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Thousands Protest Proposed French Ban on Muslim Headscarves - 2004-01-17

Thousands of mostly Muslim demonstrators protested across France Saturday against a proposed law banning students from wearing headscarves and other religious symbols in schools.

Thousands of men and veiled women marched and chanted against the proposed scarf ban, during a chilly and overcast afternoon in Paris. They carried slogans saying "the veil is my choice" and "stop apartheid." Police say 3,000-5,000 people turned out for the demonstration, far fewer than the 20,000 people the organizers had hoped for.

Among the protesters was a 45-year-old doctor, Bashir Jawi, who said the veiling of women is a religious obligation under Islam, not a choice. His two six-year-old daughters are too young to wear headscarves, but once they get older, he says, they will veil.

Nearby, 39-year-old Hakima Messadi, clad in a head-to-toe veil and matching black gown, said French President Jacques Chirac's decision to ban the veil in school amounted to an abrogation of human rights. Freedom of expression, she says, also means freedom to wear the veil.

Smaller demonstrations were staged in cities such as Lille and Marseille. Other protests took place at French embassies in London, Rabat, Berlin and the West Bank.

Late last year, President Chirac declared himself in favor of banning the wearing of headscarves, as well as Jewish skullcaps, Catholic crosses and other religious accessories in public schools. The French parliament is expected to pass a law to that effect early this year.

The proposed ban has drawn sharp criticism from free-speech advocates and some foreign governments, including the Bush administration.

In France, the issue has divided the Muslim community. Moderate Muslim leaders, including the rector of the Paris mosque, Dalil Boubakeur, spoke out against Saturday's demonstration.