By Marie-Louise Gumuchian
LONDON (Reuters) – Campaigners for gender equality took to European city streets on Friday to mark International Women’s Day with celebrations and protests, while in Turkey police fired tear gas to break up a crowd of several thousand women in Istanbul in the evening.
In Spain, hundreds of thousands of women, wearing purple and raising their fists, took to the streets of cities around the country calling for greater gender equality.
The issue has become deeply divisive in Spain ahead of a national election on April 28. A new far-right party, Vox, has called for a 2004 law on domestic violence against women to be scrapped, and stands to win dozens of seats, opinion polls show.
In Berlin, city authorities declared Women’s Day a formal holiday and thousands joined a colourful demonstration under sunny skies at the German capital’s Alexanderplatz.
In Paris, demonstrators from Amnesty International waved placards outside the Saudi Arabian embassy that read “Honk for women’s rights”, and called for the release of jailed women activists, including some campaigners for the right to drive in the deeply conservative kingdom.
In Athens and Kiev, women protesters demanded equality and an end to violence against women.
In Istanbul, Turkey’s largest city, hundreds called for the release of Syrian women in jail. But in the evening, Turkish police fired tear gas to break up a crowd gathered for a march, Reuters witnesses said.
Hundreds of riot police blocked the marchers’ path to prevent them advancing along the district’s main pedestrian avenue. Police then fired pepper spray and pellets containing tear gas to disperse the crowd, and scuffles broke out as they pursued the women into side streets off the avenue.
It was not clear if anyone was hurt or if people were detained.
Turkish police regularly block the staging of protests in central Istanbul and elsewhere. Ankara tightened restrictions after the imposition of emergency rule following an attempted coup in 2016. The state of emergency was lifted last July.
In Russia, where Women’s Day has been an important festival since Communist times, flowers and congratulatory messages decorated public spaces.
In Spain, one of the country’s largest unions, UGT, said an estimated 6 million people went on strike across the country for at least two hours to demand equal pay and rights for women.
Spain’s government said it would not provide estimates on the rate of participation.
“Many people are trying to demonize feminism while it has always been a fight for equality,” said Ana Sanz, 36, dressed in a red overcoat and white bonnet echoing the uniforms worn in the dystopian novel and TV series “The Handmaid’s Tale”.
Tens of thousands of women, mostly students, crammed streets and squares in the Spanish capital Madrid, chanting and carrying placards saying: “Liberty, Equality, Friendship” and “The way I dress does not change the respect I deserve!”
In Berlin’s Alexanderplatz, protester Anna Lob told Reuters she had been sexually assaulted during an internship.
“A male colleague grabbed my ass while I was standing in a circle with some men,” she said. “Physical assaults in any form or (sexist) comments, jokes or something you have to listen to over and over again – that is a form of discrimination.”
Also in Alexanderplatz, Paula Schramm said she had seen some moves towards greater equality but many women remained disadvantaged in their daily lives. “And that is why I am here. I want to change this so that it becomes equal at some point.”
In Paris, Cameroonian rights activist Aissa Doumara was honoured for her campaign against forced marriages by President Emmanuel Macron. At a ceremony at the Elysee Palace, he handed Doumara the first women’s rights prize dedicated to the late French minister and abortion campaigner Simone Veil.
Portuguese Prime Minister Antonio Costa joined a women’s rights protest in downtown Lisbon. “When there is a difference of 18 percent on average between the salary of men and women, disparity in political positions, and when there is barbarity such as gender violence, it’s a sign that there is still much to do in the fight for women’s rights,” he told the crowd.
Twelve women have died so far this year in domestic violence in Portugal.
“EMBRYONICKICKING OF FEMINISM”
In London, Meghan, Britain’s Duchess of Sussex, said she hoped the baby she is expecting this spring with Britain’s Prince Harry would follow in her feminist footsteps.
The ex-“Suits” actress made the comment during a Women’s Day panel discussion at King’s College London.
Asked how the “bump” – her first baby – was treating her, the 37-year-old told the audience: “Very well.”
“I’d seen this documentary on Netflix about feminism and one of the things they said during pregnancy was, ‘I feel the embryonic kicking of feminism’,” she said.
“I love that. So boy or girl or whatever it is, we hope that that’s the case, with our little bump.”
(Reporting by Sabela Ojea and Raul Cadenas in Madrid, Marie-Louise Gumuchian in London, Johnny Cotton in Paris, Catarina Demony in Lisbon, Andrea Shalal in Berlin and Reuters Television in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich)