Spain must break 'pact of silence' over sexism, equality minister says

Spain's Minister of Equality Irene Montero speaks amid controversy over kiss of Spanish FA chief Luis Rubiales to player Jennifer Hermoso during World Cup celebrations, in Madrid

By Miguel Gutierrez and Belén Carreño

MADRID (Reuters) -Spanish society must break a "pact of silence" and stop normalizing sexist behaviour and support women brave enough to speak out when it happens, acting Equality Minister Irene Montero said on Wednesday.

Montero said in an interview with Reuters she hoped the furore created by Spanish Football Association (RFEF) chief Luis Rubiales' kiss on the mouth of World Cup winner Jenni Hermoso - which she says was non-consensual - will serve as a point of inflection in the fight against sexism in Spain.

Rubiales is facing a chorus of voices calling for his resignation and has been temporarily suspended by FIFA for his behaviour when players were being handed their medals after defeating England in the World Cup final on Aug. 20 in Sydney.

"Spain is a feminist society in which sexism still exists, but it is determined to end sexism," Montero said. "We are sending the correct message to the world, that sexism is over."

Montero said sport in Spain is structurally sexist and she expressed disappointment that Spain's male football players have largely stayed silent about the incident while the entire women's football team has said it will not play while Rubiales refuses to resign.

"I think it has become evident that feminism is also a task for men," she said, while acknowledging that support for Hermoso showed that the majority of Spanish men condemn sexist behaviour.

"Perhaps it would have been desirable for this pact of silence to be broken with more force and forcefulness. But I think it has begun to crack and that is a very important step," she said.

Rubiales has accused his critics of "false feminism".

Prosecutors have opened a preliminary investigation into whether Rubiales might have committed an act of sexual aggression when he grabbed Hermoso and kissed her on the lips.

However, the case will be closed if Hermoso does not file a formal complaint.

Hermoso, her teammates and several government officials have said the kiss was unwanted and demeaning.

While Rubiales, 46, had persistently denied wrongdoing and insisted the kiss - which took place in a globally watched live broadcast - was consensual, his mother Angeles Bejar locked herself inside a church in the family's home town of Motril on Monday and started a hunger strike in support of her son.

Bejar was taken to hospital on Wednesday after feeling tired and stressed, a priest, who identified himself as Father Antonio, told reporters without elaborating. The hospital would not confirm if she was admitted.

Rubiales hasn't commented on the issue since he was suspended on Saturday. Bejar had said on local TV he had told her to stop the hunger strike.

Gender issues are a prominent topic in Spain. In the past several years, tens of thousands of women have taken part in street marches protesting against sexual abuse and violence.

The left-wing coalition government led by Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has presided over several legal reforms including around equal pay and abortion rights.

Spain is now under a caretaker government after an inconclusive election in July that was marked by heated debate over women´s rights. Government opponents criticised a sexual violence law that introduced the concept of consent but inadvertently introduced a loophole enabling over 1,000 imprisoned offenders to get their sentences reduced or ended early.

The hard-right Vox party on Wednesday said the Rubiales case was a "political witchhunt" designed to obfuscate the errors committed by the government with the sexual violence law.

"With common sense you can distinguish what is rude or bad manners from what is a crime," Vox said on X, formerly Twitter.

However, Vox called for Rubiales to resign, citing behaviour incompatible with the presidency of a federation. At the event in Sydney, he also grabbed his crotch in a gesture of celebration while standing next to Queen Letizia.

Montero welcomed criticism that the government has been slow to act over the Rubiales crisis, saying that in the past it has been reprimanded for moving too fast for society to assimilate changes on women's rights.

"I have been accused all the time of going too fast," she said. "I am glad that the view is now that the changes have to go even faster, be even more forceful and go deeper."

(Reporting by Miguel Gutierrez, Belen Carreno, Mariano Valladolid; Writing by Charlie Devereux and Inti Landauro; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Macfie)