|THE UNSMILING GIRL in the black hijab defined her identity thus: "I am a Muslim of Arab origin, living within British society." Hadil, 18, could not attend a more racially integrated school than Quintin Kynaston in West London where, according to its Ofsted report, "the wealth of cultures and faiths is valued, respected and appreciated".
Hadil, along with a number of fellow pupils, had taken part in a documentary called Young, British and Muslim and here she was up on stage, giving her views to an audience at the National Film Theatre. Yet in reply to the question "Do you feel British?" Hadil shrugged and said: "I look at British culture and see no moral values which appeal to me."
And it was hard not to bristle, not to think unbecoming, angry thoughts such as: "Why endure our repulsive morality a moment longer? Wouldn't you simply be happier in a Muslim country?" The segregation that, according to Trevor Phillips, we are sleepwalking towards is not calculable just in percentages of ethnic minorities gathered in certain neighbourhoods. It is manifested in individual minds. Unlikely ones, like Hadil's.
Born in London of Iraqi parents who fled Saddam Hussein's regime — her father was imprisoned and tortured — she is taking A levels next year and hopes to study pharmacy at a British university. Despite this, Hadil looks out upon this country and sees little to recommend it. She and her friends adopted the hijab not because parents insisted — their somewhat bemused mothers mostly do not cover their heads — but to state their disdain for "British culture ".
And what does that "British culture" mean to an 18-year-old Muslim girl? The stereotype she draws is dismaying: a national taste for getting bladdered at nightclubs, an insistence that girls wear sexy, skimpy clothes, are judged solely on their looks and whether they'll put out for boys. In the documentary, Hadil is shown shopping in Oxford Street. "Just look at that billboard," she says. "That ad exploits women's bodies to sell things." Which made me smile and recall my own ranty teenage self.
In Iran and Saudi Arabia, the hijab is irrefutably used to disempower women, to make them disappear from public life. And in the film, Muslim boys from the school debate what they would do if their sister ever appeared in a Sloggi advert wearing only a thong. When one boy says that it would be her decision, the others round on him: he should order her to cover up, punish her disgrace.
So while for these boys the hijab is as much a mark of obedience as modesty, it means something different to these girls who have chosen to wear it. For Hadil, living in a British teen culture sexualised as never before, when 70 per cent of girls hate their bodies and desire plastic surgery, the hijab is a stop sign to boys, a demand for respect, to be — as Hadil puts it — "a voice, not just a pretty face".
One woman in the audience, a Muslim from Oldham, but a decade older than these girls, suggested that this sudden craze for the hijab was "adolescent". Which, of course, infuriated the girls: how patronising, you just don't understand . . . But as teen rebellions go, the hijab is as effective a two-fingered gesture to the world as a punk's mohican, goth's black garb or a 1970s feminist's man-repellent dungarees.
So after the debate I asked Hadil if there was nothing about British society she admired? Did she not believe women should be able to vote? (Yes, she did.) If she had to appear in court, did she think her testimony was worth that of any man? (Too right.) Had she not just enjoyed, that very afternoon, freedom of religious expression — indeed of an expensive, state-funded, multi-media variety? (Well, yes.) Wasn't it fabulous that while given the choice of wearing the hijab, she was not compelled to do so? (Yes.) And that, although she does receive the occasional rude remark about her chosen dress, she mostly walks the streets unmolested? Were not these freedoms also part of British morality, just as much as throwing up outside All Bar One or wearing your knickers above your jeans? And was there a Muslim nation on earth that would afford her the same rights? (Probably not.)
It was a little like the "What have the Romans ever done for us?" scene in Monty Python's Life of Brian. Yes, apart from equality, democracy, religious tolerance and freedom of speech, British morality had done nothing for Hadil. Mr Phillips, chairman of the Commission for Racial Equality, described these hard-won and magnificent freedoms as "simple truths which bind us together". Talking about being British one cannot but adopt a Hugh Grant stumbling modesty, so ill-mannered and jingoistic does it sound to bang a drum, even very softly.
And I felt insufferably pompous even raising these questions with these bright, funny girls. I suggested they were far more British than they thought. They laughed that living in Iran and compelled to wear the hijab they would probably spend their lives trying to break the rule. "I love it here," said Dunya, 17. "I never feel excluded in London — there are so many different cultures and we mostly get on." So why don't citzenship classes teach that when multiculturalism works it is because British tolerance has made it possible? And that the debate, between the West and Islam that will dominate the political agenda throughout Hadil's lifetime amounts to more than a choice between the hijab and the thong.