SPAIN: ‘Women are no longer willing to tolerate disrespect or abuse of power’

EleonoraGiovioCIVICUS speaks with Eleonora Giovio, sports editor of the Spanish newspaper El País, about the systemic abuses faced by women in sport, evidenced in a recent case of abuse of power by the highest authority in the Spanish football federation.

What were the public reactions to the non-consensual public kissing of a female player by the president of the football federation?

The first reaction to the non-consensual kiss that Luis Rubiales, president of the Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF), gave to the player Jenni Hermoso during the celebration of the Spanish team’s victory in the Women’s World Cup was of astonishment, followed by strong condemnation on social media.

The worst thing for me was that the same night, and after Hermoso had recorded a video in the dressing room in which she said she didn’t like being kissed, Rubiales went on a radio programme joking about it with the presenter. They took it as a joke, they laughed at women, Rubiales said he was not up to this ‘bullshit’ and that the people who had been bothered by the kiss were ‘dumb asses’. He downplayed his macho and inappropriate behaviour. He obviously saw no abuse of power, and he insulted all of us who had found the kiss unacceptable.

As a result of these statements, rejection on social media became stronger, as well as more widespread, because the event was televised live all over the world. The radio host apologised the next day because, he said, he was unaware of the legal aspects of the question and had not realised this could be a crime.

Public condemnation was widespread and politicians quickly joined in. The tsunami was finally unleashed when team captain Alexia Putellas, who had kept a low profile and stayed out of the spotlight all year, tweeted her famous #seacabó (#ItsOver) hashtag in solidarity with her teammate Hermoso. From then on it was unstoppable.

However, very few players in the men’s squad spoke out. I didn’t expect otherwise because I know how sexist and misogynist the world of football is. Another example of this is the case of Dani Alves, a player currently in custody on sexual abuse charges. When the situation came to light, the reaction of the FC Barcelona coach was to say he felt sorry for him. They never put themselves in the place of the victim.

Another case in which silence was thunderous was when WhatsApp messages from a coach of the Rayo Vallecano women’s team came to light in which he encouraged gang rape as a way to unite the team, and nobody in the world of football spoke out to say that this was intolerable and shameful.

There are obviously some who think we women are overreacting. But the reality is that we are no longer willing to tolerate disrespect or abuse of power. There is no turning back now.

Why did the sport’s governing bodies take so long to condemn the incident? What would have been the appropriate response?

The RFEF not only took too long to condemn the incident, but initially forced Hermoso to make a video with Rubiales to give a false image of unity and calm. Hermoso refused and the Federation issued a statement attributing phrases to her that she says she didn’t say. This is very serious and the Public Prosecutor’s Office has filed a complaint for coercion in addition to sexual assault.

Notably, it was FIFA that, despite its long history of corruption scandals, disqualified Rubiales. While the Spanish government was very emphatic, the RFEF is a private body. Mechanisms for disqualifying a federation president are very complicated, and on top of that the Administrative Court of Sport found Rubiales’ misconduct to be ‘serious’, but not ‘very serious’.

The RFEF is a tremendously macho structure. Its members are men from territorial federations who support and cover for each other. Federations are a territory not just of men but mostly of macho men. Many of them have been in office for many, many years. Profound restructuring is needed. In Spain there are only two women heading federations and only 14 per cent of federations’ executive positions are in the hands of women. At this rate, substantial change will take several decades.

Although it is very difficult to withdraw sponsorships, as contracts must be fulfilled, I found it ugly that sponsors did not condemn a gesture that was not only out of place but also a crime. The only sponsor to issue a condemnatory statement was the airline Iberia. Iberdrola, an electricity company and the one that has invested the most in football and women’s sport, issued a statement only after I published an article on the El País website. The rest remained silent. I think they should have been firmer in their condemnation, particularly in the context of the unanimous rejection throughout Spain.

Do these things happen frequently in sport?

I think sport is not free from abuses of power, psychological abuse and sexual abuse. These happen in society, in the church, in entertainment, everywhere. There is no reason to expect sport to be free of abuse. However, it is particularly difficult to bring this to light because of the deeply rooted idea that sport provides a positive environment and is good for the development of boys and girls, fostering coexistence and instilling values of effort and sacrifice. Nobody wants to expose its darker side.

Hopefully the case of Jenni Hermoso will serve as an opportunity to undertake a profound restructuring, starting with football but including other sports federations. It is a good time to begin to change the dynamics of power and ways of working, reform structures and include more women, of which there are many who are very well prepared. Abusive behaviour and power dynamics that subordinate women must cease to be considered normal. I have the feeling that in 15 or 20 years’ time we will remember this as the moment when change began.

Civic space in Spain is rated ‘narrowed’ by the CIVICUS Monitor.

Read Eleonora’s articles in and follow @elegiovio on Twitter.



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