In the early morning hours of July 7, 2016, a young woman who has come to be known only as “la victima” (the victim) told policeman in the Spanish city of Pamplona that she had been gang-raped by five men.
She had gone with a friend to Pamplona for its “Running of the Bulls” San Fermin festival, an alcohol and testosterone-fueled week of bullfights and street dancing. Separated from her friend and lost, the young woman accepted the offer of a group of young men to accompany her back to her car.
Walking together down the dark, narrow streets, the men led her to a doorway and began taking turns raping her. When they finished, they took her phone and disappeared.
Four other rapes, one attempted rape and seven sexual assaults were reported the same week as hers in Pamplona. Their cases are forgotten. But two years later, on April 26, 2018, the verdict in la victima’s case provoked huge protests in every major Spanish city. Protesters painted their hands red, a symbol of aggression, and held aloft signs reading: “I Believe You.”
It also caused the United Nations and Amnesty International to issue statements, and Hollywood stars like Jessica Chastain and Rose McGowen to tweet on the topic.
Prosecutors in the case had demanded a 22-25 prison sentence for the five men, aged 27 to 29, accused of raping the woman, then aged 18 – while defence attorneys had requested a complete acquittal. The court case was closely followed in the media and expectations, especially among women’s groups emboldened by the MeToo and TimesUp movements, were high for a guilty verdict.
But the court, composed of three male judges, found the accused men guilty of the lesser crime of “continuous sexual abuse” because the woman didn’t fight back.
The term “rape” doesn’t exist in Spain’s criminal code. Under Spanish law, the lesser offence of sexual abuse differs from sexual assault in that it does not involve violence or intimidation. For sexual assault to have occurred, the woman must have, for example, been hit or threatened with a knife.
Must a victim of rape risk her life in order for the law to recognise the rape?
In 2008, also in Pamplona during the San Fermin festival, a young nurse named Nagore Lafagge was raped. But Nagore Laffage resisted her rapist, who then beat her to death. Women all over Spain know this case, and that her murderer, after serving eight years in prison, is now a free man.
“It is patriarchy speaking through the verdict. The message they are sending us is that the law will not protect us,” said Cristina Calvo Pareja from Madrid.
And from Barcelona, Mireia Gallardo Avellan asked: “Let me see if I understand this logic. The superior strength of five men organised to subdue a woman is not rape. I should then understand that it is ‘normal’. The normality of patriarchy. And that the opposite of accepting this means insubordination.”
During Francisco Franco’s dictatorship, women needed the permission of their husbands to work, drive or travel outside the country. Insubordination was forbidden by law.
According to a recent study by the European Commission, Spain is one of the European countries where incidents of sexual assault are reported the least. With 2.65 reports per 100,000 residents, Spain has the eighth lowest report rate, slightly ahead of Serbia.
And that under-reporting has everything to do with the law. Sexually abused women in Spain “regularly face prejudice on the part of authorities who question their testimony,” Amnesty International said in a statement on the case last November.
A victim of sexual violence in Spain suffers twice at the hands of the law. First, when the state fails to bring attackers to trial. Second when, under what is often vicious cross-examination, victims rather than their attackers are put on trial.
In their ruling the judges stated: “It is indisputable that the plaintiff suddenly found herself in a narrow and hidden place, surrounded by five older, thick-bodied males who left her overwhelmed and unresponsive.”
The woman, responding to questioning, described her actions: “I closed my eyes. I didn’t speak. I wasn’t able to do anything … I just did everything they told me to do.”
From this, the court concluded that the lack of struggle meant the sex was consensual.
One of the judges, Ricardo Gonzalez, described the rape scene as a sexual encounter in an “atmosphere of merriment and rejoicing,” and told the victim in court: “In any case, it is clear that you weren’t in pain during the event.”
Gonzalez’s statements galvanised 1,800 mental health professionals to join protests against the sentence. As one psychologist explained, in cases of sexual violence, “a response of immobilisation, when it is not possible to fight or flee, is common.”
Pity the rape victim who is neither rich nor famous. I survived a violent rape at age 15, an experience I wrote about in an earlier opinion piece for Al Jazeera. Despairing for decades about rape in America, I’ve been astounded by the sudden force of the MeToo movement.
But MeToo never could have happened without the star power of its first breaker of the silence, Hollywood actress Ashley Judd, who was soon followed by Angelina Jolie, Gwyneth Paltrow and others.
Had Penelope Cruz been gang-raped in Pamplona – and had she been willing to publicly name her attackers – I am certain that even Spain’s most conservative judge would have ruled differently. But this woman, like the tens of thousands of women all over the world who are raped, was nameless. Powerless.
After decades of movements fighting to end a deeply entrenched culture of entitled patriarchy, this case has brought the issue of sexual violence to a boiling, tipping point, engaging virtually all of Spanish society. An online petition calling for the disqualification of the trial judges received more than 1.2 million signatures in just two days.
State prosecutors say they will appeal the ruling. Many Spaniards believe it will bring change – that Spanish case law on sexual violence can be brought into line with international human rights standards.
But a new development belies that hope. Feeling the heat, Spain’s justice minister requested a review of laws related to sexual violence. A 20-member committee was formed. Not one of the 20 members appointed to the committee is a woman.
“Men who do not have the requisite abilities, capacities or knowledge cannot legislate on matters so sensitive, so impactful to women, said Lydia Vicente Marquez, executive director, Rights International Spain. “Men simply cannot speak on behalf of women.”
The case has provoked outrage in the European Parliament where an extraordinary debate was held last Wednesday on “Spain’s application of international standards on the definition of sexual violence.”
Members of the European Parliament from a wide range of political parties, even France’s right-wing National Front party, criticised Spain for not having implemented the Istanbul Convention on combating gender-based violence.
The impact of this rape verdict might well reach beyond the Iberian Peninsula, to other European Union member states like Ireland, Greece, Bulgaria and Croatia who have also not ratified the Convention.
And in countries all over Latin America and the Caribbean, women empowered by Spanish protests are using the hashtag campaign, #Cuentalo (“tell your story”) to call attention to the high levels of gender violence in their countries. UN Women has called Latin America and the Caribbean the most violent region in the world for women.
The clock is ticking. Perpetrators of sexual violence must be held accountable.
Onwards, Sisters. #IBelieveYou.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.