Women of Fire

Author: Judit Castellví Universitat Pompeu Fabra (UPF)Catalonia, Spain

Over the last few decades, enthusiasm for and citizen involvement in local festivities have greatly increased in many towns and cities of Catalonia. Different generations go out to the streets to take part in festive activities. Huge numbers of people attend the traditional parades and performances by giants, fire-breathing fantasy creatures, and devils. Of these experiences, the most popular activities are those that use fire. The correfocs (fire-runs) are the most successful.

Image of women of fire at night with fireworks/sparkers in the background
Scene during the Correfoc (runfire parade)

In one medium-sized city located in the conurbation of Barcelona, there is a group of “devils” exclusively made up of women – something very exceptional, as the majority of local devil groups are composed of men – that has already run for 35 years. This group of women has been studied in the ethnographic research of the CHIEF project with the aim of understanding their cultural practices, motivations, and what they have learned from being engaged in a group of only female devils.

To start with, the expression of culture promoted by the group has its roots in the Catalan culture. Since the Spanish democratic transition began in the 1970s, there has been a movement for the recovery of the traditional expressions of Catalan culture, especially local festivities, which have gained a lot of popularity within the community and have become an important part of local culture.

The diablesses is a self-organised and horizontal group, although it belongs to the city council’s network of traditional culture groups. The context of the diablesses group is found in traditional and popular Catalan culture, particularly in one of its most traditional and widespread expressions: the Festa Major (local celebration), which is celebrated annually for a series of days in every town, village and city in Catalonia. The tradition of Festa Major has been known in Catalonia since at least the 13th century, and it has evolved up to the present. The Spanish democratic transition was a turning point for the Festes Majors, as it led, among other things, to a recovery of the festivities.

Diablesses talking under the sparks during a correfoc.
Diablesses talking under the sparks during a correfoc.

What did change radically during the 1970s was the introduction of fire to the local festivities: almost non-existent until then, fire-related activities began to proliferate everywhere. Although the first written notice of “devils” in Catalonia dates back to the Dancing Talks of the year 1150, during the democratic transition period they became linked to correfocs. This was probably the greatest invention of the Catalan Festes Majors in the last quarter of the twentieth century. A correfoc (literally “run fire”) is a festive street event in which participants parade amidst and under the sparks of fireworks borne by devils, dragons and other figures of a fantastic sort. This modern creation somehow derives from the concept of recovering the age-old practice of playing with fire, which is very present in festive contexts. Although the democratic transition brought about the possibility for women to join the different popular groups as full members, this is still a controversial subject.

The studied group of diablesses is made up of 35 women aged 18 and above with no upward age limit (at the time of our ethnography the eldest member was 61 years old). Their correfocs are mainly carried out during local street festivities. Their performances consist of parades, in which they dance disguised as devils, and burn fireworks fixed on their pitchforks, accompanied by sounds of rhythmic drums to emulate hell. They set off the fireworks among crowds of spectators, who try to get as close as possible to the devils, to dance with them or run away from the fire. The people involved in their parades, apart from the group members, include members of the band that accompanies the diablesses and local people. The most important of these parades takes place at night on the 25th July, where, along with the invited groups, a total of about 120 devils get together.

One of the findings of our research is that, despite the characteristics and origin of the group, and contrary to what one might imagine, the diablesses do not identify their group as feminist. Some individuals consider themselves as such, but they do not try to avail themselves of that label in a group context. The debate in defence of women’s rights is permanently present, but only superficially. The group relies on the economic support of the municipality, and the city council has expressly prohibited to the use of such associations for the promotion of political claims. This has kept the debate mostly enclosed within the personal sphere of the group.

Despite this, they represent, in some senses, a form of feminist expression. They call themselves ‘dones de foc’, which literally means “women of fire”, an expression that implicitly carries the idea of ​​courage, strength, and passion. They use this phrase as a team chant before the start of a performance, to energise themselves and to communicate their power to the rest of the audience. They also use it as a hashtag on social networks (Instagram and Twitter), where they post their day-to-day activities, announce and invite fans to performances, publish pictures and videos, etc. In fact, by projecting these values of courage and strength, some of them think they can become a reference point for future generations in the fight against gender stereotypes.

At the moment, women represent 40% of the participants in the devils’ groups in Catalonia, but they only constitute 15% of the boards of the devils’ associations. The fight for the visibility of women in this field is still an ongoing process.


About the author

Judit Castellvi is conducting research in schools, NGOs and informal peer groups as part of CHIEF. She is also doing a PhD in ICT and social intervention at Ramon Llull University.