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Last Updated: Friday, 19 December, 2003, 05:26 GMT
Headscarf row vexes Lille Muslims
By Laurence Peter
BBC News Online, Lille

President Jacques Chirac's support for a proposal to ban Islamic headscarves and other conspicuous religious symbols from French state schools has triggered anxiety among Muslims in Lille, where many women and girls of North African origin wear headscarves.

The first Muslim private school in mainland France, Lycee Averroes, opened in the northern industrial city in September, after nearly eight years of wrangling.

Views on headscarves from the streets of Lille

It is housed in one of the city's mosques, but there are plans to move it to a new site.

"We're trying to find a location, to prove to people that we're not in the business of training imams," said the school's director, Sylvie Taleb.

She insists that children at the small school follow the same national curriculum as children in state schools, but they can also study the Arabic language and Muslim culture.

The move to ban headscarves "seems like an effort to make us colourless," she told BBC News Online.

She dismissed the view - widely held by western champions of human rights - that headscarves are a sign of discrimination against women.

"Nobody wants to hear what Muslim women are actually saying - I think they wear the headscarf by choice," she said.

"Isn't it discrimination to have advertisements showing semi-naked women?" she added.

'Racist' ban

Dalil Boubakeur, president of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), has warned that a law banning religious symbols in schools "could stigmatise a whole community".

Sylvie Taleb (centre, glasses) with pupils in Lille school
Teachers and pupils are disappointed with the plans
A common reaction among Muslim women in Lille is to ask: Why so much fuss about headscarves?

"The schoolgirls concerned are really disappointed with this proposal," said Hosnia Meziani, 45, who has been living in France for 30 years and wears a headscarf.

The call for a ban "looks a bit like racism," she added.

According to Mrs Taleb, there are far more pressing issues to address, such as paedophilia and violence against women.

Majdaline Tounassi, a 13-year-old schoolgirl, said several of her friends wore headscarves, but "they don't wear them in school - they put them on once they are outside".

"Some of them like to wear headscarves, they like to show they are religious," she explained, adding that she would prefer to wait a few more years before donning one.

'Muslims targeted'

The Lille mosque
The Lille school is located inside a city mosque
The Muslim private school was set up after about 20 schoolgirls were expelled from school in Lille in 1997 for refusing to remove their headscarves.

"I think the law they are proposing is only aimed at Muslims, and I don't agree with it at all," commented Kamel, 24, a student.

"In Britain, girls wear headscarves without any problem - I don't see why it should be a problem in France. We're following our traditions - no more, no less than before."

Many Muslim parents are eager to send their children to the new private school, which is funded by the local Muslim community, Mrs Taleb says.

She did not rule out that the headscarf ban - if it goes ahead - could encourage the establishment of such schools elsewhere in France.

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