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A nation’s headscarf headache

Two young women walk down the street toward the M-30 mosque in Madrid on Friday, just before prayers. One of them is wearing a brown headscarf, the other a black one.

The woman with the brown hijab is holding a newspaper article about the Popular Party’s proposal to regulate the use of headscarves in public schools. She is a 24-year-old engineer who has been living in Spain for six years and would rather not give out her real name. Her accent is Spanish, and there is nothing different about her except for the hijab, which she always wears, even if it counts against her. And she says it does.

"When I go to interviews they say they’ll call me. But I know it’s not true. I know that they won’t, and it’s because of the headscarf."

"It’s foolish and disrespectful. Why does it bother them that I wear a headscarf?" asks her friend. "I wear it because I am a believer, because the Koran says that women must cover their heads and men must wear loose clothing. But I don’t wear it at work, because I work with the public and it would cause me trouble. I’m not as brave as my friend here."

"But we’re not inferior to men, submissive, or stupid. We’re just believers," she adds.

That same Friday, Juan Costa, Popular Party (PP) campaign coordinator, had said that if his party wins the 9 March elections, public schools will be able to decide whether to allow the hijab in the classroom. Currently the hijab is neither expressly allowed nor prohibited. And this legal void creates bizarre situations that are resolved in different ways by different people.

For instance, José Antonio Martínez, the principal of a high school in Orcasitas, Madrid, with a large immigrant student population, prohibited the use of any religious symbol whatsoever in class – and he didn’t have the Islamic veil in mind when he made that decision. "No, I did it because of the enormous crosses worn by the Latin Kings around their necks. We thought it was the most sensible thing to do, and several high schools in Madrid are doing the same."

One of these other institutions is Jaime Vera High School, which also has a very high rate of foreign students. The principal, Jacinto Uceda, was visited by the imam of the local mosque a few months ago, asking for Muslim girls to be allowed to wear their headscarves. But the principal held firm: "Nobody walks in here with anything on their heads, neither Latin Kings and [rival gang] Ñetas with their caps, nor Muslims with headscarves, so as not to create resentment over unequal treatment," he said.

It would seem that the rule envisaged by the PP is already a reality on the ground in many public schools, and that the controversy is pointless. But then there was the case of Shaima, a Moroccan eight-year-old who lives in Gerona, Catalonia. When she tried to go to school wearing her hijab, the principal, Llorenç Serra, forbade it, citing school guidelines about clothes and accessories that lead to discrimination. The difference is that in this case, Shaima’s parents insisted. The face-off made headlines and became a symbol of the broader controversy. What to do? Back up a school’s regulations even if it keeps a child from going to school?

The regional government took up the case and decided that Shaima could wear the hijab. The reasoning was that in a case of conflict, the prevailing right is the right to an education, as set out in the Constitution, above and beyond the school’s right to determine its own policies.

Shaima now goes to school with her headscarf on. Her father, Belkacem Saidani, a bicycle shop employee, says there has been no trouble. Regarding the PP’s proposal, his answer is simple: "If my daughter is not allowed to wear the headscarf, we will return to Morocco the same way we came here from France."

Mohamed al Afifi, the spokesman for the Islamic Cultural Centre, housed in the same building as Madrid’s M-30 mosque, also compares both countries. "Spain is not a secular country like France, it is a non-denominational state. This is a crucial difference. And religious symbols are allowed. I would like to ask [PP leader] Mariano Rajoy what he bases his arguments on when he tries to prohibit the Islamic headscarf but not the other religious symbols. They argue that the hijab symbolises women’s submission. So did Benazir Bhutto, who was the prime minister of Pakistan, wear the hijab as a sign of submission? I don’t think so; she was the most powerful person in the country."

A lot of women on their way to prayers declined to be interviewed, alleging poor Spanish or just smiling shyly by way of a response. But one woman wearing a hijab with her iPod earphones sticking out of it, did stop to talk. Asked about the PP’s proposal, she pulled out her ID card. "If the headscarf is prohibited, what will I do about my identity? My name is Silvia Cerrada, I am 40 years old, Spanish by birth, and I converted to Islam nine years ago. If this proposal goes ahead, it will simply be a step back for multiculturalism, a regression on the road toward a more open and democratic society."

The PP’s campaign promise has also drawn a reaction from other political parties. Deputy Prime Minister María Teresa Fernández de la Vega of the Socialist Party accused Rajoy of "creating a problem where there isn’t one." Gaspar Llamazares, leader of the United Left, wondered whether the PP will prohibit "the veil worn by nuns or just that of Muslims."

The president of the Association of Immigrant Moroccan Workers (Atime), agrees with Llamazares: "If the hijab is regulated, then all other religious symbols should be as well, including Christian ones, of course. Otherwise, it would be flagrant discrimination, and we would oppose that vigorously."

But there are many nuances to the issue. For example, not all progressive forces are in favour of allowing the headscarf in public schools. "Solutions for integration are not infinite. The French republican model, which prohibits the headscarf, is in my opinion the best one in Europe," said Amelia Valcárcel, a professor of Moral and Political Philosophy at the distance-learning university UNED and a member of the State Council elite advisory body.

Fadela Amara, the French secretary of state for Urban Policies and someone who is familiar with the problems of Muslim neighbourhoods because she comes from one, is also in favour of such restrictive policies.

"To begin with, let’s point out that only women have to wear the veil. If it’s because of religion, there is no room for that in a non-denominational state. And if it’s because of cultural tradition, that immediately denotes an unacceptable submission. Signs say something; they’re not meaningless. And the headscarf is a sign of submission. It may be that women here wear it because they feel like it. Fine. But that does not make the hijab a symbol of freedom: it has always been and continues to be the opposite," she says.

Altamira Gonzalo, of the Themis Association of Women Lawmakers, is also in favour of banning its use. "It is an ostentatious sign of submission. To allow it is to encourage an uneven relationship between men and women. And the ideology behind the headscarf seeps into the women who wear it."

It’s 3.30pm and prayers are over. A mother and her daughter, both wearing a headscarf, are walking down the street. The mother won’t talk, but the girl does. "I go to high school. Why should they forbid something that doesn’t bother anyone and to which I have a right? What if I decide to get a piercing? Will someone prohibit it? And what about a miniskirt? Is that all right? Who decides what is right and what isn’t?"

The girl wants to continue talking, but her mother tugs on her sleeve and drags her away.

February 2008

[Copyright El Pais / ANTONIO JIMÉNEZ BARCA 2008]