| A woman, with a French flag on her headscarf, protests against the veil ban in Lille, France. (Reuters)
Paris, Jan. 17 (Reuters): Thousands of veiled and bareheaded Muslim women flanked by their menfolk demonstrated in France, Britain and West Asia today against a looming ban on Islamic headscarves in French state schools.
Chanting “the veil is my choice”, up to 5,000 marched in Paris amid French and Islamic flags and banners denouncing the veil ban that French politicians hope will stem rising Islamic militancy among some of the country’s five million Muslims.
Large demonstrations of several thousand each were held in Beirut and the Gaza Strip while smaller groups protested in London, Brussels, Bahrain, Bethlehem and Kashmir against the ban President Jacques Chirac and most French politicians favour.
“You’re playing with fire, Mr President,” shouted Paris protest leader Mohamed Latreche amid rousing choruses of Allah--akbar (God is great).“We will never accept a law that violates our dignity and liberty.”
“This is the message to the French government. It is our right to wear what we want. If France is a democracy it should respect our freedom,” a spokesman for the Muslim Association of Great Britain said.
France, which sees the ban on veils, Jewish skullcaps and large Christian crosses as a way to defend its strict separation of church and state, plans to debate the law in parliament in the coming weeks and impose it from next September.
The small number of schoolgirls who refuse to abandon their veils face expulsion from state schools once the law is passed.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith umbrella group urged Muslims not to march in Latreche’s protest. There was confusion about the turnout with march organisers saying only 5,000 and the police — who had predicted up to 20,000 — saying 10,000.
In an impassioned speech to the crowd, Latreche — head of the small Party of French Muslims in Strasbourg — showed why many groups shun him by launching into a denunciation of Zionism as “an ideology of hate, racial discrimination and apartheid.”
“Our religion demands this, God says we should wear it,” Nafouanta, a Paris lycee pupil, said of her veil. Like most other protesters, she declined to give her family name. Several women behind her marched wrapped in the French tricolour flag.
“I am free to wear the veil or not,” said Ilham, a bareheaded Muslim woman who came from Brussels for the march. “It’s between me and God, but this is a personal liberty.”
Elsewhere in France, 3,500 marched in Lille, 1,800 in Marseille, 1,500 in Mulhouse and hundreds in other cities, police and organisers said. Lille university student Yamina Bouasla said: “This law aims to solve a problem that doesn’t exist and will create insurmountable problems next September. It’s stupid.”
About 1,000 Muslim women waved placards and chanted slogans outside a government building in Brussels. In London, at least 700 people, chanting: “Stop Chirac’s racist war” and “Hijab is our right. Hijab is our freedom” rallied at the French embassy.
There were also protests in Jordan, Bahrain, the Gaza Strip and in Bethlehem, where about 100 Palestinian women waving Palestinian and Islamic flags marched to Manger Square — near the traditional birthplace of Jesus — to protest.
Scores of Kuwaiti Islamists, including legislators and religious leaders, protested outside parliament there. About 100 Kashmiri separatist women in head-to-toe black gowns protested in Srinagar.
The ban has divided opinion among France’s five million Muslims. Dalil Boubakeur, moderate head of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, warned Muslims not to march and frighten voters two months before regional elections are held here.
Other Muslim groups, feeling unfairly targeted by Chirac’s plan, have called for separate marches and other protests.
A Sikh group that pledged to join the Paris march to defend their turbans did not show up.