BY VICTOR LASA
Feminism is the most crucial democratizing power in the world today. The first time I heard this statement made by the still Minister for Equality in Spain, Irene Montero (Podemos), I did not believe it fully applied to an advanced European democracy. But I was to be woken up by reality only a few months later, together with the rest of the country. On August 20th, the Spanish female national team won its first World Cup in Australia and New Zealand, the most successful female sporting event in football, being the most viewed ever. It was a historic achievement that transcended the realm of sports. This was the same team that only eight months before had to rebel against one of the most powerful institutions in a country where football is a religion (and close to 2% of its GDP), the Royal Federation of Football (RFEF).
Months before the RFEF president Luis Rubiales’ unwanted kiss incident that ruined the Spanish players’ celebrations and the country’s international reputation, there had been clear signs of trouble regarding women’s treatment by the federation. In an unprecedented move, 15 players signed a statement complaining about their treatment. They would not play for Spain again until they felt they were taken seriously as professional footballers. The group included some of the best players in the world, like Alexia Putellas, the two-time Ballon d’Or winner. Many in the male-dominated sports media dismissed this as a childish outburst, accusing the women of lacking an understanding of professionalism. Oblivious to the more profound significance of their fight, they failed to recognize the players were asking for respect and equality.
The RFEF responded like the establishment always does. They initiated a public war, lying about the players’ demandsto criminalize them. They aimed to avoid the issue becoming a political cause. Their fear was rooted in the environment of national feminist empowerment created by the presence of Podemos in the government of Spain – especially Minister Montero – during the 2019-2023 term. They knew traditional mainstream media, led by the nation’s most-read newspaper, Marca (exclusively focused on sports), would support their strategy. Indeed, attacking feminism has become the establishment’s primary tool to destroy Podemos. They will never forgive the young party’s audacity to redefine the logic of political power in post-GFC Spain.
Luis Rubiales, the controversial head of the RFEF, managed the conflict to avoid his dismissal by brokering an incomplete resolution. After realizing there would not be significant changes before the World Cup and fearing they would miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play that competition, most players agreed to continue. Three of themremained rebellious, indicating they prioritized their principles.
That is the pathetic reason to explain Rubiales’ euphoria during the World Cup celebration. For him, it was not about the women becoming world champions but his victory over what he derides as “fake feminism”. Again, a man managed to make a woman’s success all about himself, a story as old as humanity. Drunk in self-esteem and entitlement, he subjected player Jenni Hermoso to a degrading kiss on live television.
Irene Montero and other Podemos leaders like Ione Belarra and Pablo Echenique first pointed out the severity of Rubiales’ inappropriate behaviour that same night. Predictably, most media outlets deemed the event unworthy of attention. Many radio sports journalists found it amusing. Renowned journalist Manolo Lama suggested that the women who voiced their discomfort with Rubiales’ kiss were likely inexperienced in receiving such attention. Once more, the prevailing sentiment appeared to dismiss feminists as mere complainers, attributing their concerns to trivial matters.
Hours after the fact, and only when the scandal started to gain momentum, attitudes began to change. Juanma Castaño, the anchor of the most popular radio sports show, confessed he should have reflected on the hierarchical difference between Rubiales and Hermoso – it was “a boss kissing his employee.” He apologized, explaining that the law must be respected. Championed by Irene Montero, a new law was introduced in 2022. Known as “Ley del sólo Sí es Sí” (“Only Yes means Yes), the law symbolizes a shift in societal attitudes, decreeing that all sexual behaviour demands consent.
Rubiales’ career is probably over. The incident not only demonstrated the resilience of feminist advocacy but also underscored the significance of policy reform. Rubiales is only one of the last symbols of the patriarchy’s hold on Spain and the urgent need for transformation. Absolute equality for women only comes with respect. Unfortunately, the vigorous defence of feminism featured by Podemos in the last four years has always encountered fierce opposition in mainstream media, including during the recent parliament elections on July 23rd.
The intersection of politics and gender equality is evident in the resulting Spanish parliament. Like in 2015, 2016, and 2019, the Spanish political landscape has become a colourful mix of eleven parties divided into two main blocks: progressive and conservative. None has a clear majority. The PSOE social democrats aim to renew their coalition with Podemos in government, but their 2019-2023 partner has now substantially changed. Last July, Podemos ran for election as part of a new coalition of 15 leftwing, green and regional parties called SUMAR, led by the current vice president and Minister for Labour, Yolanda Díaz. President Pedro Sánchez’s tenure hangs in the balance, contingent on the support of a radical independentist Catalonian party, Junts per Catalunya (Together for Catalunya), who will most likely demand a referendum of independence as a condition. In a paradoxical turn of destiny, they will also request legal immunity for their party leader, Carles Puigdemont, former President of Catalunya and organizer of the 2017 illegal referendum for independence, exiled in Belgium since then. Karma is bringing back an old adversary of the Spanish establishment, now more powerful and decisive than ever. This is usually the outcome when one tries to sweep nation-changing political problems under the rug, a tactic employed by successive conservative governments over the years.
Irene Montero will not be part of these negotiations. The most proactive and decisive Minister of Podemos, also the most attacked by mainstream media, has been cancelled. The leadership of the new SUMAR coalition vetoed her presence on the ballot. Montero’s feminist cause was deemed problematic, uncomfortable perhaps. Truth always is. The struggle of the Spanish female soccer team symbolizes a more extensive movement demanding respect, dignity, and recognition of women’s worth. Their journey reflects the intricate interplay of sports, politics, media, and the fight for gender equality. In a world oscillating between progress and resistance, Spain’s trajectory is a compass pointing toward a future where feminism redefines power dynamics and triumphs over entrenched biases.
Victor Lasa is a PhD candidate with the Centre for Global Research, RMIT University, and chief editor of the Spanish news site Geopolitica HOY. With an interest in information politics, he has contributed as an advisor to emergent political parties in Spain and Australia. Follow him at @victorlasa