After the horror of the ‘wolf pack’ case, Spanish women have reason to be hopeful

Justice was a long time coming for the young Spanish woman gang-raped during the Pamplona bull runs in 2016. On Friday, the supreme court in Madrid overturned a lower court’s verdict and found the five men who attacked her guilty of rape rather than sexual abuse, and raised their sentences from nine to 15 years in prison.

The men called themselves la manada (the wolf pack) and their case revealed gaping holes in the Spanish legal system’s approach to sexual violence. According to Amnesty International, three-quarters of EU member states, including Spain, legally recognise an assault as rape only when physical violence, threats or coercion are involved. A victim must have demonstrated resistance, but, in this case, the terrified woman appears frozen in a video clip of the 30-minute attack. The defence argued she was consenting and so the lesser charge was applied.

The Spanish word for rape is violación. This woman was violated twice, first by the wolf pack and second by the law. But the decision by the supreme court marks a shift in this culture of victim-blaming. In the first trial,messages on the wolf pack’s WhatsApp chat, in which the men explicitly talked of purchasing date-rape drugs, were deemed inadmissible by the court, whereas photos taken from the victim’s social media, showing her having fun in the months following the attack, were allowed. She was painted as a precocious seductress. Now she has been vindicated, as the public prosecutor, Isabel Rodríguez, said what should have been obvious in the first place: “You can’t ask victims to act in a dangerously heroic way.”

If any positive can come from such a horrendous attack, it is that the public reaction to the case has sparked an extraordinary cultural movement. Since the outcome of the first trial, hundreds of thousands of Spanish women have taken to the streets in protest. On International Women’s Day this year, a whole year after the initial ruling, record numbers joined mass demonstrations, marches and strikes. I was living and studying in Valencia at the time, where 120,000 marched. I was 300 miles away from Pamplona, but could still hear the united chant, Tranquila hermana, aquí esta tu manada(Don’t worry sister, we are your wolf pack). University lectures were cancelled as some female professors walked out, joining the 5.3 million women nationwide. The anger was palpable, but it was also a joyous event, a display of intense solidarity.

Despite the Franco regime ending more than 40 years ago, an intensely macho culture still pervades modern Spain – between 2016 and 2017 there was an 18% rise in domestic violence perpetrated against women. Bullfighting, with its display of virile masculinity and macho theatrics, epitomises this culture; the atmosphere surrounding the Pamplona festival mirrors this, and sexual aggression is rife. In 2015, Pamplona city hall denounced a San Fermín advert that showed a bra dangling from a bull’s horn. Last month at a festival in Córdoba, a Spanish girl urged my friends and me to stick together because of “all the drunk men”. Bars were distributing cardboard fans that read No es no (No is no) and offered a number to call in case of sexual assault.

But change, however slow, is coming. Surveys indicate that nearly 65% of Spanish women under 30 now call themselves feminists – double the number of five years ago. The number of rapes reported shot up by 28% in the first three months of 2018 – the outcome of the first trial seemed to encourage more women to come forward, rather than deter them.

We should be wary of saying that the emboldened feminist movement influenced the supreme court’s decision. Francisco Serrano, a member of Vox, the far-right party, has already condemned the verdict as pandering to the media and leftwing politics. His party pledges to scrap the controversial gender violence law – which specifically protects women experiencing violence within partnerships – because it sees it as an ideological tool wielded by militant feminists.

But Spanish women’s efforts have not been in vain. The public outcry is likely to influence policymakers. Carmen Calvo, Spain’s acting deputing prime minister, has pledged to change the flawed sexual assault laws to clarify consent in rape trials. The injustice in the wolf pack case has been righted and it has empowered a generation of women.