Two recent contradictory decisions regarding the right of Muslim girls to wear the Islamic veil to class underscore the lack of consensus in Spain over an issue that some see as religious, others as a form of rebellion against established norms, and yet others as an intolerable whim.
In one public school in Gamonal (Burgos province), a 13-year-old girl from Morocco has been barred from attending classes because of her decision to don the hijab, an Islamic headscarf that covers her hair. Instead, she must study all by herself in the school library, and walks over to the classroom every hour so the teachers can see that she's still there.
This sterile routine has been going on every day for the last three weeks in a kind of standoff between the girl's family and the school, while the regional education authorities have backed the hard line of the latter. The 13-year-old still sees her Colombian friend during recess, and they walk home together. "Yes, I think she understands me," she says.
Spain has no national guidelines on this issue, unlike France, for example, which has banned all religious symbols in the classroom.
The rules of Félix Rodríguez de la Fuente High School clearly state that "students are not to cover their heads unless it is for medically justified causes." But the girl's Moroccan family claims that a veil is not comparable to a fashion statement such as a baseball cap. But school officials say they are not interested in going into religious issues, but rather merely holding up the internal code of conduct.
"This is the first time in Spain where, while a decision is made whether the hijab is allowed, the girl has been barred from all classes. The matter is so serious that we have filed a complaint against the principal with the public attorney's office, since he might be committing a crime. To isolate a minor from her schoolmates should be the last resort," thunders the family lawyer Iván Jiménez Aybar.
The school principal, Eusebio López, uses mythology to describe the situation the girl has been placed in by her father.
"This man is like Agamemnon: he is sacrificing his daughter so his ships will have wind to sail," he says. "This is a case of indiscipline, not of personal beliefs. [...] Either she respects the rules or she changes schools."
Yet this case is in sharp contrast with the outcome reached in the Madrid district of Usera, where a 14-year-old Muslim girl attending Enrique Tierno Galván High School has been allowed to stay in class. "At first they told me I would have to change to a different school," she says, her eyes shining with joy. A meeting of the school council (in which parents and teachers also participate) decided that the girl could attend class, after being expelled from an examination in September when she showed up wearing a hijab for the first time. The supervising teacher suspected she might be concealing a cheat sheet underneath.
Jiménez Aybar is also the lawyer representing this family. "The center did not yield to the whims of a Muslim girl, it simply acted according to the law," he says. "Nobody should view this as a case of surrender. And certainly, no Muslim community should present it as a victory for Islam."
In both cases the girls deny that parental pressure led them to wear the veil. Indeed, the 13-year-old in Burgos began putting hers on two years ago, ignoring pleas from her mother and father not to do so. "This is the first problem I've had in Spain; we don't want any trouble, just peace," says her father Brahim, 40, who moved here a decade ago from the Moroccan town of Tinghir.
"My religion comes first," insists his daughter softly.
As for the 14-year-old in Usera, southern Madrid, she decided to adopt the headscarf last August. "When I told (my mother) about my decision, she wouldn't believe me. She thought I would take it off in a few days," she laughs. "I'm a teenager - whatever they tell me not to wear, I will wear."