Earlier this month, Gillian Martin from the Indy Quines in Aberdeen, represented Women for Independence on a tour of Galicia, Basque and Catalonia, meeting women's groups and those from the independence movements in the region, before finally speaking at the International Women's Day rally in Barcelona. Here, she writes about her incredible experience.
Being a member of Women for Independence has changed my life. Take last week for example, because of WFI I took in 3 countries in 9 days. By "countries" of course I'm talking about those who have a wish for self-determination away from the Spanish government, namely Euskadi (The Basque Country), Catalonia and Galicia. I went on a little speaking tour of all three on behalf of Women for Independence. My brief was to speak about the work of Women for Indy pre and post referendum and meet with likeminded groups. My itinerary was packed with panel talks, meeting women's groups, meeting political groups and doing some press, and when those weren't happening it was almost as if each country was trying to out-do one another on how much sightseeing and local food they could pack into me. The Basques win hands down on the food front; it's a close tie for the three of them on the sightseeing. I aimed to blog for WFI throughout but had no time so now I find myself with the hard task of distilling it all into one post for you. Impossible.
Outside the Galician Parliament in Santiago de Compostela
I have to boil it down to a few things that have left a mark on me otherwise it'll turn into a book. The first is how much we have in common with the Basques, Galicians and Catalans. If anything the Spanish government is even more imperialistic that our own UK one. It's 40 odd years on from Franco's death but the dictator's legacy lives on. There are even individuals from his regime at large in the Spanish government and sure signs of a less than progressive approach to women's rights and freedom of speech. I learn that women are constantly under threat of abortion law being changed to outlaw it, like it was not long ago, forcing women to go abroad. There is a constant pressure of right wing politicians to overturn it. "If they thought they could sneak it in without anyone noticing they'd do it," says one campaigner in Santiago.
I meet the editor of the only Basque language newspaper, Berria, Martxelo Otamendi, who makes an off the cuff remark about his time in prison, for running a Basque language newspaper. Later my host tell me how famous a political dissident he is. He and his journalists had their newspaper shut down and went to prison until eventually the charges of terrorism were overturned. By the time they got home it was too late to salvage that newspaper, but within days a new one was born. You'd be forgiven for thinking that all the Basque separatists who went to jail, did so for violent acts. Not the case. Dissent was terrorism, pro-independence writing was terrorism, and many of the people still in jail all over Spain are politicians and thinkers. My host Maxus tells us about her old tug of war team coach Paquito who she didn't see for decades until he was let out to attend his mother's funeral. There's currently a campaign to have the prisoners relocated to jails in Euskera instead of spread all over Spain in isolation and miles away from their families. ETA have not been operation for three years, and the vast majority of independence supporting Basques want a non-violent political approach.
In fact I meet quite a few people who have spent some time in jail for political dissent and expression, not for violence. I meet even more whose families emigrated for a while when things got too difficult and then returned to continue the fight for independence anew. And I meet generations of incredible political women. There is an incredible moment during the question and answer session after a panel debate in Hospitalet near Barcelona when a young man, who was also the sound engineer has a go at the women for not doing enough for the struggle for independence. He is aggressive and rude, and very dismissive of feminism of having any role or link to the independence cause. He tells us to stop talking about it and get on with it. Brave man! A lady in her nineties takes to the floor. She doesn't acknowledge him, but merely tells her story of working since she was a young woman within her village to struggle against oppression through organisations she has been active in from the Franco era onwards. And then another, not much younger women stands up and tells a similar story about a women's community group she set up that has been going for decades after they decided being in the same group as the men meant their items on the agenda never got reached within a meeting. Their group is still going, the original mixed one isn't. They tell stories where the women were and still are the agents of change in their communities. The rude young man retreats to his sound booth.
Talking with representatives of Assemblea and local feminist groups in Barcelona
Politics is everywhere and although the Spanish establishment might not like to too much, it's part of every day life. I'm in a building called Ca La Dona which means the Womens' House in Catalan. It's in a prime spot in Central Barcelona and is theirs to do with what they wish. The Catalan women for indy group meet there and share the space with other women's groups. I ask how it is funded. The local government gave it to them, and some funds to do it up. They are currently planning a kitchen garden on the roof terrace. On the day I'm there they are having several meetings, getting ready for International Women's Day and hosting a craft fair.
"So even though you are political you can use this space?" Of course, they say. I think of communal council owned spaces at home and how my group can never get any space for free if we admit we are a political group. I think about us having to find communal places that aren't pubs or someone's living room and the impossibility of it. I want our own Aberdeen Ca La Dona. We've more chance of Catalan becoming our official language than Aberdeen City Council giving us a Ca La Dona.
With members of Anova the Galician independence party (spot the indyref poster!)
Political demos are frequent and extremely well attended. I took part in a couple. One in San Sebatian (Donostia) in protest of the Basque language not being recognised as the official language of the local devolved administration and the march for women's rights on International Women's Day in Barcelona. The Donostia one takes place in the driving rain and my host Joxe Mari complains it isn't well enough attended. There are 5 thousand people there. They saw a million people march in solidarity with Catalonia and Scotland in November. It's a similar situation in Galicia, who only estimate desire for independence at 20% (like us a few years ago though, no?) but have a healthy political scene with public events happening most nights. No referendum in sight for these guys, but the political activism scene is vibrant.
In Basque Country with independence activists from Hernani
I meet quite a few people (mainly journalists) who spent some time in Scotland in the run up to the referendum and their main remark was that it didn't seem that alive with protest. Now WE know that it was but to the Basques, Galicians and Catalans who march and demonstrate regularly in the streets and have their independence flags and banners flying permanently, I can see how our approach seems a little muted by comparison. I also remember the protests we did organise which felt like taking a guilty little break from chapping doors and doing town halls. I remember how our media ignored us, and how our adversaries criticised us for having a party like we'd already won. Note from the Basques, Catalans and Galicians; they want to know why we aren't making more of a visible fuss about wanting independence. And to be honest, so am I now! Maybe we should wear our hearts on our sleeves a little more.
The final day of my stay was probably the most incredible communal event I've ever been involved with. The march for women's rights throughout the streets of Barcelona was immense. There is estimated to have been 5000 but it felt like more as we marched along the Ramblas. Groups from all over marched, including a certain little one from Escocia (above). When we met in the square at the end, it wasn't speeches we heard but a group manifesto on Women's rights written by the groups coming together, spilt into paragraphs, punctuated by crowd chants, which I chanted along badly with, about there being no revolution without women. The words were not spoken by politicians or well known people, they were spoken by ordinary women each nominated by their group.
On the next day on the plane back to London I saw images from the London march. It was actually one photo with two celebrities in it, and actress I didn't know and Annie Lennox. Puh! I'm pretty certain there were lots of ordinary lasses there too...
One thing I do need to tell you though is that they are not annoyed with us for not voting for our independence and getting this self determination ball rolling. Really, I was worried about this a little! I mean, if I'm ticked off that we didn't manage then imagine how the Catalans who voted 80% yes but didn't have their vote recognised felt that we couldn't grab this legally binding opportunity we had been given. I expected to be taken by the shoulders and given a shake or two! But you know, they totally understand what happened. During one of my speeches in Barcelona I did a top ten list (Top of the Pops style) of the Better Together scare stories. They were howling with laughter. Not because what I was saying was ridiculous, although it was; but because they recognised every single one of them from their own experience. Yes, even the space alien invasion one! After my speech Carme Forcadell, who is effectively the Nicola Sturgeon of Catalonia, added in a couple of Spanish government scare stories to the list. It seems imperialist governments share handbooks on how to deal with those who would have self government. They had no equivalent of #PatronisingBTWomen though. We win on patronising our female electorate. Hurray us.
The sharing of experiences and information is important, though, particularly for countries and movements like ours. I've made links with people like me, people like you, who care about self determination and have a need for a new country where fairness exists, where a modern style of society might be able to flourish and where women might have a decent stab at changing things for a more equal society. Yes, the language differences between us make communication a little difficult sometimes but in a world where we have few political allies and friends, as we saw during indyref, it's important we stick together and be aware of the real stories behind the media consensus. Natalie McGarry, who went to Barcelona for WFI before me in November has a bet on with our mutual friend Alfons, who organised both our trips. It is a bet on which one of us will get independence first. One thing I think we can all agree on is that independence is going to come a hell of a lot quicker if we work together.
International Women's day, Barcelona