It was a Sunday morning in early February in Madrid, and Spain’s Minister of Equality was on a war footing. Having eschewed business attire for the occasion, Irene Montero rose on sneaker-clad feet from her seat onstage at a local cultural center and, gripping the microphone like she wanted to strangle it, addressed her supporters. A key reform on sexual violence that her ministry had spearheaded was under attack, and the meeting was intended to rally the troops from Unidas Podemos, the progressive political party that she helps lead and which, along with the Socialist Party, has formed Spain’s coalition government since January 2020. “This law is more than just a law,” she said. “It’s a process of democratizing society. It is not the ministry’s law, or the government’s, or the parliament’s. It is the law of the women of this country.”
Spain is at an inflection point on gender. Since Montero became minister in 2020, a nation that not 50 years ago required women to obtain their father’s or husband’s permission in order to work has consolidated its position among Europe’s most feminist countries. Her ministry has taken measures to combat rising rates of domestic violence, and introduced legislation that extends LGBTQ rights, protects reproductive health—including guaranteeing menstrual leave—and makes consent the determining factor in cases of sexual assault. In December, it also approved the so-called Trans Law, which allows people to declare their own gender, rather than requiring a diagnosis of dysphoria.
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In an interview with TIME late in January, Montero, 35, was clear about her ambitions. “Without a doubt, I believe that the function of government is to consolidate in public policy the rights that the feminist movement, that women, are winning,” she said. “As a government, we have to make a decision: Are we going to dare to be part of the democratizing impulse that comes from the feminist movement and from civil society, or are we going to maintain a more cowardly or conservative attItude?”
Yet when it comes to social policy, innovation and backlash are often entwined. Thanks to recent controversy that has erupted around some of her ministry’s reforms, the government’s agenda—and perhaps its very stability—are now under threat. Is the crisis a sign of unbridgeable divisions between the progressive, feminist Spain that Montero envisions and a conservative, patriarchal reality that remains entrenched? Or is it a lesson in the perils of applying ideology to society at large?
Montero has been imagining a more progressive future for Spain since her teens, when she first became politically active. A member of Podemos since its 2014 founding, she rose quickly through the party, and under her leadership the Equality Ministry has helped convert many of its feminist ideals into law.
The reforms she has spearheaded have elicited both ecstatic praise and harsh criticism from different sectors of Spanish society. But none has generated as much controversy as the government’s new law, nicknamed Solo sí es sí (Only yes means yes), which went into effect last fall. The law does away with distinctions in the penal code that categorized sexual-assault offenses based on whether violence and intimidation were employed, and instead puts the question of consent firmly at its center.
The reform is a direct response to the notorious 2016 “La Manada” case, in which a woman was gang-raped by five men during the San Fermin festival in Pamplona. Although the perpetrators, who referred to themselves as “the wolf pack,” filmed the attacks, two lower courts found them guilty only of the lesser crime of sexual abuse since, in the courts’ argument, there were no signs the men had coerced the victim. (Spanish law defined “sexual aggression,” which carried heavier punishments, as requiring the use of violence and intimidation.) Later, Spain’s Supreme Court would reverse those verdicts and sentence the men to 15 years in prison for rape. But by then, a protest movement had brought hundreds of thousands to the streets to denounce both the sexist culture that had produced the crime, and a patriarchal judicial system that did not take violence against women seriously.
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Solo sí es sí does away with the old distinction between sexual abuse and sexual aggression. Now, in a country in which, according to government figures, 1 in every 2 women has suffered some kind of sexual violence, sexual aggression covers everything from workplace harassment to aggravated rape. “It’s a good example of a reform that emerged from the street,” Montero, who was among those marching in the protests, says. “Sexual violence is enormously normalized and invisible in our society: unwanted touching on public transportation, rape, harassment in the workplace. All of these need to be understood as violences that can destroy women’s lives and that demand a response on the part of the state.”
Many welcome the law, which also created a fund for survivors of sexual violence and established crisis centers throughout Spain. “It’s a good and important piece of legislation that guarantees the rights of women and is already raising social consciousness,” says University of Cádiz law professor María Acale Sánchez. But soon after Solo sí es sí came into effect, it became clear that it was provoking one major, and apparently unintended, repercussion: some previously convicted offenders were having their sentences reduced.
“They created a single penal framework where before there had been two,” explains José Luis Díez Ripollés, professor of criminal law at the University of Malaga. “So if before, sexual aggression with penetration had been punished with six to 12 years and sexual abuse with penetration with four to 10 years, now all those crimes were subject to four to 12 years.”
In Spain, as in many countries, changes in sentencing guidelines can be applied retroactively, and it wasn’t long before convicted sex offenders began petitioning courts to have their sentences revised. As of publication, nearly 500 had their jail time shortened, and more than 40 who had already fulfilled the new sentences had been released.
Some critics have blamed the flaws on what Díez Ripollés characterizes as its “pronounced ideological posture linked to feminist currents of thought,” Predictably, some of the outcry has come from Montero’s opponents; one far-right MP not only called her a “rapist liberator” on the floor of parliament but also made scathing remarks about Montero’s personal life—she is the domestic partner of Podemos founder and former leader Pablo Iglesias—that were so misogynistic, they were condemned by all other parties.
“This is what happens when the feminist movement advances,” Montero says of the verbal attacks. “It’s a continuous strategy of harassment and tearing you down, of scrutinizing your private life with the intention, in the end, to make it so it’s no longer worth it for the women who are temporarily at the forefront to continue.”
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But even some of those who share Montero’s objectives have questioned the penal provisions of the law. Some “anti-punitive” feminists have regretted that the focus on sentences has maintained punishment as a solution, rather than social improvements and better education. Others, like Marisa Soleto, director of the women’s organization Fundación Mujeres, suggest that the government failed to prepare for what the law really meant. “Perhaps some of those responsible are too ambitious and have wanted to run further with the legal text of their reforms than was really possible at this moment in Spain.”
For her part, Montero says complications are to be expected with such a profound change. “Like all paradigm shifts, especially in the Penal Code, there’s going to be a period of transition. And that is what we are living now. The majority of courts are applying the law correctly and [maintaining] the sentences, but there are some that are not.”
In November, she was more explicit, telling the Spanish press that “machismo” could be inducing some judges to “apply the law incorrectly.” In a country where 56% of judges are women, the accusations have infuriated some magistrates and exacerbated the tension. “We consider those words incorrect,” says Concepción Roig, a magistrate and a spokesperson for the progressive association Judges for Democracy. The reality, she says, is that differences in courts’ interpretations—nearly 40% of the sentences reviewed have been lowered—are a regular part of the judicial process. And while some of the reviewed cases do leave room for judicial interpretation, others do not. In the case of attempted but unconsummated rape, for example, “a judge has no choice but to lower the sentence,” says Roig. “The law obliges it.”
A few days after Montero told TIME that her ministry had no intention of revising the law, Spain’s Justice Minister Pilar Llop, a member of the Socialist Party, proposed doing just that. Her revision—while maintaining consent as the determining factor in sexual crimes—would restore violence and intimidation as considerations and raise the sentences accordingly.
Montero objects. “We feminists didn’t fight for a name change,” she told the radio station SER on Feb. 9. “We fought because our credibility and the gravity of the crimes don’t depend on whether there are marks on your body … We fought for a different way of judging sexual crimes, where the focus is not on the victim and whether she fought back or kept her legs closed tightly.”
Amid the impasse between the Equality and Justice ministries, calls for Montero’s resignation—heard since Solo sí es sí was passed—have become louder. With elections due this year and other parties exploring joining forces to pass the proposed revision, it is not inconceivable that she will decide to step down. What that would mean for the governing coalition is unclear, but at a press conference on Feb. 10, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez felt compelled to say “all the ministers have my trust, including the Minister of Equality,” and assure the public that the governing coalition “is not going to break.”
Montero’s supporters appreciate her tenacity. “We believe the minister has been very courageous and has held her ground, despite all the pressure,” says Encarní Bonilla, spokesperson for Chrysallis, a trans organization that has watched with dismay similar efforts to weaken a law that allows people to declare their own genders.
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But others suggest Montero may be more entranced with ideology than is good for a politician—or for Spanish feminism. “I think we may be waging a political war over how to understand feminism around the decisions that the Ministry of Equality is making,” says Soleto. “The organizations we work with are always reminding them that women have other kinds of real needs.”
On Feb. 9, Montero’s ministry responded to some of those needs by implementing a new protocol that gives police the ability to inform women if their partners have a history of domestic violence. And in any case, she embraces the notion that she is driven by ideology. “Politics is ideology,” she says with characteristic passion. “Thinking about how we want our society to be is a fundamentally ideological question. Confronted with a form of organizing society that is unjust, that generates inequality, that causes suffering: What are we going to do?” —With reporting by Simmone Shah/New York
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