Spanish army skirts around tattoo troubles by launching ‘unisex’ uniform

Spain’s Ministry of Defense has tweaked its uniform rulebook after a female recruit was kicked out of the army for showing a tattoo on her ankle; visible with the previously mandatory skirt she had to wear at military parades.

Spanish army skirts around tattoo troubles by launching ‘unisex’ uniform
emale recruits will now be able to wear the same uniform as men (including those concealing trousers) at official military occasions. Photo: AFP

Spanish Defence has modified the uniform chapter of the rulebook budding recruits use to prepare for the state entry exams to the country’s Armed Forces.

The decision comes after psychology graduate Estela Martín was expelled from the selection process for having a tattoo of a lotus flower on her ankle.

After spotting Martín’s tattoo during swimming trials, the chairman of the selection committee deemed she was unsuited to join the military, as for official Armed Forces events and parades female recruits had to wear a regimentary skirt.

According to Spanish army regulations. visible tattoos are expressly forbidden while wearing any uniform of the Armed Forces.

Before the change, female recruits would generally wear army trousers (that in turn could serve to conceal tattoos) but were not always allowed to.

One other woman was expelled from the selection process for sporting a tattoo on her foot, yet two men with tattoos on the heel and on the calves were accepted in. 

For thirty-year-old Martín, who had quit a hospital job to prepare for the army entry exams, the unfairness of her dismissal merited a visit to Spain’s public ombudsman, who deemed the Armed Forces’s uniform regulations discriminatory. 

Her dilemma has been widely covered by the Spanish press in recent days, spurring Spain’s Ministry of Defense to rethink their outdated uniform rulebook.

On Monday July 9 they announced the inclusion of a modified paragraph that reads “tattoos, earrings, spikes and inserts, self-mutilation or similar will not be visible while wearing the uniform of the Armed Forces, common to both women and men.”

Therefore as seen below, female recruits will now be able to wear the same uniform as men (including those concealing trousers) for official military occasions. 


Source: Spanish Ministry of Defence 

The uniform clause adds that “in formations with weaponry female personnel will wear trousers” while in “formations without weaponry the head of the unit may authorise the optional use of a skirt”.

This seems to imply that the choice will also be extended to official occasions when army skirts were once obligatory for female recruits.

It is unclear if Martín, from Madrid, will be allowed back into the selection process. 

Even before the uniform amendment, she had pointed out that the skirt uniform includes black tights, which would effectively conceal any leg or foot tattoos, rendering the whole crisis unnecessary in the first place. 

Worth noting as well is the fact that the Armed Forces no-tattoo rule is also only applicable to new recruits, not to individuals who are already part of the army.

Not to mention La Legión, an elite military unit, whose soldiers are known for being heavily tattooed without any consequence.


‘Everybody freeze!’: How a failed coup 40 years ago reshaped Spain’s military

On February 23 2021, Spain marks 40 years since a failed coup attempt triggered a cultural revolution within the military, leading to its forced modernisation and social integration.

'Everybody freeze!': How a failed coup 40 years ago reshaped Spain's military
Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero during the army's failed coup in 1981. Photos: Screenshot, AFP

For many Spaniards, memories remain fresh of a cold February afternoon when Lieutenant-Colonel Antonio Tejero stormed parliament with around 200 Guardia Civil officers, pistol in hand, shouting “¡quieto todo el mundo! (everybody freeze!).

The attempted coup was staged by an extremist faction within the military that wanted to halt the nation's shift towards democracy after decades of dictatorship under General Francisco Franco (1939-1975).

But the plan went awry due to the decisive response of King Juan Carlos I, triggering a new era in which the armed forces abandoned their interventionist role and embraced new responsibilities in global peacemaking and civilian protection.

“We moved from the concept of institutions that wielded power to institutions that provided a public service of security and defence,” said Admiral Manuel Garat Carame, who has been a part of the armed forces since Franco's death in 1975.

But how did an army accustomed to serving in a dictatorship and enjoying political privileges manage that shift?

Joining NATO

Initially, military leaders decided to promote those known for embracing more democratic ideals rather than carrying out widespread purges.

“What could be changed was changed,” recalls Abel Hernandez, a journalist who covered the transition from dictatorship to democracy.

“It wasn't a complete break from the past” because that would have meant getting rid of “up to 90 percent of the military leaders”.

The biggest driving force for change at an operational level and in military culture was Spain's 1982 entry into NATO which opened the door for multiple peace missions with the United Nations and European Union.

Another milestone was the end of obligatory military service in the 1990s and professionalisation of the military, which was placed under civilian control.

In 2008, Spain appointed Carme Chacon as its first female defence minister, about 20 years after women were first allowed into the military.

Chacon ushered in “an important feminisation at all levels within the army,” says analyst Diego Crescente, although progress has been slow with women only accounting for 12.8 percent of military personnel today, official figures show.

The transformation has taken years also owing to huge pressure from the Basque separatist movement ETA, which murdered dozens of soldiers and officials during the transition.

“The army's biggest accomplishment was its enormous self-restraint,” says Crescente, co-author of a recent article in the Revista de Occidente journal called “Army and Society”.

A public service

Alongside its international commitments, the Spanish army has become more visible back home as well thanks to its involvement in civilian emergencies.

The largest to date has been Operation Balmis during the first wave of the coronavirus pandemic when a record 189,000 troops were deployed for 98 days to build field hospitals, disinfect public buildings, and transport patients and medical equipment.

That boosted the military's image among Spaniards.

“Such circumstances make people's perception (of the army) much more positive,” Garat told AFP.

“One of the things the army does very well, because it is hierarchical and functions at times of extreme tension, is respond to emergency situations,” says Jaume Claret, a professor at the Open University of Catalonia.

But he said it was “questionable” whether the army should be systematically involved in civil protection duties.

From military to politics

As in other Western countries, several Spanish military figures have also made the leap into politics after retiring from active duty.

Some have gravitated towards the far-right Vox party, while others joined the Socialists of Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, and in one case a former chief of staff joined the radical leftwing Podemos.

The fact that Vox leader Santiago Abascal often dons a military green face mask with a Spanish flag is no coincidence. 

Last year, the military-political dimension hit the headlines after details were leaked from a Whatsapp group of retired officers who virulently criticised Spain's leftwing government and spoke of “shooting” 26 million Spaniards.

Although Defence Minister Margarita Robles denounced the authors as “not representing the armed forces at all”, some analysts point to an underlying unease with Spain's minority government which has sought to improve relations with Basque and Catalan separatists.

“Not that there is going to be any more sabre-rattling but there is a lot of unease with the current government,” Hernandez says.

“It is generating internal tension for military figures, as it is for many Spaniards, but more so” with the troops.