Sunday, 19 May 2024

A Forced Kiss, and a Reckoning With Sexism in Spain

Laura Marqués has never been much interested in soccer. She doesn’t watch the Spanish league games or know the names of the players. She didn’t even watch the Spanish women’s team win the World Cup final this month. But after the president of Spain’s soccer federation forcibly kissed one of the players during the medals ceremony after the match, setting off a momentous national debate about feminism, equality and abuse, soccer is all she has been thinking about.

“We’ve been talking about soccer a lot this week,” Ms. Marqués, a 26-year-old lawyer, said as she walked in downtown Zaragoza with a friend. She said she considered the unwanted kiss an all-too-common act of casual aggression, an abuse of power by an authority figure and a shameful eclipsing of the women’s moment of glory by the country’s stubborn, if fading, culture of machismo, the often ingrained sense of masculine pride and entitlement.

“Everything that happened showed what the players have been complaining about for a long time, and nobody believed how serious it was,” she said. “It’s the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

The celebratory and nonconsensual kiss on the lips that Luis Rubiales, the president of Spain’s soccer federation, pressed on Jennifer Hermoso, one of the team’s star players, has come to embody the generational and cultural fault line between deep traditions of machismo and the more recent progressivism that has put Spain in the European vanguard on issues of feminism and equality. Some commentators have taken to calling it Spain’s #MeToo moment.

On Monday, Spanish prosecutors said they had opened a preliminary investigation into whether Mr. Rubiales could be charged with committing a crime that could constitute sexual aggression.

Against the politically charged backdrop of recent Spanish elections that largely rejected the nostalgic and anti-gender identity politics of the chauvinistic far right, Spain’s establishment is clearly picking a side. Leading politicians on the left and right, the country’s top cultural figures and even an increasing number of voices from within the machismo culture of Spanish soccer have rallied to support Ms. Hermoso — who said she felt like a “victim of aggression” after a nonconsensual and sexist act — and to condemn Mr. Rubiales, who has decried “false feminism,” described himself as the victim of a “social assassination” and insisted Ms. Hermoso initiated the exchange.

“What happened last week was an epochal moment that will have important repercussions,” said Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán, a professor of political sciences at the Autonomous University of Madrid. She said the immediate condemnation of Mr. Rubiales — even by members of Spain’s main conservative party — reflected how far the country’s feminist movement had come. She noted that in the last 20 years, Spain had been a pioneer in gender and equality legislation.

In 2004, it recognized domestic violence as explicitly gender-based violence, and in 2022, after a horrific gang rape, the government passed a law that classifies any nonconsensual sex as rape.

The backlash to the kiss by Mr. Rubiales, Ms. Martínez-Bascuñán said, showed that the country had no intention of backsliding.

Ms. Martínez-Bascuñán said the incident presented “a magnificent opportunity” for Spain’s feminists and progressives to reveal and change the sexism in even the most male-dominated institutions. She said that there was a “generational and gender-based” fault line, but that most Spaniards understood why the kiss was inappropriate, and those who did not understand “were not the majority at all.”

Indeed, the denunciation of the kiss, videos and photographs of which proliferated in Spanish social media and across the country’s newspapers and television screens, came from across the political spectrum.

Pedro Sánchez, the country’s acting prime minister and leader of the Socialist party who bet big, and successfully, on his own record of progressive and feminist upheavals in last month’s elections, said that the kiss was “unacceptable” and the subsequent apology by Mr. Rubiales was “not enough.”

Irene Montero, the acting minister of equality, described the kiss as “sexual violence,” a statement that prompted Mr. Rubiales to threaten to sue her and other left-wing politicians for defamation.

Cuca Gamarra, the secretary of the conservative People’s Party, described the kiss as “shameful.” Isabel Díaz Ayuso, the regional president of Madrid, who is widely seen as a potential conservative prime minister, called it “disgraceful.” An editorial published on Saturday in La Razón, a conservative newspaper, described the episode as a “national monstrosity,” and said the progressivism of Mr. Sánchez’s government had created an environment that enabled Mr. Rubiales and his “vulgar and inappropriate behavior in the Women’s World Cup final.”

The far-right party Vox, which tanked in the election after portraying laws against gender-based violence as biased against men, has remained silent.

But Spanish society has erupted, seizing on the incident as a major moment of reckoning for its clubby and often sexist soccer culture. More than a dozen female players rebelled last year, long frustrated with unequal pay; what they considered overly harsh and controlling treatment by their current coach, Jorge Vilda, including allegations that he rifled through their personal belongings; and a general culture of sexism.

Many were kicked off the team and missed the World Cup, but one of those players, Lola Gallardo, told the newspaper El País on Monday that it was worth the pain of missing the glory. “Ideas are ahead of a medal,” she said.

The entire team and dozens of other players signed a joint statement late Friday night saying they would not take the field to play for Spain “if the current managers continue.”

On Saturday, some of the members of the team’s coaching staff resigned, condemning Mr. Rubiales’s defensive response to the incident. Two of the women who signed the resignation letter sat in the front row at a Friday news conference where Mr. Rubiales announced he would not step down. They later said that they had been told to sit there in a forced show of support, but did not say by whom.

The players are seeking to end the days of machismo in Spanish soccer, and seal it with Mr. Rubiales’s kiss.

“It’s over,” Alexia Putellas, a star player, wrote in a post on X, formerly known as Twitter, expressing solidarity with Ms. Hermoso. At a Spanish league match in Seville on Sunday night, the home players came on to the field wearing shirts reading “It’s over.” The crowd roared in approval and chanted calls for the resignation of Mr. Rubiales and for the federation to be scrubbed of corruption.

On Friday, Misa Rodríguez, a player on the national team, posted on social media a cartoon of a little girl asking her grandmother to tell her about how the team won the World Cup. “We didn’t just win the World Cup, little one,” the grandmother answers. “We won so much more.”

Lola Índigo, a Spanish singer, stopped a concert in Marbella to express indignation at the men who gave Mr. Rubiales a standing ovation after his speech on Friday.

But while the condemnation of Mr. Rubiales has been nearly uniform in politics, media and public life, there remains throughout Spain those who wonder if the incident was as bad as it was being made out to be, or if Mr. Rubiales’s lips are too thin to hang a movement on.

“If they want to get rid of him for what he did before, then they should, but the kiss is nonsense,” said Beatriz Pena, a 55-year-old soccer fan who was shopping for her grandson at her local soccer team’s store. “It’s not sexual harassment or anything.”

Oscar Duarte, 48, bought a soccer shirt for his son on Monday, the same day that Mr. Rubiales’s mother locked herself in a church and began a hunger strike to protest what she considered to be a witch hunt of her own son. Mr. Duarte said he and his son had made sure to support the women’s team, watching the games and cheering the players’ victory during the final match.

Like many Spaniards, Mr. Duarte was bothered that Mr. Rubiales grabbed his crotch in the vicinity of the Spanish queen and princess during the victory celebrations, but said he didn’t see anything so terrible about the kiss.

“It’s like a kiss I could have given to a friend,” he said, adding that it “was just a gesture of affection.”

But on Monday, Spanish prosecutors began looking into whether it was much more than that.

Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this article misattributed the author of the editorial in La Razón. It was unsigned; it was not by Isabel Díaz Ayuso.

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Jason Horowitz is the Rome bureau chief, covering Italy, the Vatican, Greece and other parts of Southern Europe. He previously covered the 2016 presidential campaign, the Obama administration and Congress, with an emphasis on political profiles and features. More about Jason Horowitz

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