“All of us men are sexist,” says Pablo Llama. “The first step towards changing the situation is to recognise that.”
It is a sunny Madrid evening and some 30 young activists have gathered in a dusty meeting room to reflect on how they contributed to International Women’s Day on 8 March.
Millions of Spanish women have protested and gone on strike in recent years over male violence, Spain’s lack of a consent-based rape law and economic inequality.
But all the activists here are men, part of a nationwide association of men for gender equality called AHIGE.
Feminists have become increasingly alarmed by the rise of far-right party Vox, which wants to end abortion and special laws aimed at protecting women from male violence.
And they are attracting support from an increasing number of Spanish men, who want to eradicate what they see as their inner sexist values.
‘Every man needs an internal revolution’
In men-only groups, members openly share their prejudices, their lack of understanding towards women, and the male gender role they are playing out.
But why not leave it to women to stand up for feminism?
“Out of responsibility, for human rights and social justice, we can’t stay out of something that compels us as men,” says AHIGE volunteer Miguel Lázaro.
Their argument is twofold:
- Feminists seek a change in inter-gender relations, so men have to give up certain privileges and take on other responsibilities, typically in caring and family roles
- Men can take better care of themselves by avoiding self-destructive behaviour patterns associated with masculinity
“We have more accidents, mental health problems, issues with gambling and addictions. We ignore these risks because we are men. Every man is in need of an internal revolution,” explains Mr Lázaro.
What the men have learned
Madrid psychologist Rafael García, 37, found something in a men’s support group that he could not find in his own male friendships.
“With my friends, it is hard to get past the fun, the banter. In this group there is space for emotions.”
Mr García says he became aware of ingrained sexism in his family, where his sister was expected to help in the house but he had a choice. “I was allowed to have my girlfriend over; she never did the same.”
For Vicent Segarra, a 41-year-old teacher from Castellón who now lives in Madrid, it all became clear when his mother became ill with terminal cancer.
“When she fell ill I realised the burden that women bear in the home.”
His mother was a farm labourer and had to take care of her children, her ageing mother and even her mother-in-law.
“It was not only the physical amount of work inside and outside the home, but all that care and attention. If this woman had not had all the work she had, she would have been able to study more, to get training. But she gave that up just for being a woman.”
Mr García says by changing focus he has realised how unreasonable his behaviour was in past relationships with women.
“I felt jealousy when I had no right to, and then made my own conquests. My infidelities didn’t even concern me because I didn’t empathise with my partners.”
Focus on male violence, not the victims
Male violence against women has become a hot political topic in Spain. Protesters regularly take to the streets on news of a woman’s murder by a partner or ex-partner.
The “wolf-pack” trial incensed Spain, when five men were acquitted of rape for non-consensual group sex with an 18-year-old woman.
“The only common factor in all these abuses is men. We have to treat men,” says Pablo Llama, who founded the Madrid branch of AHIGE.
“When a woman reports domestic violence, the state’s response is often to offer security and have the police watching over that woman. Wouldn’t it be better to keep watch on the man?” asks Mr Lázaro.
Mr Llama says it is about making men realise that they must challenge stereotyped roles.
“It’s like we are given a golden visa at birth; it’s great to be a man, great to do what you want, to be promiscuous, for example, and not be questioned.
“But masculinity is a kind of gilded cage. The emotional castration we men suffer from a young age leads to a great deal of suffering.”
Has there been a macho backlash?
Many Spaniards have been attracted by the anti-feminist message of Vox, a populist, ultra-Catholic party that won 10% of the vote in last month’s general election.
Vox has gathered some of its support by criticising Spain’s gender violence law, under which men are judged in specific courts after incidences of domestic violence.
Mr Lázaro recognises that some people are tempted to reject change, but remains confident that feminism has historical momentum on its side.
“Equality is going to arrive. In Spain, the reactionary rubbish that Vox is coming out with might go down well in a part of society, but it is forcing lots of other people to take sides.”
In his work as a psychologist, Mr García says he sees a lot of men who are angry at changes in society.
“Sexist men are feeling offended and under attack. But I like to think that Vox represents a dying breed,” he says.
The men reflect on what they did on International Women’s Day: on their decision to set up support centres to feed families and look after the children of women on the 8 March protest.
And they want to do more.
But they decide they must remain in the background and let women take the limelight.
“All of us men are sexist,” says Pablo Llama. “The first step towards changing the situation is to recognise that.” It is a sunny Madrid evening and some 30 young activists have gathered in a dusty meeting room to reflect on how they contributed to International Women’s Day on 8 March.