An interview with Margaret Bullen: When the feminist movement met feminist anthropology in Spain and the Basque Country


Katerina Sergidou



First of all, I would like to ask you about the way you see the recent uprising of the new feminist or women’s movements. From Latin America to the United States, from Spain to Poland, women are taking to the streets. There is a lot of debate about whether we are facing a fourth feminist wave or whether the newborn women’s movements do not seek a connection with the long feminist tradition. What do you think about this debate?

As far as a fourth wave of feminism is concerned, only time will tell, but there certainly does seem to be a new surge of activism characterized by action, militancy, where women are taking to the streets in proportions unseen previously, and social networks are accelerating the pace and multiplying the ripples of their voices.

The first wave was defined by the claim to citizenship for women in the eighteenth century, the second by the suffragette’s demand for the right to vote in the nineteenth century, and the third, by the extension of the call for equality in areas of both public and private life: divorce, abortion and control of one’s own body, in the second half of the twentieth century. While the third wave achieves an increased institutionalization of feminism, the fourth puts militancy back into it, bringing forth new actors, beyond the bounds of “classical” feminism or what has come to be known as “hegemonic” feminism.

This activism is characterized above all by the protest movement against violence against women, violence which is made more visible than ever, bringing it out of the domestic sphere into the public eye, recognizing not only what goes on behind closed doors, but also what happens on the streets, not only physical and sexual violence but symbolic violence that works subtly at the linguistic and symbolic levels.

What about Spain? What are the characteristics of this movement?

I think another aspect of feminism in present-day Spain is its diversity both in terms of sexual and racialized identities, and these are presenting certain challenges and tensions. In the first case, sexual and gender diversity is greater, more visible and more accepted than ever before, with “trans” becoming an increasingly present concept and category, with moves to normalize the presence of transgender people in the media, or to make the administration aware of their needs. In the university, for example, we have consulted activists on the restructuring of the women’s and men’s toilets after a call for non-binary cloakrooms. However, transgender people do not always feel incorporated or accepted in everyday life, neither in education nor in feminism and at the same time there has been a big backlash from sectors of the right wing and Catholic church, manifest in campaigns such as the “Orange bus” that travelled through different parts of the country to hand out leaflets denouncing the “ideology of gender”.

In terms of racialized women, there is an interesting if heated debate going on in Spain right now about their relation to feminism, which they see as a “white” or “hegemonic” feminism, from which they are excluded. This was one of the issues which came to the fore with the March 8th strike this year. Many of the Latin American, African and Arab women living in Spain and working as domestic cleaners and carers, or gypsy women who form part of the informal sector, railed at the failure of the feminist movement calling for the strike to see that the economic and legal situation of many women did not allow them to go on strike. They found insensitive, if not outright offensive, the invitation to hang their aprons in the balconies of the houses they worked in as the march of striking women went past. For them, the fundamental problem of discrimination and subordination is a racial one.

Could these movements be classified as feminist?

A complicated question. One part of me wants to say: I don’t see why not. Who has the prerogative to decide what is feminist and what is not? Another part of me looks to concrete examples and finds the appropriation of feminist discourse by groups of people whose understanding of equality for women and men seems to diverge hugely from my own. One example of this is the women of a conservative movement to defend an all- male parade which bans female participation in the name of tradition in the province of Gipuzkoa (Basque Country). In recent years, this group of women –at the same time as protesting against the demand for equal participation of women and men in their town’s festive ritual, shouting abuse, turning their backs and generally boycotting the attempts of other women to demand equal access to the parade on the same terms as men– have championed the cause against sexual violence, stood by the mother of Nagore Laffage,1 murdered when she resisted sexual relations initiated during the fiestas of San Fermines (Pamplona, Navarra) and joined in this year’s massive general strike by and for women.

Their presence at such demonstrations and their manifesto which adopts an apparently “feminist discourse” is perplexing –if not outright enraging– and is nothing if not incongruous with their actions and words against equality in the Alarde.2 Τhe question is whether these movements that are calling for better conditions for women and an end to violence against them, have understood that things will not change and violence will not end unless the whole gender system is upturned, until being a woman or being a man is irrelevant to one’s rights to adopt different roles, play different parts and move freely through society’s many spaces and places.

It’s not even enough, is it, to call for the right of women to take part in different walks of social life, to reach the top, to take directive posts, to be in positions of power, in politics if they continue to perceive that women have a particular essential way of being.

I wonder if these groups would even want to take the name feminism for themselves. They shy from the word, just like Dolors Montserrat, the ex-Minister of Health, Social Services and Equality of the Spanish Popular Party who on Spanish radio avoided answering the question put to her of being a feminist, saying she thought it was no more than a label and she didn’t like labels.

Finally, other sectors such as racialized women –that is, women who are constantly defined and positioned by the color of their skin and treated as subaltern citizens, women with no papers or formal contracts– don’t see themselves as represented by what they are calling hegemonic feminism and its discourse, identifying in it a Eurocentric cosmovision born of the left-wing attack on patriarchy and capitalism as the principle sources of oppression. They argue instead that structural racism is at the root of discrimination. Although the arguments are delivered in accusatory tone and are sometimes hard to swallow, I feel these tensions are ultimately productive; they force us to rethink our collective and individual, political and feminist projects. But my fear is that if we are not capable of dialogue, the divisions that are opening between us will split us apart.

In some of your articles you write about the vindication of the word feminism. What is the meaning you ascribe to this vindication?

I think that in many walks of life, feminism is still seen to be a “bad word”. For many it conjures up a stereotype of a man-hater, a masculinized woman, a tomboy, a lesbian, a rebel, a difficult and undesirable person. In a study published in 2015 on the attitudes and practices of the Basque youth in relation to gender and equality, we found that some young Basques shared this idea, seeing feminism as radical and extreme, rather than a demand for equality, a defence of women’s superiority to men. Just as the ex-Minister refused the label “feminist”, so many of our young Basques distinguished between a legitimate fight for equal rights and an over-the-top feminism.

I have noticed this attitude in our university where although we have had sufficient support to create the Master’s and Doctoral programme called “Feminist and Gender Studies”, sometimes I am made aware that we are perhaps the exception rather than the rule. One day when asking for the key, one of the doormen said “Well, let’s leave that word out, shall we? It’s rather ugly isn’t it?” Or in the VU University of Amsterdam where we travelled to present our study at the Anthropology of Children and Youth Seminar, they told me they hadn’t dared to add the adjective to a course on Feminist methodology at first and then had decided to be really daring and go for it.

Books like We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2015) help. With clear and easy explanations, this short book argues that far from being an insult, “feminist” is a label we should all want to wear.

#Me too, “I believe you sister”3 and “Not one [woman] less”4 are some of the main slogans of these new movements. It seems that women’s solidarity is a common characteristic of the movements’ discourse. What do you believe is the reason why such diverse femininities and women who suffer from intersectional oppressions select solidarity as the movement’s main methodology?

I think this is summed up by Nancy Fraser and Linda Nicholson’s (Fraser & Nicholson, 1989) description of the “infinite variety and monotonous similarity” of the forms of subordination and oppression of women. That is, although all over the world there are countless cultural and circumstantial differences in the ways women suffer a secondary status in their given societies, though there are multiple intersections of social variables such as race, class, functional diversity, gender identity, sexual preference or age, the balance is still enormously weighted against women as a whole.

And yet we must keep in mind that there is not one woman, that not all men are “the enemy”, that some women feel greater solidarity with some men rather than some women, that men also express solidarity in the face of the abuse of women and that men may also be discriminated against.

During the past few years and especially after the La Manada5 case in 2016, very strong women’s and feminist movements have appeared in the Spanish state and especially in the Basque Country. It would be no exaggeration to say that these movements are the strongest in Europe, especially after making a step forward by organizing the massive women’s strike on March 8th. People wonder all over Europe and the world: Why in Spain and why now?

I think what has been happening in Spain in the last few years is part of the process the country has been undergoing ever since the feminist movement took off after the death of Franco in 1975. Given the repressive conditions to which the whole of the Spanish state was submitted during the forty-year dictatorship, the sense of liberation at its end can be described as a blast off, where a pressure cooker lid is blown off by the tremendous pile up of steam which is let out in one big rush.

The progress made in terms of social reform in the past four decades has been tantamount to the paralysis to which Spanish society succumbed under the dictator. While women’s liberation had taken off in other parts of the world, married women were prohibited from holding a paid job and subjected to the rules of the “permiso marital” where they had to obtain their husband’s permission for travelling, with or without their children, for holding a bank account and using it, and they were held up to a double standard whereby they were penalized for adultery but their husbands were not, unless caught red-handed in the marital bed.

Hence the waves of feminism came fast and furious to Spain, where change was long overdue and people were itching for freedom and independence. As women’s plight had been particularly retrograde, the feminist movement grew up fast and demanded acknowledgement as equal citizens. They called for marital permission to be repealed, for the recognition of their rights as non-dependent adults, with access to all levels of education and all areas of the job market. They claimed the right to decide over their own earnings and possessions, as well as over their own bodies: this included the right to divorce, birth control and abortion, issues over which battles were fought and not always easily won.

The fourth wave is then a progression of the process occurring throughout Europe in general and responds to the historical social and political circumstances of Spain in particular. There is of course a strong patriarchal tradition in this country, reinforced by the conservative Catholic Church and the right-wing, reflected in literature in characters such as the infamous Don Juan and the more modern version of the “macho ibérico”.6 The behavior of the five rapists of the self-dominated “wolf pack” represents the vestiges of this Iberian male. The refusal of the Spanish courts to judge a gang rape as such, but rather to consider it a “sexual aggression”, reveals the deep-seated prejudices that continue to view the victim as a collaborator in her own assault, as guilty of provocation, and suspect of connivance in the act for not putting up greater resistance or showing signs of physical harm.

The fourth wave carries a lot of anger at the reiterative violence against women, but also outrage at the failure of the institutions to understand the structural dimensions of a deep-seated problem that pervades the legal, political and social establishment.

You have studied violence against women in Basque Country as well as the perception of equality and representations of gender by the new generation. You have given a lot of attention to the stereotypes of Basque woman and have stressed the conflictive character of Basque society. Have these elements (conflict and the stereotype of the strong Basque woman) in some way influenced Basque feminism?

I think there is an interesting tension here in the relationship between the stereotype of a strong Basque woman and the participation of women in different conflicts in the Basque Country. Of course, what a stereotype does is pick up on certain attributes (the good mother, obedient wife, dutiful daughter-in-law, hard worker) and reifies them, creating a picture of one woman out of many different women, a sort of standardized version that becomes the norm and the model one should aspire to. If we look around for this standard Basque woman, I am sure we can find some examples, but they are only examples among a variety of other possibilities. The stereotype overshadows the alternatives, as the anthropologist Teresa del Valle7 and her team showed with the ground-breaking work Mujer vasca: imagen y realidad (Basque Woman: Image and Reality) (Del Valle et al., 1985). In this piece of research, published in 1985, the team explored the representations of Basque women in mythology, anthropology and history, and then carried out empirical research on contemporary women in rural, coastal and urban areas to see whether the image was projected in present-day reality. What they found was that the Basque women were no stronger, no more independent or satisfied than their counterparts in other parts of the Spanish or French states.

In terms of the Basque political conflict, we can cite the work of Begoña Aretxaga8 who wrote in 1988 about the role of mothers at the funerals of their sons or daughters who had died for the cause of Basque freedom (Aretxaga, 1988). Here the women appear as both mothers of freedom fighters and of the nation, but the author shows them in a critical light, where the women are forced to behave according to the traditional concept of the Basque woman as mother, representing the family and destined to be both biological and symbolic mothers. So, Aretxaga picks up on the critique of the role of women in traditional society, also apparent in the work on women who were active in Basque Country and Freedom (ETA- Euskadi Ta Askatasuna) such as Maria Dolores González Katarain, subject of a film by Helena Taberna that carries her nom de guerre, “Yoyes” (2000), that explores the internal struggles of a woman who found herself discriminated against by her male counterparts and left the organization disenchanted by a political project which failed to treat women as equals. This decision cost Yoyes her life.

Outside of the political arena, we have conflict over women’s participation in the parades I mentioned earlier, where the image of the Basque woman who rules the roost from her kitchen, presides over her family at the table and manages the domestic finances is held up as an example of traditional feminine power that clashes with the demand for participation in decisions beyond the home and access to all walks of life, whether at work or play, in sacred or mundane activities. The women who oppose the egalitarian parade argue that they choose not to take part, that no one tells them what to do, that they are indeed Basque matriarchs who opt to participate as spectators, who enjoy themselves preparing the men’s clothes and meals and applauding them as they march past. They need no lessons from the feminists they say. The trouble with the feminists is that they break not only the mold of the strong mother, but also that of the beautiful and doting wife, the “flower vase” woman who has a merely decorative role as the cantinera reminiscent of the girls who served the troops and who now play a highly honoured and desirable part in the parade. But the cantinera has to be chosen from among many, her menfolk must campaign to win votes and she can only take part once in her lifetime.

The feminist cause is clearly seen in this particular polemic: it challenges the stereotypes of Basque women in their particular representation of “matriarch”, but it also challenges a more universal model of woman-as-object, to be revered or abused, but never as a subject with agency to choose the part they want to play and how they want to perform it.

In your studies with Carmen Diez (Bullen & Diez, 2010) and Jone Miren Hernández (Hernández & Bullen, 2017) and of course in your book Basque Gender Studies (Bullen, 2003), you raise the question, why is it that the notion of a Basque matriarchy survives and is defended especially in the realm of nationalist ideology? What are the conclusions of your research up to now?

It is particularly interesting –although also tiresome– to observe the ongoing and rather stubborn fixation with the Basque matriarchy. Many people still harp on the idea of Basque women being matriarchs and time and again the topic comes up at a conversation over dinner or in a class at the university. The myth is certainly pervasive and every now and then, it is revived with greater or lesser force, but always with longing and nostalgia, and a degree of hurt pride. Pride for what was (supposedly) special about the ancient Basque people, but what has been lost in the annals of time or been denied by the feminist anthropologists who have knocked the theory flat.

We have recently witnessed just such an attempt to bring back to life the languishing matriarch and this time her defenders have reared their heads in a particularly ugly way. Just over a week ago, the Basque language newspaper Berria published an article of opinion by two men, signing as members of Biltzarre-Euskal Sena (The Quintessential Basque Assembly , in reference to the essential quality which defines a people or nation) which on consultation on the internet reveals itself to be a conservative and essentialist Basque cultural group. The article is entitled, “Teresa del Valle: The lost opportunity to know the Basque woman” and begins with reference to the prize awarded by Eusko Ikaskuntza (the Society for Basque Studies) to this octogenarian in recognition of her research. Rather than pay tribute to Del Valle’s long career and contribution to feminist anthropology, the article casts doubt on the award and the research it considers to be questionable, laying blame on the anthropologist for dismissing the matriarchy thesis without ever having investigated it sufficiently.

That this article should be published now, over thirty years after the book was written can only be understood in terms of the conservative backlash which is being experienced across the Spanish state and other parts of Europe at this time. It seems to have come out of the blue, but it is no more than an attempt to turn the clocks back, to drag out of the mists of time an ideal woman who may or may not have existed (no one has prevented anyone else from pursuing research in this line) and at the same time discredit the work of a distinguished anthropologist who rather than close the door on enquiry into the nature of Basque women, opened it wide for future generations of researchers who have followed in her footsteps, who today take courses in the Master’s and Doctoral Programme in Feminist and Gender Studies at the University of the Basque Country. I myself am one of them.

In your writings we come across this mythical figure, Mari. What is the role that this myth plays in the construction of Basque nationalism and the defense of tradition?

The myth of Mari is at the heart –or should I say root– of the Basque matriarchal thesis and that is fine, as long as we take it as a myth. As such it is part of the Basque cultural heritage, part of tales that the anthropologist and priest José Miguel de Barandarian gathered while in exile across the border in the French Basque village of Sare, stories that have been reworked for children’s books, puppet shows and plays.

Mari, a Stone Age goddess, is comparable to other goddesses of fertility found across Europe from Siberia to the Pyrenees. Mari is at the same time the Earth Mother –Ama Lur– a motif that appears in many mythologies, a goddess embodying the bounty of the earth and representing fertility and motherhood.

What is interesting –and perhaps the cause of the later confusion– is that the work of Barandiaran links the contemporary Basque rural women to prehistoric society centred on the goddess, and he does this by emphasizing the role of Basque women in the family and religion. He describes, on the one hand, their responsibility for the domestic chores on the farm, including bringing up the children and teaching them the Basque culture and language and, on the other, their part in rituals, especially those of birth and death.

Together with the historian Julio Caro Baroja, Barandiaran defends the egalitarian and even matrilineal nature of traditional Basque society in the past. This idea is taken to mythical proportions when it is linked by the philosopher Andrés Ortiz-Osés to the existence of an underlying matriarchal structure that pervades individual and collective consciousness from time immemorial till now.

It is this idealized picture of the strong Basque woman of mythical proportions which is taken up by Basque nationalism and associated with images of mothers, the Earth, the Virgin Mary and the Homeland. In the Basque language the word mother or “Ama” is connected to all these terms: Amabirjina (Virgin Mother), Ama Aberria (Motherland), and Ama Lur (Mother Earth). The mother figure is thus elevated over the rest of humanity and held up as a model of purity and good. At the same time, she is seen to be responsible for perpetuating the race, transmitting the language and maintaining the family..

So, I think we can see that the problem is that the myth of Mari becomes muddled with the idealized image of the Basque woman, used to suit nationalist ends, harping back to an idealised past and projecting the image of a paradise lost but which may be recuperated. An alternative proposal is made by Carmen Diez in an article published in 1999, where instead of using Mari to set in stone the ideal Basque woman, focuses on the goddess’s ambiguous nature, both female and male, devil and angel, forgiving and punishing. She suggests that Mari could be a model of androgyny and that if interpreted in this way, could provide a more interesting, progressive and fluid model for Basque women today.

You form part of a historical feminist academic group of social anthropologists, based at the University of the Basque Country, one of the oldest and most emblematic in Gender Studies in the Spanish state. Could you name some of the most important historical moments of this group and some of its main contributions to gender studies?

You know your question makes me feel proud to be considered part of this group and at the same time humbled by the thought of our responsibility towards those who look to us and come to study with us.

I think it might be useful not only to review the development of feminist anthropology in the Basque Country but also to situate it in the context of the Spanish state. (Jone Miren Hernández and I have done such a review for the module on Feminist Anthropology that opens the UPV’s online Master’s course in Equality for Women and Men, directed at the training of Agents in Equality). Incidentally, this postgraduate course –together with the University of Deusto’s Master’s on Sexual Violence– has just won the Emakunde annual prize awarded by the Basque Institute of Women’s Affairs). We can identify three main periods in the evolution of feminist anthropology in the Spanish state:

1) The first is the period of the pioneers, those anthropologists who began to research, write and publish their own work as well as direct projects before 1985 and who have on the whole remained reference points for those who came after. These pioneering women are: María Jesús Buxó, Teresa del Valle, Dolores Juliano y Verena Stolcke.

2) The second period, 1985-1990, is one of expansion with the arrival of Begoña Aretxaga, Dolors Comas, Carmen Díez, Virginia Maquieira, Lourdes Méndez, Susana Narotzky and Britt-Marie Thurén.

3) Finally, we have the period of consolidation, from 1990 on, when courses with feminist content are incorporated into anthropology degrees across the country and those who had trained with the pioneers and their disciples enter academe as lecturers and researchers. In the University of the Basque Country, we can name Txemi Apaolaza (now retired), Mari Luz Esteban, Jone Miren Hernández, Elixabete Imaz and Miren Urkijo, all Ph.D students of Teresa del Valle.

If we turn our attention to feminist anthropology in the Basque Country we can point to certain milestones, the first being the emergence of the Basque feminist movement as a structured organization in 1976, the year that the first provincial assemblies were celebrated in Bilbao and that March 8 was commemorated for the first time. The next milestone is the first feminist conference in Leioa (Bizkaia) in 1977 where some 3,000 women gathered to discuss sexuality, work and education. It is against this backdrop that feminist anthropology begins to make elbow room in the academy, with Teresa del Valle and her team landing the first José Miguel de Barandiaran grant for ethnography in March 1981. This paves the way for the creation of the Seminar for Women’s Studies in Donostia-San Sebastián, the place where I first headed when I arrived in the area and went looking for Teresa del Valle, having read a newspaper article about her and her work. It is that grant that led to the publication of Basque Woman. Image and Reality (Del Valle 1985), a work which marked a turning point in the vision and discourse on Basque women and as we have seen above, continues to be the cause of controversy.

ΣIn the years following Basque Woman, Basque feminist anthropology works in sync with the general interest in uncovering cultural mechanisms which hide the structures of inequality, in this case in the Basque context. Among the themes taken up by feminist researchers are the relationship between women, language and cultural transmission. Bertsolarismo (the improvisation of verse) which has become a prominent area of change in Basque language art and performance, with many women joining what was typically a male-dominated field and not simply joining in but contributing to change in the content and style of the verses. And the field of festivals and rituals has also been the subject of numerous studies and this is where my own work has been centred since the conflict over women’s participation in the Alardes since 1996, (Bullen, 1997), leading to other studies both in the Basque country and linking up with others in the Spanish state.

But beyond the bounds of what is understood to be Basque culture we must emphasize other areas of great interest to feminism. One of the main areas of interest introduced in Basque feminist studies largely by Mari Luz Esteban is the body. In relation to this we have studies on health, sexuality, and reproduction and more recently emotions, especially the critique of romantic love and its relationship to gender violence. The innovative approach adopted by Esteban is rather than contemplate the body as object of analysis and debate, she approaches it as nexus of social practices, generator of discourse and imaginaries. The focus on the body has also led to other areas of research that link in to issues high on the public agenda at present such as the promotion of girls and women in sport, questions of prostitution or new reproductive technologies and surrogate motherhood. Other topics derive from the Basque social and political context and the relation to friendship and women’s associations, women in prison, sexism in left-wing organisations, masculinity and men. There is also work going on in relation to migration and diversity in Basque society as well as in another two of Teresa del Valle’s preferred lines of enquiry: memory as methodology and the study of space.

Speaking from my experience as a PhD student enrolled in the doctoral program in feminist and gender studies, I have felt that I form part of a feminist community in the UPV. PhD students, post-doctoral researchers and teaching staff discuss and participate in common research projects, seminars and research groups. I believe that these practices are not just a paradigm of what a feminist methodology is like, but also of what you call “participant epistemology” (Bullen, 2017). What is the philosophy behind this horizontality?

The philosophy behind horizontality of learning is one that I feel emerges from practice in both the Spanish and the Basque case. I have always felt that democracy is an almost sacred concept in post-Franco Spain and that people highly value collective decision-making and put a lot of effort into strategies to seek consensus rather than any particular person dictating what should be done. It is interesting that egalitarianism is considered to be a particularly Basque value that also has its mythical roots in the goddess Mari’s invitation to mortals to address her in the informal “zu” (“you”) form, carried over into the traditional assemblies which gathered under the Tree of Gernika or other emblematic trees to decide on local affairs in the Middle Ages. And where democracy meets feminism, it is only to be expected that this should be applied to education, particularly at the university level and especially in anthropology where we work from the premise that all culture and therefore all knowledge is “constructed”. So what better than the collective construction of learning, where we advance by sharing, by dialogue and discussion? I think we have inherited a feminist way of doing in Spanish and Basque anthropology, which stems from the close relationship between researchers, not always a straightforward nor a smooth one, but a network which materializes in the participation in seminars, conferences and research groups, and which functions to nurture the links of reciprocity between individuals.

Has the feminist movement stimulated the work of your research group and its debates? If yes, in what way?

I think the great thing about our work is that we are linked to and constantly open to the challenges and critique of the feminist movement. In the research group, I would say most of the members are involved in one way or another with militancy or activities which, if not strictly feminist, are linked to other kinds of protest groups or social and political activism. Many of the members of the AFIT (the Feminist Anthropology Research Group) belong or subscribe to Bilgune Feminista, a Basque feminist organization created in 2002, declaring its mission to be to fight against a triple oppression of class, social and national oppression and sex-gender oppression.

I again have to cite Teresa who taught me that this was the fundamental and obligatory nature of feminist anthropology, what kept it alert, challenged, on the ball, what made it fresh and relevant.

Your book Basque Gender Studies is dedicated to Teresa del Valle, without whom, as you note in your dedication, Basque Gender Studies would not be what they are today. How has the work of Teresa del Valle influenced your work?

I think it must be evident by now that Teresa del Valle has been a huge influence both in Basque gender studies as a whole and in my own feminist anthropology. I have to say that my early work was not Basque and was not feminist, my doctoral research was on popular culture and communications in the shanty towns of Arequipa, Peru (Bullen, 1993) and though I worked with women I did not incorporate a gender-sensitive perspective.

It was when the conflict over the participation of women in the Alardes of Irun and Hondarribia erupted that I went to Teresa and told her about what was going on. I was perplexed. I didn’t know how to take on the resistance of the majority of the population who seemed to be defending their culture and felt that the proposed change was an assault on part of their heritage which –as a minority but distinctive culture in the Spanish state– already comes under attack incessantly. I had been taught that anthropology was about understanding people from the people, getting close to them, listening to their side of the story, not taking sides. So here was a dilemma. How did you go about analyzing such a conflict? Feminist anthropology, Maggie, said Teresa, feminist anthropology.

In your article «Antropología feminista, antropología aplicada encuentros y desencuentros» (Bullen, 2012) you were writing about how you are situated in a triple epistemological crossroad of social, feminist and applied anthropology. I think that, in a way, your work is marked by a constant struggle to create synergies between those three fields. How comfortable do you feel in this tension?

Well this is the tension within which I work, this is Marilyn Starthern’s “awkward relationship” (Strathern, 1987), doing anthropology trying to work out why people do things in the way they do, and at the same time, adopting a critical take where we find inequality, where we find women’s rights denied or obstructed. Is it so different from other kinds of anthropologies that discover injustices?

Donna Haraway pointed the way of making feminist anthropology epistemologically possible by giving us the key concept of “situated knowledge”. This recognizes that no science is neutral, that objectivity doesn’t exist, that it is shaped by our own subjectivity with all our intellectual “baggage” (our training, our theoretical framework) and our own personality and particularities (particularly in social anthropology where we are our own instruments). Also, scientific production is the fruit of choices made, choices which depend on the relationships we establish and the networks we make (whom we talk to, whom we have access to, how well we empathize, how well we are received).

But it doesn’t have to lack scientificity. Our work is not just one long party, not just participate and observe, not just a few interviews with friendly people. It is a planned project following tried and tested methodologies, adopting specific techniques and drawing up the profiles of the kind of people we need to get to. It requires systematization, writing up and revision of fieldnotes, painstaking transcription of interviews, and a careful analysis informed by the theories we have read and applied and reworked.

And if we want this analysis to be more than a great read, more than art for art’s sake, or anthropology for anthropology’s sake (which I do believe in, as a student who managed to get through before Margaret Thatcher axed British education –as well as the National Health Service) then we need to confront the third axis of my epistemological crossroads: applied anthropology.

Finally, what are you working on now?

Right now we have a big project that involves both AFIT and two other research groups in the UPV, one from political sciences and one form communication studies. We are working together on the links between different kinds of activism in the Basque Country today: feminism, political participation, movements to promote the Basque language, diversity and migration, and ecology. My particular role so far has to been to analyze the synergies between associations working along these lines in the town of Renteria (Gipuzkoa), taking as a starting point the project to build a “Women’s house” currently under construction. We have received support both from the Spanish ministry of Economy and Competitivity and the provincial council for our research and just completed the first phase.

I am also finishing up another project in conjunction with Medicus Mundi Gipuzkoa and Farapi (a consultancy for Applied Anthropology which I helped found and with which I continue to collaborate). This one is about the use and possible abuse of social networks by young people in the Basque Country and Peru, where we have been working in collaboration with the feminist organization Manuela Ramos. The project is entitled “Is love something beautiful that is controlled online? The virtual management of relations among the Basque and Peruvian youth”. This is an applied project which is aimed to design educational materials for youth workers to implement in the prevention of gender violence among young people.

At the same time, I continue to follow the theme of gender, change and ritual and have just been invited to join a project on immaterial heritage and gender inequality, looking at the legal aspects of the transformation of traditional practices in Spain in collaboration with the Open University (UNED), Carlos III University of Madrid and the Interuniversity Institute for Cultural Communication. We will be starting on this project in 2019, examining from an anthropological and legal perspective the social conflicts that have arisen over moves for more equal participation in certain festive traditions.

And I cannot finish without mentioning my doctoral students and other companions with whom I work regularly and with some of whom I take part in the Decolonial Feminist Reading group where we meet once a month in an alternative bookshop, Kaxilda, to thrash out some of the issues of present day feminism and the challenges it poses for us all.



1 Nagore Laffage, a twenty year-old student, was brutally murdered during the festival of San Fermin in Pamplona in 2008, when she refused to have sex with José Diego Yllanes. It was during that same festival in 2016 that a woman was gang raped by five men calling themselves “La Manada”.

2 Alardes are traditional parades which take place in the Basque cities of Irun and Hondarribia in memoriam of local victories against invading troops in 1522 and 1638 respectively.

3 “Yo te Creo Hermana” (I believe you sister) is a Spanish slogan that was used massively following the rape of the young woman in La Manada case.

4 “Ni una menos” (Not one {woman} less) is a popular slogan of the women’s movement in Argentina against the rise in murders of women.

5 La Manada case concerns the group rape of a woman by a gang consisting of five men, including a member of the Spanish Armed Forces and another of the Civil Guard, which took place in Pamplona on July 7, 2016, during the San Fermín festivities. The case was named “La manada” (“the wolfpack”) after the WhatsApp group’s name through which the gang planned their rapes and exchanged videos and photographs of their attacks. During the rapists’ trial there was an attempt to downplay the rape and present it as a consensual act. A great wave of support for the woman was developed under the slogan “I believe you sister”. In June 2018, the rapists were condemned by the Court of Navarra to serve nine years in prison, clearing them of charges of sexual aggression, however, and finding them guilty only of sexual abuse. This led to a new wave of feminist demonstrations.

6 Spanish macho male. It is the stereotype of Spanish masculinity that was linked to the movies of Alfredo Landa during the last period of Francoism and the Transition.

7 Teresa Del Valle (1937) is a Basque anthropologist. She was the first woman to introduce studies of social anthropology in the University of Basque Country. Her work marked the birth and evolution of Basque gender studies.

8 Begoña Aretxaga (1960-2002) was a Basque anthropologist, feminist and queer activist known for her work on the intersections of violence, nationalism, gender and sexuality in both the Basque Country and Northern Ireland. She lectured at Princeton, Harvard and the University of Austin. Her 1989 study on Basque separatist funerals and her 1997 study of separatist women in Northern Ireland (Shattering Silence: Women, Nationalism and Political Subjectivity in Northern Ireland) have won international acclaim and have been influential in ethnic studies, European cultural studies, gender studies as well as in anthropology.



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