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Thousands Protest for Freedom

Thousands Protest Against Headscarf Ban in France

Date Posted: Monday, December 22, 2003

Thousands of protestors demonstrated in Paris against President Jacques Chirac's announcement to ban the Islamic headscarf in public schools in France.

PARIS, Dec 21 (MASNET & News Agencies) - Thousands of protesters, including many young women in Muslim headscarves (hijab), demonstrated on Sunday against the French government's plan to ban overt religious symbols in schools.

The protest from a rarely heard section of French society was the first in Paris against President Jacques Chirac's announcement Wednesday that head scarves and other conspicuous religious symbols, including Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, should be banned from schools to protect French secularism, reports the Associated Press (AP).

The proposal has been welcomed by most local religious leaders, but has drawn the ire of Muslims at home and abroad, reports Reuters news agency.

The predominantly Muslim demonstrators brandished French identity cards or the national flag as they marched in a boisterous column hundreds of yards long through rain to the Place de la Bastille, carrying banners that read "My veil, my voice" or "Veil, cross, kippa, leave us the choice."

Protesters sang the Marseillaise, the French national anthem, waved French tricolors - red, white and blue - and shouted "Beloved France, where is my liberty?" Some pinned enlarged photocopies of their voter cards on their chests to show their French citizenship, reports the AP.

"Proud to be French Muslims," read one banner. "I vote!" said other placards.

The draft law, which the government hopes to submit to parliament in February, before the 2004-2005 school year starts in September, would ban religious symbols such as headscarves, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses.

Devout Muslims believe women should cover their hair from the view of men not related to them. Devout Jewish men wear skullcaps, or kippas, as a sign of constant reverence to God., reports Reuters.

Pupils will still be allowed to wear discreet symbols of faith such as Islamic pendants, the Star of David or crosses.

Protesters said Chirac's proposed measures stigmatized France's estimated five million Muslims, the largest Muslim community in Western Europe, and made a mockery of cherished French values, reports the AP.

"In France, everyone is allowed to say what they think. Those who are in favor of this law have spoken, now it's our turn," said Wouassila, one of the organizers of the march.

"Liberty, equality, fraternity - apart from women who wear the veil," said Fatima Boicha, a housewife and mother of two from a town west of Paris whose head and neck were covered with a brown scarf, reports the AP.

"The French state wants us to submit, to tell us what to wear and what not to wear," she added. "None of these women here will take their veils off."

"We are being undressed. We have no more freedom," said Djamila Bekioui, who wore a head scarf in the colors of the French flag. "We feel that we are considered second-class citizens."

Marchers said they were furious that a report commissioned by Chirac and released this month suggested that some Muslim women are forced to wear head scarves by male relatives or to avoid being insulted by men in public, reports the AP.

Others accused the government of pandering to France's extreme-right National Front in targeting Muslims and of failing to evolve with a French society changed by decades of immigration from North Africa and elsewhere.

Chirac also proposed giving company bosses the right to decide whether religious symbols can be worn at work and said a law should stop patients from refusing care from doctors of the opposite sex - aimed at Muslim women who have rebuffed male medical workers, reports the news agency.

Influential Muslim clerics have urged Muslims to use their political and economic influence over France to fight the draft law, while Syria's top cleric called on Chirac on Sunday to reconsider the legislation, reports Reuters.

Mufti Ahmad Keftarou urged Chriac in a letter "to reconsider backing this decision to be in harmony with the great history of France...and its moderate tradition in allowing co-existence between religions, races and various nationalities."

Jacques Martin, conservative mayor of Nogent-sur-Marne to the east of Paris, fueled the controversy this week by ordering couples not to wear any religious, political or other overt symbols during civil wedding ceremonies.

Anti-racism groups said the measure was legally dubious and would only help to stir up ill-feeling toward Muslims, but Martin dismissed the polemic as a "storm in a teacup."

"This letter was written years ago and its purpose is to clarify the rules both for civil servants and engaged couples," he was quoted as saying on Sunday by the daily Le Parisien.

In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder said in comments published Sunday that headscarves have "no place" among public school teachers. But unlike Chirac, Schroeder said he could not prevent Muslim school girls from covering their heads in the classroom, reports the AP.


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