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A Telling Moment

A gang rape in Spain sparks outrage—and talk of cultural and legal change

“This is not a very beautiful city,” the young activist driving me from the train station to the campus of the University of Zaragoza said apologetically as soon as we were in the car. She was right. I had just left Granada, redolent with orange blossoms and Moorish palaces, its wonders an implicit argument for the mystical splendor of Spain. Now I was transported to a drab cityscape. Zaragoza, halfway between Barcelona and Madrid in the northeast region of Aragón, has none of the charm or seductions of Andalucía in the south. Here instead is an ordinary place of apartment blocks and chain stores, with a perfunctory selection of basilicas and cathedrals. A city with occasional moments of beauty, stuck amid the humdrum demands of utility. A city of placid solidity that seemed proud of its stubborn resistance to change, going back to the battles against Napoleon in the early decades of the 1800s.

But change happens fast sometimes. At lunch the next day, Daniel (Dani) Jiménez Franco, a sociologist-turned-activist, exclaimed aloud after looking at his phone, “This is terrible, this is unbelievable.” As it turned out, a verdict had been delivered in a case that had dominated the headlines in Spain for more than a year. It involved an eighteen-year-old woman raped by five men in the nearby city of Pamplona in the neighboring region of Navarra. The men had offered to accompany the woman to her car. On the way there, they dragged her into the lobby of a residential building and raped her. It was all recorded on their smartphones; the pulling down of her underwear, her closed eyes, her petrified immobility, the total and unspeakable violence of it all. The men had referred to their gang as “la manada”—a pack of wolves.

It was not enough. The Court in Navarra acquitted the men of the rape charges and found them guilty only of sexual abuse. Instead of the twenty-two-year sentence sought by prosecutors, they received only nine. Rape, the court declared in its ruling, required violence and intimidation. Violence, in turn, requires physical aggression against a victim, and there was (supposedly) none in this case, though the ruling acknowledged the men “encroached on the freedom of the victim.” The girl’s consent was compromised, they admitted, but they saw no violence or aggression. “This is just how it is over here,” a feminist activist called Nati who had also joined us told me. “It is a class thing; these judges, even the women judged” are just like this. “They look down on women.”

Though the men had “encroached on the freedom of the victim,” their assault was not judged to be rape.

There were many other women in Zaragoza who were similarly enraged. Within hours, a large protest was organized outside the main courthouse. We walked over there from what is called the “Roman city,” a once trendy but now somewhat ignored part of the city. “Here is ground zero of Spanish colonialism,” Dani said, pointing to a garish monument that commemorates the extension of the Spanish Empire into South America. “We are proud of subjugating these people,” he added. Not far from the homage to Spanish colonialism is the Cathedral of the Savior. “You can only see the tragedy of it when you walk to the side,” Dani said as we walked around. On the other side, the original Moorish walls constructed by Muslim craftsmen can be seen. They are the remnants of a ninth-century mosque, before the addition of a false façade, that was transformed into a cathedral.

At the courthouse, a large crowd had gathered. The courthouse itself, a gray morose building, is across the street from a Chinese restaurant. It is not the “real” court; that was moved across the river to a location with more space. But the protests continue in front of this building. “No, No, No, the rest is Rape,” the women gathered for this one now chanted. “Sister We Believe You,” they continued, their voices bouncing off the ancient walls and alleys. Here were women of all ages, young mothers holding small daughters on their shoulders, students with blue and pink hair, and grandmothers with gray hair, united into a single crowd. A dark-haired young woman holding a megaphone led the chants, another played a drum, yet another set the rhythm of the claps.

“We Spanish are experts at protests,” a woman in Andalucía had told me a few days earlier. I could see what she meant in Zaragoza. This one, organized in mere hours, was impressive in both attendance and organization. The media were there to record it all. “This is historic, this is a huge deal,” Dani yelled to me over the crowd. “Who knew this verdict would come today when you are visiting?” “We are the wolves, not you,” the crowd continued to chant. Nati got me a sign. I held it up. The crowd continued to chant and swell as more and more women joined in, adding their voices.

The Pamplona verdict may well be historic, a turning point that marks a new direction. Just a week earlier, when I arrived in Spain, I asked every feminist I met if there was anything like the #MeToo movement in Spain. All of them said no; many doled out looks of puzzlement. Eventually, I stopped asking. And yet, shortly after I got to the Basque Country, protesters gathered on April 20 and 21 in Vitoria-Gasteiz to denounce “las agresiones machistas” (macho aggressions) after a woman and her mother were murdered, allegedly by the younger woman’s raging ex-husband. And since the Pamplona verdict was delivered April 26, thousands of women have participated in protests in all of Spain’s major cities, protests that continued into Friday and Saturday of the long Labor Day (May 1) weekend.

Spain now has its homegrown #MeToo movement, using #Cuéntalo, for “Tell It.” Many are sharing their stories of harassment or abuse.

They have also taken to Twitter. Under the hashtag #cuéntalo, Spanish for “tell it” or “tell your story,” many have shared stories of the sexual harassment and abuse in a country where men seem to avidly cultivate their machismo. Their protests and stories did seem to be having an impact. Two days after the verdict, an association of Spanish judges demanded the resignation of the country’s Minister of Justice, Rafael Catalá, for his handling of the case and for an interview in which he said that the dissenting judge was not in possession of his full mental faculties. The Spanish National Police Force sent out a “No Means No” tweet, repeating the phrase twelve times. The Spanish government, under fire and besieged by the continuing protests, has announced that it will be examining (and perhaps amending) Spain’s rape laws, which have not been reformed in decades.

By the time I left Zaragoza, Spain had #cuéntalo, its homegrown #MeToo movement. The impetus for it was, as in other cases around the world, a core injustice and a realization that courts have failed in delivering justice to women. #MeToo evolved from the same realization, an acknowledgment that the justice system in the United States has regularly failed women when it comes to punishing men for sexual assault and sexual harassment.

Cases that cannot get justice in courtrooms still dominated by entrenched and insidious patriarchal norms, must, then, be advanced in the court of public opinion. Naming and shaming must do what law and sentence have not done or simply refused to do. The Court in Navarra refused to honor the stunned terror of a woman being raped, which was gleefully recorded by her assailants and repeatedly played in court. That one silencing in Pamplona has galvanized thousands. It seems impossible that Spain will be able to ignore so many of them. Standing with them, in front of the courthouse that is not a courthouse, a stone’s throw from the cathedral that was once a mosque, I saw Zaragoza for what it was and what it could be, a very beautiful city.