No more 'machismo': domestic violence in the political arena

Domestic violence in Spain can’t be blamed on ‘machismo’ argues Liz Cooper. When the statistics show Spain is just like other countries, Spanish feminists argue that it's time to get beyond the stereotype of a macho culture and see violence against women as a political issue. 

Liz Cooper
30 November 2012

In October this year, an ex MP for Spain’s right wing Popular Party (PP), José Manuel Castelao Bragaño, a lawyer and president of the consultative committee for Spanish citizens living abroad, said in a public meeting: “Las leyes son como mujeres, están para violarlas (Laws are like women, they are there to be broken).”

The Feminist Network (redfeminista) almost instantly started a petition, condemning such comment from a public figure, which was signed by nearly 12,000 people in the first week. The comment is by any standards offensive to women and has rightly been condemned.  At another level it reinforces the stereotype of Spain as a macho society.

The Spanish are constantly reminded that Spain coined the word ‘machismo’ and the country is frequently described as such by the foreign press. The Washington Post in October 2006 described Spain as having “one of Europe’s most macho cultures”. A BBC news report in April 2004 opened with the headline:  “New man tackles Spanish machismo” referring to the new Socialist Government elected that year as it opened with a 50/50 split between men and women in the cabinet. In 1997 The New York Times quoted the President of the Episcopal Conference saying:  “the key (to solving the problem of violence against women) will be fighting machismo with a new mentality”. There are frequent reports suggesting that the level of gender violence in Spain can be explained by the level of Spanish ‘machismo’. The reports normally ignore the fact that the average number of women killed in Spain by their partners or ex-partners is below both the European and World averages.  

In 1997 on a chat show put out by “Canal Sur”, a television channel in southern Spain, Ana Orantes talked eloquently about the 40 years of violent behaviour she had suffered at the hands of her husband. Within two weeks of the programme’s transmission, she was dead. Her husband had beaten her, poured gasoline over her and set her on fire. She burned to death in the doorway of her house. Although Ana Orantes was legally separated from her husband they continued to live in the same house under a court order. She had made repeated complaints to the police, asking for a restraining order against him. Nothing was done. The resulting publicity and the horrific nature of the murder of Ana Orantes created widespread public concern; wife battering had hitherto been seen as an issue that concerned private relationships within the family, as was also common at the time in the UK. 25% of all reported violent crime is by men against their marital partners or ex-partners. It would take another seven years for a new comprehensive law to be passed under the Spanish Socialist Government, outlining aims to eradicate gender violence, the creation of specialised courts and the provision of assistance for women under threat (Ley orgánica 1/2004).

The preamble to the 2004 law states that gender violence is no longer an invisible crime, that it must be confronted by the full force of the law. As women’s rights campaigners have been claiming for years, violence against women is an issue of governance and of politics.

Until the past decade Spain had been loath to take the issue seriously. Statistics have only been properly and consistently collected since 2003 according to the Observatory of Domestic and Gender Violence in Madrid. Their figures show no discernable trend over the past eight years in the number of deaths of women at the hands of partners or ex-partners: on average 68 deaths were recorded annually, with a maximum of 76 in 2008, and a minimum of 56 in 2009.

However, registered complaints of the incidence of violent abuse of women show an annual increase between 2007 and 2011 of 6% on average until 2011, when there was a 1% drop in denunciations to 134,002:  387 a day. In the first 3 months of 2012 the figures dropped even further. Women’s groups claim that the numbers of registered complaints are but a fraction of the real figures of violence against women. Inmaculada Montalbán, the president of the Observatory says there is still a hidden mass of unreported attacks against women. This claim is borne out by the fact that of the 605 deaths recorded since 2003, up to and including 2011, less than 30% of the victims had previously made formal complaints to the police accusing their killers of acts of violence.

Statistics on gender violence are notoriously difficult to compare given the different definitions of what constitutes violence.  Nevertheless there is no suggestion, using any definition, that Spain has significantly higher levels of violence against women than many other European countries. Quite the reverse in fact.  Norway is regarded as one of the most gender-equal European states yet the magazine Expatica Spain found that Norway at one point had the highest death toll in Europe.  In 2010 the annual death rates of women at the hands of their partners or ex-partners were reported by the Spanish Observatory of Gender Violence to be 2.8 per million, putting Spain behind Austria 9.7, Finland 9.3, France 5.2,  the UK 4.2. The Spanish author and columnist for El País Rosa Montero wrote in the Guardian last year, “it is an ineluctable fact that the Nordic peoples are, according to the data, much more prolific killers”.

The Basque Government Women's Section

The Basque Government Women's Section

In the cuts for 2012 announced in April by the Spanish Government, the budgets for the prevention of gender violence have been reduced by 21.6%, a cut of 23.9 million euros. This in spite of the statements by the Minister for Health, Social Security and Equality, Ana Pato,  who, on taking up her job in December last year, emphasised that domestic violence was one of the Government’s priorities.  Ana Maria Perez del Campo, the president of the Federation of Separated and Divorced Women, claims on the other hand that due to the cuts many women will pay for the crisis with their lives.

Violence against women has been treated for far too long as a cultural phenomenon, like Easter processions or bull-fighting, part of Spanish traditional machismo. To cut the budgets that assist women under threat and that may save lives is to ignore the reality that the numbers of women killed by their partners or ex-partners (annual average 67) are as much part of criminal statistics as are the 820 killings (annual average 20) attributed over the last 40 years to the Basque separatist organisation ETA.

Since the 1970s radical feminists have turned to the history of patriarchy to explain the violent abuse of women worldwide. At a 3 day conference to further gender equality policies, held in Bilbao in October this year and attended by over 400 people, mainly women, the issue of violence against women was addressed by a panel and audience contributions. It was clear both in the papers presented by the panel of speakers and in the contributions from the floor that the patriarchal system and the inherent abuse of women’s rights is considered by the feminist movement in Spain to be the major cause of much of the violence against, and limited opportunities for, women across the world.  The analysis of Spain’s feminists is a clear signal to the political class that the betrayal of women and the back-pedaling on support for the fight against gender-based violence will continue to be challenged. The days of domestic violence being seen, even accepted, as a cultural phenomenon are over.

Read other articles in this series, 16 Days of Activism against Gender Violence

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.

Related articles


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData