The Politics of Love

In Spain, progress made in gender equality laws leaves women wanting more

Historically, women’s movements around the world have been speaking out against patriarchal structures and systems rooted in machismo– the concept that masculine characteristics are superior to feminine ones.

In Spain, the cultural pervasion of machismo has had negative implications for violence against women. Though gender rights and roles have progressed considerably, the country’s current gender violence policies leave much to be desired. This World Book Day, the international day of celebration for the love of literacy that originated in Catalonia, provides an opportune platform to raise awareness about gender violence in Spain.

The origin of World Book Day is linked to the April 23 festival of Sant Jordi (Saint George), a Catalan spring tradition that began in 1436. The legend of Sant Jordi recounts the archetypal tale of a heroic knight who arrived in the nick of time to slay a menacing dragon and rescue a helpless princess. Magically, a rose bush sprouted from the dragon’s thick red blood from which Jordi plucked a flower to give to the princess. Hence, every April 23, the day Sant Jordi slayed the dragon, Catalan men have historically given their sweetheart a chivalrous red rose. Perhaps inadvertently, popularizing the fairytale over generations allowed the stereotype of the strong, dominant man and the dependent, victimized female to become something of a social norm.

The modern gender neutral custom of exchanging books emerged in 1923 as a way to commemorate the deaths of literary greats William Shakespeare and Miguel Cervantes. The Sant Jordi book swap tradition inspired the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to organize the first World Book Day on April 23, 1995 in order to promote reading, publishing, and copyright. While the antiquated custom of giving women roses has been replaced by a mutual exchange of books, many challenges still lie ahead for the women’s movement in Catalonia and the whole of Spain.

In order to understand the struggles of the feminist movement in Spain, it is important to consider the development of gender laws from a contemporary political perspective. Over the past four decades Spain has moved from a dictatorship to a democracy. Particularly from the time that the Women’s Institute was created in 1983 up until the mid-1990s, the Socialist government and feminist social activists progressively strengthened gender equality legislation. Pressures from the United Nations (UN) and European Union (EU) played a key role in keeping gender equality issues alive under the conservative government of the Popular Party (PP) during the late 1990s and early 2000s. In 2004, a new Socialist Party government took office for the first time in eight years. Shortly after, a series of important, effective gender equality laws were passed that criminalized gender violence, allowed same-sex marriage, supported dependent people, and legitimized policy as a strategy to promote equality and non-discrimination.

Approved by all political parties, the Organic Law 1/2004 shifted the issue of violence against women to a public rather than private matter by distinguishing between gender violence and domestic violence. The Spanish law considers gender violence to be “all physical and psychological acts of violence carried out against a woman by a man who is or has been her spouse, or who is or has been linked to her by a similar sentimental relationship even if without cohabitation.” By definition, domestic violence is “all physical or psychological violence carried out by a man or a woman” and presumably occurs in the home. Importantly, the definition of gender violence frames violence against women as an issue of human rights that the state should be responsible for managing. In general, the law has made it easier for women to seek protection against their abusers and for courts to convict male aggressors.

However, Law 1/2004 is not without its shortcomings. The law has made it easier for women to seek protection, but are they doing so? According to data from Spain’s Ministry of Sanitation, Social Services, and Equality, complaints against gender violence have steadily declined since 2009 as has the percentage of protection orders issued (Figure 1), but the number of women killed from gender violence has hardly fluctuated over the past decade. In recent years, the number of victims has actually risen from 52 in 2012 to 60 in 2015. Many factors play into these alarming figures, including the machismo ideology embedded in power and patriarchal hierarchies which has posed significant barriers to reporting gender violence. In many instances, women must report abuse in a male-dominated police station then await a ruling on their case by a male judge.


The absence of protocols for the prevention and response to gender violence in Spanish universities until 2011 epitomizes the deficiencies of Law 1/2004. Research on barriers to reporting gender violence in the university context has revealed that women tend to remain silent because reporting violent situations may be ineffective without appropriate follow-up action. Universities often create a hostile environment that supports those in authority rather than victims, deterring reporting. The research published by scholars associated with the Centre for Research on Theories and Practices for Overcoming Inequalities (CREA) in Barcelona has helped shape protocols against gender violence in some Spanish universities. CREA advocates implementing prevention mechanisms or a code of behavior specific to gender violence in order to facilitate reporting by the affected women and dissuade aggressors from perpetrating violence, which would largely reduce violence against women on university campuses.

Jesús Javier Gómez Alonso, nicknamed Pato, a professor of research methods at the University of Barcelona who worked closely with CREA until his death in 2006, critically examined conventional notions of love from a scientific perspective. He studied the relationships of adolescents in order to identify oppressive and violent tendencies that enabled one partner to dominate over the other, which led him to believe that love could be dehumanizing and destructive. Social and political forces, Pato concluded, were at the root of oppressive relationships associated with gender violence. His 2004 book, El amor de la sociedad del riesgo (Love in a High-Risk Society), delineates these ideas and encourages couples to develop relationships based on equality and solidarity.

SAFO Women’s Group at CREA has built on Pato’s research on preventative socialization of gender violence. By increasing the dialogue surrounding gender violence, the group’s analyses have been a transformative vehicle for social action in Spain and around the world. However, at present, concerns about gender violence do not appear to be at the top of the political agenda. Major rifts between Spain’s four main political parties over economic policies and the fight for Catalan independence have dominated talks in the deadlocked Parliament.

Engrained machismo attitudes will not change overnight, but Spanish lawmakers must be pressured to work through their internal political power quarrels and make gender violence a political priority. This World Book Day, you can join the movement to put an end to violence against women and eradicate contemporary patriarchy barriers to reporting its occurrence. Sant Jordi’s Day no longer represents a romanticized notion of fairytale love, but a mutual respect between partners meant to empower and liberate individuals. Need a book recommendation to get the conversation started? In honor the tenth anniversary of Pato’s death this year, consider gifting your loved one El amor de la sociedad del riesgo.


Ashley Miller

Ashley is a researcher and global education advocate with a B.A. in Public Policy Analysis from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and M.A. in International Relations from Institut Barcelona d’Estudis Internacional. Her studies and travels inform and inspire her interests in international education, social justice, economic empowerment, and human rights. To connect with Ashley, send her a personalized message on LinkedIn:
2 Comments on this post.
  • Roger Hawcroft
    21 April 2016 at 10:39 pm
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    Such a succinct, well written and informative piece and stimulating reading. It is interesting to hear of the Spanish approach to gender violence that places it firmly as a social issue as opposed to a personal one. It’s also interesting, though disappointing and tragic, to see that despite the laws designed to protect women from gender based violence, its incidence is again on the increase.

    My feeling is that such behaviour and the tacit acceptance of it that seems to be evident from the Spanish situation and similar laws in other countries, is firmly based in our socialisation, the core of which is very much linked to past mores and traits and yet most insinuated into people’s minds in their formative years and through schooling.

    Part of this socialisation is the romanticisation of love. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary provided by divorce statistics, extra marital relationships, mental health and counseling consumption and the fact of gender violence itself, it seems that we continue to spread and cling to the notion of romantic love and monogamous “’till death do us part’ relationships.

    Fairy stories and folk tales have long been used for political purposes, particular to disguise messages that would, if openly stated, bring sanction or retribution from the powerful. So, often, they have been used by the oppressed and down-trodden to satirise power relationships and offer hope of change. Unfortunately, many of these tales have been trivialised by entrepeneurs such as Disney, to the extent that today they are largely seen as just pretty stories in which, “everyone lived happily ever after”.

    As literacy has increased, the influence of the oral tradition has lessened and, instead of chinese whispers we now have immediate and simultaneous transmission of the same story or idea. This, of course, lends itself to mass indoctrination – socialisation, if you will – and tends to subjugate the individual take on an issue. it effectively allows the reinforcement of archaic and anachronistic views, attitudes and practices as well as the ready opportunity to implant new ones that serve to cement social inequalties and inequity.

    I know many people, of both genders, who would decry the coupling of “politics” and “love” but there is much to explore in examining human behaviour from this perspective and, indeed, as with everything that examination will throw up other, even opposite, facets of the concept.

    Thank you for the article. I didn’t know of the work but would be interested to read it. Is it available in an English language translation?

  • Ashley Miller
    Ashley Miller
    22 April 2016 at 10:46 pm
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    Roger –

    Thank you for your thoughtful comments. It is interesting to consider how the romaniticization of love over time has influenced the culture and politics of different countries. Your post made me curious whether there is variance in the conceptualizations of love between Eastern and Western or developed and developing countries, and if so, how has it affected the evolution of social and legal systems. Something to look into.

    Shirley Steinberg translated El Amor en la Sociedad del Riesgo to English, although I have not been able to find a copy online.

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