By Hana Srebotnjak
Using women’s rights in order to promote an otherwise separate political affair or justify an ideology in other respects devoid of feminist concerns is not a new development. Historically, empires continuously evoked the liberation of women to justify their colonial presence. The imperial mission, it was argued, would bring a civilising and modernising element, which included the promotion of women’s rights, into otherwise “backward” occupied territories. The starkest examples that come to mind are the infamous ‘unveiling’ ceremonies staged by the French in colonial Algeria, supported by many feminists in the metropolis at the time. Similarly, Western discourse behind the recent Wars in Afghanistan and Iraq included the notion of women’s liberation.
In order to assess those phenomena, Sara R. Farris proposed the term ‘femonationalism’ as a way to understand the misuse of feminism in its convergence with right-wing nationalist or neoliberal beliefs, today most commonly used to defend anti-Muslim attitudes in the West. The appeal to feminist (and LGBT) groups has increasingly become recognised as a useful political tool through which politicians can present their agendas as more progressive and democratic. Evidence of the new trend can be found in the recent US elections as well as the current Catalan independence movement, which is continuously striving to contrast itself with the rest of Spain it paints as less progressive and modern and, by, extension less European.
A browse through the publications by the Assemblea Nacional Catalana (ANC) – an organisation currently at the forefront of the independence movement – from its beginning up until 2018 reveals that the first mentions of women’s and LGBT concerns only appear in 2015. From then on, expressions about the inclusive, feminist and LGBT-friendly character of the future Catalan state are recurring. Nationalism is an inherently exclusionary ideology. It presupposes the existence of a difference between the ‘Us’ group, defined as the nation, and the ‘Other’ against which it establishes itself. Patriarchy likewise invokes the same distinctions based on alleged gender differences. In nationalist programmes, in conjunction with patriarchal notions, women usually occupy the passive role of nurturing mothers whose symbolic role includes the passing on of nation’s identity due to their reproductive abilities. In Francoist Spain for example, which was guided by a nationalist-Catholic ideology, the image of a woman as a humble and dutiful housewife representing the purity of the nation became one of the key pillars upon which the idea of the Spanish nation was to be reconstructed.
The second gender construct actively used in nationalist campaigns presents women, together with children, as nation’s passive subjects in need of protection by active men. As argued, men go to war and die for their country in order to protect their women and children. Gender constructs described above are present in many ANC publications and two examples will be analysed below. The first case comes from an article entitled ‘The Psychological position of the State’. In it, the Spanish state is compared to a violent husband while Catalonia takes the position of his wife, the helpless victim: ’The strategy of fear hasn’t worked so now they are trying to win the narrative. It is like the male abuser who doesn’t try to stop his wife from fleeing home but tells the care workers at the shelter that receives battered women that she is just inventing everything’.
In a different ANC publication titled ‘Manresa cries out for ‘Yes’, the 1-O’’, the attack of the Spanish state is juxtaposed with the ‘patient and civic’ Catalan resistance whose weapons are ‘songs, flowers and smiles’. While Spain is revealing its aggressive ‘manly’ character, Catalonia embodies compassionate ‘feminine’ features. The article concludes with the necessity to vote for the new Republic in order to remember “the spirit of neighbourhood action, all the syndicalist, cultural, feminist, ecological and anti-fascist strikes we built together”. 2 Despite its attempts at presenting itself as a feminist movement, particularly in order to distinguish itself from the ‘less-civilised’ Spain, ANC continuously invokes ‘femonationalist’ and gender concepts of femininity and masculinity in its agenda thereby reinforcing gender constructs it supposedly wants to get rid of. Of course, the point of this article is not to argue that a supporter of Catalan nationalism cannot be a feminist as well, but rather to warn against political misuse of different ‘liberating’ movements whereby the promotion of one ideology helps the success of the other with the former largely in danger of being forgotten once the latter occurs.
In my opinion, feminism represents the most emancipatory ideology available at the moment. It promotes the equality and the inclusion of both men and women, and thereby humanity as a whole. Nationalism on the other hand is exclusionary so one needs to be careful when the two become converged. Moreover, we must be mindful of the solidarity aspect of feminism. Certainly, Spanish laws concerning women’s rights need to change but this change needs to include Spain as a whole and not Catalonia alone. In the same light, Catalan women should not have to wait for independence in order to improve their status vis-a-vis their male counterparts.