On the last day of the USF Human Right’s Film Festival, women’s rights moved to the forefront. Domestic violence, oppression, and sexuality were just a few underlying topics that motivated the talented directors showcasing their work this past Saturday. Director Cecelia Montagut was able to capture  in her film “Women Under Suspicion.”
The Spanish documentary, named after the ongoing project coordinated by Raquel Osborne, was as provocative as it was educational as it discussed the oppression of women under the dictatorship of Francisco Franco from 1939 to his death in 1975. The film’s setting largely revolves around open dialogues with researchers María Rosón Villena, Fefa Vila, Jordi M. Monferrer Tomás, and Kira Mahamud as they discuss the struggles of expressing female sexuality and the widely accepted prohibitions placed upon women in their families until the radical era of the 1960’s.
Professor Aranzazu Borrachero Mendibil opened the screening with a brief discussion, prompting the audience to think about how the women living in this era were able to manage. “Women had to play a specific role as wife, mother, and homemaker. They weren’t to deviate. Simple things that we take for granted today as women, like being able to pursue a job, had to be granted permission by husbands,” said Mendibil. “Women Under Suspicion” explains that “positive” models were presented to women. For example, the models made up of various advertisements and films produced in that era, camouflaged the fact that women were being repressed sexually and creatively, and rather presented system which seemingly made it so that women were better able to direct their energy towards their “domestic duties.”
While there was a widespread system of repression under Franco for both men and women, the film highlights the heightened scrutiny women endured. While men were subordinate to law enforcement, women were under the order of the Catholic church. Tomás explained how when a woman diverged from her “obligations,” she wasn’t merely breaking a law, but she was sinning against God. The difference between the repression of men and women was further explained as the film deepened to reveal that brothels were eventually made legal, as a sexual outlet for men as their wives were prohibited to express themselves sexually, in addition to a source of profit for the state. Contrastingly, the film discusses the fact that, if a woman wanted to prostitute herself outside an organized brothel, it was illegal. “The Franco regime was not just about oppression for females, but it was also about a system of moneymaking,” said Mendibil.
As a result of this film, one has to wonder how this form of oppression was tolerated for as long as it did. Mendibil, who is conducting a similar project which involves the oral history of women in this era, said “Once the democracy kicked in, people in my generation started thinking more radically. I was apart of the era when women didn’t want to learn how to cook or clean; we were living with our boyfriends and we didn’t care about being beautiful all of the time.” While this era of democracy fortunately lead to a positive shift for the roles of women, Mendibil asserts that it also caused a lack of knowledge of the preceding generation. “I didn’t have an interest at first in learning about what my mother experienced as a wife and mother during Franco’s rule.” Her current oral history project revolves around interviews between daughters of her generation and their mothers who experienced oppression, in the hopes of maintaining an awareness of the era of female oppression. “They’re finally talking about what happened during that time in regards to then taboo topics like abortion and birth control.”
“Women Under Suspicion” is an important film, not only because it sheds light on the recently recovered history of the female experience throughout Spain during Franco’s dictatorship, but because it also allows women to contemplate their own roles in American society. While women in the United States weren’t under a dictator’s rule, we’ve experienced a similar shift in recent years from being obedient homemakers to powerful women in the workforce. Montagut’s film is a motivator for women to not be complacent with their current roles, but to be constantly working towards a more equal society.