A powerful Islamic organization alleged Thursday that officials were abusing a law banning religious symbols from schools by expelling Muslim girls who were wearing printed bandannas, not Islamic head scarves.
The head of the Union of Islamic Organizations of France urged girls expelled for wearing bandannas to take their cases to court. Seven girls have been expelled from school this week for breaking the ban, including two on Thursday.
Union President Lhaj Thami Breze, denouncing some schools' interpretation of the law, also said his group would no longer be "blackmailed" into silence by concern over the two French hostages held in Iraq.
The kidnappers have demanded that France abolish the law, forcing French Muslim leaders into a low profile so as not to endanger the hostages' lives. But that wall of silence began cracking amid a rash of expulsions of Muslim girls from public schools this week -- at least three for wearing bandannas.
"We refuse blackmail against France from overseas," Breze said, referring to the demand by the Islamic Army of Iraq, which claims to hold the hostages, to abolish the law. "They tell us to be quiet because of the hostages. ... But we also refuse blackmail against the Muslim community. They are depriving us of our rights."
The law, which came into effect with the start of school in September, bans conspicuous religious symbols in school -- including Jewish skull caps, large Christian crosses and the turbans worn by some Sikh boys. But Islamic head scarves were the main reason for the law.
The umbrella Muslim group had counseled girls to wear stylish bandannas, instead of the more traditional large, plain-colored scarves usually used, in an attempt to circumvent the law. But some schools reject the printed cloth, too.
"Be it a head scarf or a bandanna, for us it's not a big thing. ... You have a cloth worn for religious reasons," said Rodolphe Echard, assistant principal of Louis Armand high school, which expelled one girl, Manele Boufrioua, for wearing a bandanna.
During the period of dialogue that precedes expulsions, "you see the real motivations of the young girl," Echard said in a telephone interview.
About 10 expulsions were expected before the week was out. The Education Ministry said that 62 other pending cases would go before school disciplinary councils in November.
Manele, her sister Dounia and a third girl were wearing bandannas when they were expelled this week.
"We think this is a law of discrimination, a law against a community," said their father, Abdelhakim Boufrioua. He said he would appeal to the local school district, hoping for a change of heart.
"We'll use all means and tools at our disposal ... to claim our rights, and we'll go as far as the European Court of Human Rights. That's clear," Boufrioua said.