Mònica Clua, Tania Verge – Stand up for Catalonia: A Feminist Perspective on Political Repression

What we are witnessing is the return of fascism in Spain. The chance to have stopped it was wasted by the Social Democrats under Pedro Sánchez, another chapter in the concatenation of social democratic failure in Europe.

Mònica Clua is associate professor at the Department of Political Science at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley.

Tània Verge is associate professor at the Department of Political and Social Sciences at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Barcelona). She is awaiting trial for her participation as electoral commissioner in the 2017 referendum and faces the threat of a prison sentence of 2 years and 9 months.

Cross-posted from Gender Politics at Edinburgh

Photo by Glòria Sánchez

On Monday 14 October 2019, the Spanish Supreme Court convicted nine Catalan pro-independence leaders and sentenced them to between nine and 13 years for the crimes of sedition, misuse of public funds and disobedience. The Catalan political prisoners have already spent two years in prison (pre-trial and without bail), which has been condemned by the UN Committee against arbitrary detentions. They include half of the former Catalan government (the other half is exiled in Belgium, Switzerland and Scotland), the former Speaker of the Parliament of Catalonia, and the leaders of the two largest civic associations in Catalonia. The charge of sedition was brought forward by the State Attorney while the Public Prosecutor and the extreme-right party VOX presented the charge of rebellion. Yes, that’s right, the same fascist party that sustains a belief that gender-based violence does not exist and opposes abortion and LGBTI rights was allowed to act as a civil party in the infamous trial amidst Spain’s April 2019 General Election.

As feminists, we can only consider such charges, convictions and prison sentences as intolerable. Sedition charges bring back memories of the ancien régime and their attempt to protect monarchies from democratising demands. Throughout history, many democratic movements have been accused of sedition while suffering state abuses of power, including the women’s suffrage movement – see, for example, Sylvia Pankhurst’s 1920-21 sentence for inciting sedition. Locking up both peaceful and militant political dissidents is clearly an authoritarian move which has seldom deterred movements from their demands. In the 21st Century, it is hard to see how calling a referendum (especially when it does not constitute a criminal offence in Spain even when not authorised by the central government), allowing a parliamentary debate, or taking to the streets to protest a judicial decision can be constitutive of sedition in a modern democratic state. [1] 

“If they are seditious, then we are seditious too!”, as many social movements are claiming in Catalonia. Following the Supreme Court’s decision, the two main movements for the right to housing in Spain, the Plataforma de Afectados por la Hipoteca (PAH) and the Sindicat de Llogaters, issued statements against the sentence demanding the immediate release of the prisoners. These prison sentences are a complete aberration to the rule of law, so often invoked by the Spanish State, as it criminalises civil disobedience. Furthermore, let’s not forget the conditions under which the Spanish Constitution was approved 40 years ago. The threat of a regression to the military Francoist regime was evident, as well as the consequences of such regression, which were very clear for many, not only in Catalonia and the Basque Country but also for those who had fought the dictatorship all over Spain. Again, as feminists, we cannot but firmly reject that the rule of law prevails over the democratic principles of legitimacy and people’s rights to decide on their future. In fact, feminism has taught us that the fight over sovereignty starts with our own bodies. Indeed, women have always had to disobey the extant ‘rule of law’ to win their rights, with massive protests, civil disobedience acts and self-incrimination campaigns.

The propaganda war waged by Spain aimed at convincing the international (and its own national) community has focused on presenting the pro-independence movement as small-minded and provincial. It denies people’s agency, something that as women we know well from our ongoing struggle for our rights. Pro-independence supporters are also, day in and day out, characterised by Spanish media, unionist political parties and many Spanish intellectuals as being manipulated by elites as well as being supremacist totalitarian Nazis. Such an attempt to discredit those who support the right to self-determination is undemocratic and un-feminist – feminists also suffer the banalisation of totalitarianism when depicted as ‘feminazis’. [2]

Likewise, pro-independence supporters are depicted as selfish nationalists who undermine cosmopolitanism, as if the struggle for individual and collective rights did not require an institutional framework to protect and enforce them.

Self-government has been under constant threat in Spain, with recentralisation trends deepening in the past few years, with sometimes devastating consequences for people’s lives. For example, when the central government excluded non-documented migrants from public health or lesbian couples from access to assisted reproduction public services, the decision of the Catalan parliament and government to keep providing those services was suspended by the Constitutional Court at the request of the Spanish government. Indeed, the latter has lodged several appeals before the highest court against progressive Catalan laws in the field of fuel poverty, housing rights and protections against evictions, gender equality, anti-fracking or climate emergency, to name just a few. This is the self-government many Catalans are pushing for, through a referendum; namely the capacity to rule over matters that crucially enable or constrain citizens’ and the planet’s well-being. This is what self-determination is about –our ability to decide our future across all aspects of our lives.

The intersectionality of gender, class and race is crucial when attempting to understand inequality. We must add that belonging to an oppressed, non-recognised or a stateless nation has implications for the participation in the establishment of a ‘social contract’ determining people’s rights and freedoms. [3]

One of Catalonia’s feminist writers, Maria Mercè Marçal, captured these intersections in 1977 in her poem Divisa (Motto):

“I am grateful to fate for three gifts: to have been born a woman, / from the working class and an oppressed nation. / And the turbid azure of being three times a rebel”

Two of the recently sentenced political prisoners, as well as several of those in exile, are women. The two sentenced prisoners, Carme Forcadell, Speaker of the Catalan Parliament, and Dolors Bassa, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, together with Marta Rovira and Anna Gabriel, the two Members of Parliament who are exiled in Switzerland, have all highlighted the inextricable relationship between women’s rights and Catalonia’s self-determination. Furthermore, the consequences of repression are not gender-neutral. For example, both Carme and Dolors are in separate prisons in order to be closer to their elderly mothers. Ensuring that their mothers don’t have to travel far to visit them comes at the cost of further isolation. While serving time, they have contributed to the raising of awareness of the extent to which women inmates face much tougher conditions in prison due to the androcentric character of the penitentiary system. Marta decided to go into exile, to be able to see her “daughter grow up”, and Anna has received vicious press and social network attacks. Their voices are often made invisible by the social, political and media inertia of patriarchal societies, as denounced by the cross-sectional and pluralistic platform Women for the Republic, which runs the campaign ‘No Woman Forgotten’.

The independence movement is also often erroneously characterised as violent. Yet, in an era of global media and social media, the images of the police brutality exerted against peaceful voters back on 1 October 2017 as well as since the court judgement speak for themselves. Throughout this period, the Spanish police has used rubber bullets against civilians doing sit-down protests, even though the use of rubber bullets was outlawed by the Parliament of Catalonia in 2013. This has left about 600 protesters injured, some of them with serious testicle and eye injuries, and even journalists who were documenting the disturbances and police brutality have been targeted with rubber bullets and attacked by the Spanish police. The Spanish Home Office Minister has announced that the police officers staged in Catalonia would be decorated, as was also the case of the more than 500 Spanish police officers who were given the Orden de San Cristóbal medal for their role in repressing peaceful voters during the 2017 referendum.

Since the Supreme Court sentence was announced, we have witnessed massive marches, a general strike and other acts of civil disobedience. Even though the character of the majority of the protests has been peaceful and based around the principles of non-violent civil disobedience, one of their organisers, the anonymous collective Tsunami Democratic, has been charged with terrorism and its website has been shut down by the Spanish judiciary police. Late-night protests in Barcelona have seen images of waste containers being set alight and used as barricades, which has led the Spanish Home Office Minister to threaten “violent pro-independence supporters” with prison sentences of up to six years. Besides constituting a breach of the separation of powers (since when does a member of the executive sentence people before trial?), it is also a monumental exercise of hypocrisy. The recently convicted political prisoners have been sentenced for a total of 100 years in prison, for non-violent actions. About a month ago, seven pro-independence activists were also sent to pre-trial (no bail) prison under accusations of belonging to a terrorist organisation with no evidence supporting such a charge. Furthermore, in the last two weeks over 200 protesters have been detained and 28 have been sent to custody, most of them aged 18-25 years. This has stirred to the creation of a solidarity network led by the mothers and grandmothers of the detained, self-identifed by the use of a red scarf, who demand the repression against young protesters to stop.

In repressing self-determination demands, Spain has chosen to suspend fundamental democratic rights and to criminalise dissent. Hundreds of people still await trial for their role in the October 2017 referendum and dozens have been charged this week with various offences and many of them have been already imprisoned with no bail. Through the imposition or threats of exemplary punishments against a peaceful movement, the Spanish state is seeking to teach a lesson to various generations of pro-independence leaders and activists. This is why the feminist movement as a whole, regardless of individual positions on independence, has unanimously stood against political repression, cancelled all activities the week the Supreme Court verdict was issued and joined the marches for freedom as well as the general strike that took place in Catalonia on 18 October. After all, as feminists, we know that no court verdict has ever been able to limit the yearning for freedom of social movements that peacefully rise up to demand the recognition of their rights.

Stand up for Catalonia!

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