Gender Equality in Spain: A Slow Burner That Has Finally Caught Flame

by Tilly Brogan

This Friday 8th of March, International Women’s Day will be celebrated around the world. In many countries this day marks a celebration of what it means to be a woman, but in Spain, it is a day of protest; last year, the March 8 feminist strike saw more than 5.3 million women stop working. Hundreds of thousands of women took to the street to protest and show that ‘if we stop, the world stops.’

But this day hasn’t always been celebrated so passionately in Spain. Just a few years ago, International Women’s Day was scarcely notable, and what little protest that did take place was more a fringe event than a revolutionary riot. Compare this to the 2011 International Women’s Day in America when then president Barack Obama announced that we ought to celebrate not just a Women’s Day, but a Women’s History Month. As always, because of Franco’s detrimental dictatorship, Spain’s fight for women’s rights lags behind its occidental neighbours.

The truth is that the fight for female equality started before Franco came to power in 1939, namely in the work of Clara Campoamor: one of the main driving forces behind women’s suffrage in Spain. Campoamor fought to establish gender non-discrimination, legal equality for children born in and out of wedlock, equality within divorce, and after successfully winning a parliamentary debate against those opposed to the female vote, universal suffrage. Thanks to Campoamor, in 1933, women voted for the first time. They could do so just once more before Franco revoked their right six years later.

But Franco’s twisted vision of a future Spain that dragged women back into the past fuelled the fire of many women living in the present. On the 5th of August 1939, 13 women (including 7 underage girls) were shot dead by a Francoist firing squad for being members of an organisation created by Spanish Socialist and Communist youth groups. These women were charged with conspiring against the “social and legal order of the new Spain”, meeting in secret and sharing feminist views considered radical in their time. Before their execution, they were subject to Gestapo style interrogations like electric shocks on the eyes and genitals, the removal of fingernails with pliers, and abhorrent rape and sexual abuse. The assassination of Las Trece Rosas, the thirteen roses, is known as one of the most cruel and inhumane assassinations of 20th century Spain.

Franco’s abhorrent oppression of women during his dictatorship not only destroyed the monumental groundwork made by women such as Clara Campoamor and the Las Trece Rosas, but completely reversed it. It wasn’t until Spain started their transition to a democratic state in 1975 that they realised how far other countries had come in terms of gender equality, and how far behind they really were.

But how much has really changed since this realisation? Every year roughly 7,000 cases of rape are reported in Spain, a figure thought only to be 20% of the true number of assaults committed. The country’s deeply rooted machismo culture prevents victims from reporting sex crimes, meaning that on average there are more like 35,000 cases of rape every year in Spain. That’s almost 100 each day.

Spain’s most high-profile rape case happened just three years ago in 2016. The Manada, or Wolf Pack case, saw five men in their mid-20’s gang rape an 18 year-old girl during Pamplona’s annual Running of the Bulls, filming the attack on their phones and posting it in a WhatsApp group under previous messages which read “I’ve got pills at bargain prices. For raping”. The court ruled out the possibility of coercion, stating that those involved had merely ‘abused their power.’ The reason why? The girl showed no signs of physically struggling against the men; she told the court she had been frozen in terror. At the start of this year, the court dismissed the request of the City of Pamplona to imprison the convicts until final sentencing. They are now on parole and allowed to move through the country freely as they please.

Is it Franco’s legacy that is preventing the fight for gender equality from moving forward in Spain? I was shocked to find out about the creation of the Francisco Franco National Foundation, formed just one year after his death, which works to promote a positive image of the late dictator. It seems that as long as Franco’s memory is alive, so are his repressive views against women and women’s rights.

But something is changing. On the evening that those involved in the Wolf Pack case were sentenced, thousands of women and men across the whole of Spain took to the streets in outrage. The backlash was astonishing, sparking anger in high-profile politicians like Socialist party leader Pedro Sanchez – now prime minister of Spain- who tweeted ‘if what the ‘wolfpack’ did wasn’t group violence against a defenceless woman, then what do we understand by rape?’

The fire is finally burning, but it is spreading faster online. There are now hundreds of instagram accounts dedicated to the fight for gender equality in Spain. Pages that report cases of rape and abuse that haven’t made the news, as well as feminist artists that are transforming real life cases of machismo, into fictional cartoons and drawings. Social media has become crucial in spreading a message that wasn’t reaching enough ears, promoting powerful posts that are capturing the world with their wit but also with their chilling content.

How much longer until Spain catches up with its neighbours? With the Wolf Pack case happening just over two years ago, it still feels like there is a long way to go before Spain comes anywhere close to making the same sort of progress that others made decades ago. But the country is finally waking up, and I am proud of its determination to move on from its past and focus on its future. I can see it in my friend Mireia, who sat down with me and told me everything she knew about Spain’s feminist force. I can see it in my student Laia, who looked at me in awe when I told her about my country’s monumental fight for women’s suffrage. And I am starting to see it in myself, as each day I become prouder of the country which I now call my home. I am proud to be a woman in not one, but two different countries- and not many people can say that.


Image Credit: Moderna de Pueblo