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How Spain's Running of the Bulls Is a Nightmare for Women

Every July, the Spanish city of Pamplona plays host to San Fermín, a week-long rager marked by booze, bulls, and, for women, nonstop sexual harassment. This year, the authorities want things to be different.

Anna Pacheco

Anna Pacheco

Photo via EPA

This post was originally published on Broadly Spain.

"You go walking on the street and they [harass you], or you're waiting for your girlfriends and some guy approaches you and asks, 'Why are you alone?'" says Miren Aristu, an activist from the Spanish feminist organization Gora Iruñea. "Any woman in Pamplona can tell you the same—we've all been through this."

For the last 15 years, her group has been campaigning against sexual harassment at San Fermín, the July festival that famously climaxes with the Running of the Bulls ceremony, in which people flee cattle charging through the narrow streets of the city.

Just like the toro bravo, the red scarves, and the traditional chupinazo rocket that marks the start of the week-long party, San Fermín has become a breeding ground for sexist abuse and attacks. They take place with apparent impunity. This year, five men were arrested after allegedly assaulting a 19-year-old woman; a 22-year-old French woman was also attacked just last weekend while using a public toilet.

It is not unusual, either, for crowds of men to grope a woman en masse if she goes topless or flashes the crowd. "A woman has the right to expose her body," Aristu says. "The fact that I take off my shirt doesn't entitle anyone to touch me. So many men go around on the streets without their shirts on and no woman jumps over them to touch them."

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According to the Navarre Equality Institute, the police filed 27 reports of sex attacks during San Fermín between 2011 and 2015. Ten cases of sexual assault were reported in 2013. Though reports have steadily decreased over the last two years, the figures not account for subtler sexual violence perpetrated on a daily basis on the streets or in bars.

Pamplona resident Irene Villafranca always attends the annual celebration, and says that women are told to abide by strict protocol to escape the festival unmolested. "One of the first things we are taught when we start to participate in the festivities is that we must never come back home on our own, that we have to avoid walking through dark streets, and avoid also groups of men," she explains.

The running of the bulls in Pamplona. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Villafranca and a friend were once followed by a group of men on San Nicolás Street, a main street in the city that is usually packed with people during San Fermín. They were catcalled; one man grabbed Villafranca by the hand. When she tried to get free, the men told her that she had no sense of humour and was being rude. It was time to party, they explained.

When she told another man what had happened, he said: "What are you complaining about? You should be thankful."

"The complicity shown by other men—and also by many women who don't see it as such a big deal—makes you question yourself," Villafranca says. "It also makes you feel twice as bad. They make you feel like an object, like a piece of meat, and totally vulnerable."

This year, Pamplona City Council unveiled a new campaign to help protect women attending the festival. As part of San Fermines en Igualdad (Spanish for "San Fermines In Equality"), its regular visitors' guide—available in Basque, Spanish, French, and English—now has instructions on what to do if you are attacked, like screaming "Fire!" to catch people's attention, or making sure not to wash your clothes or take a shower afterwards to preserve evidence of the assault. The council has installed high definition surveillance cameras around the festival, and boosted lighting and security in areas deemed to be hotspots for assault.

There's the general idea that during San Fermín, 'anything goes.'

A stall has also been set up for women to report incidences of sexism like the one experienced by Villafranca and her friend. "One of our main goals is to get anonymous information about low-impact incidents—dirty compliments, ass or boobs fondling, etc. These are associated with hard partying, but it's something that puts women in a very uncomfortable position," explains Laura Berro, an equality councillor at the Pamplona City Council.

Another innovation, Berro adds, is the phone helpline—a 24-hour service that offers psychological and legal support to anyone who calls up. "The idea of this helpline is to escort women from the moment they make the phone call until they reach public services, for example, a hospital. Those are very hard moments for the sufferers, so we believe this is going to be really useful."

But the anonymity of the crowd (thousands of tourists and locals attend San Fermín every year) also serves to shield those who come to Pamplona for reasons other than a good time. In the past, female TV journalists reporting from the event have been asked to expose themselves and grabbed and kissed without their consent.

Bilgune Feminista member Idoia Arraiza explains that the endemic harassment and assault can be partly attributed to the dominant paradigm of San Fermín: masculinity. The charangas (popular songs played everywhere during the festival) are just one example. The lyrics of the well-known track "Si te aprieta la braga" ("If Your Underwear Is Too Tight") read:

If your pants are too tight...
If your bra is too tight...
Cut them off with a pair of scissors,
And you'll see how well you feel afterwards.
What a pair of pants,
What a bra,
What an ensemble you just bought at El Corte Inglés [a famous Spanish department store].

"Since we are in a celebration [mode], many [bad] behaviors multiply themselves and become the norm," Arraiza explains, "because there's the general idea that during San Fermín 'anything goes.'" However, she points out, "there are many songs with a deeply sexist factor that reproduce sexist roles, but this does not happen only during San Fermín. Instead, those messages are present all the time, any weekend of the year."

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Equality councillor Laura Berro says that Pamplona City Council's measures aim to reinforce the message of affirmative consent. "When you say 'no,' it means no, but when there is no 'yes,' that is also a no," she explains.

This year is the third consecutive one that the council has been supported by feminist collectives and organizations, including Gora Iruñea and the Women's Platform Against Sexist Violence. Despite the ongoing attacks, Gora Iruñea member Miren Aristu remains optimistic about making San Fermín a safer place for women.

"Institutions used to deny or play down this problem, but ever since we started working with the City Council three years ago, the change is now visible," she says, "and our task has become much easier."