Inside the burqa

As radical Islam spreads in Spain's impoverished North African enclave of Melilla, a small number of young women have adopted the full body veil

For much of this year, 15-year-old Chadia has barely left the apartment where she lives with her divorced mother and four brothers and sisters in the Spanish enclave of Melilla, which borders northern Morocco. Half of the population of the city of 71,000 is Muslim, but Chadia is the first woman to adopt the burqa, covering her face and body completely, along with elbow-length gloves. Her local high school has refused to allow her to attend classes wearing the burqa, and she has lost a year's study. Not that Chadia is worried: she says her decision has made her "the happiest woman in the world."

Mimón, Chadia's mother, is Spanish, but converted to Islam when she married. Now separated, she still wears a hijab, or headscarf, along with the traditional tunic and babucha slippers. She was contacted earlier this year by the authorities after her daughter's school raised the issue of her absence from class.

"They told Chadia she had to attend school, but not wearing the burqa"
"No boyfriend has persuaded me to do this - nobody other than Allah"

"They contacted me two months ago, and set up an appointment with a lawyer and the Minors' Protection department. We went to the meeting, and they told Chadia that she had to attend school, but that she wasn't allowed to wear the burqa. She said that she didn't want to go to school, that she didn't want to study, and that she would continue to wear the burqa. She asked us to talk to the school head, which we did, but he insisted that Chadia wouldn't be allowed to attend if she was wearing the burqa. He said that she would have to remove it to enter the school. He said that if she wasn't prepared to accept the rules, it was better for her not to go at all."

While Mimón is talking, Chadia enters the living room. She walks slowly, like a bride in her wedding dress who is worried she might trip over. She refuses a handshake, saying: "I'm sorry, but I can't touch you." She sits next to her mother, straight-backed, and lifts the veil aside that covers her face, which is still protected by another veil that leaves only her eyes visible.

- Why are you allowing your eyes to be seen?

- It is a mark of respect toward you, because you are in my house. I would never do this in the street.

Chadia interrupts her mother, saying that she wants to explain why she has chosen to wear the burqa, and why she has quit the school she and her brothers and elder sister have all attended, and where, until just a few months ago, she played with the other children in the schoolyard.

"I went to the school gates, removed the burqa, and put it in my bag. My face could be seen. I attended class, and in the break I spoke to the other girls. They all asked me why I had decided to wear the burqa, and whether I had a boyfriend. I told them my reasons. When the school head called me in, he told me not to speak to the other girls about it: 'If that is your game, it would be better if you didn't come to school,' he told me. He was against me once I told him the way things were. I went back a few times, and then stopped going. I didn't want to catch up on the work I had missed. I don't care about missing a year. If they won't allow me to wear the burqa, I don't want to study. I want to do something useful, not study. It doesn't make any difference anyway; there are no jobs." Mimón watches, nodding her head at this last point.

Miguel Ángel López Díaz, the head of the school, has a different version of events. "We told the mother that the girl couldn't attend school wearing a burqa. We insisted that she had to attend her classes. She tried to negotiate with us, asking if she could wear gloves. In the end she came back without the burqa, but with the gloves. We told her to remove them, and she did. During break time she would try to convince the other girls to support her. When she came to see me she was taking the veil on and off. I asked her not to come to school covered in the veil or with gloves, and not to try to win the other girls over. She hasn't been back. At this school, around 30 percent of the girls wear the hijab, and it's not a big deal. But the burqa has nothing to do with the culture here; it's imported."

A female teacher at the school, who asked to remain anonymous, describes Chadia as a normal girl, who last year was wearing jeans, without even a headscarf. "Chadia's friends say she is 'stupid' and that the burqa is not her idea, but that she has been persuaded to wear it by a boyfriend."

Growing numbers of Salafists, the radical, anti-Western branch of Islam, are now to be found in Melilla, keen to find new recruits.

But Chadia denies any such involvement, saying: "God protect me from boyfriends. Nobody has persuaded me to do this other than Allah. I have begun to read the Koran. It is my decision alone. It is a question of faith. Allah wants me to interpret it in this way. I am even surprised at myself," she says.

Her mother says that the change in Chadia has caught her by surprise as well. "She came home one day and said: 'look what I've bought.' I had no idea. She doesn't have a boyfriend. People assume that it is a man's decision when a woman wears the burqa. That's not the case here. She has decided on her own to do so. She has said that she won't remove it, and she won't. She is happy with her decision."

- How does it feel to be completely covered under all those dark veils. Where does it say in the Koran that a woman should dress in that way?

- Look, I am happy, and proud to wear it. I have seen the light, and I know that I am on the right path. If you move toward believing in Allah, then he will open your heart. If you believe in him, and cultivate your faith, then you will have no doubts. The Koran tells us how a woman should be. Islam is the only religion; there is no other."

Chadia refuses to comment on whether she sees non-believers of Islam as the enemy. She says that she doesn't attend mosque regularly, but occasionally goes to one that her brothers attend. She says that she bought the burqa during a visit to Morocco. She also refuses to talk about that visit, whether she traveled alone or was accompanied, nor even where she got the money to buy the burqa.

"I pray in my room five times a day. There, among my books, is where I feel most comfortable, and where I learn and pray. But I do go out. I am not locked in, or isolated." She says that she wants to studying cooking, but only with other women. "Men can't see me."

Regarding her future, Chadia says that she does not rule out marriage. "I wear the burqa and will never allow a man to see me, but I am not giving up on the idea of having a family. My husband must be Muslim, have the same faith as me, and accept without question what the Koran says - otherwise I couldn't accept him as my husband."

Her father is unlikely to be the inspiration for her newfound faith. "He and my brother Rashid have told me not to wear the burqa. They don't like it. But this little guy does, and he asks me to put it on," she says, pointing to her brother Mohammed, who follows the conversation and looks up at his elder sister in admiration. "I have decided to continue like this for the rest of my life. Without the burqa, I don't want to live," she says.

Chadia and her family live close to the city center, in a block of low-rent apartments. Almost all of the neighbors are Muslims, with the notable exception of a former member of the Spanish Foreign Legion, who spends most of his time slumped on his balcony, smoking and staring into space. It isn't the poorest neighborhood in Melilla, but along with its neighboring Spanish enclave of Ceuta, the territory has the highest unemployment and poverty rates in Spain. In the absence of work, many of the young men here scratch a living selling hashish; their only escape is joining the army. Little wonder that the radical brand of Islam preached by the Salafists is attracting growing numbers of recruits.

"I have been separated from my husband for 10 years. He abandoned me with five children: three boys and two girls. We expect nothing from him. We make do as best we can," says Mimón. Chadia listens, but says nothing. Rashid, the eldest brother, arrives, uncomfortable at the presence of a stranger in the house. He is dressed in jeans, a short-sleeved t-shirt, and running shoes. he says that he doesn't like his sister wearing the burqa. It is Friday, midday, the time for prayers. Rashid has taken an hour off from his job as a van driver, and says that he is going to the mosque in the Cañada del Hudón, one of the city's poorest areas.

Chadia and her mother say that they do not know of any other women in Melilla who wear the burqa yet, but say they know of other girls who want to. "The majority of my friends think the same as me, but they are afraid to take the step. Muslim women are being discriminated against. But little by little all this will change: as long as there is life, there is hope. At the moment no, but you will see how all this will change. We are not in a hurry. We have to be patient," she says.

Things are changing in Melilla, and Chadia would seem not to be exaggerating. In the city's poorer neighborhoods, further out from the city center, young women wearing the niqab, a full-face veil, can be seen. It's a recent import, from Saudi Arabia, and reflects the spread of fundamentalist Islam in a city where many Muslim women do not even cover their heads.

"It's Saida. Please, reserve a place for me tomorrow at 11.00. You know." Abida is a 24-year-old who runs the Lamia hairdressing salon, and who knows that when she gets a call like this she will have to close the salon to attend to a special client; one of the "perfect" women who have read You Can Be the Happiest Woman in the World, a 2006 title by A'id al-Qarni, which aims to teach women the benefits of Islam: one of those girls whose face nobody, not even another woman, except for this hairdresser, can be allowed to see.

"I close the salon when they come. They don't want other women to see them. I have to organize things so that nobody comes. They say to me: 'My husband doesn't want anybody to see me except you.' They are very careful about their appearance, but only for their husbands. One was here yesterday, with a burqa. She had the full works, washed her hair, died it, and had it trimmed. All in the utmost intimacy. She is aged around 30 and lives in La Cañada. Wearing a niqab or burqa doesn't prevent them from getting dolled up. They are not being punished, at least that's what they tell me. We have two single women, of 17 and 20. The rest are all married. They don't go to school because they are not allowed. They are told the niqab is forbidden."

The Lamia salon is bright and airy, with plenty of natural light. It has two comfortable reclining chairs for cutting hair, and a sofa, where two customers are waiting. Behind two curtains is Abida's office. Saida, aged 25, says that two of her family wear the niqab. "My sister Salwa, who is 21, and my cousin Fatima, 22. My sister used to go out with her friends; they used to go to Islam classes. She was obsessed with learning. She met a boy, they got engaged, and she started wearing the niqab. We respect her decision, but my mother is not happy. In the end she had no choice but to accept it. It was tough for her. She said that she wanted to dress like the wife of the prophet."

Like Abida, Saida says that young women who wear the full-body veil face discrimination. "Salwa wanted to take a course in catering, painting, and bricklaying at a convent-run study center, but they said she couldn't attend dressed like that. It is forbidden. My sister takes her child to the park; she has a driving license; but she hasn't been able to attend university. She doesn't care what people think. To begin with, she was upset when people would ask who she was behind the veil. She has since learned Arabic, and now she is always asking me to put on long clothes."

Guarda, a 27-year-old who wears the hijab, interrupts to ask a question. "I might like to wear the niqab. I feel better about myself if I cover myself up. If you come back here in a few months, perhaps you will find me completely covered up. I don't know anybody who wears the burqa, but all the girls who wear the niqab are very pretty. This is the same as if your son comes home one day to tell you that he is gay. Wearing a niqab is not obligatory, but the headscarf is."

- Have you read You Can Be the Happiest Woman in the World?

- Yes, I think that it is marvelous. It has helped me a lot. It's not about women doing what men want; it's about love.

Abida opens the curtains and leans out: "I have studied Arabic, and I don't like the burqa. It's so extreme. I can't see how it makes sense at any level - religious or personal. They lead very boring lives." Saida accepts this: "My sister can't come out with us to the beach, for example."

Spanish women who use the niqab in Melilla do not go to the local beaches. They cross the border, where they must identify themselves, and then travel by car to a secret place that very few people know about, a small private beach in Morocco that their husbands rent out, and where they cannot be seen. "They go to this beach in Morocco, and go swimming at night. I wouldn't know how to find it," says Abida.

As we part, Mimón refuses a handshake, and asks: "Christian girls are allowed to wear miniskirts. Why can't Muslim women be allowed to cover themselves up?" When Chadia opens the door, she puts the veil in place and covers her eyes: "Go with Allah."

Chadia, pictured two weeks ago in her home in Melilla.
Chadia, pictured two weeks ago in her home in Melilla.ANTONIO RUIZ

Schools face more pressing problems

So far, none of the state-run schools in the mainly Muslim neighborhoods of Melilla have reported any cases of young women like Chadia, trying to attend class in a burqa. But they face other, arguably more serious, problems. For example 42 percent of students leave school without graduating (the EU average is 14 percent, and the Spanish national rate is 30 percent). José Cárdenas, a teacher at the Juan José Fernández high school, says that his female students can dress how they like. "We totally respect the hijab. If we were to ban the veil we would have to close the school. When we hear stories on television about problems with the veil in schools on the mainland, it seems strange. We don't have religious issues about symbolism here," he says proudly.

Jaime López, a social worker in Melilla, says that he knows of one case of a female student who turned up for school wearing the niqab. "She only went in for one day. She was 16, and stopped going to school because she got married. She went from wearing the headscarf to the niqab, and then got married. Her parents wanted her to carry on studying, but she refused. She came from a poor family, and had missed a lot of school over the years."

José Antonio Ruiz, the head of the Leopoldo Queipo high school, says that the headscarf is not an issue for him. "Around 50 percent of our female students wear the headscarf, but it's not a problem. I don't know which religion our students adhere to, and I'm not interested. It is a personal choice. We haven't had anybody turning up in a burqa or a niqab."

Recomendaciones EL PAÍS
Recomendaciones EL PAÍS