A few weeks ago, I attended the Critical Muslim Studies summer school in Granada, Spain. One of the speakers, Fatima Hamed Hossain, a lawyer, spoke to us about the social and political participation of Muslim women in Spain.
There are about one million Muslims who currently reside in Spain, with an estimated number of about 50,000 converts, and the rest being mostly of Moroccan, Syrian, Lebanese and South Asian origins. Immigration and growing rates of conversion of Spaniards from the late 1970s are the two biggest factors for the growth of Islam in Spain.
Fatima Hamed Hossain was born in Ceuta, and was trained as a lawyer. She currently practises as a civil and commercial mediator. In 2006 she joined the political party Democratic Union of Ceuta (UDCE) because she wanted to help marginalized groups, having grown up in a marginalized neighbourhood of Ceuta herself, and also because it was symbolically important:
“I have to say that for me it was a challenge, and I felt that despite all the difficulties and criticism it was necessary; it was about time to involve Muslim women in politics.”
She contends that the media creates a particular idea of Muslim women as being illiterate and submissive.
“My main motivation, in addition to fighting for social justice, is to break the prejudices and stereotypes that have been built on some Muslim women: we are not ignorant nor uneducated nor submissive. We rebel like any other woman against injustice and wearing the hijab does not prevent this. It shows my faith, my culture and my background that I’m very proud.”
She refutes the construction of Spanish liberal values as being superior as a recent phenomenon. This was because under Franco’s administration, married women needed their husband’s permission for all economic activities such as working or owning property. It was only in 1975 that this permiso marital (marital permission) was abolished.
Fatima was the first Muslim woman to be elected to the legal assembly of Ceuta in 2007. Her election became a question of national news – reported by the national newspaper El Pais. However, she is not the first Muslim woman with hijab to sit on a regional parliament: four years earlier, Salima Abdesalam was elected into the regional parliament of Melilla.
In an El Pais article after Fatima was sworn into the assembly, a photo of her is front and centre, with the accompanying headline below. “With the hijab and the constitution” implied that there was a need to reconcile her Spanishness with her own religiosity, given that she wore a visible marker of Islam, a religion that was different to the Catholicism associated with Spain.
The most telling message, according to Fatima, was the headline right next to her face, which said “Police warn of threat of second generation jihadists”. This clearly implied that she was such a threat, which – whether intentionally or unintentionally – aimed to bring down her political worth.
Despite such setbacks, Fatima states that her biggest task is to normalise the participation of Muslim women in social and political life in Ceuta, commenting, “If just one person changes their perception about Muslim women, my job is done.”