Published on May 20th, 2013 | by Iker Barbero


Women, Islam and immigration: Declarations of Innocence

On the 8th of February in Camaron square in Badalona (Barcelona), women helped by their children, holded a paper and a microphone. All were dressed with Muslim veils and serious faces. Behind them, a banner held by men. There are different ways of interpreting these acts. One would be to see them as few veiled women in rage; women who were carried along by emotional impulses, primary, primitive, or even of subordination. By contrast, that days in the Camaron Square or later in Rambla del Raval Square, perhaps unknowingly or unintentionally these women became political actors.

These are Pakistani women who arrived in Barcelona during the last decade in different ways. Most of them travelled with a family reunification permit that their husbands had requested and they used to spend their daily lives at home, caring for children or occasionally helping in their husbands’ business. This legal situation of family reunification permit de facto implied a submission of the women to their husbands, preventing them from any autonomy in doing everyday activities such as working, and generated fear of losing the permit. Once again a presummly universal-rational-Western norm, as it is supposed to be the immigration law, creates wives subjected to their husband.

However, everything changed on the 19th of January 2008. The news spread like wildfire through the El Raval, the neighborhood where most of them lived. At dawn, in the middle of a large police and media presence, 14 people from Pakistan and India, had been arrested. They were accused of belonging to a terrorist group that, according to the declaration of a protected witness, had be preparing an imminent attack to the metro service. The media impact was total. “Strike the heart of El Raval” or “Aborted imminent Al Qaeda bombing in Barcelona” where the main headlines those days. The arrests, the subsequent transfers of detainees heavily guarded by police, and the statements of the Minister of the Interior Perez Rubalcaba saying that they had found explosive material, left aside the presumption of innocence. A few days later, the newspaper El Periodico de Catalunya, one of the most important newspapers carried in his front-page a large “19-E”, in analogy to 11-S, 11-M and 7-J, dates of other attacks attributed to Al-Qaeda.

The police presence in the neighborhoods where the Pakistani community was remarkable was not unusual. Despite the central location of El Raval and close to turist atractions, stigmas associated with cabarets, prostitution and drug trafficking had converted it into a marked neighborhood. The process of gentrification, a product of institutional planning policies, has led to the frequent presence either Spanish or Catalan regional and local police patrols. In addition, the high residential concentration of Pakistanis (about 25% of residents in Spain are living here), the location of two major mosques in the Hospital street and on the San Rafael street, as well as the Islamic Center of Pakistan and the booths and food business run by people from Pakistan has resulted in the last years El Raval beeing contemptuously called “Ravalistan”.

That morning of January 19, coinciding with a religious pilgrimage, the two mosques in the El Raval were searched by police because of its links with the religious group Tabligh. The entailment between the Pakistani community in Catalonia and jihadist terrorism has become a recurring theme. Numerous police operations against terrorist groups have taken place in Catalonia in the last few years. The declassification of a secret cable from the U.S. ambassador noted Catalonia as “the greatest center of jihadist grupos for the Mediterranean”. As stated in the cable itself

“Heavy immigration – Both legal and illegal – from North Africa (Morocco, Tunisia, and Algeria) and Southeast Asia (Pakistan and Bangladesh) has made this region a magnet for terrorist recruiters. The Spanish National Police estimates that there may be upwards of 60,000 Pakistanis living in Barcelona and the surrounding area, the vast majority are male, unmarried or unaccompanied, and without legal documentation. There are even more such immigrants from North Africa. Once here, they share a like fate: they live on the edges of Spanish society, they do not speak the language, they are Often unemployed, and very few places doing lot their religion to practice with dignity. Individually, these circumstances would provide fertile ground for terrorist recruitment, taken together, the threat is clear. “

For this, the U.S. government had created in 2007, a secret intelligence agency at the consulate in Barcelona to combat Islamist terrorism and organized crime. The decision was made in October 2007. This agency was justified in the following way in the cable:

“The threat in Catalonia is clear. Barcelona has become a crossroads of worrisome activities, A natural meeting place and transit point of people and goods moving to and through the region from all countries bordering the western Mediterranean. The U.S. needs an on-site abitur to quickly see who and what is passing through the area from places: such as Algiers, Tunis, Rabat, and the south of France. The Consulate General in Barcelona would be the perfect platform for the hub because we have the space available, secure communications and a prime location.”

During the following days to the detentions fear seized the Pakistani community because of possible new arrests and police raids. Going to the mosque, living in a certain neighborhood, or wearing traditional costumes could target anyone as a potential terrorist. This made the community leathers stand back and keep silence, at least until time could calm down the situation.

However, on the 8th of February, just a few days after the detentions, some women, along with other relatives and Papers i drets per a tothom (a migrants´ rights organization) and the Pakistani Cultural Association of Barcelona called a public demonstration under the title “Against terrorism, for the dignity of the immigrant community.” The manifesto read was based around three axes.

First, they wanted to express the rejection of Pakistani and immigrant community against terrorism:

“Terrorism: the mass murder of people, has no justification whatsoever. Be the work of a small group or any state army, are always abominable crimes. The Pakistanis, Indians, immigrants in general are overwhelmingly involved in this condemn”.

Second, the organizers claimed one of the higher values ​​of a democratic legal system: the presumption of innocence.

“The media and even members of the Pakistani government point us now as potential terrorists. It’s a lie. Neither the Pakistani nor the Indian community in Catalonia, deserve such treatment. We came to this country precisely because of the terror that hunger, wars and injustices cause. Detainees have overcome death to leave their country and came here to work with dignity and peacefully, and now they are regarded as terrorists. The government stated that prevention is better in these cases. That statement was the justification for the invasion of Iraq, the bombing of civilian populations where perhaps terrorist sympathizers hide. (…) The 14 detainees were arrested without evidence, some have already been released, but the rest is still in prison without strong evidence. It must always respect the presumption of innocence. You cannot condemn anyone without sufficient evidence. No one can spend years in prison only by doubts about his innocence. Today the shadow of guilt threatens our future, our children and our families”.

And thirdly, the act was intended to vindicate the dignity of the immigrant community and the cessation of the false accusations made against it. They are doubly victims: media criminalization, institutional and social, and the attacks themselves.

“The immigrants were and are victims of terrorism, they were the 11-M in Madrid Terminal 4 at Barajas and they are now when they indiscriminately criminalized. Terrorism can only be combated from the fight against injustice and discrimination. And this is a task for the whole society, immigrants and indigenous. Because all people are equal and deserve the same respect and the same rights”.

That day, for the first time, these women held a microphone and read a manifesto. It said ‘Against Terrorism. Dignity for the immigrants! ‘. That day, these and other women led the demonstration calling for the release of their brothers, husbands, sons, cousins, and friends. This act was followed by many others. A few days later, on February 17, a mass demonstration also led by women ended in the Rambla del Raval square, the scene where the arrests were produced. Again it was the relatives who read the final manifesto.
Nowadays, families are still making huge acts in support of their brothers and husbands. On the one hand, prison policy of exception , that originaly was created to punish Basque prisoners, dispersed the detainees to different prisons throughout the geography of the Spain, so that relatives and lawyers are forced to travel thousands of miles to visit them with the cost and the danger to the integrity of the road involved. But on the other, they continue struggling on sites like the streets of Barcelona or at doors of the Court of exception Audiencia Nacional in Madrid, to claim innocence and the release of their relatives. The European Court of Justice is probably their last chance.

In their act they reminded that presumption of innocence is supreme value as well as a right that belongs to people disregarding the origin or the legal condition. And at the same time it showed that Muslim women, beside stereotypes and social and legal constructions of subordination and victimization, can also lead demonstrations. If we do not remove the lens of Orientalism to describe that scene inf Camaron square, we would have never been able to focus the action of these women. Nobody had ever seen before political subjectivity in their act because they were just two reunified and sumise wives for some, and potential terrorist for others. Contradictory circunstances that go on well under exceptional situations, as those derived under immigration and security regimes. Although the never though of it or never wanted to, the relatives of the Raval detainees have become activists.

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