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It’s a dog-eat-dog world

When conservative Spanish councilor Nevenka Fernández spoke out against sexual harassment in 2001 she was rejected by both peers and enemies

Nevenka Fernández during the presentation of a criminal complaint against the then-mayor of Pondferrada, Ismael Álvarez, March 26, 2001.
Nevenka Fernández during the presentation of a criminal complaint against the then-mayor of Pondferrada, Ismael Álvarez, March 26, 2001.ANA F. BARREDO (EFE)

“This is the story of sensible woman who, when she realized that everything that she had been told was a lie, when to the judge, reported the facts, and turned everything on its head.”

This is how my book about Nevenka Fernández (There is something that is not how they say it is, edited by Aguilar and re-edited by DeBolsillo) begins. What first caught my attention about Nevenka was her common sense and her ability to use this sense to take down fraud. By bringing her case forward, the young woman exposed the double standardsof society and specifically of the Popular Party (PP) to which she belonged. Looking back today it seems incredible that the leaders of the party took the side of Ismael Álvarez, the mayor accused of sexual assault. But it’s true. When I say leaders I mean both male and female leaders, among them Ana Botella, who would soon be councilor for social issues in the Community of Madrid and then later its mayor – which also seems incredible looking back from today. 

The “Nevenka” case

Nevenka Fernández, a councilor from Ponferrada in Spain's Galicia region, had a brief relationship with the then-mayor, Ismael Álvarez when she was 26. The relationship ended around January 2000 but "my refusal provoked his abuse," said Nevenka.

Speaking at a press conference in March 2001, Nevenka explained that "his form of pressure came in the way of written notes, telephone messages, letters and verbal abuse … the harassment and psychological pressure to which I was submitted has caused me great anxiety, sadness and anguish."

Nevenka won the trial and awarded over €18,000 in damages. Ismael Álvarez continues to live in Ponferrada where he runs how own businesses and even started a new political party. Nevenka, failing to find work in Spain and suffering from the intense media spotlight, later moved to Berlin and married her lifelong partner.

Nevenka’s own people turned their back on her, in the end, because she unmasked them.

I sense that Nevenka then began to feel estranged from herself and her identity, asking how she could have belonged to that world, how could she have been one of them – one of the boys or the girls. I remembered that the protagonist of Costa Gavras’ film Missing, played by Jack Lemmon experienced a similar feeling. In the film, based on a real story, Lemmon plays the role of a conservative North American whose son has disappeared under Pinochet’s dictatorship in Chile. The character, ignoring various warnings, decides to travel to Chile to find out what has happened. As his politics align with Pinochet’s conservative government, he believes they will help him and the problem will be solved at once. When he arrives in the capital Santiago and begins to go to one ministry after another, and one office after another, he starts to see the moral corruption of the people he had thought of as his allies. He feels estranged from himself and returns to the United States as a different person. “How could I have been one of them?” he asks.

Such estrangement comes with an extraordinary degree of loneliness, which can deepen exponentially if you also lack support from your former political adversaries. This was the case with Nevenka, who was ignored by the left and feminist movements. Most likely because she was from the right, also because she was good-looking, but worse still because she was smart. She can get fucked, she shouldn’t have been on the right, they said. She shouldn’t have been so pretty or so smart.

Rejected by many, with the media more interested in the superficial aspects of the case rather than its substance, the young woman was terribly alone, but this miraculously made her stronger and gave her the moral courage, first to arm herself with psychological tools to pick herself up and then to publicly denounce her ordeal. The trial, as is well known, was filled with incidents and abuse. One that stands out was the jaw-dropping comments by José Luis García Ancos, chief prosecutor at the Castilla y León regional high court, who doubted that Nevenka was harassed, because it’s not like she was a “cashier at [the supermarket] Hipercor who lets men touch her ass to make sure her children have enough to eat.”

Her own people turned their back on her because she unmasked them

Do you think I’m making this up? Not at all, this was the level of things back then and perhaps we haven’t got much better. At least not in everything.

Politicians who preferred not to give their opinion until a ruling was made remained silent when the court confirmed the prison sentence against Ismael Álvarez. “The news” I write in the epilogue of my book, “fell into an empty bell, it produced no echo, no reaction.” I don’t remember reading any editorial article about the issue. There was also no outrage over why the victim had to go into exile while the abuser announced the beginning of the fiestas in his town.

English version by Melissa Kitson.

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