When she was 30, Mónica M. fled her violent husband, taking her two small children and only the clothes on her back. But leaving did not solve her problems. Stuck in the sludge of the patriarchal Spanish legal system, Mónica, who asked that her full name not be disclosed out of concern for her children’s safety, struggled for four years to get a divorce. She had a restraining order against her husband, but he continued to stalk her, driving her from shelter to shelter and job to job. He repeatedly threatened her family. While her legal protections were few, he seemed to have many, including twice-a-week visitation rights with their children. Mónica says that at these times her 3-year-old daughter would become so scared she would wet herself. In August her 8-year-old son went on vacation with her ex-husband and returned with a broken arm. “I feel impotent. I haven’t been protected at all, and neither have my children,” says Mónica from the relative safety of a women’s center located in an unmarked building in central Madrid. “I don’t want to hide anymore. It’s he who should be hiding.”

For decades women like Mónica were expected to suffer in silence, ignored by a society and a legal system that did not acknowledge domestic violence. That’s changing. Since sweeping into power in April, the newly elected Socialist government has been enacting an ambitious social reform agenda that will give new rights to women, homosexuals and immigrants, and will limit the role of the Catholic Church in public life. For this historically conservative country, which missed the Enlightenment and many of the social reforms of the twentieth century, what the Socialists are doing amounts to a revolution that is designed to leapfrog Spain to parity with the liberal countries of Northern Europe. That, along with the government’s renewed foreign policy alliances with Germany and France, will put the new Spain well to the left of the United States.

In making these changes the Socialist-led government is upsetting centuries of traditional control by the Catholic Church that were upheld through its alliance with Gen. Francisco Franco. The previous government, led by the conservative Popular Party, also a strong ally of the Church, was unexpectedly ousted in the wake of the March 11 terrorist bombings, which killed 192 people.

The new government marked its first success on October 7, when the first part of the reform package, a series of laws to combat violence against women, passed Parliament with a resounding majority. The laws not only increase the penalties for domestic violence but also shorten the time it takes to get a divorce from more than two years to less than six months. They also give more money to shelters; provide specialized training for judges, police, doctors and psychologists; and fund a public education campaign in the press and the schools.

The Popular Party initially opposed the domestic violence legislation on technical grounds, arguing that it was unconstitutional to have a law that protects only women while excluding other vulnerable populations such as children and senior citizens. But in the end, after it became apparent that Spain’s smaller parties would back the legislation and insure its passage, the conservatives threw in their support. Next on the government’s agenda are legalizing gay marriage, allowing gay couples to adopt children, abolishing Spain’s restrictive abortion laws and reversing a policy of mandatory religious education in public schools.

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a self-described feminist, has appointed women to half of his Cabinet posts, and the Socialists say they want to pass a law requiring that at least 50 percent of the candidates on any electoral slate be female. The government even plans to overturn a longstanding prohibition against women being allowed to ascend to the throne of the Spanish monarchy. Particularly on the issue of gender, “the government is ahead of the society. It is trying to introduce an example that says, ‘This is how we want the society to be,'” said Fernando Vallespín, the president of the Center for Sociological Investigation, a government-funded think tank.

The Church, which is the seat of one of the most conservative Catholic establishments in the world, has vowed to fight the Socialists’ new reforms, particularly the initiatives to legalize gay marriage and abortion. But with at least 60 percent of the Spanish public supporting the rights of homosexuals to marry, that’s likely to be a losing battle. The Conference of Catholic Bishops has said it is the “moral obligation” of Catholic members of Parliament to oppose the marriage proposal, which it has described as being equivalent to “imposing a virus on society.” It also says that legalizing abortion is “unthinkable.” The Socialists say they will not only legalize gay marriage; they will legalize adoption by gay couples as well. “In our conception, it is impossible only to recognize a part of a person’s rights, you have to recognize all of them,” says Jordi Pedret, a Socialist member of the Parliamentary Committee on Judicial Affairs.

The gay-marriage laws will put Spain on a par with Belgium and the Netherlands, the only European countries so far to have legalized homosexual unions. The Bush Administration’s support for banning gay marriage confounds gay activists here. “It is very surprising to me that the United States, which is a very important country in democracy, is trying to ban the expression of love of gay and lesbian people,” says Miguel Ángel Sánchez Rodriguez, the president of the Triangle Foundation, a longtime gay rights organization in Madrid.

While the Church may not have the power it once did, it still receives special treatment from the government, including an annual subsidy of some $150 million, a remnant of its alliance with Franco. For now, that government contribution will continue untouched, although in a sign of the Church’s weakening power, the Socialists have announced the government will also give money to other religions, including Islam. The Church also suffered a hit when the Socialists announced they would stop mandatory religious education in the schools. “We live in a secular state,” says María Virtudes Monteserín Rodríguez, the Socialist Party’s spokesperson for women’s rights. “The Church has its own opinions and we respect them, but in reality it’s the Parliament that makes the law.”

Some previously passed-over sectors of society are already feeling the benefits of the new government. In the last days of October the government announced it would grant work permits to hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants, many of them from Morocco.

Women have been waiting a long time for the new domestic-violence measures. The previous government essentially ignored the issue of battered women, just as much of Spanish society has done for decades, says Enriqueta Chicano Javega, president of the Progressive Women’s Foundation in Madrid, who testified on behalf of the legislation at parliamentary hearings. Under the Franco regime domestic violence was dismissed as a “crime of passion,” and women could not even have a bank account or travel without the permission of their husbands. Women gained some rights in the 1980s, like the ability to get divorced and have a salary, but, says Chicano, “the rest of society hasn’t moved.”

Nearly everybody acknowledges that incidents of domestic violence in Spain have reached crisis levels. More than 2 million women suffer abuse from their partners, and an estimated 97 percent do not complain to the authorities, according to Amnesty International. “There’s a huge waiting list of people who need help,” says Mónica López Rodríguez, a counselor at the center where Mónica M. is being sheltered. Many won’t receive assistance for three months or more, says López. Once or twice a week the newspapers splash tales of violence across their pages, such as that of a 76-year-old man who stabbed his wife to death or an 18-year-old who tortured his 15-year-old girlfriend. Already this year, fifty women have been murdered by their spouses or boyfriends.

Supporters of the new law emphasize that domestic violence should not be dismissed as a particular product of Spanish machismo. “This is a problem of chauvinist culture, but it’s not only here. It’s happening in other European countries,” says Monteserín. A recent survey by the EU found that despite their long histories of gender equality, some Northern European countries have rates of spousal abuse comparable to those of Spain. For Mónica M., who is now in counseling and trying to bring together other battered women to lobby the government to change the system, the domestic violence legislation is a ray of hope. “If it really is what they say it is, it’s like a dream,” she says. “It’s fantastic.”