A journalist describes the history of feminist activism in Spain and why the World Cup controversy marks a new phase.
Late last month, amid a roaring crowd, members of the Spanish national soccer team walked up the podium at Accor Stadium, in Sydney, Australia, to be presented with the World Cup trophy. It was a historic victory for Spain—the first time its women’s soccer team had reached, let alone won, the tournament’s final. Waiting for the players was a cadre of officials, including Luis Rubiales, the president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation, who stood next to Queen Letizia and her sixteen-year-old daughter, Sofía. TV commentators noted the president’s effusiveness and his disregard for protocol; earlier, he had grabbed his crotch in the stands. But, when he pulled one of the players, Jenni Hermoso, toward him and pressed his lips against hers, the commentators were conspicuously silent. Minutes later, as fireworks burst in the stadium and the players hoisted their trophy, the first reactions surfaced online: “What the hell was he thinking?”
Questioned by reporters, Rubiales initially cast his critics as “idiots,” arguing that it had merely been a “peck between two friends.” In Spain and abroad, viewers offered a reading of their own: Rubiales had abused his authority, in an unmistakable case of assault. As calls for his resignation mounted, Rubiales delivered an address to the federation in which he described himself as a victim of “false feminism.” The kiss had been “spontaneous, mutual, euphoric, and consented to,” Rubiales went on, “exactly the kind I could have given a daughter.” He added, to the audience’s applause, “I will not step down.”
Rubiales had been the subject of controversy in the past—he has faced charges of corruption, as well as accusations of sponsoring orgies with the federation’s money, which he categorically denied. The players had long expressed frustration with the organization. Last fall, fifteen players submitted a letter to the federation, saying that they would not play in this year’s World Cup without changes in personnel. (Only three of them did.) “The incident I have been involved in is the final straw,” Hermoso said, in a statement released within hours of Rubiales’s remarks. “Such attitudes have been part of our team’s day-to-day for years.” She made clear that she had never consented to the kiss. “No person, in any work, sports, or social setting, should be a victim of these behaviors,” she wrote.
Hermoso not only denounced Rubiales; she also described the pressure she faced to clear his name. In private, members of the federation had called on Hermoso and her family to defend Rubiales and “justify” his behavior. The federation issued a statement backing Rubiales, but, by then, the Spanish public had reached a different conclusion. As Alexia Putellas, one of the players, said in a tweet that went viral, “Se acabó”—enough.
When the case reached the courtroom, earlier this month, Rubiales submitted his resignation. He is facing charges of sexual assault and coercion, owing to his repeated appeals for Hermoso to side with him. (He pleaded not guilty and continues to deny the charges.) The case has provoked new conversations around abuse in élite sports and reinvigorated the Spanish #MeToo movement. To discuss its evolution, I spoke with Ana Pastor, a prominent Spanish journalist, who founded the media outlet Newtral.
Unlike in the United States, the debate around #MeToo in Spain had previously centered on the accounts of ordinary women, who came forth with personal stories of abuse. Pastor noted that, around the time that the accusations against Harvey Weinstein surfaced, Spain was consumed by a case known as La Manada—the Pack—involving the gang rape of an eighteen-year-old woman in the city of Pamplona, which made it all the way to the Spanish Supreme Court. The graphic nature of the case, along with lower courts’ decisions to clear the defendants of sexual-assault charges, finding them guilty of the lesser crime of sexual abuse, drew widespread outcry. Ultimately, the court elevated the initial ruling to rape and the defendants’ sentence from nine to fifteen years in prison.
Pastor painted a picture of a country that has gone from suppressing conversations around abuse to openly discussing its complexities. Spain is also, like the United States, revisiting past controversies about gender-based violence. We began our discussion by talking about Nevenka Fernández, a former councilwoman in the northern town of Ponferrada, who captured national attention in the early two-thousands after accusing her then boss, Ponferrada’s mayor, of sexual harassment. In 2021, Pastor co-produced a documentary series on the case. Our conversation has been translated from Spanish and edited for length and clarity.
I would like us to go back to 2001, the year in which Nevenka Fernández filed her complaint against Mayor Ismael Álvarez. She was the first woman to speak up and win a sexual-harassment complaint against a public figure like Álvarez. How was the news covered back then? What kind of discussions did the case prompt inside newsrooms?
I was working in radio, for Cadena ser—those were my early days as a journalist. And I remember seeing the image of a very young woman, completely distraught, appearing on television to deliver a news conference. And I also remember the backlash—all the comments about her, but also against her. The media was—and still is—a reflection of society. There was widespread support for the mayor but not so much for the victim. You hardly ever heard arguments in her favor.
You partnered with Netflix a few years ago to produce a documentary about Nevenka’s case. Tell me how the project came into being, and why you decided it was the right time to bring her story back.
I became obsessed with her story, in part because I sensed that, in some way, she was being left socially isolated. She and I have known each other for practically twenty years, and for a long time we talked about the possibility of her telling her story, until, one summer, she told me, “Ana, I feel ready.”
We travelled out of Spain, where she lives with her family, and we began filming. Deep down, my dream was to show her that this country had changed and that, this time around, people would respond differently and say, “Of course, we stand with you, Nevenka.” As a matter of fact, around the première, we held a live debate in a packed theatre to talk about how Nevenka has changed the history of harassment in our country. We wanted to figure out if people in Spain saw Nevenka with different eyes. We invited various Spanish public figures from different generations, and we realized that that was indeed the case. The reaction from the public has since been “I’m sorry, Nevenka.” And, also, “Thank you, Nevenka.” Thank you, because she charted a path, judicially and socially, that has improved the lives of many other women.
It took twenty-two years for the town of Ponferrada to officially recognize Nevenka’s case and for Ponferrada city hall, where she worked alongside the mayor, to issue a public apology. How do you explain that lag?
Well, it is the evolution of our country, and I would like to think that of many others. It is true that it has taken two decades. That man still lives in Ponferrada. He has continued to cast doubts on the sentence—even though it wasn’t just one court but two that ruled in favor of Nevenka. This is something that I’ve talked about at length with her. The whole harassment process was very painful. But what hurt her the most was feeling as alone as she was. I think that has now changed somehow.
The town’s public apology coincided with another case that has shocked Spain—and, arguably, the world—that of Jenni Hermoso, the Spanish soccer player. What was your initial reaction to the unwanted kiss?
I was watching the game surrounded by children, including my own. The first thing I told myself was, This cannot be—it just cannot be. And I think that is very symptomatic. Maybe a few years ago, we wouldn’t have given it so much importance. But, in a matter of hours, the majority of Spain had the same reaction.
What happened afterward further exposed Rubiales’s character: he sought to coerce Jenni; tried to get her to speak publicly and deliver a message that wasn’t true; and then the Royal Spanish Football Federation issued a statement that was attributed to Jenni without her approval.
Those statements are particularly relevant because they were issued by the federation, as you say, which suggests that the problem didn’t rest only in Rubiales as an individual but in the system that tried to protect him.
That is key, and it’s a pattern that we’ve seen in other cases. Of course, Jenni’s case is not as serious as that of Nevenka or, of course, that of La Manada, which are the two main references in our country when we talk about harassment. But the one commonality is the halo of protection or connivance or collaboration around these characters.
This moment has been referred to in Spain as “Nuestro MeToo,” or “Our MeToo.” Has the time finally come? Help us understand why, in 2017, the movement didn’t have as strong an impact in Spain.
Jenni’s case is especially significant for a country like ours, because no one expected that the MeToo movement would spring from football in Spain. I would almost say it’s against nature. And yet that is what makes this moment so magical: female players—and exceptions among the men, including Borja Iglesias—have unleashed a movement that we had only started to tiptoe in. And the fact that a camera exposed Rubiales’s behavior in front of the entire world was important. Because, if someone does that in front of the cameras, what won’t they do when no one is watching or when they don’t feel observed?
Fear is a very powerful factor in environments where harassment takes place. When we started filming Nevenka’s documentary, in 2019, there were still places in Ponferrada where we weren’t allowed to shoot because people did not want their bar or restaurant to be visible. They told us, “I don’t want to get involved in this mess.” After all those years! What’s more, Netflix commissioned a beautiful mural made by a Spanish illustrator, which is still up on a Ponferrada building, and someone tried to deface it one night. There is also a monument in town dedicated to Nevenka that was recently splattered with acid. So I understand why women are afraid to come out with their stories.
There has been a debate in Spain around the case against Plácido Domingo, because some of the victims asked that their names be withheld. [After claims surfaced in 2019 that Domingo had sexually harassed multiple women, he apologized, but he then walked back his apology, denying any wrongdoing.] What’s interesting is that, when women give their names, it is said that all they are after is notoriety. And, if they do not give their names, it is said that they are hiding themselves. We are talking about powerful people—the power structures around them are very difficult to tear down for a single individual.
It’s also worth noting how this debate is playing out in the political arena. We have seen extremes on both sides: Vox, Spain’s far-right party, has denied the existence of gender violence, while the “Solo Sí Es Sí,” or “Only Yes Means Yes,” law, a left-wing initiative, has been the subject of controversy. [The law says that sex without consent is equivalent to rape and abolishes the distinction between abuse and assault, which has resulted in lower minimum sentences for hundreds of people.]
Social changes must be accompanied by adequate policies. Twenty years ago, there were no gender-equality laws, and now they exist in Spain. Another iconic case is that of Ana Orantes, a woman who went on television and confessed that her ex-husband had been beating her for decades. Within days of her public appearance, the husband set fire to his wife and killed her. It is a case that shocked the Spanish public and led to the passage of a law on gender violence in 2004.
We have turned into a deeply polarized country, where everything can become a subject of controversy. As we’ve discussed, we now have a far-right party, which questions and denies the existence of gender violence. Also, there is an ongoing debate around the “Only Yes Means Yes” law, which has done some good. For example, it aims to address digital harassment, which is something that many women are savagely subjected to on social media. But it has also resulted in the reduction of criminal sentences and has had a negative impact in that regard.
And how has the debate around abuse and gender equality evolved within the media?
Many women have entered the industry in recent decades, which means that we have a voice, we count, and we can exert influence—it helps for women to be in a position of power. In the company where I work, Newtral, most of the people in leadership are women, because of their talent. If there were only men, it wouldn’t be the same—just as if there were only women.
Of course, the glass ceiling exists. It is a persistent problem. Many of us in television have been in the situation where you’re in the middle of a live show and someone walks by and touches our butt. Or we might be in the middle of a live coverage, surrounded by people who are touching us, without our consent, but we can’t do anything because we are on live television.
The new generations don’t accept that. Just a few days ago, it happened to a young reporter in Spain, and there’s been a wave of support for her. In the past, she might have said, “Well, it’s just part of my job.” No, it’s not part of your job. It is important that you question these situations and know that you are not alone—we are going to support you.