A student wearing Islamic headscarf arrives at start of school year in northern France
Pascal Rossignol  /  Reuters
A female student wearing a hijab arrives for the start of the school year at the Lycee Queneau in Villeneuve D'ascq, northern France on Thursday. The student  removed her headscarf on entering the school.
updated 9/2/2004 3:42:48 PM ET 2004-09-02T19:42:48

Muslim girls largely complied with a controversial ban on head scarves in the classroom on first day of school Thursday, officials said, as the government and Muslim leaders tried to avoid any confrontation that might provoke Islamic militants holding two French hostages in Iraq.

The militants have threatened to kill the two French journalists if the law is not revoked — a demand France has rejected. Millions of students returned to school Thursday with the law in effect for the first time.

Muslim leaders — even ones opposing the law — called for restraint in defying it. “The hostage takers are just waiting for a provocation,” Mohammed Bechari, a vice president of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, told Le Figaro newspaper. “We must be responsible.”

Later Thursday, editor of Le Figaro said he had news that the two journalists from the magazine had been turned over to another guerrilla group believed to be sympathetic with their plight.

The education minister said 240 girls showed up for the first day of classes with head scarves on — five times fewer than last year. Of those, 170 ended up taking their scarves off in school. The 70 who still refused entered into talks with officials, said the minister, Francois Fillon.

The minister has put in place a two-week period of “dialogue” to persuade girls to remove head coverings, rather than outright expel those who refuse, as some schools have in past cases.

Among the cases of defiance, two high school girls in the Strasbourg region decided to go back home rather than take off their scarves, education officials for the eastern city said.

“The first day of school went very well,” Nicolas Boudot of the Academy of Paris said.

He said there was only one case in the French capital of a girl entering school with a head scarf — at the prestigious Henry IV High School — “but by 10 a.m., she had removed it.”

Other Muslim girls took off head coverings before leaving the house.

“I was always treated badly and I felt uncomfortable, so I decided to take it off,” Nadia Arabi, 16, said before heading through the gates of Henri Wallon school in the working-class Paris suburb of Aubervilliers. Teenagers clad mainly in blue jeans talked and laughed as they waited for the school’s locked gates to open.

Last October, two veiled sisters were expelled from the Henri Wallon school, bringing it into the public eye.

Playing down divisive issue
The French government, enmeshed in delicate hostage negotiations in Iraq, was eager to avoid more conflict over the issue. Muslim community leaders opposed to the ban also urged restraint, offering support for the government’s refusal to revoke the law in the face of “blackmail” by militants in Iraq.

“It is clear that the international context has played a non-negligible role” in the peaceful return to school, Armand Martin, head of Raymond Queneau High School in Villeneuve d’Ascq told LCI television.

The school, outside Lille in northern France, previously had the highest proportion of Muslims wearing head scarves. According to Le Monde newspaper, there were 58 girls with head scarves attending classes there in 2003.

French envoys, including Islamic leaders, held talks with Muslim clerics in Iraq on Thursday in a desperate bid to free veteran French reporters Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot as a Wednesday deadline passed.

The law has been among the most divisive issue in recent times in France and problems were expected to emerge as the school year progresses.

Experts predicted a rash of court cases brought by Muslims who test the law by wearing head coverings like bandannas. The law allows for discreet religious signs.

Students said they were given a handout spelling out the new law and were instructed to read it and be able to explain it. School authorities also were encouraged to use dialogue and not to send anybody home, adhering to provisions in the law that provide for a period of transition, although Education Minister Francois Fillon stressed there was no room for negotiations.

“There is no question today of excluding. It is a question of convincing,” he said.

Although the law bans students from wearing apparel like the Jewish skull cap and large Christian crosses, it clearly targets head scarves, viewed as a sign of rising Muslim fundamentalism.

Debate continues
Muslims argued that not all who wear head scarves — considered a sign of modesty — are fundamentalists, and that girls are being forced to choose between their beliefs and staying in school. France’s Muslim population is an estimated 5 million, the largest in Western Europe.

Even girls who don’t wear head scarves questioned the law.

Myriam Benalouache, 15, waiting to enter the Jacques Brel High School in La Courneuve, a heavily immigrant suburb north of Paris, said she thinks it’s a mistake to ask girls to remove their scarves.

“For Muslim girls it’s like removing one’s clothes,” she said.

Several Muslim organizations have set up hot lines to advise or council young girls in a quandary over the law.

Sofia Rahem said her association, GFaim2Savoir, lingo for “I’m Hungry for Knowledge,” has received “an enormous number” of calls.

“They are young girls in distress who don’t know what to do with their future,” said Rahem, a 23-year-old university student who wears a head scarf. “They fear the return to school knowing they won’t be accepted with a scarf.”

The powerful Union for Islamic Organizations of France has advised girls to go to school dressed as they wish.

The hope is that schools will accept bandannas, which could be worn for “reasons of coquetry, of beauty,” UOIF President Lhaj Thami Breze said.

Individual schools, via their internal rules, have the final say. While all schools must conform, the law leaves it to each school to decide whether bandannas, for instance, are acceptable. Some schools have simply opted to ban all head gear.

Several Muslim organizations have set up hot lines to advise or counsel young girls in a quandary over the law.

Sofia Rahem said her association, GFaim2Savoir, lingo for “I’m Hungry for Knowledge,” has received “an enormous number” of calls.

“They are young girls in distress who don’t know what to do with their future,” said Rahem, a 23-year-old university student who wears a head scarf. “They fear the return to school knowing they won’t be accepted with a scarf.”

Individual schools, via their internal rules, have the final say. While all schools must conform, the law leaves it to each school to decide whether bandannas, for instance, are acceptable. Some schools have simply opted to ban all head gear.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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