Girl emigrates from Singapore to Australia over headscarf ban

SINGAPORE - A 6-year-old girl who was expelled from a Singapore school for refusing to remove her Islamic headscarf has been sent by her parents to Australia to attend a private religious school, her father said Tuesday.

"I can't bear to see her without education any longer," said the girl's father Mohamad Nasser, in a telephone interview from Melbourne.

The girl, Nurul Nasiha Nasser, was kicked out of her Singapore primary school six months ago after failing to comply with a national ban on the "tudung," or Islamic headscarf, in schools. She had been home schooled by her mother since then.

Last Thursday, she began classes at the King Khalid Islamic College in Melbourne, Australia, Nasser said, where girls are allowed to wear the tudung.

The girl moved to Australia with her mother, Juliana Mohammed, and two other siblings, Nasser said, adding that he will live in Singapore with his 10-year-old son for the time being but has applied for permanent residency in Australia.

Nasser's daughter was one of four girls expelled or taken out of school earlier this year for wearing Islamic headscarves.

Many Muslim women wear headscarves in Singapore, but the government of the tightly controlled Southeast Asian city-state refuses to allow the scarves in schools for fear they could be divisive.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has repeatedly defended the ban, saying Singapore can ill afford racial division especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in New York and the arrest here in December of a group of alleged Islamic extremists involved in a plot to blow up the U.S. Embassy and other western interests.

In February, the parents of the four girls who defied the headscarf ban, including Nasser, said they would sue the government over the ban, claiming it was unconstitutional. They are waiting for permission to have a lawyer from neighboring Malaysia represent them in a Singapore court.

"I am very determined to take the case to court," said Nasser. "I feel that the government has to respect our constitutional right to practice our religion."

News of the girl's flight to Australia follows on the heels of a similar emigration by a prominent local Muslim rights activist.

Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, 30, who is under investigation here for allegedly writing Internet postings criticizing Singapore's founding father and other top leaders, fled to Melbourne two weeks ago.

About 14 percent of Singapore's 4 million people are Muslims. The rest follow Buddhism, Taoism, Hinduism, Christianity and other faiths.