Why they can't turn their backs on the veil: Islam's strict dress code has divided young Muslim women in London's East End, writes Asla Aydintasbas

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When the Islamic brothers come round and tell us that we must cover our heads and act like proper Muslims, I refuse,' says 16-year-old Hadija from Tower Hamlets, east London. 'I know I should probably wear the scarf, but then I'd have to stop talking to the boys. And I don't want to.'

Asma, also 16, recalls how in the past year a gang of boys has appeared outside the school, lecturing or harassing Muslim girls who are not wearing the scarf, or hijab.

'They tell us that we show no respect for our parents by wearing these Western clothes and that we should all cover our heads in order to be true Muslims. While some boys are more coercive, telling girls that they would only be 'truly beautiful' under the scarf, others have gone further, accusing them of being 'slags'.'

These two teenagers are among a few prepared to stand up to intimidation from young Islamic fundamentalists, who are making it harder for young women to follow a secular lifestyle. The bullying adds to the problems in Tower Hamlets, where racial harassment is already part of many young people's lives.

Ten years ago, pressure on young Muslim women came mainly from their parents; today, however, demands for a stricter Islamic dress code come mainly from their peers. And, as is the case in any youth culture, it is more difficult to resist overtures from friends than adults.

Seventeen-year-old Mine, who attends a Hackney college, says she is fed up with Islamic friends 'trying to convince me to wear the scarf'. Yet each time a debate begins, she feels inadequate in defending her stance as a believer. 'They know the Koran so well. It is impossible to argue with them,' she says.

'My best friend is into Islam. She prays five times a day. Every now and then, when we start discussing religious issues, it gets very tense, but we are both proud that we keep up our close friendship. Not everyone can do that. A lot of girls who become more religious get cut off from their old friends.

'Apart from anything else, I love following fashion and I wouldn't want to give that up by covering my head. Anyway, even those girls who do will chat about clothes in the privacy of the common room.'

A new Muslim identity is being forged among the young female members of Britain's Islamic community, whether imposed or enthusiastically embraced. In the East End, teenagers with Turkish, Bengali and Middle Eastern backgrounds form a generation of Muslims whose religious approach differs from the traditional practices of their parents.

They find their parents too immersed in cultural traditions and detached from the global Islamic community. The parents are often ignorant of Islamic doctrine, whereas these young Muslims analyse the Koran, attend discussions on religious topics and dream of the ideal Islamic state.

One teenager says: 'I realise now that my mother doesn't know anything about Islam and she is learning from me. Up until now, all she worried about was doing things for appearances, and keeping up with the gossip, such as who is marrying whom. None of that matters to me.'

For most girls, the hijab is a symbol of this new awareness and the natural culmination of a period of religious learning. Shebnem, a 17- year-old Turkish student at Hackney Sixth Form College, decided to wear the scarf at the age of 14, after attending the local mosque's Sunday women's group. Her mother opposed the decision, resulting in six months of family friction.

'I was the first girl in my mixed school to wear the hijab,' she says. 'I can vividly remember a teacher's comment: 'What's that on your head?' That really hurt.'

Now, three years later, Shebnem is joined by a number of boys and girls at her school who have recently established an Islamic society and hold regular meetings.

In the predominantly Muslim Tower Hamlets College, most girls decide to put on the hijab after coming into contact with members of such societies. But a group member denied exerting pressure: 'There are activists who go round, sit down with women and just talk about Islam. At the end of the day, it is up to them. We just go round and talk. But the membership, now at 500, is growing and growing.'

Samia is one of a small but increasing number of girls from English Christian families who have found the call of Islam irresistible. She now wears the scarf and a full garment that covers her body from head to toe, including gloves on her hands and a veil across her face, leaving the eyes as the only uncovered region. Does she miss the freedom of Western clothes?

'It's not a question of what I want to wear. When you accept Islam, in a sense you have to give something up for it. There isn't a choice. Allah says women have to cover up,' she says.

A group of seven girls at the college, all wearing similar black garments, recently decided to adopt the stricter dress code, some in the face of parental opposition. 'My mother was appalled and asked, 'Why are you putting that on? You are ruining your youth',' said one.

How do these young women enjoy themselves? Do they ever go out with boys? 'Oh, no, we don't do that] We can't do that.' It turns out they have hardly a free moment between fund-raising, meetings of the Islamic society and educating other Muslim girls.

Last year, the Islamic Society at Tower Hamlets College staged a sit- in, demanding that the prayer room be expanded. Having successfully obtained the basement gym as a prayer area, the society now brings in an imam every week to lead the Friday prayer.

The growth of Islamic awareness has been rapid. One youth worker from the East End remembers her days at a nearby girls' school eight years ago: 'Then there were only a couple of girls who would wear a skimpy headscarf to and from the school. Now it is the majority of girls who wear the hijab. In those days our politics were part of the anti-racist movement. We never used to have discussions on the possible nature of an Islamic state as they now do.'

However, racist attacks have increased dramatically since then, and tension has grown following the British National Party's success in local elections last year. But far from being fearful of standing out as targets of violence, many of the devout Muslim girls regard wearing the hijab as a gesture of defiance. The Islamic groups have been quick to take action in the anti-racist struggle, offering not only self-defence classes but also a new and powerful sense of identity to members.

A fully veiled female college student explains: 'We do run into a lot of difficulties, even get physical abuse from Muslims as well as non- Muslims, but so did women in the Prophet Mohamed's time. Compared with what they suffered by putting on the veil, what we are doing in London is nothing.'

The hijab is also the young generation's polite way of disassociating itself from parents' lives. 'Burka', the term for headscarf used by Bengalis, has been dropped by younger Muslims, who opt for the more trendy Arabic word.

In a similar fashion, young 'fundamentalist' women from Tower Hamlets College denounce the traditional idea of 'arranged marriage', maintaining that in Islam a woman has the right to choose her partner. They say that instead of being exploited by going out with lots of boys, as their Western equivalents do, they will find the right partner through trusted friends, not their parents.

Britain's Muslims are outraged at the persecution of their co-religionists in Bosnia, Algeria and elsewhere. 'You cannot turn a blind eye when Muslims are being massacred, because what will you do when it is happening on your doorstep?' says one student. Already, a fellow member of her Islamic society has abandoned his studies and gone to Afghanistan to join the mujahedin.

Another student proudly tells of two friends who went to Bosnia to fight and are now, much to her joy, 'holy martyrs'. 'The very least we can do is to cover our heads. What kind of sacrifice is that?'

(Photograph omitted)