The hijab north of Gibraltar: Moroccan women as objects of civic and social transformation

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As the number of North African Muslim immigrants in Europe grows, questions of cultural assimilation have moved to the forefront of discussion. Treated as the quintessential Other, Maghribines' long-term presence in France prompted a 2004 ban on religious symbols in public schools; it went without saying that the hijab was the primary target of this restriction. Politicians and public figures in Britain have called Muslim women's veiling practices antithetical to democratic citizenship, while Dutch conservatives have promised a ban on veiling in all public places (Anon 2006a, 2006b; Morris 2006). Spain, however, has developed a more ambivalent cultural and ideological relationship with the Muslim world and with North Africa in particular. Approximately 10% of all immigrants to Spain are from the Maghrib, and about 90% of those are from Morocco (Instituto Nacional de Estadística). The proximity of Spain has made it an appealing entry point to the rest of Europe, as well as an accessible destination for work. This paper argues that Moroccans' vulnerability in Spain must be understood in terms of the unique ties between the two nations, as well as the specific brand of modern liberalism that has developed in Spain since 1975, the start of that nation's democracy. Key to Spanish liberalism is the defense of women's freedom, which finds voice in teleological narratives of liberation and self-actualisation. Concern over Moroccan women's subjugation to Islam and to male relatives has crystallised in discussions around the hijab, in particular. In this article, I analyse media coverage of hijab controversies in Spain, drawing also on my own fieldwork with Moroccan women and Spanish social service providers in Madrid. I argue for careful consideration of North African othering as a foil for Spanish discourses of progress and modernity-themselves historically situated and contestable variations upon wider European ideologies of liberalism.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)465-480
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of North African Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - Dec 2010


  • Hijab
  • Immigration
  • Liberalism
  • Modernity
  • Morocco
  • Multiculturalism
  • Spain
  • Veil
  • Women


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