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LIFE IN SPAIN

IN IMAGES: Horses ‘purified’ with fire in controversial Spanish ritual

At full gallop, the horse emerges from the darkness and races through a string of bonfires in an ancient ritual to ward off sickness performed every January in a tiny Spanish village.

A horseman rides through a bonfire in the village of San Bartolome de Pinares in the province of Avila in central Spain, during the traditional religious festival of
A horseman rides through a bonfire in the village of San Bartolome de Pinares in the province of Avila in central Spain, during the traditional religious festival of "Las Luminarias" in honour of San Antonio Abad (Saint Anthony), patron saint of animals, on January 16, 2022. (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Known as Luminarias, the festival takes place every January 16th in San Bartolomé de Pinares, a village perched high in the hills about 100 kilometres (60 miles) west of Madrid.

By the light of an almost full moon, several local officials are sweating copiously, despite freezing temperatures, as they pile branches onto the bonfires blazing along the main street of this village of just 600 residents

As the bells ring out, there’s a sudden clatter of hooves as the first horse and rider come charging out.

After the first horse passes another follows, then a group of them, sparks flying from their hooves as they gallop down the street, cheered on by hundreds of onlookers here to witness this mystical, medieval-like spectacle.

The tradition takes place every year on the eve of the feast of San Antón, Spain’s patron saint of animals, and dates back to the 18th century when an epidemic devastated the horse population.

“Before when animal died because of infection, they had to be burned,” said Leticia Martin, a 29-year-old physiotherapist riding a horse called Fiel.

“So when the epidemic disappeared, people began to believe that the smoke protected the animals.”

A horseman rides through a bonfire during “Las Luminarias” . (Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Purifying fire

“These fires, which purify animals from all diseases, are lit on the eve of San Anton’s day, which is celebrated on January 17,” said Anton Erkoreka of the Museum of the History of Medicine in Spain’s Basque Country region.

During the feast, masses are held across Spain to bless animals.

(Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

“Fire is always a purifying element and this festival asks the saint for his protection on animals.”

In other Spanish villages, bonfires are lit at different times of the year to remember earlier plagues and epidemics, although the global pandemic has given the Luminarias festival a slightly new dimension.

But locals such as Emmanuel Martín insist the tradition has nothing to do with Covid. It is only about blessing the animals and keeping them “healthy all year round as the smoke from the green branches purifies them”, he says.

“It’s not a show to entertain people,” insists this 26-year-old who first witnessed the event when he was two years old.

Urged on by the crowd, one rider crosses the bonfires with his arms spread wide in a cross, his horse’s mane plaited, its tail rolled up in a type of topknot, to avoid catching fire.

SPAIN-TRADITION-FESTIVAL-ANIMAL-RELIGION-HORSE(Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

Adrenaline

Although the tradition is widely criticised by animal rights groups, Martín insists it doesn’t harm the horse nor the rider.

“You don’t even notice it,” says his cousin Andrea Lenela, who compares it to brushing a finger quickly through the flame of a cigarette lighter.

Every year, the event is attended by vets and firefighters brought in by the local authorities.

“If I thought there was any risk to the horses, I wouldn’t do it,” says local resident Mario Candil.

SPAIN-TRADITION-FESTIVAL-ANIMAL-RELIGION-HORSE(Photo by PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / AFP)

“Nothing has ever happened to anyone, ever,” insists Monce García, 49, who has come along to enjoy the “atmosphere, the smoke and the typical village tradition”.

Dismounting from her horse, a 46-year-old pharmacist Noelia Guerra speaks animatedly about “the emotions and the adrenaline” which flood through both horse and rider.

“You don’t have to force them, they just go on their own,” she says of the festival, which was celebrated this year for the first time since the pandemic began.

“We laughed about that, saying it was because we didn’t celebrate the Luminarias in January 2021.”

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WOMEN'S RIGHTS

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Talk of abortion policy reform and proposed menstrual leave has dominated Spanish discourse this week, but it’s also dividing Spain’s coalition government.

Spanish government divided over proposed menstruation leave bill

Spain’s PSOE-fronted coalition government recently outlined proposals that have dominated public discourse in the country.

But the legislation, which would allow women over the age of 16 to get abortions without the permission of their parents and introduce ‘menstruation leave’ for those suffering serious period pains, has not only divided Spanish society but the government itself.

The proposals would make Spain a leader in the Western world, and the first European Union member state to introduce menstrual leave, and changes to abortion law would overturn a 2015 law passed by the conservative People’s Party that forced women aged 16 and 17 to obtain parental consent.

The wide-ranging bill would also end VAT on menstrual products, increase the free distribution of them in schools, and allow between three and five days of leave each month for women who experience particularly painful periods.

READ MORE: What are Spain’s abortion laws for foreign residents and visitors?

Menstrual leave

Ángela Rodríguez, the Secretary of State for Equality, told Spanish newspaper El Periódico in March that “it’s important to be clear about what a painful period is – we’re not talking about slight discomfort, but about serious symptoms such as diarrhoea, fever and bad headaches.”

“When there’s a problem that can’t be solved medically, we think it’s very sensible to have temporary sick leave,” she added.

Cabinet politics

The proposals are slated for approval in cabinet next week, and judging by reports in the Spanish media this week, it is far from reaching a consensus. It is believed the intra-cabinet tensions stem not from the changes to abortion and contraception accessibility, but rather the proposed menstrual leave.

The junior coalition partner in government, Podemos, largely supports the bill, but it is believed some in the PSOE ranks are more sceptical about the symbolism and employment effects of the proposed period pain policy.

Vice President and Minister of Economic Affairs, Nadia Calviño, said this week: “Let me repeat it very clearly: this government believes and is absolutely committed to gender equality and we will never adopt measures that may result in a stigmatisation of women.”

Yet Second Vice President and Minister of Labour, Yolanda Díaz, who is viewed as further to the left than President Pedro Sánchez and other PSOE cabinet ministers, is reportedly “absolutely in favour” of the measure to reform Spain’s “deeply masculinised” labour market.

Sources in the Spanish media have this week also reported that some PSOE cabinet ministers feel the proposed paid leave not only plays up to stereotypes of women, or stigmatises them, like Calviño says, but also places them at a disadvantage in the world of work.

Minister of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration, José Luis Escrivá, stated that while the government should seek to improve women’s employment protections, it should also seek to boost their participation in the labour market under “better conditions.”

In that vein, some feel menstrual leave could be used a form of of employment discrimination similarly to how pregnancy has been historically, and the policy would, in that sense, actually be more regressive than progressive in enshrining women’s workplace rights. 

READ MORE: Spain eyes free contraception for under-25’s

Trade unions

Trade unions are also sceptical of the menstrual leave legislation. Cristina Antoñanzas, deputy secretary of UGT, one of Spain’s largest trade unions, has echoed those in the cabinet who feel the proposals could “stigmatise women.” She added that “it does women a disservice.”

Public opinion

A survey run by INTIMINA found that 67 percent of Spanish women are in favour of regulating menstrual leave, but also that 75 percent fear it is “a double-edged sword” that could generate labor discrimination.

The survey also found that 88 percent of women who suffer from disabling and frequent period pain have gone to work despite it. Seventy-one percent admitted that they have normalised working with pain.

Cabinet showdown

The proposed menstrual leave policy will be debated in cabinet next week when the Council of Ministers debates and approves the broader abortion and contraception reforms. According to sources in the Spanish media, and many cabinet ministers themselves, it seems a consensus on menstruation leave is a long way off.




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