During our discussion about Laurie Lee's book the other evening, my friend asked if Spain has changed radically since Laurie Lee visited it. Well, yes. First there was the big change when Franco died and then they joined the EU and money was spent improving all sorts of things. It's a modern, vibrant country and they laugh at the British for not having mixer taps and bidets, for not showering every day (where does that myth spring from?) and for serving bad food. And they remain lovely, friendly people who will go out of their way to help you.
When I went to Spain as a student at the end of the 1960s I saw some of the same beggars on the streets as Laurie Lee saw. The beggars are still there, as they are in the UK, despite this being the 21st century. You may not see the mutilations that Laurie Lee saw but people are still asking for help on the streets, some of them "respectable" men in their fifties suddenly finding themselves unemployed and homeless. And unemployment is still rife, as is corruption.
Perhaps the biggest change is the situation of women. When we went out to bars around the town, if I needed the loo I mostly had to ask for a key from behind the bar. Good girls didn't go bars, just as they didn't drink or smoke!
As we approached the end of our time as students at the university of Murcia, the bank manager summoned me to his office one day. What was wrong? Had I seriously miscalculated and spent all my student grant more quickly than I thought? No. Nothing like that. He was offering me, too late in the day, the chance to make some money, The bank manager wanted his daughter to have English lessons ... but only from me, not from the young Englishmen who were in our group of students.
Back then, of course, women needed permission from their father or husband to work, to open bank accounts, to own property. Would young women accept such restrictions now?
And now Saudi Arabia is allowing women to drive - a step in the right direction, you might think, and then you read something like this:-
"Following King Salman’s decree, women will no longer need permission from a legal guardian to get a licence and will not need a guardian in the car when they drive. While many women will no doubt benefit from driving to work and taking children to school, the decision must be assessed in the context of an absolute monarchy championing women’s causes while only last week it detained more than 30 professionals, clerics, and activists for no reason other than to spread terror and intimidate
Although freedom of movement is a universal right, Saudi women are still constrained. They cannot marry, work, study, travel or seek healthcare without the consent of their male guardians.
A Saudi woman cannot marry a foreigner without the consent of the interior ministry. She can never pass her nationality to her children, who need a visa to enter the kingdom. When a woman is abused by family members, she cannot rely on the government to seek justice, as official agencies hesitate to interfere in “family matters”. When they do, it is often on the side of the abusers."
Of course, I say with tongue in cheek, the main problem is that women should never have been educated in the first place. Watching "The Handmaid's Tale" on television, in one episode we see a flashback to when the reformers of the country were organising things. Commander Waterford's wife was not allowed to address the committee, despite having been involved in all the early planning. Talking about her disappointment one of the commanders comments something along the lines of, "This is all our fault of course. We should never have encouraged them to go to university, get PhDs, develop careers. We gave them ideas above their station." That sounds familiar!
And we feel superior and liberated and above all that stuff.
And then I read about the USA's justice department appearing in a federal court to argue that employers should be able to fire people for being gay. It makes you wonder where that society is going.
But then, that is a country where apparently they put the Mexican flag behind Spain's President Rajoy at a recent White House reception!