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Global protests against French scarf ban

France's intention to ban Muslim headscarves in schools to defend the nation’s secular tradition is being met with defiance by Muslims in France and elsewhere.
Muslims Rally Against France's Ban On Religious Headscarves
Muslim women in Paris demonstrate against the French proposal to bar them from wearing headscarves in state schools. Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

The French government’s intention to ban Muslim headscarves in schools to defend the nation’s secular tradition is being met with defiance by Muslims in France and elsewhere.

Protesters around the world took to the streets Saturday to show opposition to the proposal to ban religious attire, including the headscarf, in 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 kept out of schools to keep them secular and avoid religious strife.

Dozens of women, veiled in black scarves, marched through the main city of Srinagar, the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, to express their solidarity with Muslims in France.

“Why should anyone interfere with what I want to wear. If I revolt against this transgression I will be called an extremist. Is it fair?” said Asiya Andrabi, whose Dukhtaran-e-Millat, or Daughters of Faith, is a radical women’s separatist group that demands Kashmir’s merger with Pakistan.

In Paris, police expected at least 10,000 people at a march against the proposed law.

Other protests were expected in the United States, Canada and Britain in what would be the biggest coordinated demonstration against a law that would forbid Muslim headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses in French public schools.

French official criticizes protests
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.

But many Islamic leaders say the law will stigmatize France’s estimated 5 million Muslims, who make up 8 percent of the population.

Saturday’s march through northeastern Paris to the Place de la Nation begins 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.”

Protests also were expected in other French cities and outside French consulates and embassies in Atlanta, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C., organizers said.

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

In Iraq, an Islamic group distributed an open letter to Chirac in mosques calling for the government to reverse its position. A demonstration drew fewer than 100 male and female students Saturday at Baghdad’s Al Mustansiriya University.

A few thousand people are expected in all, said Shaheen Kazi, national office manager at the Muslim Students Association of the U.S. 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.”

Britain supports wearing of headscarves
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.

“Hijab is part of a Muslim woman’s faith,” the association said on its Web site. “The French government must realize that it has made a huge mistake.”

Foreign Office Minister Mike O’Brien said the British government supported the right of all people to display religious symbols.

“In Britain we are comfortable with the expression of religion,” O’Brien said in a statement. “Integration does not require assimilation.”