PARIS – Waving the French flag or wearing it as a head scarf, thousands of Muslim women marched Saturday through Paris, the center of a worldwide protest against France's plan to ban head coverings from public schools.
From Baghdad and Beirut to London and Stockholm, protesters condemned the law as an attack on religious freedom. Even in the West Bank city of Nablus and in the summer capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir, Srinagar, women came out to support French Muslims.
"Where is France? Where is tolerance?" the crowd chanted during the four-hour march through Paris. "The veil is my choice."
The protesters want to scrap a bill that will go before French lawmakers next month forbidding "conspicuous" religious signs, from Islamic head scarves to Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses, in public schools. Easy passage is expected, and the law is to become applicable with the new school year in September.
President Jacques Chirac (search) says the aim is to protect the principle of secularism that anchors life in France. However, it also is seen as a way to hold back the swell of Islamic fundamentalism (search) in France's Muslim community — the largest in Western Europe at an estimated 5 million.
Protesters, from small girls to women, formed a sea of color in fanciful scarves of all sizes in Paris. Bearded men, some in long robes, also joined in the Paris march. A small group set out a prayer mat and prayed.
"Faith is not conspicuous," said one of hundreds of banners. "Neither Fundamentalist nor Terrorist but Peaceful Citizen," read another.
Police said up to 10,000 people took part in the peaceful march in the French capital, while several thousand others protested in a half-dozen cities around the country.
Critics of the law claim it will stigmatize France's Muslims. French authorities contend the principle of secularism is meant to make everybody equal.
"I think it will make things worse," Kods Mejry, 18, said of the head scarf ban. "There will be no more integration."
Her blue, white and red scarf matching the French flag was meant "to show that we are French and Muslim and proud of it."
In Washington, about 100 people protested outside the French Embassy; many were women wearing scarves. The crowded chanted "My scarf, my choice."
Demonstrators held signs that read: "Repressive Does Not Equal Progressive" and "Is My Scarf a Threat to Democracy?"
In London, 2,400 people demonstrated near the French Embassy in the upscale Knightsbridge area. Waving placards, they chanted: "If this is democracy, we say 'No, merci!"'
"The government is isolating Muslims and setting a dangerous precedent," said Ihtisham Hibatullah, spokesman for the Muslim Association of Britain.
Nearby, a small rival group of about 30 demonstrators expressed support for the French ban.
British Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said Britain's overnment supports the right to display religious symbols.
"In Britain, we are comfortable with the expression of religion, seen in the wearing of the hijab, crucifixes or the kippa," O'Brien said in a statement. "Integration does not require assimilation."
Across the Middle East, protesters denounced the French ban. The largest turnout was in the Lebanese capital of Beirut (search), where some 2,500 people marched. Smaller rallies drew up to 100 people each in the Jordanian capital of Amman, in Cairo and in Kuwait.
Some 300 Palestinian women protested in the West Bank city of Nablus.
"As a people who have been oppressed, we know what it means for others in the world who are denied their freedom," said Salam Ghazal, head of a local women's group.
In Iraq, an Islamic group distributed an open letter to Chirac in mosques that called on him to reverse his position, while dozens of male and female students demonstrated at Baghdad's Al Mustansiriya University.
In Canada, snowy weather and subzero temperatures did not shake the resolve of 300 protesters outside the French consulate in Toronto.
"Public outrage will hopefully cause the French government to rethink what they're planning on doing," said Rania Lawendy, a protest organizer.
In Stockholm, too, about 2,000 people marched to the French Embassy. A smaller group protested in Oslo.
The Party of Muslims of France, a small group known for its radical views, organized the Paris march. However, the huge Union of Islamic Organizations of France, a fundamentalist group, gave its blessing and encouraged people to take part.
"The next step is for the president to react before it's too late," said Mohamed Latreche, head of the Party of Muslims of France.