Luis Rubiales kisses Jenni Hermoso after Spain won the FIFA Women’s World Cup 2023 final in Sydney, August 20, 2023 (Photo: Alamy)
#SEACABÓ. IT IS OVER. In a country that is often associated with a culture of machismo, women in Spain are unequivocally stating that putting up with sexist behaviour “is over.” It’s an Iberian MeToo moment that had found its upswell not on the casting couches of movie sets, nor in corporate offices, but on the football field.
In late August, the Spanish women’s football team pulled off a historic win in the final of the World Cup. It was a moment of athletic triumph that had the watching crowd in Sydney’s Accor stadium on their feet in celebration. Among the fans was the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, Luis Rubiales, whose response was to clutch his crotch in what he later claimed was a celebratory gesture.
So far, so crass. The #SeAcabó moment came later, when while congratulating the players, Rubiales pulled one of them, Jenni Hermoso, into an unsolicited clinch that included grabbing her head and pressing her clenched lips to his.
Over the next few weeks, Spain was gripped in a soap opera-like drama, with Rubiales casting himself as the victim of an overly woke witch hunt, by “false feminists.” He insisted that the kiss was but a consensual peck, despite Hermoso’s statements to the contrary, not to speak of the televised footage available for all to see. He cast his critics as “idiots”, and gave a defiant speech before the football federation’s members, in which he vowed not to resign. Many in the audience applauded, and the federation went on to issue communiqués that backed Rubiales’ version and questioned Hermoso’s integrity.
The players of the winning team of the World Cup refused to represent their country again until changes were made in the football federation’s leadership. “It’s not a peck, it’s assault,” chanted demonstrators in central Madrid, demanding Rubiales’ resignation. #SeAcabó filled social media posts. The male players of the top football team, Sevilla FC, wore shirts with “#SeAcabó” in a show of solidarity. World football’s governing body, FIFA, suspended Rubiales, and Spanish prosecutors opened an investigation to decide whether he could face sexual assault charges. And yet, he hung on.
It took until September 10 for Rubiales to finally, reluctantly, step down, but not before issuing a press release criticising the pressure exerted by “parallel powers” and the “disproportionate campaign” against him.
WHAT THIS EPISODE highlights however is not how bad the situation for women is in Spain, but how much it has improved. It is a moment to appreciate just how far the country has come from the days in which a church-backed, patriarchal culture, sharply circumscribed the life possibilities of most women, to the current situation, where the country is amongst the most gender-equal in Europe.
When Spain’s first, post-Franco, left-wing government (1982-96) pulled the country out of its isolationist Francoist past, towards a European ‘modernity’, an orgy of personal liberalisation resulted. This was perhaps encapsulated by Pedro Almodóvar’s movies, which showcased the almost anarchic energy of 1980s street life in Madrid.
Yet, deep-rooted patriarchy is not easy to erase. In the 1990s, the country was aghast by the case of Ana Orantes, a woman who went public about domestic abuse at the hand of her ex-husband and who was killed shortly thereafter by him, in revenge. The case was emblematic of how violence against women remained a fact of life in Spain.
Spain was gripped in a soap opera-like drama, with Rubiales casting himself as the victim of an overly woke witch hunt, by ‘false feminists.’ He insisted that the kiss was but a consensual peck, despite Hermoso’s statements to the contrary, not to speak of the televised footage available for all to see
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It was really during the country’s second socialist government, under José Luis Zapatero (2003-11), that Spain embarked on the path that today makes it one of the best places in Europe for women. Zapatero passed a gender-violence law, filled half the cabinet with women, and liberalised abortion. In the 2022 UN Gender Inequality Index, Spain fared significantly better than the US and the UK, and above most European Union countries, including Germany and Belgium. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2022 Global Gender Gap Report, Spain ranked 17 out of 146 countries. Of note is how it is one of the world’s most equal economies, in that the pay gap between men and women is under 10 per cent.
Moreover, all three deputy prime ministers in Spain today are women, as are the ministers of economy, finance, labour, justice, defence and industry. In the aftermath of the Rubiales ‘peck’, politicians both male and female, from the left and right, were unanimous in calling for him to resign. Women now make up 43 per cent of Spain’s Congress and 40 per cent of its Senate.
One barometer of the distance travelled by Spain on gender issues is to compare the Rubiales case with that of Nevenka Fernández, a local councillor in the northern city of Ponferrada. In 2001, Fernández filed a sexual harassment complaint against the then-mayor Ismael Álvarez. Although he was eventually found guilty, unlike Rubiales, Álvarez received widespread public and political support. It was Fernández who was stigmatised and eventually hounded out of the country.
SOME OF THE supposed pro-woman legislation enacted in recent years has been badly thought out, perhaps the result of speed over sense, given the political pressure to perform popular feminist policies. For example, in 2022, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez enacted a new law that did away with older distinctions between harassment and rape. It dropped the lesser charge of sexual abuse and classed all violations as sexual assault, which has stiffer penalties.
The unintended consequence, however, was a more indulgent approach to some serious cases (even as “minor” ones were treated more harshly, as was intended). Some 1,000 dangerous criminals—including rapists and paedophiles—have had their sentences reduced since. Of these, over 100 have so far gained early release from prison.
Again, earlier this year, Spain passed a law allowing women with especially painful periods to take paid “menstrual leave” from work, in a European first. The leave requires a doctor’s note and the public social security system will foot the bill. However, people remain divided over whether the law will prove a disincentive for employing women in the first place, rather than improving their lot.
BUT ALTHOUGH THERE are those, particularly on the political right, who believe Spain’s pro-women pendulum has swung so far as to almost become anti-men, in fact, there is still work to be done before any kind of genuine gender level playing field can be declared. Sport is but one example. Only one of the country’s 17 regional sporting federations complies with a 2022 law stipulating that 40 per cent of their members must be women. But perhaps, #SeAcabó.
What is certain is that women’s rights will be up front and centre in political developments as the country scrambles to find a lasting government, following the hung parliament that July’s elections threw up.
Fifty years ago, Spanish women were second-class citizens. Today, attitudes to women resemble those in Scandinavia more than in neighbouring countries, like France and Italy where the #MeToo movement has faced considerable pushback. Spain’s #MeToo, in fact, began long before Hollywood actresses spoke out against Harvey Weinstein in 2017. Rubiales excepted, there are few countries where the simple act of a woman going out by herself for a stroll in the evening, is in fact a simple act. Spain is one of them.
Pallavi Aiyar is an award-winning foreign correspondent who has spent the last two decades reporting from China, Europe, Indonesia and Japan. Her most recent book is Orienting: An Indian in Japan. She is a contributor to Open