Josep-Anton Fernàndez: Like Britain's hunting ban, this is a battle of cultures in society

The pro-Catalan side demands rights, the pro-Spanish side appeals to symbols like the bullfight and football

It's no surprise that the ban on bullfighting in Catalonia has provoked such media interest: the bullfight has an intense symbolic significance that is often tangled up in a clichéd, traditional image of Spanish identity.

In fact, though, the so-called "bullfight ban" did not initially have such connotations. The ban itself is nothing more than an amendment of a previous Catalan animal protection law that made a convoluted exception for bullfighting, an exception that was motivated solely by Spanish nationalist political pressure.

Likewise, the initial move to get bullfighting banned in Catalonia had nothing to do with nationalism. It was first triggered by a public petition, signed by 180,000 people in the region, and a further 140,000 worldwide.

Bullfighting is hardly a popular pastime in Catalonia. Whereas Las Ventas, the main bullring in Madrid, has 19,000 season-ticket holders, its Barcelona counterpart has no more than 400. This is the only such venue in Catalonia, and it attracts mostly tourists.

Given this, it's difficult to claim that removing the one exception to the ban on public killing of animals constitutes an aggression to cultural identity. Indeed, during the parliamentary debate, only the socialists and the Spanish conservatives of the Partido Popular (the fourth party in number of seats in Catalonia) claimed it was an anti-Spanish move, whereas all other parties argued it was an animal rights issue. But a few months ago, despite those origins, the matter did indeed acquire nationalist significance. And yesterday's vote coincides with a period of great dissatisfaction among a growing majority of Catalans with the treatment they receive from Spain. This culminated in early July with a ruling of the Spanish Constitutional Court that severely cut down the devolved powers of the Catalan Parliament, as voted for in a referendum by the people of Catalonia.

A majority of Catalans feel that this ruling confirms their status as second-class citizens within Spain (notably in economic and linguistic terms), and consequently support for independence has soared. But whereas the pro-Catalan camp makes an economic argument and demands equal rights, the pro-Spanish side appeals to symbols and emotions: the bullfight, football, and so on.

In a way, then, the bullfight ban has as much political significance as the hunting ban in the UK, in which different ways of understanding British society and culture were at stake. It is true that the bull is widely regarded as a Spanish symbol; but it is also an icon present in most Mediterranean cultures. Traditional festivals involving bulls exist in Catalan culture too – and they will not be banned as long as the animals are not killed.

This is, fundamentally, an animal rights issue. But if we insist on seeking a political dimension to it, we could say that the problem is not the bull, but the bullfighter. He is the one who turns the animal into a symbol of macho power and political domination in order to maintain privileges and deny equal rights to others.

Josep-Anton Fernàndez is Professor of Catalan Studies at the Open University of Catalonia. He is writing a book on contemporary Catalan cultural politics