PARIS — Every morning for two years, Samira Makhlouf removed her hijab (head scarf, or veil) before entering her public school in the southeastern French city of Lyon.
Then she kept it on in school, and the principal sent her home. Despite her good grades, Miss Makhlouf was rejected from a special educational track — in retaliation, she says, for her religious beliefs.
In frustration, the Algerian-born student dropped out at age 16, finishing high school by correspondence.
“Removing my head scarf was like tearing something away,” said Miss Makhlouf, now 22 and a theology student at Lyon University. “I felt my rights were being abridged. There were students who wore all black and were part of a satanic sect, but nobody bothered them.”
Today, Miss Makhlouf is championing the right of Muslim girls to cover their heads amid calls to ban head scarves in public schools.
At least four parliamentary bills have been drafted calling for outlawing veils and head scarves in public schools, along with other religious accessories, such as Christian crosses and Jewish skullcaps. Similar laws already prohibit them for public school teachers and government employees.
“The government must intervene,” insists Juliette Minces, a sociologist who has written a number of books on the veil and Islam. “Teachers have a hard time with these girls who come to school wearing the veil, who refuse to attend gym or biology courses, who won’t read Voltaire because he was a nonbeliever.”
Those on the other side of the argument contend that banning schoolgirls from wearing the Muslim head scarf or veil — the terms are used interchangeably — would threaten basic French liberties, including the right to religious expression.
“If I wasn’t convinced it was an obligation to veil, I wouldn’t,” said Noura Jaballah, 43, who heads a conservative association of Muslim women near Paris. “Life here would be a lot easier if I didn’t.”
The battle over the veil is playing out across Europe and the Middle East, as well as in the United States, where a Florida judge barred a Muslim woman from obtaining her driver’s license with a face-covering niqab.
Scandinavian countries with tiny Muslim populations generally tolerate veiling. But women in Turkey and Tunisia, both overwhelmingly Muslim countries, are barred from wearing the veil in schools, universities and public workplaces, as part of larger crackdowns against Muslim fundamentalists.
Even in Egypt, women wearing niqabs or other coverall apparel can be harassed as suspected members of banned Islamic groups.
In France — home to about 5 million Muslims, one of Western Europe’s largest Muslim populations — the veil issue weaves fears of growing fundamentalism with women’s-rights issues. It pits the country’s fiercely secular government rules against European human-rights laws.
It illustrates, too, the sharp divide between a well-educated and upwardly mobile French Muslim minority and thousands of second- and third-generation immigrants who remain angry and isolated in the suburbs. Some have found solace in religion.
“The head scarf today symbolizes a defeat for the French government, which has failed to integrate these minorities,” said Francoise Gaspard, a sociologist at the Advanced Group of Social Studies in Paris, who opposes a veil ban.
“I can’t predict the future,” she adds. “But banning the veil may lead to new Koranic schools. And it’s unlikely to teach French values of secularity. Or about equality between men and women.”
France’s veil battles began in 1989, when three girls were kicked out of a school in northern France for wearing head coverings in class. By the mid-1990s, educators were grappling with how to respond to thousands of veiled girls arriving to class. The cultural clash quickly took new dimensions.
“We began seeing girls and boys who in the name of Islam wouldn’t shake hands,” said Hanifa Cherifi, who handles veil issues at the Ministry of Education. “Boys would dispute the authority of female teachers. Girls would refuse to attend gym class.”
The official answer — murky rules permitting veils in school, as long as they were not ostentatious and students did not proselytize — was no answer, critics say. Even today, the French government appears divided on tougher rules, with President Jacques Chirac opposed to anti-veil legislation backed by members of his governing party, the Union for a Popular Movement.
“If we want the school to remain a sanctuary, we cannot avoid creating a law,” said UMP lawmaker Francois Baroin, who is championing anti-veil legislation in France’s National Assembly.
School-veil disputes have dropped radically in recent years. But the statistics are deceiving, experts say. In some cases, school administrators offer girls such as Samira Makhlouf a stark choice — school or the veil. But in others, teachers work out compromises or look the other way.
Noura Jaballah’s daughter Alaa, for example, began wearing a head scarf in high school without a hitch.
“I’ve never had problems,” said the 19-year-old, wearing a gray scarf one recent afternoon. “My teachers and my friends look beyond my appearance.”
France’s veiling problem still touches only a small percentage of the country’s Muslims. Indeed, a 2001 survey found only 20 percent of French Muslims — many of them ethnic North Africans — worship regularly at a mosque. More than a third describe themselves as non-practicing. Nonetheless, specialists say a growing number of Muslim women and girls are donning the veil.
“It’s very obvious on the streets,” said Mrs. Cherifi, an ethnic Algerian. “It was rare to see women veiling 15 years ago. That’s no longer the case.”
Such signs of religious expression are being scrutinized with a wary official eye. This year, France’s law-and-order interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, coaxed long-squabbling religious leaders to create a representative Muslim council — partly, he argued, to counter a budding, extremist-tinged “Islam of the cellars.”
But the 5-month-old council is deadlocked on the veil issue, reflecting a larger split between moderate and conservative Muslims over the place of religion in France.
“Women should be allowed to wear what they want on the streets, but not in public schools, not in state institutions,” said Khadija Khali, head of the mainstream French Union for Muslim Women, who does not wear a veil. “Wearing the veil is not a law in Islam — it is negotiable.”
On the other side of the debate sit women like Miss Makhlouf, who heads an association supporting the rights of Muslim women in France. Or Mrs. Jaballah, who is among the few women sitting on the country’s newly created Muslim council.
Mrs. Jaballah and her husband are members of the popular but controversial Union of Islamic Organizations of France, a coalition with reputed ties to Egypt’s banned Muslim Brotherhood party.
“To me, veiling is a personal choice,” said Mrs. Jaballah, echoing arguments voiced by French human rights advocates and civil libertarians. “Islam is new in France, and I can understand the difficulties that can exist.
“But if we start by banning the veil in France,” she said, “where will we end?”