Posted on October 21, 2004

France Expels Schoolgirls With Muslim Head Scarves

Washington Times, Oct. 21

PARIS — France has begun expelling Muslim girls for wearing head scarves in public schools — which defies a new law banning conspicuous religious symbols — but is treading carefully for fear of endangering two French hostages in Iraq.

The expulsions of at least five girls since Tuesday were the first since the law went into effect at the start of the academic year on Sept. 2. They were kept low-key because the French journalists’ captors had demanded the measure be abolished.

After disciplinary hearings, officials yesterday expelled two 17-year-olds from schools in the eastern city of Mulhouse and another girl from a school in Flers in Normandy in western France.

“They have just destroyed my life,” 12-year-old Khouloud told Le Monde newspaper after she and another girl were expelled Tuesday from the Jean Mace middle school in Mulhouse.

“What they want is to see us in tight pants like all the girls,” Khouloud was quoted as saying. Le Monde did not give her last name.

As France was expelling Muslim girls, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a French television station his two devout Muslim daughters were attending schools in the United States because they wanted to wear head scarves.

Turkey, a secular state, has long had a strict ban on religious dress in public schools and universities, even though its population is overwhelmingly Muslim.

“I am a father who suffers. My two daughters are currently doing their university studies abroad simply because they can’t do them in Turkey while respecting their own beliefs,” he told French television station LCI during a private visit to Paris.

“They are studying in the United States with their head scarves. One of my daughters is doing a doctorate and the other a bachelor’s degree,” he said, according to a translation by the channel.

Mr. Erdogan, who heads the conservative Justice and Development Party, said a change to the Turkish law “is not currently on the agenda.”

The French head-scarf ban has been denounced elsewhere in Western Europe and by the United States as an assault on religious freedom.

France insists the ban is needed to reinforce its historically strict separation of church and state.

Another five French girls could be expelled this week as the Education Ministry gave school districts the signal to start taking action against 72 students who could not be persuaded to obey the new law.

Most are Muslim girls, but Sikh boys refusing to remove their turbans also risk being expelled.

The kidnappings in Iraq of journalists Christian Chesnot and Georges Malbrunot, who entered their third month in captivity yesterday, forced education authorities to tread softly. The Islamic Army of Iraq, a group that claimed to be holding the journalists and their Syrian driver, has demanded the law be abolished. The French government refuses.

The cautious approach stretched a required period of dialogue with recalcitrant students to the limit. School districts began disciplinary hearings Tuesday and were to continue them throughout the week.