Spain's women make gains in workplace and home

A feminist revolution continues to confront machismo and inequality.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

For Angela Aguileras, a public relations agent for a book publishing company in Madrid, the difference between her mom, who has six children, and herself is profound.

Ms. Aguileras lived with a partner for 10 years outside marriage, a notion unheard of when her mother was a young woman. Ms. Aguileras is married now, but she and her husband, who shares cooking and household tasks, have decided not to have children, since both work long hours.

"Back then women could only strive to be good mothers and good wives," she says. "I have many other priorities."

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A generation ago, Spanish women had few roles but that of housewife. They couldn't work or open bank accounts without the permission of their husbands or fathers. While American and northern European women demanded equality in both their public and private lives three decades ago, Spanish women were still expected to play the part of traditional, Catholic wives and daughters. Divorce was legalized in 1981 but widely frowned on.

Although they gained equality legally with the 1978 constitution, today Spanish women are experiencing a cultural revolution that is pushing against long traditions: They have one of the lowest birth rates in the world and they are fighting a palpable machismo in the workplace. And they are launching an aggressive campaign against domestic violence, highlighted this week by a dramatic protest of 150 women, from 18 to 70 years old, wearing wedding gowns and silently marching through downtown Madrid.

"The role of Spanish women has changed so suddenly that we aren't stopping; we keep running for more rights," says Maria Jesus Miranda, a professor of sociology at the University Complutense in Madrid and a longtime feminist.

Among recent victories, legislation was passed last month in Castilla La Mancha, in central Spain, that changes electoral law to ensure equal numbers of male and female delegates to the regional parliament.

The law comes shortly after another initiative, called the Protection Law for Abused Women – a name-and-shame campaign in which the Castilla La Mancha regional government will publish and distribute reports detailing the sentences of men convicted on domestic violence charges.

Silent no more

The Federation of Divorced and Separated Women says the number of women killed by their partners this year to date is 37 – although the government-funded agency for women's issues, the Instituto de la Mujer, puts the figure at 19 as of May 1. According to the federation, in recent years, the number of deaths averaged 75 per year. The Spanish government's Commission on the Mistreatment of Women says that 12. 4 percent of Spanish women are physically or verbally abused.

"Before a few years ago, the best a woman could do was be quiet," says Ms. Miranda. "Women were so quiet about it that Spain seemed like the safest country in the world."

Two years ago social services organizations began to vigorously counter that silence by creating an atmosphere of zero-tolerance, through publicizing all cases of domestic abuse to transfer the shame from the woman to the man.

The crusade has branched out to all women, including Spain's new immigrants, the majority of whom come from Morocco. Women throughout Spain were shocked last year when a leader in Spain's Muslim community published a book with a chapter on how to beat a wife without leaving visible marks.

Kamila Toby, the president of An-Nissa, which means "woman" in Arabic and is a human rights organization based outside Córdoba, says she worries that new immigrant women and Muslim converts, who often learn the religion from books, will come to believe that Muslims are allowed to beat their wives or be sexist. The book "spread misinformation about Islam," she says.

Antonio Hueso, a social worker for the Association of Moroccan Workers and Immigrants in Madrid, says Moroccan women need the Spanish feminists' help to gain rights. "They are from the lowest socioeconomic bracket and have no visible role in society yet."

A sisterhood

By forming a bridge for recent immigrants, Spanish women would introduce them to a society that is vastly different from that of 30 years ago. Madrid's neighborhoods are no longer filled with young mothers and babies but young, single women – far from former dictator Francisco Franco's idea of a woman's role in society. He awarded "motherhood" prizes for each baby born.

Spain's low fertility rate, 1.2 per woman, has today's Spanish leaders worried, however. The Spanish government is changing tax law to give working mothers with children under the age of three a tax rebate of $1,130 per child. This is also aimed at getting more Spanish women into the workforce to reduce reliance on immigrants.

Today women make up 39.7 percent of the labor force; in 1970 they comprised only 18.1 percent. But while men earn on average $1,500 a month, women earn a little over $1000, according to the Instituto de la Mujer. And Miranda says that unions are trying to form a law against sexual harassment in the workplace.

Not all approve of the societal changes. Eduardo Fuentes, manager of the National Foundation of Francisco Franco in Madrid, says, "A woman's fundamental role is to be a mother. [The government] says they have liberated the woman, but it is a bit of a deception. Women had more prestige when they were the head of the household."

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