Trigger Warning: This piece contains material about
domestic and sexual violence (assault and rape).
Written by: Paula Koller
Edited by: Abigail Goh
While Spain still battles with dozens of women killed at the hands of men every year, they also celebrate the strides they have achieved against sexual violence.
As 120,000 people take part in the 8M Women’s March in Madrid, they look ahead at the work that has yet to be done: end violence against women, close the gender pay gap, increase women’s rights in the workplace. However, they also look back at what they’ve achieved just a few days before the march took place: the approval of a landmark bill that qualifies all non-consensual sex as rape.
Spain’s women’s rights movement has manifested itself as a political force with which to be reckoned. Spain is home to the severe disease of Machismo: aggressive masculine pride and the belief of superiority over the female gender. However, it is also home to some of the world’s largest women’s marches in Europe, and its protests have changed the ways in which the law recognises sexual violence. Shouting “No es No, lo demás es violación” (“No means no, the rest is rape”), this year’s march reminded us of the strides that women's protests have achieved in the last few months.
Scale back to July 2016, when rape is only constituted as such when physical aggression and intimidation are clearly used against the victim. The consequences of this were detrimental to a young 18-year old woman who visited the famous Pamplona bull races. As she walks home, five men offer to walk her to her car, but take her, instead, to the hall of an apartment building, and rape her one by one – all the while filming the assault on their phones. The men called themselves “La Manada” (“The Wolfpack”).
As is so often the case, instead of questioning the five men who gang-raped a girl, the interrogation seemed fixated on the young victim, and her indolent reaction. Defence lawyers exhibited 96 seconds of the filmed video footage, showing the victim as immobile and with her eyes shut – this was enough proof that she was consenting to “group sex”. They showed footage of the victim smiling with friends days after the assault – this was enough proof that she was not suffering any lasting trauma. They stated that the woman was drunk and under the influence of drugs – this was enough proof that she was consenting to this sexual act.
Because the victim was motionless (due to the shock), closed her eyes (to not see what was happening to her), and did not fight back (because they were five grown men versus one woman), the prosecution found the “Wolf Pack” guilty only of sexual abuse, not rape. They argued that there was no proof of violence and intimidation, which are necessary to file for rape charges. As a result, they were sentenced to 9 years imprisonment, 5 years probation, and a reparations payment of €10,000 for the victim.
It is not surprising to say that public outrage to this ruling was flammable. Days after the pronouncement by the lower court in Pamplona, social protests began gathering in all parts of Spain. Women came out in support of the victim, repudiating the defendant’s excuses for this rape. It sparked a national conversation about consent and how its definition is vital to how we view and prosecute sexual violence.
Protesters stated that physical aggression should not be a prerequisite for these acts to be constituted as rape. Women should not have to become “dead heroines” because they risk their lives fighting off rapists, just so there is proof that they were raped. Similarly, they argued that immobility should not be proof of an agreement with the sexual act. Victims respond to rape in different ways and behaviours – none of which show that they consent to the attack.
The public reaction showed an intense display of solidarity. Social protests as a reaction to the Manada case sparked an astonishing cultural movement, in line with the global Zeitgeist of a new wave of feminism. 5.3 million women were out on the streets, nationwide, protesting the court’s decision. University lectures were cancelled, women took days off work, mothers took their daughters with them. Shouts were heard across the nation:
“Tranquila hermana, aquí esta tu manada”
"Relax sister, your Wolf Pack is here."
The extraordinary showing of solidarity, support, and camaraderie sparked such a movement that the sentence was revisited by the Spanish Supreme Court. In June 2019, they reversed the lower court’s ruling and affirmed that indeed, the five men were guilty of rape. The Supreme Court upgraded the sentences from sexual abuse to sexual assault, increasing their imprisonment to 15 years. The sentence stated that the victim was intimidated and could not offer any resistance to the attack – as such, the crime was rape. The sentence ordered a restraining order to protect the victim of 500 metres for a period of 20 years, and reparations totalling €100,000.
Amnesty International has stated that in three-fourths of EU member states, rape is only then legally recognised when physical violence, threats, or coercion are involved. Moreover, the victim has to have shown resistance to these attacks. The movements sparked a conversation on how to prevent such unfair ruling to occur again. Spain investigated the legislation that permitted the perspective that the victim was consenting to gang rape.
As a response, Spain’s left-wing government, consisting of the Socialists (PSOE) and Unidos Podemos approved a draft bill changing the penal code, classifying any non-consensual sex as rape. Sentences for rape are also suggested to increase for up to 15 years, while judges can pass tougher sentences if violence or drugs are used to incapacitate the victim, or if the rape classifies as “Intimate-Partner Violence”.
This bill was the work of Irene Montero, Spain’s Minister for Equality from the Unidos Podemos party. However, although it was approved by the government, it now faces scrutiny in parliament – which has increasingly been dominated by right-wing conservative rhetoric. The extreme right-wing party Vox has pledged to scrap this and any gender violence law that protects women over men. One of their MPs, Jorge Buxade, has stated that this law “discriminated unfairly in favour of women and against men”. Whilst Cayetana Alvarez de Toledo from the Popular Party asked whether “we are going to convert all sexual relations into a process of interrogation?”.
The proposed bill would make Spain the first country in the Council of Europe to implement legislation that covers all the recommendations of the Istanbul Convention focusing on the prevention and combatting of Violence Against Women. However, the stark resistance of the right shows that the fight is far from over.
This brings us back to the 8th of March 2020. While the bill was a landmark change in the progress towards ending Gender-Based Violence, protecting women from attack, and fairly defending women subject to rape, the 8M march participants knew the battle continued. They continue fighting against an increasing populism, a rising conservative movement, and growing misogynistic rhetoric.
The women’s movement needs to highlight the continued Violence Against Women, which, since 2003 has already killed 1047 women. 38 have been killed just this year, 30 of which had not pressed charges, and 22 of which were killed by their partner. During the Covid-19 pandemic, calls to domestic violence hotlines have already increased by 60%, showing that women are increasingly in danger trapped in their homes with their violent partners.
Women are also fighting for equal pay, stricter workplace legislation against sexual harassment, more comprehensive maternity leave, fairer distribution of income, care, and domestic work. The 8M march showed us that despite the change in legislation, and the successes achieved this last year, women’s protests are far from over. In fact, their legislative win only shows that they have to continue their plight, as social movements can create progressive and sustainable change.
So, while we wait for our cities to turn purple again, for flocks of women to retake public spaces, for street noise to be drowned out by feminist chants and slogans, let us remember the power of social movements, the power of public protests, the power of women: “Con derechos, sin barreras, feministas sin fronteras” (With rights, without barriers, feminists without frontiers).