Feb 18 2002 - A war
of words has broken out in staunchly Catholic Spain
between a 13-year-old Moroccan girl and the government,
which has compared her desire to wear a traditional
Muslim headscarf to school with the practice of female
Fatima, 13, her mother, Zhora, and three younger siblings, arrived in Spain last autumn to join her father Ali el-Hadi, a construction worker who has been living here for 13 years. The local authorities assigned Fatima a place at a Catholic school where pupils must wear uniform, prompting Hadi to ask that she be allowed to attend the local state school, the Instituto Juan de Herrera in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, north-west of Madrid.
However, the principal refused to allow Fatima to attend wearing her headscarf. Delia Durَ said she did not want any girl 'coming with a veil, a chador or any type of dress that is a symbol of submission, of women in this case, and which violates citizens' civil rights.'
Ali el-Hadi said it was Fatima who chose to wear the veil, and that 'if she wants, she can take it off'. He was keen for his daughter to attend school, but said if the school would not let her in wearing the veil, she would not go.
'And they will be the ones who are excluding her,' he added.
Durَ's decision was supported by the Education Minister, Pilar del Castillo, who argued that the hejab is not a 'religious symbol but a sign of discrimination against women'. Fatima, she said, 'will have to go to school dressed the same as the other girls', adding that she was prepared to legislate over the issue if necessary.
The Minister for Labour and Social Affairs, Juan Carlos Aparicio, does not believe Spain needs to ban the veil but his criticism of the custom went further. He told a meeting of the ruling Popular Party that 'there are customs which are always unacceptable, and we can cite two examples - the use of discriminatory clothing, or, very clearly, the practice of female genital circumcision; it cannot be understood as a cultural or religious concept, but only as savagery.'
The Association of Moroccan Workers and Immigrants in Spain has said it will file suit against the school if it continues to ban Fatima's headscarf, and asked both the government and the opposition Socialist Party to reflect on the issue with 'serenity'.
The controversy is surprising, given that in the predominantly Muslim Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla girls in hejab routinely attend state schools. The same is true for schools in parts of Andalusia with a high proportion of Muslim immigrants.
Dr Mansur Escudero, who heads Spain's Islamic Commission, an official body, has filed several complaints over the banning of the veil, winning agreement from the Interior Ministry, for instance, that women could wear hejab in photos for passports or national identity documents.
Three years ago, a similar case in a Madrid school was resolved with the girl allowed to wear the veil. 'That is why this case surprises me,' Escudero said.
'They have entered very dangerous territory. It seems the government's attitude, especially after 11 September, is to show the public and the United States that it is maintaining a firm position towards Muslims. That is the interpretation some of us put on this situation.'
Statistics show the proportion of Muslim girls compared to boys at school falls at adolescence, education officials say, arguing that some immigrant Muslim families are less interested in educating girls.
The Socialist Education spokes-man came out against Fatima, but another Socialist parliamentarian supported her right to choose, saying attempts to ban her headscarf violated her rights. 'What is in play here is the rights of the girl, not the rules of a school. And the girl's right is to wear the veil if she wants,' said Diego Lَpez Garrido.
Source: The Observer