalan Law on Effective Equality of Women and Men, there are various material obstacles to the entry of women into politics. According to data from the National Institute of Statistics, the wage gap between men and women remains at 23.25% in Spain. Llena also highlights the “double working day” that some women assume by taking on housekeeping and caring duties for the most vulnerable members of the family, such as children or the elderly.

Faced with all these elements that hinder parity in politics, gender quotas are a possible solution, although there is no consensus around them. While Arrimadas considers that “they limit internal democracy,” Gabriel affirms that they are necessary to “correct the dysfunctions that the patriarchal system generates.” Llena, on the other hand, says that “meritocracy does not exist because we do not all start from the same base.”

The calls to “feminize politics” have been, for some time now, very common in the discourse of certain parties. But what does that really mean? For María Eugenia Rodríguez Palop, a philosopher of law who specializes in gender studies, feminizing politics means “transferring the practices of the feminist movement to the public and political sphere,” as she explains in an interview on La Tuerka. And this means “putting life at the center” and recognizing and revaluing the “interdependence” between people. It means, in short, to change the form and not just the content, enhancing elements that, traditionally, have been assigned to women and have been, therefore, disregarded, such as emotions, doubts or dialogue. “I don’t only ask myself what I have to do, but how do I have to do it,” explains Sanz, who took part in the first gender diversity plan of a political party in Catalonia, in 2010.

However, an increased number of women in politics does not, in itself, guarantee this change of framework. Sanz admits that she does not feel represented by many women who are in politics, since in the political sphere women often end up assuming very masculine power roles. “It is a matter of survival,” says Llena, “if you do not follow their rules of the game it is difficult to be respected.” Sanz, for example, remembers how, during the first months of her mandate she was always hoarse because she forced her voice so that it would sound more serious in order to express more authority in an environment full of “fifty and sixty-year-old men wearing ties.”

The ‘trend’ towards being a feminist

Feminism is currently on everyone’s lips. The media is talking about this issue and it has also entered the political agenda. “Feminism gets into the institutions because there are grassroots movements that generate pressure,” says Llena. The feminist movement does not have the capacity to make a law but it does form public opinion. That is why the political parties cannot ignore the issue and are forced to take positions.

Pérez explains that “institutional means and social movements are absolutely complementary.” They are necessary to change the institutional structure, otherwise the world does not change. “However, institutions are limited,” says Llena. Instead of going to the root of the problem, institutional feminism only focuses on mitigating its consequences, she adds.

“Nowadays [feminism] is becoming an acceptable thing, whereas in the past being feminist was frowned upon,” states Llena. Because of this, many women are taking an interest in feminism, and they are beginning to identify gender inequalities. Feminist groups are on the rise and more people than ever are joining demonstrations against sexist violence. “There is a lot of anger and the impression is that at the moment institutions are not doing enough,” she says.

There is work to be done in terms of gender equality, and political parties know that. “They are using the question of how many women they have in their lists to sell themselves,” says Llena regarding the 21-D campaign in Catalonia. “Left-wing parties, at least, have accepted that they have to come closer to gender parity in their lists,” she adds, which is “positive,” although “there is much more to be done.” But according to her, it is not only about the number of women: “Inés Arrimadas is head of list for Ciutadans, but the gender awareness of her party is zero,” she says. So there is work to do for feminism, in terms of both representation and discourse.

elpais.cat in English

From November 2016, the Catalan edition of EL PAÍS, Elpais.cat, has been publishing a selection of news stories in English.

The texts are prepared by journalism students at the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), who adapt content from Catalan current affairs, adding extra information and explanation to these stories so that they can be understood in a global context.

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