Be a Feminist Everywhere: Interview with Tània Verge Mestre

The Minister of Equality and Feminisms of the Generalitat de Catalunya, Tània Verge, speaks at a press conference after the Framework Protocol, which sets standards and coordinates all public administrations to put an end to institutional violence against survivors of gender-based violence, was approved at the Consell Executiu on November 22, 2022, in Barcelona. (Europa Press via AP)

Tània Verge Mestre, Minister of Equality and Feminisms of the Generalitat de Catalunya, 1 spoke with Global Observatory‘s Jill Stoddard and Eimer Curtin following a “Feminist Futures for Peace” workshop cohosted by the Ministry of Equality and Feminisms and the International Peace Institute, which took place during the 67th Session of the Commission on the Status of Women.

In this interview, she shares lessons on implementing equality policies and creating a feminist future from her experiences as a policymaker, political scientist, and activist.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

What was your introduction to feminism?

It is true that one is not born, but rather becomes, a feminist (to adapt Simone De Beauvoir’s famous phrase). It is a conscious and gradual act, right? For me, I was studying gender quotas and women’s political representation for my PhD, and I realized that equality was not just about redistributing the seats in parliament or in a political party’s executive committee, it was also about how gender power relations become entrenched, how gendered biases become entrenched in all social, political, and economic relationships.

In that moment, the idea that the personal is political became a life motto, and the transformation of unequal power relations and societal change more broadly would be part of both my academic work and my activism. Some feminist political scientists call it the feminist imperative—that drive to seek to transform as well as study politics. When you see inequality everywhere, at some point you have to do something about it. You cannot fragment your life. You have to be a feminist wherever you are.

You have a unique title as Minister of Equality and Feminisms. What went into the creation of the ministry?

When our government was elected in May, 2021, there was a strong political willingness to speed up the feminist transformation. That meant setting up a high-level structure, increasing the scant resources that have historically been devoted to equality policies, and putting together a team with strong activist, academic, and professional backgrounds in equality work. This sends a clear message that equality policies are fundamental rights policies, and they deserve a seat at the table, on equal footing with the other cabinet portfolios.

“Equality” is the more common word for these types of policies. But including “feminisms” in the name of the ministry was a political decision to emphasize that this is a project for global justice and a commitment to human rights. “Feminisms” with the plural “s” reflects the fact that there are different schools of thought around feminist theory and practice, and that the feminist project takes place at the street level as well as the institutional level.

Political intersectionality is also key. We do not live single-issue lives, so our fights for gender equality have to be intersectional. Otherwise, the rights of so many people wouldn’t be guaranteed, and their lives would still be unlivable. Under our purview, policies that combat gender-based violence, LGBTI rights policies, anti-racism policies, equal treatment and non-discrimination policies, and migration and refugee policies are all feminist policies.

It is crucial to have a ministry on equality and feminisms (or any other name that has these same goals). In Beijing in 1995, the international community established gender mainstreaming as a two-prong approach—not only is it to include a gender perspective in all policies across all departments, but also to create a dedicated structure that has gender expertise and is responsible for developing targeted gender equality policies, as well as advising and collaborating with other departments on how to include gender in their work. So, you need a specialized structure to drive feminist transformation—across health policies, education policies, or security policies. It won’t happen spontaneously.

It’s very intense work that we are doing very consciously. This is my first time in politics, and a substantial part of the team also comes from social activism or academia. We don’t know how long we will be in these positions, so we’ll institutionalize as much as we can so that, if there’s ever a backlash, it will be difficult to dismantle the policies.

Why is gender analysis such an important source of new thinking, and what new ideas have you come across that could help unlock the potential of the Women, Peace and Security (WPS) Agenda and achieve a feminist future?

Well, gender analysis gained more popularity in politics after the adoption of the WPS Agenda, as well as through development approaches and international cooperation more generally. And yet, we still see, for example, that international resolutions calling for gender balance at negotiation tables are not always implemented, and that gender equality issues are often neglected in peace negotiations and peace agreements.

“Peace” tends to refer to the situation in which men do not kill each other in a war context, but what peace is there for women, for racialized people, for LGTBI people when gender-based violence or racist attacks or LGTBI-phobia is so rampant in society? We need to change the meaning of peace so that we can build more inclusive futures.

We know there can be no peace and human rights without feminism. So, we need to shift the paradigm and mainstream gender in every single policy in every single institution. And we need to always keep inclusion in mind whenever we promote peace and human rights. This means taking into account all kinds of diversity, all needs, all experiences, all aspirations when we design both new institutions and policies. This is key to reorienting policy priorities and maintaining long-term momentum for change, so that a feminist future can become a reality.

What would a feminist future look like? What are some of the main challenges?

When we communicate about feminisms or inclusion, we need to make people understand what the patriarchal normality entails. We cannot accept as normal gender-based violence. We cannot accept as normal the pay gap that’s still pervasive around the world, or the unequal distribution of paid and unpaid work—with women’s double shift and the lack of social consideration for the reproduction of life. We cannot accept as normal that many women who take up high-level roles in politics or public life are still being subjected to sexual harassment or sexualized smear campaigns. This is the patriarchal normalcy we live in.

The global care crisis was made very visible during the COVID-19 pandemic, and yet “building back” could mean going back to the patriarchal, racist inequalities that have shaped our daily lives. We need to take advantage of the crises to think differently and more radically in order to design policies that improve everyone’s lives so that people don’t just go into survival mode. We need to put the right to care, the right to time, and citizens’ rights at the center of the agenda.

Moving to a feminist normalcy is about leaving behind those structural inequalities. To do this, radical change needs to occur simultaneously everywhere—at work, in leisure, in sports, within families, in schools and universities. And it will only take place if everyone is engaged in making it possible.

This is not just an idealistic fantasy. Because once we realize the extent to which patriarchy is affecting our lives—as well as racism or LGBTI-phobia—we are all called upon to act. Building a feminist normalcy is about making livable lives for everyone, which is just common sense. And that’s the idea—feminism is the new common sense.

Why are more men not on board with this idea of feminism as common sense?

Well, most men have not understood yet the extent to which patriarchy adversely affects them. There’s recent data, for example, in Catalonia showing that while a similar share of men and women have a driver’s license, 80 percent of accidents are caused by men, and men make up a similarly high percentage of traffic deaths.

This has to do with the conditions and lives that patriarchy has created and insisted on for men. And the resulting behaviors, such as being aggressive—even to the point of being reckless with one’s life. A lot of men are also taught to have shame around sharing their feelings and anxieties, and they are more likely to die from suicide.

So patriarchal masculinity is having a very negative effect on men, and the day they realize that, I think the fight against patriarchy will move much more quickly. Our message to men is that their role in overthrowing patriarchy shouldn’t be guided by the fact that they have mothers, sisters, and female partners, but rather because this is a fight for human rights.

Can you talk a bit about the backlash that we are seeing against women’s rights and LGBTI people’s rights around the world? How should we respond?

There’s been no period in history where women’s rights advanced and a counter-reaction was not organized. And what we see today is an international coalition of fundamentalist groups, extreme anti-rights groups with the same campaigns across the globe—attacking sex education, attacking human rights, attacking women’s rights.

One response is, as I mentioned before, to explain to people why a feminist normalcy is common sense. But national, regional, and local governments can also have a practical role in stopping anti-rights groups. For example, in 2017, Hazte Oír, the Spanish branch of CitizenGo, one of the largest anti-rights organizations, circulated a bus with transphobic messages in different cities in Spain. And when it made it to Barcelona, their Office for Equal Treatment and Non-discrimination instructed the police to stop the bus and to have the transphobic messages covered.

In cases like this we’ve been asked, “Isn’t this contravening freedom of expression?” And our message is that protecting trans and non-binary people means opposing the hate speech that targets them. Hate speech is manifestly incompatible with human rights—this has already been decided in judgments issued by the European Court of Human Rights and by high courts in Spain.

We started a sanctioning procedure against the group that will see the light soon. Similarly, we’ve brought criminal charges against an international campaign against abortion clinics. We’ve also adopted an action plan to protect human rights defenders. This includes working with NGOs to document the attacks they face, and their economic and emotional impacts, organizing workshops on reporting these instances, and offering free legal advice to assess the possibility of pursuing a case through the courts or an administrative procedure.

Have you seen a significant change in people’s receptivity to feminist progress?

Feminist progress has been defined as a sort of Velvet Revolution because it’s the most successful non-violent social movement in history. Even if we are anxious about change not being quicker, or setbacks occurring, enormous change has been made both at the local and international levels. Today, feminism is more popular than ever: people have more access to feminist readings, they can connect and share feminist projects through social media, and we’ve seen feminist demonstrations taking place all across the globe.

Of course, this is not enough, and we must fight for every single right to be guaranteed around the world. But we also need to understand that social change, be it for feminist justice or racial justice, is never linear. We can’t think that intergenerational replacement will just per se bring justice, peace, and inclusion for everyone. It’s an ongoing project and a global fight, and when there is backlash in one country, the risk for contagion is real. But it also happens that when one country moves rights forward, it creates hope elsewhere.

We need to identify feminist allies—women and men—in institutions and in mainstream spaces to move the agenda forward in all arenas simultaneously. So, building strategic alliances and multi-stakeholder partnerships is key.

In which policy areas have you been able to make the most progress?

We have made progress on issues that had been stuck for decades, particularly on sexual and reproductive rights. For example, while abortion is legal and free, there were still substantial geographic inequities in access. In just a year and a half, our government has managed to guarantee access across Catalonia. We have also made long-term contraception free for young women and those who need it most, and it will be free for all women in four years.

We have also introduced new rights through, for example, the recently approved “Period Equity and Climacteric Plan,” which will provide free menstrual products for women in public facilities, as well as free reusable products for all women. Another measure will extend Catalonia’s flexible working hours scheme for public employees to allow women to take paid time off when menstruation or menopause impact their wellbeing. This doesn’t require a medical certificate, the time off is simply “paid back” within four months. It’s an arrangement that puts trust in women, who are already fighting stigma, taboos, and misinformation, and challenges this idea that women use menstruation as an excuse.

These policies are helping to break the silence around menstruation and menopause. This goes back to this basic feminist realization of the 1950s/1960s—that we know nothing about our own bodies. In many ways, we’re still there. Actually, when I presented the plan, I had to use “menopause” as well as “climacteric,” because journalists were like, “What’s climacteric?” So, we used those interviews to explain that menopause is just one phase of the climacteric. These new conversations have felt very empowering.

There’s been relatively little backlash. Some right-wing politicians said, “There are so many more relevant things to do than distributing menstrual cups.” But the reaction from many women was, “You’re not going to be the one to decide what’s relevant to women,” and that it was about time institutions started talking about this, so that in every workplace, school, and family, this conversation can open up.

That shows the benefit of having women’s lived experiences be considered politically. For example, you can’t expect women to deal with sexual harassment or workplace discrimination without support that is centered around their lived experiences.

Yes, and gender-based violence policies are our number one priority. We know we won’t eradicate it in one legislative term because it’s a structural problem. But, because it is structural, there is an obligation on states, public institutions, and public officials to respond.

Imagine a university setting where a student has been raped or is suffering intimate partner violence, but the aggressor has nothing to do with the university. Imagine if the university had an obligation to support the woman through this very difficult moment in her life, so that her studies are not put at risk and she feels not as alone. Adjustments could be made to classes or exams, or, if needed, some form of financial support provided. And you can extend this to a student, a teacher, or an administrative person—everyone is included and covered. It’s a message to women that, “You’ll survive. We know you’ll survive. We’ll go hand-in-hand in this process.”

To do this, we’ve adopted a protocol framework for intervention in situations of sexual harassment, gender-based violence, or LGBTI-phobia with due diligence, which will apply to every single public institution—universities, public transportation, the health system, or the social service system. Currently, many institutions have their own protocols, but there is a lot of fragmentation.

Another problem is that protocols for responding to situations like gender-based violence have been conceived of as a reporting and sanctioning instrument. Under the new framework, prevention and reparation are at the core of interventions. This means knowing how to detect instances and identify risk factors. We are also working with professional organizations to ensure that training for the first responders in these instances—psychologists, lawyers—is gender-sensitive and they know how not to re-victimize.

Actors at all levels have to know what rights are involved, what their obligations are, and how to be diligent in all proceedings. And institutions have to guarantee that when a case is reported, measures are applied properly, regardless of when and where the situation of gender-based violence or sexual harassment occurred. The point is that every institution can support women, and anyone else who has experienced violence and discrimination for who they are, we’re facilitating this, and perhaps this approach will provide inspiration as to what is possible.

Tània Verge Mestre is the Minister of Equality and Feminisms of the Generalitat de Catalunya. She is Professor of Political Science and Gender at Pompeu Fabra University, Barcelona, where she directed the university’s equality policies from 2014-2021. Her research has focused on gender in political parties and parliaments and the adoption and implementation of equality policies. She has advised several Catalan and international institutions on equality policies. She is also an activist in the Catalan feminist movement.

[1] Catalonia is an “Autonomous Community of Spain” and the Generalitat de Catalunya is the institutional system around which Catalonia’s self-government is politically organized.