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Spain is Letting Go of Its Machismo Past to Embrace International Women’s Day

Despite having a culture often more well-known for its machismo than support of women’s rights, Spain celebrated International Women’s Day with a bang and a proclamation of women’s rights.

Friday was International Women’s Day and while the holiday may trace its roots back to the Russian Revolution, it has become a day to champion for greater gender equality around the world. Spain only recently began celebrating the holiday to a large scale and is a good example of the recent worldwide growth of women’s rights movement.

How Did International Women’s Day Begin?

In 1917 after Soviet women won the right to vote, March 8 became a national holiday. Years earlier, a group of female socialists at the Second International conference in Copenhagen in 1910 unanimously voted to establish a “Woman’s Day” to foster awareness and support for women’s rights and the women’s suffrage movement.

The event was celebrated widely throughout Europe and the United States until around the time the Second World War ended, when many countries, including the United States, largely stopped celebrating the event due to its socialist origins. However, the holiday continued to be an important celebration in many socialist and communist counties.

In 1975, the United Nations adopted the holiday and since then, International Women’s Day has grown into a truly global event celebrated by people all around the world.

The Celebration in Spain

Yesterday in Madrid, International Women’s Day was celebrated by a city-wide general strike as well as a massive demonstration that marched from the bustling Atocha Train Station to the Plaza de Espana, where a declaration of women’s rights was publicly announced.

The event was also celebrated by fine and performance arts events throughout the city, some of which will continue through the end of March.

International Women’s Day only became a major event in Spain recently, last year to be exact, due to repression during the Francoist era and a prevailing culture of “machismo” in government and politics. “Machismo” is the general Spanish term for sexism: catcalling women in the street, supporting policies that deny them access to basic rights, and generally being in favor of attitudes that oppress the female population of the country.

Puerta de Sol on the eve of International Women's Day/photo credit: Will Bacha

Puerta de Sol on the eve of International Women’s Day/photo credit: Will Bacha

Treatment of Women in Spain Is Improving

Spanish culture often gets a bad rap in terms of its treatment of women due to machismo and other aspects of traditional Spanish culture, but this has recently begun to change, primarily due to widespread public outrage over legal decisions made in a number of high-profile sexual violence cases in recent years.

The most notorious of these trials is known as the “La Manada” case. When the accused defendants were cleared of rape charges and instead received the significantly more lenient charge of sexual abuse, people all throughout Spain reacted in shock and anger.

“La Manada” means “wolfpack,” and was the name of the group chat the accused men used to communicate through the popular messaging application WhatsApp.

Despite graphic video evidence that the men raped a teenage girl in the city of Pamplona during the popular San Fermin festival, the men were only given nine-year sentences instead of the 20-year sentences that had been requested by the state prosecutor.

While their cases travel through the complicated appeals process, two members of La Manada are still listed as active members of the Spanish military and Guardia Civil (National Police). To much public outcry, they are still receiving their government-provided salaries, though they have not been assigned to a post. These events resemble the outcomes in similar cases in the United States, such as the controversial Brock Turner trial.

Opposition to the women’s movement in Spain and Friday’s demonstrations have come from the major right-wing parties in Spain: Vox and Partido Popular. Both made statements against Friday’s festivities with Partido Popular claiming that the event had been “politicized” and that leftist groups wanted “to monopolize this demonstration, looking to create division and conflict between men and women, and even between women of different ideologies.”

Pablo Casado, the president of Partido Popular, went as far as to say, “I don’t want to live in a country in which women demonstrate, or where there are colors for women, or there are demands from women that pit them against those of their male colleagues, against the other half of the world.”

For women’s rights activists, Casado has a troubling track record and has publicly stated that he supports bringing back restrictive abortion legislation from the 1980s that allows women to terminate pregnancies only in heavily restricted circumstances.

Current Spanish legislation regarding termination of pregnancies allows unrestricted access to abortion during the first 14 weeks of pregnancy and permits the option in specific cases after that period.

Women in Madrid Have Growing Government Support

Demonstrators gather at Plaza de Espana in Madrid/photo credit: Will Bacha

Demonstrators gather at Plaza de Espana in Madrid/photo credit: Will Bacha

On Friday, the city of Madrid (Spain’s capital) made a loud, purple statement that it supported Spain’s women. The Palacio de Cibeles, the current seat of Madrid’s city council, was lit up with vibrant purple lights last night, and bright purple flowers were placed in the interior of the Parque Retiro, Madrid’s large, popular public park.

Women and men of all ages and backgrounds filled the streets of the city, creating a massive public call to defend and promote the rights of women in Spain. There is still plenty that needs to be done on a social and political level to ensure that women are respected, valued and protected to the extent that men are in Spain, but the future looks bright.


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