Spanish teenagers Ari and Kalus may still be in school, but they are already part of a young feminist collective, organising talks, performances and protests to fight for gender equality.
At 17, they are among a growing number of teenagers at the forefront of Spain’s new wave of feminism, fighting for change in the face of a backlash from far right politicians.
Like many of their school-age peers, they have joined the mass rallies for gender equality that began two years ago.
Initially triggered by a gang rape verdict that many saw as unjust, the protests have gained momentum, spurred by a range of issues, from sexual violence to unequal pay.
“For me, calling yourself a feminist is saying you’re not invisible, that you are here, and you have something valuable to say,” Ari, who asked to be identified only by her first name, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Both said young women their age faced pervasive sexism, from harassment in the street or on social media to being stared at or followed, the threat of possible attack and the sense their concerns are not taken seriously.
The feminist collective at their high school, San Isidro, in central Madrid, is named Sakmis, after an ancient Egyptian goddess, and has 68 members, some as young as 13.
They snatch meetings at break times and organise a range of activities around their studies, including a recent inter-school survey on sexual harassment.
“We are a small group that started in school, but I think we do more than that,” said Kalus, who declined to publish her real name, adding that having a space to chat with female students helps her “find peace”.
It was initially girls only, but three boys have recently joined, reflecting the growth of teen support for the movement.
A recent survey by the Reina Sofia Centre on Adolescence and Youth showed the majority of women aged 15 to 29 now call themselves feminists, as do more than a third of young men.
Other Western countries have shown similar trends: one 2019 study found more than half of young women in England and Wales identified as feminists.
’You have to fight’
Spain has made significant progress on women’s rights since it transitioned to democracy in the late 1970s.
Half the ministers in the current left-wing coalition government are women and the country was a pioneer in introducing gender-targeted violence legislation. The World Economic Forum ranks Spain eighth globally for gender parity.
But some fear such progress is threatened by the rise of the ultra-conservative Vox party, which casts the feminist movement as a radical enemy of traditional family values and is now the third largest force in parliament.
Vox sees Spain’s gender violence law as unfair to men. It also wants parents to be able to stop their children taking part in school activities on “socially controversial moral issues” or sexuality, a measure already introduced in one of its regional strongholds.
“Since the ultra-right has come up, not only in Spain but also in other countries, people have realised that you have to fight against this,” said 17-year-old Nuria Ardid.
She and her friend Lucia Gallego, 16, both at high schools on the outskirts of Madrid, have joined student strikes to march for women’s rights.
“There’s more awareness and more people joining the movement, so people are more confident to say openly ‘I’m a feminist’,” said Lucia.
More young men also want change, according to university undergraduate Pablo Caraballo, 18, who calls himself a feminist. But he has also witnessed how Spain’s ideological divisions continue to play out in the classroom.
Pablo recalled a chat with a student from his high school who argued inequality did not exist because women are now government ministers and judges, a view he said is common among young people who disagree with the feminist movement.
“They see feminism as a lie, that feminists defend the superiority of women over men,” he said. “They don’t see it as about equality.”