Overlooked is a series of obituaries about remarkable people whose deaths, beginning in 1851, went unreported in The Times.
MADRID — The first time her husband hit her, Ana Orantes Ruiz worried that the bones in her face had been broken. They were newlyweds, and she and her husband were living with his parents. They heard her screaming, and her father-in-law rushed into the room and hit his son.
Orantes told her father-in-law that she had no idea why her husband had hit her, but she felt guilty and apologized; her husband responded by spitting in her face.
Soon he was hitting her regularly, sometimes grabbing her by the hair and smashing her against a wall. After work, he would go to a bar with friends to play cards, then come home drunk and hit her for random reasons, complaining that she had moved a chair or had placed a glass upside down.
Over four decades Orantes tried to escape her situation many times — going to the police, seeking a divorce. But she lived in Spain, where, like much of Europe, no laws protected women from domestic violence.
Her divorce was finally granted in 1996. The next year, Orantes overcame her fears and went on television to talk about the abuse she had suffered. Within 13 days she was dead, murdered by her husband in a manner so gruesome, people still talk about it today.
She had hoped by telling her story that other victims of domestic abuse would find solace in knowing that they weren’t alone — that something could be done for women like her, who married young and didn’t know any better.
But her telling her story had only incited the wrath of her husband one last time. In the end, it was her tragic death, on Dec. 17, 1997, that thrust her story into the national consciousness and paved the way for the enactment of major legal reforms to protect the women of Spain.
On the afternoon TV program “De Tarde en Tarde,” broadcast by CanalSur in her native Andalusia, she had been introduced by the presenter, Irma Soriano, as a 60-year-old mother of eight. For about 40 minutes, she recalled in graphic detail the violence that began shortly after she, at 19, had married José Parejo, whom she had met during a celebration in the city of Granada. Orantes initially lived with her in-laws while her husband was away for military service.
The trouble began once he returned. He kept her under strict surveillance.
“If I got near to a window and opened the blind, and if by coincidence a man looked at me, he would ask, ‘Why is this guy looking at you?’” she told the television interviewer.
He told her that she was too illiterate to be allowed to speak, and he forbade her from attending the weddings of her own siblings. She said she would visit her own mother in secret, “because I was not allowed to see anybody from my family.” When her mother asked her about her bruises, she told her that she had accidentally hurt herself after fainting because of her low blood pressure.
“I had nowhere to go,” she said. “I just had to put up with one beating after another, just put up with it.”
One of her daughters, who was 10 at the time, said her father had inappropriately touched her thighs under the table while they were having dinner. When Orantes confronted her husband, he accused his daughter of fabricating the story and then hit his wife, warning her not to file a complaint. After that, “my daughter got scared and never told me anything more,” Orantes said.
In another episode, Orantes had taken her 8-year-old son to a doctor in a medical emergency. When she got home, she found the house shuttered and her husband waiting for her, surrounded by their other children. When she explained where she had been, “he gave me a beating that could have killed me,” she said. He accused her of going “to sleep with all the guys of the neighborhood” rather than visiting the doctor.
At the end of Orantes’s TV appearance, the presenter offered her encouragement. Orantes responded, “The only thing that weighs me down is not having done this before.”
Orantes said she had gone to the police more than a dozen times to report the beatings. But there were no laws in place to help her. Divorce had been legalized in Spain only in 1981, and when Orantes tried to leave her husband, he persuaded the judge to deny her divorce request.
Even after her divorce was granted in 1996, she and Parejo continued to share the house, living on different floors, as recommended by a justice of the peace, who had sought to mediate between them.
It was in that house, in the village of Cúllar Vega, in the southern region of Andalusia, that Orantes was murdered. Parejo beat her, tied her to a chair, doused her in gasoline, then set her aflame while she was still alive.
She was believed to be the 59th woman killed as a result of domestic violence that year in Spain, although the country did not keep official statistics at the time.
On a rainy day, hundreds of people attended her funeral, and in the weeks that followed, women took to the streets of Madrid and other cities to protest her murder. Women in Spain’s Parliament demanded legislative reforms.
Spain at the time was run by a conservative government whose deputy prime minister, Francisco Álvarez Cascos, dismissed the murder as “an isolated case at the hands of an eccentric.” But several women started associations to collect evidence of domestic violence, help victims and raise the pressure on politicians to intervene.
In 2004, after the Socialists had been returned to office, the government of Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero introduced a law addressing gender violence that was at the time considered one of the most advanced in Europe.
The law tightened sentencing rules against offenders, while making it harder for them to contact their victims. The government also set up special courts to handle domestic violence cases, and made it easier for women to report abuse using a toll-free number.
“Ana Orantes marked a before and after in Spain,” said Miguel Lorente, a professor of medicine at the University of Granada, who served as a government official overseeing the gender violence laws under Zapatero’s administration. Her murder, he added, helped change not only Spanish legislation but also the public discourse “in a society where the media and everybody always talked about such homicides as crimes of passion, jealousy and things that only happened in the hinterland of Spain.”
Parejo was convicted of murder and sentenced to 17 years in prison. He died of a heart attack in prison in November 2004 at 69. Spain’s new law addressing gender violence went into effect a month later.
Orantes was born on Feb. 6, 1937, in Granada. Her father was a construction worker and her mother worked in a candy store. Ana did not attend school; she worked as a seamstress as a child to help support her family.
Spain’s gender violence law has been challenged about 200 times in court, notably on grounds that men found it too hard to defend themselves against unfounded accusations. By singling out women for protection, the law has also been criticized as discriminatory, breaching the equality principles of the Spanish Constitution. Other groups want the law to be expanded to address violence among gay couples.
Spain started collecting data about domestic violence only in 2003. It continues to struggle with an alarming number of homicides related to gender violence, with more than 1,000 women dead since 2003. Still, some European Union countries, including Romania and Finland, have much higher murder rates than Spain, according to comparative data from Eurostat.
Since a national election in November, when it became the third-largest political force in the Spanish Parliament, the far-right Vox party has intensified its effort to overturn the gender violence law as part of an agenda of returning the country to more conservative Roman Catholic values.
At the same time, Orantes, in death, has been gaining more recognition. She was among 12 champions of women’s rights chosen to illustrate a 2020 calendar distributed to all the schools of Andalusia. And last year some cities, including Seville, Granada and Madrid, renamed streets and other public spaces in her honor.
“Feminism is the most transformative movement in Spain right now, but we need to remember somebody like Orantes as a reference point,” said Noemí López Trujillo, a journalist for Newtral, a Spanish media company, who researched Orantes’s story extensively and produced a four-part podcast about her. “While women and our society are advancing, we must not forget to defend what has already been achieved.”