- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 17, 2004

PARIS — Thousands of Muslim women, waving the French flag or wearing it as a head scarf, marched yesterday through Paris, the center of a worldwide protest against France’s plan to ban head scarves from public schools.

From Baghdad and Beirut to London and Stockholm, protesters condemned the law as an attack on religious freedom. Even in the West Bank city of Nablus and in the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, Srinagar, women came out to support French Muslims.

“The veil is my choice,” the crowd shouted during the four-hour march through Paris.

The protesters want to scrap a bill that will go before French lawmakers next month forbidding “conspicuous” religious signs, from Islamic head scarves to Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses, in public schools. Easy passage is expected, and the law is to become applicable with the new school year in September.

President Jacques Chirac says the aim is to protect the principle of secularism that anchors life in France. However, it also is seen as a way to hold back the swell of Islamic fundamentalism in France’s Muslim community — the largest in Western Europe at an estimated 5 million.

Protesters, from small girls to women, formed a sea of color in fanciful scarves of all sizes in Paris. Bearded men, some in long robes, also joined in the Paris march. A small group set out a prayer mat and prayed.

“Faith is not conspicuous,” said one of hundreds of banners. “Neither Fundamentalist nor Terrorist but Peaceful Citizen,” read another.

Police said up to 10,000 people took part in the peaceful march in the French capital, while several thousand others protested in a half-dozen cities around the country.

Critics of the law claim it will stigmatize France’s Muslims. French authorities contend the principle of secularism is meant to make everybody equal.

“I think it will make things worse,” Kods Mejry, 18, said of the head scarf ban. “There will be no more integration.”

Her blue, white and red scarf matching the French flag was meant “to show that we are French and Muslim and proud of it.”

The Party of Muslims of France, a small group known for its radical views, organized the march. However, the huge Union of Islamic Organizations of France, a fundamentalist group, gave its blessing and encouraged people to take part.

In London, 2,400 persons demonstrated near the French Embassy in the upscale Knightsbridge area. Waving placards, they chanted: “If this is democracy, we say ‘No, merci.’”

Nearby, a small rival group of about 30 demonstrators expressed support for the French ban.

In the Middle East, the largest turnout was in the Lebanese capital of Beirut, where some 2,500 persons marched. Smaller rallies drew up to 100 persons each in the Jordanian capital of Amman, in Cairo and in Kuwait.

Some 300 Palestinian women protested in the West Bank city of Nablus.

“As a people who have been oppressed, we know what it means for others in the world who are denied their freedom,” said Salam Ghazal, head of a local women’s group.

In Iraq, an Islamic group distributed an open letter to Mr. Chirac in mosques that called on him to reverse his position, while dozens of male and female students demonstrated at Baghdad’s Al Mustansiriya University.

In Stockholm, too, about 2,000 persons marched to the French Embassy. A smaller group protested in the Norwegian capital, Oslo.


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