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My belly is mine

JIM JEPPS interviews abortion rights activists Cristina Rios and Mireia Gargallo about feminism and solidarity among migrants in London

CRISTINA RIOS and Mireia  Gargallo are both Spanish immigrants living in London, both are political activists working in the My Belly is Mine campaign and they’re also good friends — even though, in many ways, they come from very different places.

Mireia came to London six months ago looking for work, escaping record levels of youth unemployment in Barcelona. Cristina, whose mother is Scottish and father Spanish, grew up in Spain but settled in Britain 18 years ago.

Mireia describes herself as “a socialist and a trade unionist” who had little experience of feminist campaigning – whereas when Cristina wanted to respond to the threats to abortion rights in Spain her first port of call were feminist organisations.

Together they are involved in My Belly Is Mine, a campaign group set up to counter new threats to abortion rights in Spain. Cristina explains: “It all started on December 20 last year when the Justice Minister [Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón] put forward a draft bill which suggested banning abortion — it was very extreme.”

She says Gallardón “has an obsession with abortion and has said that ‘I’m trying to continue the work of my father’ (who tried to stop the 1985 abortion reforms) to ‘protect the unborn child.’” 

Mireia points to the “milieu of extreme Catholic groups, ultra-Catholic pressure groups pushing to have this kind of thing. They do demonstrations at abortion clinics,” and are connected to groups like Opus Dei. 

She’s quick to say her mother is Catholic and that she’s talking about politically “right-wing organisations” rather than simply religious ones. After all, the majority of Spanish people, including Catholics, are pro-choice.

Cristina recalls: “I was in Glasgow celebrating Christmas, checking the news and I blew a fuse. I was so impressed by how the French feminists turned out on the streets so quickly, so I set up the Twitter account @mybellyismine” — a direct translation of the hashtag #mibimboesmio — “which Spanish feminists were using to build the protests on Twitter.”

When she got back to London, “I went to the London Feminist Network and met a couple of people there who became part of the campaign from the very start.”

The first protest at the Spanish embassy was called by the British-based campaign Abortion Rights in January and both Cristina and Mireia were there. By February there were national protests in Spain and the campaign here called a picket of the embassy. 

The campaigners tried to hand in a box full of coat hangers but “they wouldn’t open the door — they said they were closed — but they so weren’t!”

From there they’ve built a range of contacts in London’s Spanish community, as well as contacts in France and Berlin. They have combined forces with the Spanish Women’s Assembly, which is part of the 15M movement as well as making connections with the Irish community who, through direct action feminist group Speaking of Imelda, set up support groups helping Irish women come to England for abortions. 

Historically England became the legal destination of choice for abortions and “some of those who’d been involved in the ’80s have participated in our recent actions.”

Mireia says: “Now there’s Podemos, the political party, in London. We can do more together. At the last assembly of Podemos they knew the name of the campaign and they want to do more.”

We begin talking about the politics of migrant communities and Mireia says: “I was looking for things to do in London. I’ve never really been involved in feminist politics. I’ve only really been involved in trade unionism and wanted to improve my knowledge of feminist struggles and those kinds of things — also focusing on migrant struggles. I didn’t understand how vulnerable you are as an immigrant.

“You don’t even know where to buy food or how to move around the city. You can’t manage the language. I’m in a much, much better position than some of the people I know, like the Latin American cleaners. 

“People who come here, in the early days, they have so many problems it’s difficult to get involved in politics. The people who are already left-wing know what’s going on though.”

Mireia thinks it’s different for the Spanish in London who don’t form a coherent community. “It’s not like the Kurdish, they have their communities, social centres. In the beginning [Spanish migrants] were people who were highly educated, with PhDs, qualified — they didn’t need to be here in a way. Now there are people coming over who are desperate, they have been out of work for years, they speak a little bit of English, so they don’t know what to do.”

For Mireia getting involved with My Belly is Mine was one way to become more politically involved. “I went to the embassy several times and joined the protests, I also have contacts in the Spanish state who are in touch with feminist groups about abortion rights. 

“It’s important because the women I know who need abortions, they cannot come here. It’s a human right and they are trying to abolish it.”

The new law could be passed in just two months, meaning that doctors who perform abortions will be criminalised (rather than the women) except in exceptional circumstances.

The pair surprise me when I ask what they expect to happen as they both think the law will pass. In fact Cristina is already involved in setting up a support group to get women safe abortions should the legislation become law. “London is the historical destination for women seeking abortions,” she says.

The new group, Red Federica Montseny (RFM), named after the intellectual, anarchist and pro-choice legislator Federica Montseny, will concentrate on both political action and social support. It aims “to provide direct support to women that might otherwise not have access to a safe, voluntary abortion.”

“Rich women can always afford to get an abortion,” says Cristina and Miriea echoes her: “Yes, it’s part of the economic struggle as well.” 

She grins: “I know I’m a little bit old-fashioned, a little bit workerist. It’s about protecting the rights of the most vulnerable part of the working class — women.”

Just as Mireia and Cristina, who became politically active in different traditions, are finding strength in working together, the campaign is growing by drawing on activists and organisations from different countries as well as different perspectives. 

If a substantially pro-choice country like Spain can threaten to take away long-established rights, it’s a warning to us all that we have to fight to keep the gains of hard-won victories.

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