A Muslim schoolgirl in Spain has been suspended from a public school in Madrid after refusing to remove her Islamic headscarf during an exam.

The girl's parents have filed a lawsuit against the school and the incident has reignited a long-running debate in Spain over the use of head-covering hijabs, face-covering niqabs and body-covering burqas in public spaces.

The latest dustup occurred in late September when a teacher at the Enrique Tierno Galván public school in Madrid asked the 14-year-old student to remove her hijab (headscarf) during an exam.

The school has a policy that prohibits the wearing of head coverings, particularly those that cover the ears, due to the increase in cases of students who use electronic devices to cheat on tests. After the girl refused to comply with the teacher's request, she was suspended from the school.

The lawyer representing the girl says the school's prohibition on head coverings is illegal. He cites a regulation issued by the Spanish Ministry of Interior which says head coverings are permissible as long as the individual in question can be clearly identified. Since the student is easily identifiable, as she is the only girl in school who wears a veil, the "matter is very clear," according to the lawyer.

This is not the first veil-related controversy in Spain, where there are no clear guidelines on the enforcement of dress codes. Such issues are normally left to individual school boards to decide, but in some cases bans on Islamic clothing have been overturned by the state, based on the argument that the constitutional right to an education overrides a school's right to determine its own policies.

The debate over Islamic head coverings first burst onto the national stage in Spain in November 2009, when a Muslim lawyer named Zoubida Barik Edidi was ejected from Spain's high court in Madrid for refusing to remove her headscarf. The lawyer, a Spanish citizen of Moroccan origin, was attempting to defend a client at a trial that was being held at the court.

In April 2010, 16-year-old Najwa Malha was banned from the Camilo José Cela public school in the Madrid suburb of Pozuelo de Alarcón after she refused to remove her hijab, in violation of the school dress code. She was eventually joined by three other Muslim girls who began wearing the hijab as a "gesture of solidarity" with Malha.

In December 2008, a Muslim imam in Tarragona was arrested for attempting to force a 31-year-old Moroccan woman named Fatima Ghailan to wear a hijab. The local prosecutor had asked the judge to jail the imam and three others for five years for harassment. But the imam was eventually cleared of all charges after the Socialist mayor of the town said she wanted to prevent "a social conflict."

In October 2007, an eight-year-old Moroccan girl named Shaima Saidani was suspended from the Joan Puigbert-Annexa public school in Girona for refusing to remove her hijab in class. In that case, the regional government of Catalonia in north-eastern Spain intervened by ordering the school to allow the girl to wear the hijab on grounds that it would be discrimination not to do so.

The first Islamic veil-related incident in recent memory in Spain occurred in February 2002, when Fátima Elidrisi, a 13-year-old Moroccan girl, was expelled from the Roman Catholic grade school La Inmaculada Concepción in the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial for refusing to remove her hijab in school.

In July 2010, the Spanish Parliament rejected a proposal to ban the burqa in public spaces. The proposal was presented by the center-right opposition Popular Party (PP) "in defense of the dignity and equality of all women" and to make sure Muslim women are not being forced by their husbands to become fully veiled.

"It is very difficult to understand how it is that our troops are defending liberty in Afghanistan and the government does not have the courage to do so here, in Spain," said the PP spokeswoman, Soraya Sáenz de Santamaria.

The ruling Socialist Party opposed the ban, arguing that it could force fully veiled women into "a dual jail" situation: Either they go out in public and break the law or stay at home and become isolated.

But PP leader Mariano Rajoy, who is widely expected to win the upcoming general elections on November 20 by a landslide, has promised that if he becomes Spain's next prime minister, he will implement a burqa ban similar to the one in France, which took effect in April 2011.

In any event, more than a dozen local and regional governments across Spain have already banned wearing the face veil in municipal buildings.

In May 2010, the Catalan town of Lérida (where 29,000 Muslims make up more than 20% of the population) became the first municipality in Spain to ban the burqa in all public spaces. Women found violating the ban will be fined up to €600 ($750).

The debate over Islamic clothing in Spain comes as immigration from Muslim countries continues apace. Spain currently has a Muslim population of slightly over 1 million, or about 2% of Spain's total population.

Although this percentage is smaller than in other European countries such as France (7%), Holland (6%), Belgium (4%), Germany (4%) and Britain (3%), Spain has experienced a ten-fold increase in the number of Muslim immigrants in just 20 years.

As recently as 1990, there were only an estimated 100,000 Muslims in Spain. Up until the late 1980s, Spain was a net exporter of labor and there was very little immigration to the country.

Instead, Spain was a transit country for North African immigrants on their way to France and other European countries with significant and well-established Muslim communities. But during the mid-1990s, Spain's traditional role as a transit country became that of a host country for Muslim immigrants, especially from Morocco.

Immigration, however, is only one reason for the increase in Spain's Muslim population. Muslim fertility rates are more than double those of an aging native Spanish population. Spain currently has a birth rate of around 1.4, which is far below the 2.1 required for a population to replace itself. At the current rates, demographers say the number of native Spaniards will be cut in half in about two generations, while the Muslim population in Spain will quadruple during that same period.

Some analysts say the rate of growth of Spain's Muslim population far exceeds the rate of assimilation. And polls seem to support that claim.

According to a Pew Global Attitudes Survey, religion is central to the identity of Muslims in Spain: nearly 70% identify themselves primarily as Muslim rather than as Spanish. This level of Muslim identification in Spain is similar to rates in Pakistan, Nigeria and Jordan, and even higher than levels in Egypt, Turkey and Indonesia.

The Pew survey also shows that Muslim immigrants are viewed with suspicion by Spanish society and that most Spaniards doubt that Muslims coming to Spain want to adopt their national customs and way of life. Almost 70% of Spaniards say that Muslims in Spain want to remain distinct from the larger society.

Almost 80% of the Spanish public sees Muslims as having a strong Islamic identity. Among those in the Spanish general public who see Islamic identity on the rise, 82% say it is a bad thing. Around 65% of Spaniards are somewhat or very concerned about rising Islamic extremism in their country.

Adding fuel to the fire, a recent survey sponsored by the Spanish government shows that less than half of Muslim immigrants in Spain can understand, speak and read in Spanish without problems.

No wonder that many Spaniards view the hijab, the niqab and the burqa as an Islamic challenge to the prevailing dress codes of secular society.

Soeren Kern is Senior Fellow for Transatlantic Relations at the Madrid-based Grupo de Estudios Estratégicos / Strategic Studies Group. Follow him on Facebook.

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