Samuel Lowenberg - Independent Journalist biography articles articles

Spain leads country through uncharted secular territory

Miami Herald  June 12, 2005

MADRID - 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.

During this time, Mónica 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 her clothes. Last 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, whose divorce finally came through this year. She spoke from the relative safety of a women's center 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 quickly, and previously passed-over sectors of society are already feeling the benefits of Spain's relatively new government.

Since sweeping into power in March 2004 three days after the terrorist bombings in Madrid that killed 192 people and wounded more than 1,800, the Socialist government has been enacting an ambitious social reform agenda that is giving new rights to women -- and to gays and immigrants -- and is curbing 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 20th century, what the Socialists are doing amounts to a revolution that is designed to leapfrog Spain into the ranks of 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 political left of the United States.

CHURCH'S ROLE

In making these changes, the Socialist-led government is upsetting centuries of traditional control by the Catholic Church that was upheld through its alliance with Gen. Francisco Franco; the previous government, led by José María López Aznar and the conservative Partido Popular -- Popular Party -- was also a strong ally of the church.

Despite a reputation as one of the world's most staunchly Catholic countries, however, polls show that nearly half of the people say they almost never go to Mass, and a third say they are simply not religious. In the cities, it is rare to find a regular churchgoer who is not a pensioner; the new generation instead are devotees of discos, which are packed until the sun comes up.

''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.''

The church's weakening power is evident as the new government successfully forges ahead with its pro-feminist, pro-gay rights agenda. But the institution's influence remains strong, and church prelates often speak out, as Juan Antonio Martínez Camino, the official spokesman for the Spanish Bishops Conference, did last year on television when he criticized proposals to permit gay marriage. ''This legislation is imposing a virus on society, something false that will have negative consequences for social life,'' said Martinez Camino, who said the church has nothing against gays but feels a union of two people of the same sex will undermine the institution of marriage.

Even as the Socialists announce that mandatory religious education in public schools be discontinued, and that the government will also give money to Islam and other religions as well as to Catholicism, the church still receives special treatment from the government -- including an annual subsidy of some $150 million, a remnant of its alliance with Franco -- that will remain untouched.

WOMEN'S ISSUES

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a self-described feminist, has given eight of his 16 Cabinet posts to women, 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 is even trying to overturn a long-standing prohibition against women being allowed to ascend to the throne of the Spanish monarchy.

But it is the recently passed domestic legislation that will likely have the most profound impact on the nation's women.

The new government marked its first success in December, when the first part of the reform package -- a series of laws to combat violence against women -- passed Parliament with a resounding majority.

Predictably, the Popular Party at first opposed the domestic violence measure, 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 it acquiesced after it became apparent that Spain's smaller parties would back the legislation.

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 publicly funded research center.

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, president of the Progressive Women's Foundation in Madrid, who testified on behalf of the legislation at parliamentary hearings. Under the Franco regime (1939-75), 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, with a population of about 42.5 million, have reached crisis levels. More than two million women suffer abuse from their partners, but less than 5 percent of them complain to the authorities, according to Amnesty International.

By December last year, 72 women were killed in Spain, 69 at the hands of their partners or ex-partners.

''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.

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.''

GAY RIGHTS

Under the Franco regime, gays faced brutal persecution, and thousands were incarcerated by the state. The most famous victim was Federico García Lorca, one of Spain's most notable poets, killed in 1936 by Francoist troops for the double crime of being both an intellectual and a homosexual.

But despite this history, and their Catholicism, many in Spain supported gay rights; a poll last September in the newspaper El País, which supports the Socialist party, said 62 percent of those questioned support gay marriage.

In April, the Spanish government legalized gay marriage. While Belgium and the Netherlands have laws allowing same-sex unions, Spain will be the first European country to give all gays full marriage rights.

The ruling Socialists say in addition to legalizing 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.

Meanwhile, the Bush administration's support for banning gay marriage confounds gay activists in Spain. ''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 Angel Sánchez Rodríguez, the president of the Triangle Foundation, a longtime gay rights organization in Madrid.

IMMIGRANTS

While the United States reacted to terrorism by cracking down on illegal immigrants, Spain did the opposite: In the wake of the March 11, 2004, train bombings, the government decided to embrace those who resided in the country illegally. The aim was to clamp down on the exploitation of undocumented workers as well as to increase tax and social security revenues, said a government spokesman.

In February, foreigners who could produce a job contract and proof that they had lived in Spain for more than six months were given residence and work permits. The amnesty was expected to benefit between 800,000 and one million immigrants.

Samuel Loewenberg is a free-lance journalist based in Madrid. Herald wire services were used in this report.