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Headscarf ban in France ignites protests

France's plans to ban Muslim head scarves in schools to defend nation's secular character is being met with defiance by Muslims in France and elsewhere.

india Updated: Jan 19, 2004 13:35 IST
Associated Press
Associated Press

The French government's intention to ban Muslim head scarves in schools in order to defend the nation's secular character is being met with defiance by Muslims in France and elsewhere. Protesters were to take to the streets Saturday in Paris, in several major Western cities and beyond to show opposition to the proposal to ban religious attire, including the head scarf, in public schools.

In India, dozens of women veiled in black scarves marched on Saturday through Srinagar, in Jammu and Kashmir, to voice opposition to the French plan. "Hijab (the veil) is the identity of a Muslim woman," read one banner.

In Paris, police expect at least 10,000 people at a march against the proposed law. Other protests are expected in the United States, Canada and Britain.

The demonstrations would be the biggest coordinated protest against a draft law that will forbid Muslim head scarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in French public schools. The government, worried about the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, intends to enact the law for the start of the 2004-2005 school year in September. It says Muslim scarves and other obvious religious symbols must be forced out of schools to keep them secular and avoid religious strife.

Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy said protests would not be a positive contribution to the debate over the law. "If there is a protest one day, there will be a counter-protest the next," he said Friday.

Many Islamic leaders say the law will stigmatize France's estimated five million Muslims, who make up eight per cent of the population.

Saturday's march through northeastern Paris to the Place de la Nation begins at 1 pm (1200 GMT). It was called by the Party of French Muslims. Dalil Boubakeur, rector of the Mosque of Paris and president of the French council of the Muslim religion, discouraged Muslims from attending the protest, saying it would only exacerbate the anti-Muslim climate and create tensions for Muslims in Europe.

He has called for calm among France's Muslims "because we absolutely do not want confrontation." Boubakeur's French Council of the Muslim Faith serves as a link to the government. Protests are also expected in other French cities including Marseille, Lille, Bordeaux, Nice and Toulouse.

About 3,000 people took part in a similar protest in Paris on December 21. More than half were women, girls and even young children wearing the "hijab," or head scarf. Protests have taken place elsewhere, too. Earlier this month, 700 Muslims marched through the Danish capital of Copenhagen to protest the proposed law.

Protests also are planned Saturday, mostly outside French consulates and embassies, in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington D.C., and in Ottawa, Montreal and Toronto in Canada, organizers said.

A few thousand people are expected in all, said Shaheen Kazi, national office manager at the Muslim Students Association of the US and Canada. "The hijab is so central to the Muslim woman's identity," Kazi said.

"If we don't stand up for this issue when it happens in a European country or anywhere else, then it could be like a wave that could carry on throughout Europe and then we don't know how far it would spread."

The small rally in Srinagar was organized by Dukhtaran-e-Millat, or Daughters of Faith, a radical women's group that demands Kashmir's separation from India and its merger with Pakistan.

In Britain, protests are planned outside the French Embassy in London and a French consulate in Edinburgh, Scotland. They were called by the Muslim Association of Britain and the Muslim Women Society.

Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said the British government supported the right of all people to display religious symbols. "Whilst it is for individual countries to decide, in Britain we are comfortable with the expression of religion, seen in the searing of the hijab, crucifixes or the kippa. Integration does not require assimilation," O'Brien said.

First Published: Jan 17, 2004 19:04 IST

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