DATELINE

Acute birth pangs of a new social order

Old certainties are being shaken in this land of extremes

David Baird October 26 1981
DATELINE

Acute birth pangs of a new social order

Old certainties are being shaken in this land of extremes

David Baird October 26 1981

Acute birth pangs of a new social order

DATELINE

Old certainties are being shaken in this land of extremes

David Baird

Carmencita married in white as custom demanded. A gentle, softeyed creature of 13, the only world she knew was the tight-knit little village in southern Spain where she had been raised. Pregnant by a 25-year-old bricklayer from the next town, she had tearfully confessed her sin to her parents and the priest. Manolo, the groom, hardly knew Carmencita, but he shrugged his shoulders and accepted that they must get married as custom demanded. When the baby was born Carmencita hemorrhaged—nothing could stop the bleeding—and within days she was dead. Her child passed into the care of Manolo’s parents while one relative murmured: “It was the will of God. After all she acted like a whore running around with a man that age.” Free again, Manolo went his way consoled by the knowledge that he had done the honorable thing—married the girl and acquitted himself as the true “hombre” should. As custom demanded.

By contrast to the old-world Spain, just a few kilometres away on the tourist-packed Costa del Sol new customs are emerging. Gays wiggle past the sidewalk cafés. Strippers and transvestites entertain vacationers in the pulsating nightclubs. On most beaches topless sunbathing is common and a nudist colony has opened for business near the fishing port of Estepona where, not so long ago, the sight of any bikini-clad female was enough to cause a riot. Not surprisingly, mass tourism (39 million visitors expected this year) has contributed greatly to the change in mores and questioning of authority.

Spain has often been described as a land of extremes, and this has never been more true than today. There are still many Carmencitas and Manolos, bound to the old order of double standards, to the rigid concepts of “machismo” (manliness), of a submissive female role in a sternly traditional society. But many among this nation of 37 million people are openly challenging accepted values. The wave of “permissiveness” only swept Spain after the death of Gen. Franco in 1975. The ensuing industrialization program in a largely rural society had already worked severe changes in the system, but the relaxation of censorship in recent years hit the country like a thunderclap, provoking conflicts between young and old, church and state, and within the armed forces. An attempted coup by 200 right-wing civil guards last February awakened Spaniards to just how deep divisons are within their country.

Last month one of the most controversial changes in modern Spain took effect as 26 special courts—soon to be followed by another 44—began processing divorce petitions. It is estimated that as many as one million men and women will take advantage of the new law that allows divorce by mutual consent after two years’ separation. Among them is likely to be Franco’s granddaughter, Maria Del Carmen, who has split up with her husband, the Duke of Cadiz. Previously, estranged couples could only remarry if they obtained an annulment through the Catholic Church, a lengthy and costly business. An annulled marriage is one that is deemed never to have existed —somewhat surprising in the case, for example, of pop singer Julio Iglesias (Spain’s answer to Frank Sinatra) who had three children before seeking and obtaining an annulment.

It took the ruling Union of the Democratic Centre party (UDC) 2V2 years to hammer out the new divorce law and push it through the Spanish parliament where it nearly provoked a rupture within the government as the Christian Democrat wing of the UDC tried to water it down. The Vatican fought hard to block the legislation, and the Spanish college of bishops declared, “Rather than being a remedy for evil, divorce is converted into an open door for the generation of evil.”

In a recent survey by the magazine Cambio 16, however, 71 per cent of Spaniards queried favored legalizing divorce. For women like Madrid secretary Concepcion Martinez, 38, it comes as a welcome release: “My husband thought I was his slave for life and that he could have as many girl-friends as he wanted. Ten years ago I walked out but there was no way I could break the legal chains.”

Feminist groups have gathered force in Spain but they still have an uphill fight, often against their own sex. Far from scolding her small son for beating his sister over the head with a stick, one mother hugged him exclaiming, “Qué macho[what a man]. He is going to be a real devil.” Persuaded from birth that he is one hell of a fellow, the average male finds it as difficult to accept new ideas of sexual equality as to admit that he could make an error. “One of the vices of the Spaniard,” says writer Fernando Diaz Plaja, “is that his egotism turns any conversation into a series of opinionated monologues.”

The quick emotional response, rather than the considered logical approach, fierce individualism and lack of dialogue, makes this a volatile nation that has always been difficult to govern. As Spanish historian Salvador De Madariaga once said: “Spanish thought is born the moment it is revealed. Whereas the Englishman thinks when he acts, the Spaniard thinks while he speaks.” Successive rulers, whether monarchs, dictators or democrats, have employed the feared paramilitary force in the tricorn hats, the civil guards, to maintain order. Numbering 62,000, their motto is Todo por la patria (everything for the fatherland), and at a time when old certainties are being shaken, some—like Col. Antonio Tejero Molina who led the February revolt—feel “La patria” is being betrayed. Of the new democratic constitution approved by popular referendum in 1978, one military officer, accused of conspiracy for his role in the attempted coup, commented, “I only read up to article three when I saw that it did not mention God.” He and other traditionalists see sinister forces at work. Lt.-Gen. Fernandez Posse created a furore when he used a religious ceremony to warn: “We are at war, a special subversive dirty war. They are trying to destroy our spiritual and moral values, penetrating all our social establishments, showing the lowest tastes.” A “stubborn enemy” had infiltrated the media, the church schools and universities, claimed the general.

“It tries to poison the soldiers, it seeks to propagate pernicious ideas which bring parents and children into conflict in order to destroy the family, the basic cell of all civilized society and the foundation of its Christianity,” said Posse, speaking in the king’s name, though King Juan Carlos had not seen the speech. Although he was called to Madrid following the speech to be rapped over the knuckles, his word must have found some echo among the Catholic hierarchy, for the church was one of the pillars of the Franco regime and a number of its privileges have now been removed. Catholicism is no longer the State religion, and in future priests will have to declare their income. Yet the church still enjoys considerable tax exemptions and continues to receive a state subsidy of $100 million yearly, plus a massive contribution toward its schools. Most Spaniards still count themselves Catholics even if they don’t practise their faith and the country still has 17,000 nuns enclosed in 950 monasteries, as well as 21,000 priests. Even a Basque Marxist is likely to wear a cross around his neck. But church influence has diminished with the shift to the cities—40 years ago half the population worked on the land. Today the figure is 19 per cent. In 1958, Spanish bishops sternly warned that “it cannot be accepted that engaged couples go arm in arm.” In contrast, a recent urban survey showed that 62 per cent of girls aged 15 to 25 saw no objection to sex before marriage. The clergy itself is split between traditionalists and progressives. Saturnino Molperceres, a village priest in Granada province, says his female parishioners keep their arms covered in public because “they still have proper modesty and fear of God.” Yet more than 100 priests have defied the hierarchy and married in the past few years.

Spanish women are pursuing liberation with typical Spanish verve. Close to 1.5 million are estimated to be defying Catholic principles by taking the Pill. Fears of a right-wing backlash, however, make it less likely than ever that parliament will legalize abortion, even though possibly as many as 3,000 women die each year due to bungling back-street practitioners. According to the ultraconservative bishop of Cuenca: “Assassination committed by a terrorist is less of a crime than that of a defenceless child.” Even so, an estimated 800,000 women each year risk jail sentences of up to six years by having illegal abortions (estimated to cost $250 U.S.) and, according to sources in Britain, 75,000 Spaniards have aborted there since 1977.

Although family-planning centres in Spain are functioning, they are underfinanced and subject to police raids should there be any suspicion that women are receiving advice on abortion. In some cities pro-abortion demonstrations have been attacked by young right-wing thugs wielding iron bars and chanting, “long live Christ the king.” Novelist and noted intellectual Montserrat Roig was one of 4,000 women who protested an abortion trial by signing a statement claiming that she too had aborted. “The only human being who has not been granted amnesty in Spain is the woman who is still not the owner of her body,” she wrote. “Spanish women’s bodies belong to the church and to the state.” Carmencita might have agreed if she had lived long enough.