How a Rape Trial in Spain Ignited a Feminist Movement

How a Rape Trial in Spain Ignited a Feminist Movement

How a Rape Trial in Spain Ignited a Feminist Movement

Women are pushing to change the country’s narrow rape law, which requires proof that an assailant used “violence or intimidation” and often leads to a lesser sentence.


As evening fell on Plaça de Sant Jaume in Barcelona’s Gothic Quarter, bathing City Hall’s stone facade in ocher light, the usual sounds of tourists pattering across the cobbled square were suddenly replaced by those of dozens, then hundreds of women pouring into the plaza, clanging pots and pans and jiggling keys in a strangely melodious cacophony. In a single voice they chanted: “Yo te creo”—“I believe you.”

Earlier that day, April 20, Spanish judges issued a ruling on Spain’s most high-profile rape case in recent memory: the Manada, or Wolf Pack case, in which an 18-year-old woman accused five men in their mid-20s of gang raping her during Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls in July 2016. The verdict acquitted the men of rape and instead convicted them of “sexual abuse,” a less serious offense for which they’ll serve nine years each behind bars.

According to Spanish law, a rape charge requires prosecutors to prove an assailant used “violence or intimidation.” If no act of coercion can be proven, the assault gets relegated to that of “abuse of power.” In the Wolf Pack case, judges ruled that the plaintiff’s behavior—shown in a series of videos the men took on their phones—was “passive,” and thus legally eliminated the possibility of coercion. One of the three judges presiding over the case (in Spain, judges rather than a jury vote on a sentence) even claimed the plaintiff exhibited “a total lack of inhibition…in a joyous environment.” He voted to clear the men of all charges. The plaintiff, for her part, told the judges that she froze in terror.

The reaction to the verdict was swift: By evening, thousands of women from Pamplona to Barcelona to Madrid had stormed the streets and plazas of their cities to voice outrage at what they saw as the judiciary’s failure to adequately prosecute sexual crimes. Thousands more took to Twitter to share their own brushes with machismo under the hashtag #Cuentalo (Tell Your Story), some going so far as to publicly denounce assailants, as women had done during France’s #BalanceTonPorc (Expose Your Pig) moment months before.

Like the accusations against Harvey Weinstein in the United States, the Manada verdict was “the bomb” that gave rise to Spain’s own #MeToo movement, the prominent Spanish human-rights activist Violeta Assiego says. But unlike in the United States where the focus has been on changing social norms by calling out powerful harassers, in Spain the onus is on changing legal frameworks. The women leading the charge are Spain’s feminist lawyers, and after years of pushing for legal reform, they’re seizing on the momentum to finally get it done.

While in the United States discussions of rape often focus on college campuses, Spain is grappling with the same issues at festivals, where drugs and alcohol add fuel to macho attitudes, making the terrain ripe for assault. Pamplona’s Running of the Bulls is the country’s internationally famous, seven-day bacchanal—a draw for Spaniards and tourists even before Ernest Hemingway immortalized its bullfighting bravado as the apotheosis of masculinity. Reports and rumors of assault abound each year. The 2008 rape and murder of Nagore Laffage—a 20-year-old woman who fought back against her assailant and was murdered for it—is the most haunting example of sexual violence at the festival. So when the Manada case began two years ago, it captured the attention and ire of women throughout Spain.

Roughly 7,000 rapes are recorded in the country annually, a figure that’s thought to be low, because of a deeply rooted culture of machismo that dissuades many victims from reporting sex crimes. According to Spain’s Office of Violence Against Women, up to 80 percent of sexual assaults go unreported. Police and courts are seen as widely ineffective if not directly complicit. One of the Manada men was a guardia civil—a law-enforcement agent—and advocates pointed to this fact as evidence of the trend.

Antígona, a research group affiliated with the University of Barcelona, has been pushing to change the way the legal systems handles rape prosecutions for more than a decade. Its research shows that the majority of such cases get chalked up to abuse rather than rape because it’s so difficult to prove violence or intimidation, especially when these terms are narrowly defined. Patsilí Toledo Vásquez, a member of the group, explained that this is especially problematic for cases involving minors. “When adults assault children, they don’t need to threaten them or put a gun to their head,” she said. Those cases are almost always classified as abuses. The same goes for cases in which victims are incapacitated—drunk, drugged, or otherwise. Their inability to resist an assault automatically makes their cases abuses instead of rapes. In fact, the Manada investigation uncovered an earlier video taken on one of the men’s phones two months before Pamplona, showing the men groping and kissing an unconscious woman during another festival. Another trial is underway.

Antígona has repeatedly petitioned politicians to get rid of the distinction between the two assault categories, but it’s just one organization within a vast network of feminist lawyers doing so. Spain’s secretary of state for equality, Soledad Murillo, is also a longtime champion of the legal reform. Following the Manada verdict, she tweeted, “La Manada isn’t rape?… We must change the penal code so that no judge requires a victim to shout NO!!! for it not to be considered abuse.”

Some feminist lawyers, however, warn that calls for reform are only a Band-Aid solution to a structural issue. “The problem isn’t the law, but how it’s interpreted,” says Marisa Fernández, who heads the association Dones Juristes (Women Lawyers) in Barcelona. She believes the accused in the Manada case could have gotten a rape conviction under the current law, if only the judges presiding over the case weren’t blinded by stereotypes of how a “perfect rape victim” behaves—for instance, fighting tooth and nail to preserve her virtue. Much of the Manada defense’s strategy focused on painting the plaintiff as promiscuous and therefore willing to participate in group sex. One of its key pieces of evidence was an Instagram post that a friend of the plaintiff had tagged her in; the photo showed a T-shirt emblazoned with the phrase, “Whatever you do, make sure you take off your underwear,” a line from Spain’s Jersey Shore spinoff, Super Shore. Fernández proposes training judges to rule on sexual crimes with an understanding of systemic inequality, myths around victims’ behavior, and other long-existing biases.

The term “feminist lawyer” first cropped up in Spain in the 1980s in tandem with efforts to decriminalize abortion. “At that time, the dictatorship was still strongly felt,” attorney Carla Vall i Duran says. Francisco Franco had died in 1975, but it wasn’t until 1978 that a new constitution restored democracy in Spain. And even then, social mores—which, for decades, had relegated women to the home and prized their reproductive abilities above all else—were slow to change. Under the fascist regime and until 1963, a man could legally kill his wife if he found her in bed with another man; adultery laws weren’t repealed until 1978. “In that sense, we were still a medieval society,” Vall i Duran adds.

Feminist lawyers, then, were agents of progressive change. Mujeres Juristas Themis, one of the first feminist lawyer organizations on a nationwide scale, was established in 1987. One of its first victories, according to Vice President Maria Duran, was requiring judges and lawyers to receive specific training in family law starting in 1991 (to make sure women were paid alimony, among other things). In 1999, Themis and other feminist collectives drafted the first bill against gender violence. Initially discarded by a conservative Parliament in 2000, it was finally passed in 2004. Though back then it was hailed as a landmark victory, today many say the document contains many legislative gaps allowing perpetrators to get away away with light sentences. A new piece of legislation, the State Agreement against gender violence, was unanimously passed in October 2017 and lauded as the most comprehensive framework tackling gender violence to date.

Spain’s law was inspired by the Council of Europe’s Istanbul Convention, a sort of holy grail of feminist legislation. The massive document signed in 2015 by all 28 EU member states includes such measures as setting up rape-crisis centers in all countries and having school curricula contain material with non-stereotyped gender roles. It also defines rape as sex without consent and requires judges to be trained to interpret the law with a feminist perspective. But the convention is only legally binding once it’s ratified by each EU state, and so far, only a handful have done so. Spain’s State Agreement is what would allow the country to fall in line with the Convention, but its budget still hasn’t been fully allocated.

Only 11 European countries identify rape as sex without consent: Ireland, the UK, Germany, Belgium, Luxembourg, Hungary, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Lithuania, Latvia, and Sweden, the latest addition this past May. The majority of members states—27 of them—explicitly identify force as a key element of rape; 25 identify coercion; and 16, threat. Therese Murphy, head of operations at the EU’s Institute for Gender Equality, said she hopes the outrage the Manada case whipped up across Europe will pressure more countries to ratify the convention, but “wouldn’t underestimate the opposition of some member states to this.” Still, the verdict was a catalyst for a number of international condemnations: The UN fired off a missive in early May criticizing the case’s “light sentencing” and urging criminal-justice systems to hold perpetrators accountable.

Not everyone is rallying behind the feminist lawyers. Legions of Manada defenders flocked to Spanish websites frequented by “incels” (men who consider themselves “involuntary celibates”) to attack the plaintiff. They splashed the forums with whatever personal information of hers they could find and urged others to punish her. Last month, one of the Manada men wrote a letter from jail castigating the plaintiff for her “lies” and thanking supporters on the forums.

There’s also backlash in the legal sphere. Attorney Agustín Martínez, who defended four of the five Manada men, said he objects to what he calls the “feminist lobby’s” efforts to upend current law. The only injustice he sees is the verdict itself for putting his clients behind bars. He’s appealing and hopes to get the men out by July 7—the first day of this year’s Running of the Bulls festival.

More surprising, perhaps, is that the plaintiff’s lawyer, Carlos Bacaicoa, is also resistant to the campaign to get rid of the two-tiered approach to rape charges. Though he disagrees with the verdict and is also appealing, he says the ruling is “technically correct” and the law, just. He’s aghast by the feminist unrest and what he sees as an assault on the penal code.

Responding to national outrage after the Manada sentence, former defense minister Rafael Catalá announced that a special commission would look into whether legal reform was needed. It turned out the committee didn’t include a single woman. Catalá was already under fire for telling the press that “everyone knows” the judge who’d voted to clear the Manada men of all charges “has problems.” Members of the judiciary demanded Catalá’s resignation for attacking one of their own, while feminists balked at the minister’s admission that unqualified judges sat on benches throughout the nation. The legal-reform commission was finally reconstituted to include 15 women and 13 men but still, many feminist lawyers are weary of what they saw as a mere get-out-of-jail card meant to quell popular unrest.

A surprising government ouster in early June may have changed the outlook for reform. Mired by a corruption scandal, the ruling conservative party was voted out and hastily replaced with a new socialist government, fronted by a majority of women. Its first bill, presented June 7, proposed that judges undergo gender violence training. It’s one of the new government’s first measures aimed to implement the State Agreement. It’s also pledged to allocate its full budget.

Though the self-proclaimed feminist government’s future is uncertain—it’s a minority government and elections could be called to replace it within the next few month—the social tide it is riding isn’t likely to go away. Feminist rallies and protests throughout the country have given further visibility and urgency to the legal battles feminist lawyers have been waging for years. “The heart of this is women’s sexual freedom,” Violeta Assiego, the human-rights activist, says. “That it’s not men who decide how, when and with whom they have sex, and that women share an equal role deciding.”

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