A Question of GenderPosted: September 16, 2013
Madrid, September 15
I do not thoroughly follow the daily convulsions of Spanish politics, but I am aware of the major issues and the most prominent players. And it strikes me. There is something about them. I’ll get to that.
In Spain, gender stereotypes used to be very strictly defined, and in some cases they still are. The man is the boss, the woman obeys and bears responsibility for the household and the children. Especially among the elder generation that grew up under the Franco regime, many men still consider a woman to be subordinate. Gender violence is a persisting social problem.
So what strikes me here, in the capital of this macho state, is that women seem to dominate politics on all different levels. And they too dominate the macho party that incorporated Franco’s heritage. They take the headlines, they fill the news, they arouse the rage of protesters.
For one, there is the alcaldesa, Ana Botella. She is the current mayor of Madrid, wife of former prime minister José Maria Aznar, and a leading figure of the party.
For two, there is the delegada del gobierno, Cristina Cifuentes. She is in charge of police repression in Madrid. As such she is a frequent target of activists. In particular because many people have been fined a ridiculous amount of money for participating in protests. She is involved in a series of court cases over this with the Legal commission of Sol.
For three, there is the vicepresidenta, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaría, spokesperson and ‘número dos’ of the government. But next to someone like Mariano Rajoy, who prefers not to take questions and hide behind a screen when times are tough, it isn’t all that clear who is the real number two.
There’s more. It goes all the way over the top.
There is Esperanza Aguirre, ex president of the senate and of the capital region of Madrid. The first time I encountered her was two years ago at Callao, Madrid’s modest version of Piccadilly Circus. She was dressed as an angel, against an all white background, looking down on me from a mastodontic billboard, intimating me with her cold eyes to vote for her. Aguirre is a leading figure of the party’s right wing, a champion of classic free market liberalism. She is also a countess and one of the so-called ‘Greats of Spain’.
Meanwhile, on the movement side there are no leaders. That was one of the founding ideas. But there are a few faces. The best known of them, and the most respected, is Ada Colau. Everybody in the movement loves Ada Colau.
She is the spokesperson of the Mortgage Platform (PAH). And although the Platform is not officially part of 15M – it existed before – they are fighting on the same fronts.
While the leading ladies of Spanish politics are mostly operating from Madrid, Ada Colau is from Catalonia. In fact, the Mortgage Platform was founded in Barcelona in 2009. It is a decentralized assemblary organization that operates all over the territory of the Spanish state.
The PAH is a good practical example of diversity of tactics. They use political pressure, legal pressure, eviction defence and direct action to achieve their objective of decent housing for all citizens, as defined by the Spanish constitution. Mrs. Colau has earned a lot of credit with the humble and eloquent way with which she has presented the PAH to the public.
I haven’t mentioned the one woman who is arguably the most powerful of all. You won’t find her name in the headlines. You won’t see her on tv. Me, I only heard about her from the peasants in Andalusia, a part of Spain which she happens to own, up to a large extent. The peasants speak of her with a mixture of reverence and fear. And when they do, they lower their voices to a whisper as if she were some kind of evil spirit.
She doesn’t engage herself personally in something so vulgarly bourgeois as parliamentary politics. She is five times duchess, eighteen times marquise, twenty times countess. She is one of the Greats of Spain fourteen times over. She reigns over numerous lands, estates, villages and palaces at home and abroad. She carries so many and so distinct titles that according to some, even the king of Spain himself is required to bow his head in her presence.
She is María del Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart y de Silva Falcó y Gurtubay. More commonly known as the Duchess of Alba.
I shivered when the Andalusian peasants told me about her, because I know her kind. Her far predecessor, the infamous Duke of Alva, was sent to the Netherlands by king Philips II to quell the Dutch War of Independence in the late 1500s, and to root out protestantism once and for all. He figures as one of the greatest villains in the history of the Lowlands. His name has become synonymous to blood and terror.
That was a long time ago. They say that many Spanish nobles still reside comfortably on their ancestral lands, but that might not even be true, who knows? Maybe the house of Alba has fallen a long time ago, and all that’s left is a dynasty of impostors. Maybe even the impostors are not real. Maybe the Duchess of Alba doesn’t exist after all. Or maybe the Andalusians are right, and she really is an evil spirit.