Head Scarf Ban Key at Muslim Conference

LE BOURGET, France - Tens of thousands of French Muslims flocked to Le Bourget airport over the weekend to pray, shop — and vent their frustration over a new law banning girls from wearing Muslim headscarves to school.

With the ban set to take effect at the start of the next school year in September, the 21st annual gathering of Union of Islamic Organizations of France became a forum for denouncing the measure and raising money to help young Muslim women stay in school.

"We have to start collecting money for September," Fatma Ajimi, an 18-year-old who was wearing a black robe and head scarf, said Saturday. The funds, she explained, would send girls to private schools where the ban wouldn't apply.

Behind her, at the entrance to the cavernous hangar at Le Bourget airport outside Paris where the conference was taking place, a sign read: "help our sisters excluded from high school."

Inside the hangar, vendors hawked everything from headscarves to books like "Youth, Islam and Sex." Islamic aid organizations appealed for support and schools offered Arabic lessons.

The headscarf ban was approved by the Senate in March and forbids the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols or apparel in public schools.

French authorities said the measure was needed to protect the country's secular character. Jewish skullcaps and prominently displayed Christian crosses are also banned under the law.

President Jacques Chirac and other officials said the measure was aimed at bringing Muslims into the mainstream and countering a rise in fundamentalism.

Speaker after speaker denounced it at the conference, which began Friday and ends Monday.

The union's president, Lhaj Thami Breze, said in his opening speech at the conference that the ban deprives Muslims of their rights and has left them feeling "injured," "stigmatized" and "under attack."

The union is an organization that brings together hundreds of smaller Islamic associations from around France, which is home to an estimated 5 million Muslims, the largest community in Western Europe.

While no exact attendance figures were immediately available for the conference, some 100,000 people attended last year, and organizers said they were expected similar numbers this year.

Breze said union officials were counseling girls who to wear "discreet" head coverings, like bandannas.

For some, however, such half-measures are not an acceptable alternative.

"I would have preferred going to school, but I made a choice. I quit," said Kenza Zohra, an 18-year-old who was wearing a black robe and headscarf.

She said she dropped out of school in February rather than stop wearing her headscarf as demanded by officials at her school.

"Unfortunately, we can do nothing," said her mother, Fatima. "We can call this a war of religion."