One day last week I stood in a queue at the bank in my home town in the UK. Ahead of me in the queue was a family with a small girl, aged about seven at the most, all dressed up in a beautiful, peacock blue shalwa kameez: trousers tight around the ankle, long tunic embroidered at the hem and matching filmy scarf worn backwards so that the loose ends trailed over her shoulders and down her back. Her elegant kitten heeled sandals in matching sparkly blue, quite unsuitable for such a small girl, were clearly giving her problems as she kept sliding her feet out and pointing something out to her mother. Her mother was more sombrely dressed with her hair hidden under the regulation headscarf. So was her grandmother. They spoke to me in English but among themselves they spoke another language, probably Gujurati.
Now such a family group is not an uncommon sight in the Northwest of England town where I have spent the last couple of weeks. Indeed, it feels a little strange coming back from there, where it is not at all unusual to see Asian women doing their shopping covered head to toe in a burka, to Vigo, where I have seen the occasional headscarf but no more. It’s more usual to see an African man in brightly coloured robes than women hiding behind the veil.
And yet the question of the veil, the headscarf, the hijab, a long-standing problem in France and more recently in Belgium, has arisen again in Pozuelo de Alarcón in the Madrid area. A young girl called Najwa Malha has insisted on wearing her headscarf in school. The school has a strict “no headgear in the classroom” rule. Najwa has been excluded from school. A number of her classmates have also worn hajib to school put of solidarity, although they did remove them at the school gates.
The minister for education has come out and said that Nawja’s education is of prime importance but the school is within its rights to set rules about headgear. A place in another school has been offered but Nawja does not want to change schools but does want to express her Moslem identity.
Funnily enough, that argument is one I have heard before. When I had Moslem girls in my sixth form teaching groups some of them would turn up regularly with their hair covered. Some were quite strict about it. One young lady would take her headscarf off if her teaching group was all female with, of course, a female teacher, but had the scarf at the ready if a male member of staff came into the room. Others varied, some days wearing hajib, other days not. They said that no-one obliged them either way; there were just days when they felt the need to demonstrate their Moslem identity.
The other familiar argument I have heard trotted out is that if Najwa is allowed to wear her headscarf then boys who are members of urban gangs will demand the right to wear their gang caps in the classroom. Not quite the same thing, surely. And I suspect that members of urban gangs already create problems and have their identity well established without the need to wear a cap to school.
Representatives of the church and the government have been on television talking about religious freedom being a part of the Spanish constitution. There has been a lot of talk about the need for religious symbols to be part of one’s private life and so on. None of this helps the management of the school on Pozuelo de Alarcón who find themselves in something of a cleft stick: too strict if they stick to their guns, too soft if they give in.
No doubt the argument will run on and on. It seems a long way from the problems we had about the length of our school skirts and then later fighting for the right to wear trousers to school – and the latter was as a teacher, not as a pupil.