Muslim Women in Spain and Latin America as Imports of a “Worse” Patriarchy

In the past few days, the Spanish media has been reporting on the case of a Moroccan woman in Spain who was bitten by her husband for refusing to wear hijab. The case of the unnamed woman has surprisingly made it to the media, where the other 36% of the domestic violence cases involving immigrants are never reported.

Muslim women in Ecuador. Via El Telegrafo.

The partner, who has been detained, taken into custody, and condemned to two years in prison has been reported to be somehow shameless in his attack in not denying the charges, and careless in that when police came to his house, he was looking after his 12-month-old son and acting “as if nothing had happened.”

In most articles, the nationality and religion of the attacker have been highlighted with bold letters and her refusal to wear hijab (which in some articles is defined as a head scarf, while in others is confused with the niqab) are also cited as source of controversy within the larger Spanish community.

Questions on how to save the victim from the patriarchal context where she comes from and how to make sure that the abusive partner is properly punished are sometimes ignored in other contexts, for instance where attackers belong to higher economic classes, are part of the “dominant” ethnic group and the mainstream religion.

While some efforts have been made to draw parallels between the victim of this attack and hundreds of other victims (Muslim and non-Muslim), domestic violence cases are rarely reported in Spanish papers. When they are (like in this instance), they seem to point at deeper issues, supposedly more “worrying” than domestic and gendered violence, like immigration example and the “import” of Islam to Spain.

At the same time as this issue was reported, the Ecuador’s El Telégrafo issued an article on the growing female Muslim population in Ecuador. This article describes the experiences of those Muslim converts who “surprisingly” have decided to wear hijabs and abayas, change their names and, oftentimes, leave behind Christian communities.

This article came due to the First Female Islamic Congress in Guayaquil, Ecuador. The congress aimed at looking at the situation of Muslim women in the area and to educate the community on Islamic issues. The conversion of women to Islam in Ecuador, and perhaps in many other countries in Latin America, is treated as a novelty, and much of the article comments on what these converts wear, eat, drink and do for fun.

What seems to be new and exotic about women’s conversion to Islam in Ecuador seems to also present a paradox in the case of Spain. The author expresses surprise in learning about the women’s background (mostly educated women are interviewed); the further changes they have undergone in order to satisfy what they consider to be “Islamic duties,” is seen to to point to the fact that these are women deciding to shift towards a “patriarchal culture.”

While in Spain the situation is a bit different due to immigration and the political issues going on all through Europe, Muslim women are at the center of the debate in many aspects, even in matters of feminism (where this author thinks that feminists have no interest in helping women, only a fascination with Islam).

The instances in which Islam is presented both as an import (non-indigenous religion) as a threat to Spain are common (like in here and here); yet women are often at the center of the discourse with discussions on whether or not Islam oppresses them (here and here), whether or not Islam promotes gendered violence (here and here), and whether or not Islam is patriarchal in nature (here and here).

When it comes to female converts to Islam or in the Spanish and Latin American context, or Muslim women who move there and continue to practice Islam, many debates seem to ask: are Muslim women shifting society towards a “worse” patriarchy?  While issues of sexism in Islam are indeed important, these questions also end up taking attention away from the widespread domestic violence that happens across societies, whether Muslim or not.

  • dina

    very interesting piece! your point on religion being highlighted in this case, but not in cases of upper class or otherwise “norm” individuals imo is not quite on in one aspect: Are these other cases of domestic violence really connected to that (norm) religion? imo, there is a difference whether a man motivated by a hard-to-assess mixture of patriarchy-patriarchal culture and tradition-religion-personal psychological problems abuses his wife, or whether there is a concrete reference to a concrete cultural or religious practice. It becomes a case of a cultural problem if a man says “our mores require me to hit her if she is disobedient”, “this is our tradition etc”. It becomes a case of clearly a religious problem when the man says “it is against God’s orders”, “it is against our religion” or “our religion requires us to do this and that”. Now for most Latin cases of violence, I somehow doubt the men say “it is my God given right to hit/punish her”, “my priest said it was my right/duty”, “she neglected to pray (or comply with other commandments or religious duties), this is why I had to hit her”. Do you get what I am hinting at? unfortunately, the alleged right of husbands to hit and discipline their wives is much more prominent with muslim scholars than with christian ones from my experience. if for latin america, this perception of mine were inaccurate and these men relied on religion, then i absolutely agree with you. in the case you mention, there is a clear reference to religion, religious duty, punishment for negligence in perceived religious duty brought in by the abusive husband, provided the facts are well researched. i therefore see the point you make in that sense not justified.

    bringing it further on from my critic on these concrete cases:
    i think it would be quite vital if we stopped denying there is an issue with gendered violence sanctioned in a certain way in religious texts. this holds for all texts, but i see them used in the mainstream much more in the muslim than in the christian context (i do not mention other religions because i feel i have too little insight into other religions from where i live and from what i learned). i hear many more abusive husbands use religion as the entitlement. sadly, the only religious scholars i have heard to seriously defend spousal violence were muslim (and also not only salafi in case some of you may think that). if you do not believe me, i suggest you seek marriage counseling undercover with an imam and a priest in your area. from my knowledge on mainstream texts (which i read coming from a bi-religious background in my late teens when seeking my identity), the answer on whether your husband may hit you in order to discipline you is quite different at least between sunni islam and catholic christianity.

  • Eren Cervantes

    Great points Diana! I totally agree. The issue that I see in here though is the fact that Spanish and Latin American contexts, whether religious or cultural, tend to be highly patriarchal. Spain has the highest number of feminicides in Europe while countries like Mexico, Ecuador, Argentina, etc. have been counted among the places where women suffer more domestic violence in the world.

    I do not deny that violence can be called upon in religious texts especially when it comes to interpretations; for example, Deuteronomy 22:28-29, Exodus 21:7-11, Qur’an 4:34 (a good resource for a discussion on exegesis of this verse is in )etc. Gendered violence could be justified under any of the above… similarly, gendered violence has been largely ignored in secular contexts including legal situations. For instance in Mexico, a woman could not divorce her husband on grounds of domestic violence unless he agreed to divorce her until couple of decades ago.

    An assumption that it is often made is that converts to Islam change one patriarchy for another one that is worse… is that the case? is there a “worse” patriarchy? does it come with Islam or Christianity or Buddhism?

    It is an interesting discussion that I often have with people who come and ask me if my husband beats me and forces me to stay at home like “the Muslim women in the news.”

  • sharrae

    Great article!

    Diana and Eren, I definitely think you are on to something. When I read this article, my question becomes, why is it important to focus on the justification of why a man hits his wife, or any woman for that matter, and not just the fact that he exerted violence against her. Gender-based violence is something that all societies and cultures grapple with. What countries and cultures seem to continuously do is attempt to divert the attention away from their own cultural and social ills and place them on cultures that they perceive to be barbaric and backwards.

    Those working in the media, politics, and other institutions that bears with it a large amount of responsibility to its constituents, must use their tools and resources to tackle the issues for what they are. Of course, this an ideal statement, considering that those who are covering these stories and politicians and judicial bodies that are passing laws have an agenda that isn’t necessarily based on eradicating violence against woman.

  • Krista

    (Eren and Sharrae, I think you both mean Dina, not Diana!)

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Oh my God! Yes! Dina! Sorry…

  • Eren Arruna Cervantes

    Dear Sharrae I think you are completely right! I think it is important to focus in the justification and not only on the fact because it allows us to look at the problem a bit more deeply. In addition, this is how the media usually justifies one case vs, the other. For example, they deem “barbaric” beating up a woman for not wearing hijab , but not necessarily the same applies if a non-Muslim beats up a wife who has cheated on him (especially in the Spanish media). This is problematic. However, at the level of our own communities I think it is important not only to teach men not to beat women and to teach them that nothing justifies violence, but also to teach them that issues of hijab, foe example, do not concern them or things like professional choice are a woman’s right…. if that makes sense…