Singaporean schoolgirls defy Islamic headscarf ban

SINGAPORE, Feb 1 (AFP) -Two Singaporean schoolgirls were brought to school by their parents Friday till wearing their Islamic headscarfs in defiance of a government deadline to remove them.

Wearing the black headgear over her peach school uniform, Nurul Nasihah, aged seven, arrived at the White Sands Primary School tugging at her father Mohamed Nasser.

A second girl also arrived at another school with the headgear, while a third was absent, the education ministry said in a statement.

The two were allowed to stay after the principals extended the deadline until Monday "to give their parents another opportunity to consider the matter over the weekend," the statement said.

Nurul and the two other girls from separate schools had been given until Friday to stop wearing the headgear, which the goverment has banned inside schools as part of an effort to promote racial integration among its ethnic Chinese, Muslim Malay and Indian communities.

A fourth girl was also expected to face the same sanctions.

The ministry, which requires pupils to strictly adhere to the required school uniform, has warned they will be suspended if they defied the deadline.

"She (the principal) is giving me until Monday to decide whether to take out the headscarf from my daughter," Mohamed Nasser told about a dozen reporters who had staked out the school.

He said he would use the weekend to think it over and meet leaders of Singapore's Islamic religious council and Muslim Malay MPs to help him decide.

Nasser, a 37-year-old airline employee, said he could either send his daughter to a "madrasah" or a Muslim religious school, or seek a compromise such as getting an assurance that his daughter will be allowed to wear the headscarf once she reaches the age of puberty.

In the statement, the education ministry said the parents of the pupils have been counselled over the past month on the importance of their children wearing the prescribed uniform.

But Mohamed Nasser remained unconvinced.

"I just hope the government will understand. I just hope they change their minds," he said. "Frankly, this is my religion, my faith. It's something important to me," he said.

Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in remarks published Friday that the government will protect all its citizens equally and will take a tough stand on any attempt to spread racial disharmony.

He sought to allay concerns that the government in the majority ethnic Chinese country could not be impartial and assured the minority Malay and Indian communities that they would be protected.

Lee was speaking at a dialogue earlier this week with representatives of various ethnic communities in an effort to preserve racial unity after 13 suspected Islamic militants were arrested here last month for plotting to bomb American targets here.

The headscarf controversy has extended beyond Singapore's borders after a senior official in neighbouring Malaysia commented on the case, triggering a complaint from Singapore that he was interfering in the city state's internal affairs.