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Egyptian Muslims Protest Proposed French Headscarf Ban - 2004-02-14

France's proposed ban on what it calls conspicuous religious symbols in state schools, such as Islamic headscarves, is causing concern among Muslims well beyond France's borders. In Egypt, some Muslims say the ban, which was approved by the French National Assembly this week, is an aggressive Western attack on Islam. Students are staging demonstrations and members of the community are speaking out, in a show of solidarity with France's Muslim community.

Teenage girls at Cairo's Gamal Abdel Nasser High School were paying attention this week when France's National Assembly passed the bill that paves the way for a ban on Muslim headscarves in state schools.

At this school, nearly all the girls wear a headscarf, called a hijab, which covers their hair, and they say they do so because it is part of their religious faith.

But while hundreds of students protested the French ban at Cairo and at Alexandria Universities this week, 17-year-old Marwa Mohamed Aly says she and her friends at the high school have not discussed the French government's move, for one simple reason.

She says wearing the veil is required by her religion, and there is no discussing it. She says banning it, or taking it off is just out of the question.

A counselor at the school, Sawsam Abu El Fath, says she thinks the proposed ban is racist and would violate students' rights.

She says she is not terrorizing anybody by wearing the veil, she is just obeying God.

Across Egypt, Muslims feel very strongly about the issue. Many are calling on their counterparts in France to resist the ban, which prevents outward displays of religion such as wearing the hijab, large Christian crosses or Jewish skullcaps in public schools.

Mohamed Al-Serafy, a product manager at an international company in Cairo, says he sees the law as targeted at Islam in particular.

"I think it's an aggressive western attack on Islam," he said. "I think it's very unjustified it cannot be compared to the cross, neither to this cap that the Jewish wear."

And Mr. Al-Serafy predicts that the ban could have dangerous results.

"This will lead to more violence," he said. "If you want us to live peacefully with each other I cannot take off my religion and live in peace with you."

So far, the demonstrations in Egypt have been peaceful. Some protesters are calling for a boycott of French products.

On Thursday, women lawyers from the Egyptian Lawyers Syndicate in Cairo held their third protest since the French bill was first presented in December.

One of them, Fatma El-Zahraa Ghoneim, says she regards the ban as a violation of human rights.

She says her group will press for lawsuits against France and any country that oppresses Muslim women by forbidding the hijab.

Many Islamic leaders throughout the Arab world have called on France to respect the hijab as a religious necessity.

But in December, a prominent religious leader in Egypt, Sheikh Mohammed Sayyed Tantawi, angered many Muslims in the Arab world when he said France has the right to ban the headscarf, because the obligation to wear the hijab only applies to women who live in Muslim countries.

French president Jacques Chirac has supported the bill on the basis that the separation between church and state must be defended.

But Mohamed Gheith, an electronics engineer from Cairo, sees the ban as something that will cause a larger divide, not just within France, or between Muslims elsewhere and in France, but also between Muslims and other Western countries.

"It is depressing because whenever we try to think that Islam and the West are trying to get near each other, something like [this] breaks such hopes," said Mohamed Gheith.

A female counselor at the Gamal Abdel Nasser High School who does not wear a headscarf, Marwa Galal, says she believes the demonstrations that Muslims have been holding in France and other Arab countries should continue.

She says even if the demonstrations fail to affect the French parliament, Muslim women will not take off their veils. She says she hopes increased diplomatic efforts can make the French government understand that the hijab is not a threat to France's secular state.

Observers expect the bill to be approved by France's Senate in the coming weeks.