By Belén Carreño
MADRID, May 21 (Reuters) - Spain's new parliament, sworn in on Tuesday, has the largest share of women in any European legislature, no small achievement for a country still reinventing itself four decades after the end of a right-wing, traditionalist dictatorship.
Women's rights have been prominent in the political debate for over a decade and remain controversial, to the point where the far-right Vox party entered the assembly for the first time on a platform that seeks to reverse some equality laws.
Many argue that male attitudes - and the law - still have a long way to go, citing an infamous case in which four men calling themselves "The Wolf Pack" were convicted last year of sexually assaulting an 18-year-old woman, but cleared of rape because of a lack of physical violence.
Still, even Vox, which harks back to Spain's dictatorship-era conservative morality, counts nine women among its 24 legislators.
At 47%, or 165 of 350 seats, Spain has a bigger proportion of female lawmakers than even Sweden, which has a far longer history of promoting gender equality. Even the previous share, 39%, had put the European Union's average of 30% in the shade.
Globally, only Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia and Mexico have higher female representation, according to World Bank data.
"Incorporating a female view should make for more accurate diagnosis (of problems) and generate proposals that are better suited to the reality of people's lives," said Marisa Soleto, head of the Women's Foundation pro-equality campaign group. "And that applies in everything from industrial policy to economic or social policy."
The share of women has been on the rise since a Socialist administration passed a gender equality law in 2007 that required party election lists to be at least 40 percent female.
The Socialist Party of acting prime minister Pedro Sanchez, which won the election but fell short of a majority, has long promoted gender equality; his outgoing cabinet has more women than men.
Unidas Podemos ("Together We Can"), an alliance of left-wing parties seen as the Socialists' most likely ally, even changed its name from the masculine form 'Unidos' for the election to reflect its pro-feminism stance.
But women are still underrepresented at the top level. All the main party leaders who were candidates for premier are male.
And Vox, with its openly anti-feminist stance, has set about challenging the reforms of recent years, mostly passed with cross-party backing, that have attempted to boost gender equality and stem violence against women.
It wants to repeal gender quotas and laws that it says discriminate against men. These include a law that in 2004 created special courts designed to give protection to women who have been abused by men.
The issue was highlighted once more in the highly public case of the "Wolf Pack" assault at Pamplona's bull-running festival in 2016, which found global resonance through the growing #MeToo movement.
Even the centre-right People's Party, for decades the heavyweight counterpart to the Socialists, has shown signs of taking a more conservative line on women's rights to woo traditionalist voters.
The party proclaimed its commitment to gender equality and combating violence against women in its campaign manifesto.
But PP leader Pablo Casado said in March that the party would not take part in Women's Day protests because it considered far-left parties were using them to provoke confrontation between the sexes.
Whether or not such confrontations become more common, Spain's feminists say a milestone has been reached.
"Women being a minority in politics is a failing in representative democracies," Socialist faction leader Adriana Lastra told Reuters. "The big feat of this parliament is that it is an example to the rest of the countries around us."
(Writing and graphic by Andrei Khalip; Editing by Ingrid Melander and Kevin Liffey)
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