YESTERDAY was World Hijab Day, an annual event set up by a Bangladeshi-born woman who migrated to New York, Nazma Khan. Ms Khan’s aim is to “foster religious tolerance and understanding” by encouraging women who don’t normally cover their heads (non-Muslims or non-hijabi Muslim women) to try wearing the garment for just one day.

Despite such efforts, the headscarf remains a matter of controversy in Western societies. In Britain, the question whether young girls should be allowed to wear the hijab at school is emerging as one of the most bitterly divisive issues in debates over the limits of cultural freedom.

All over the Islamic world, the age at which girls start covering their head (usually around the time they hit puberty) has been falling. British Muslims have begun to follow the trend, which has caused pushback among the more secular-minded. At a school in greater London, a head teacher recently tried to ban girls under the age of eight from wearing the hijab. She was forced to back down after pressure from parents and Muslim community leaders. This week Ofsted, the government’s chief inspector of schools, weighed in on the side of the head teacher, Neena Lall.

Amanda Spielman of Ofsted said her agency would always “back [school] heads who take tough decisions in the interests of their pupils.” She added that school leaders “must have the right to set school uniform policies as they see fit, in order to promote cohesion” and expressed “deep regret” over the fact that the Ms Lall’s initiative had incurred a campaign of abuse.

The argument over Ms Lall’s school is the tip of a large iceberg. In September the National Secular Society (NSS), a lobby group which campaigns to oppose religious privilege, drew attention to the number of British schools which mandate Muslim garb for female pupils, including girls as young as four.

A study of schools’ uniform policies by the NSS found that

out of 142 Islamic schools which accept girls, 59 have uniform policies on their website that suggest a headscarf or another form of hijab is compulsory. This includes eight state-funded schools and 27 primary schools, three of which are state-funded.

In some cases, the schools laid down that girls should cover not only their heads but their entire bodies (in other words, wear a jilbab) or their faces. At the somewhat more liberal end, the study found 18 schools which said the hijab was optional.

These findings prompted the NSS and a number of prominent personalities, several of them women of Islamic heritage, to write to the education secretary and demand that no young girls (especially not in state-funded schools) should be forced into conservative forms of dress. Among the signatories was Sara Khan, a writer and activist whose appointment in recent days to head a government counter-extremism agency has incurred loud protests from harder-line advocates of Islam.

At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Muslim campaign groups are reacting angrily to the idea that anything or anyone should impede the right of parents to dress their children as they see fit. In a ten-point argument against restricting the wearing of the hijab in primary schools an activist called Siema Iqbal proclaimed that “as a parent I have the right to make decisions for my child” and that this right was enshrined by European human-rights legislation. She dismissed as “ridiculous” the widely-used argument that covering the heads of pre-pubescent girls was a way of sexualising them. Her argument was circulated approvingly on Twitter and Facebook as a timely response to “Islamophobia”.

Whatever one may think about headgear for girls of eight or below, the participants in the argument appear to live in different cultural and ethical universes. Their understandings of “rights” are so utterly different that there seems little point in attempting to reconcile them. What one camp would consider parental freedom, another would see as infringing the rights and welfare of a child.