Moroccan girl attends school in Spain with Muslim headscarf

February 18, 2002
Singapore Democrats

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FATIMA Elidrisi, a 13-year-old Moroccan girl who insists on wearing a Muslim headscarf to school, arrived for classes Monday (Feb 18) to the clicking of cameras, applause from her new classmates and the watchful gaze of Civil Guards officers.

The girl’s traditional hijab scarf has stirred a nationwide debate in this predominantly Roman Catholic country.

Accompanied by her father, Ali El Hadi, 35, and representatives of immigrant support groups, Fatima was greeted by Delia Duro, director of the Juan de Herrera School.

Fatima’s father covered her face in an attempt to hide her from photographers among some 50 journalists who showed up at the school in this ancient town, about 25 miles northwest of Madrid.

Controversy over Fatima began last week when the director of Juan de Herrera, a secular public school, said she would not be allowed to wear the hijab, a traditional headscarf worn by many Muslim women in public. The school was overruled Saturday by the Madrid regional government, which said the obligation to give her an education took precedence over the issue of the scarf.

Fatima was accepted at Juan de Herrera after a semiprivate Roman Catholic school she first had been assigned to insisted she wear a uniform and remove the hijab.

The issue has received front-page coverage in Spanish newspapers and generated hours of debate on radio and television.

Initially Duro, the school director, said the hijab was a symbol of discrimination against women that could not be accepted in a secular educational system. The country’s education and ministers agreed.

Those who came to the girl’s defense said the issue of her hijab demonstrated Spanish intolerance and ignorance of other cultures. They pointed out that the hijab was already accepted without problems in many schools in Spain.

The Madrid regional government called for a commonsense approach and said it would consider drawing up legislation to avoid future such cases.

Spain has a population of some 41 million people, of whom 1 million are immigrants, mostly from predominantly Roman Catholic Latin American countries.