PARIS – Some 100 to 120 girls have defied France's ban on Islamic head scarves (search) in school, the education minister said Wednesday, and at least five boys from the country's tiny Sikh community have been barred from class for refusing to remove their turbans.
The defiant girls are in talks with school officials trying to persuade them to remove the head coverings, said Education Minister Francois Fillon, giving the first complete figure made public since the start of the school year Sept. 2.
When classes resumed, Fillon cited 70 cases of defiance but that did not take into account a batch of students returning to school for the first time Friday.
"I think we'll end up convincing the quasi-totality of these young girls," Fillon told Europe-1 radio.
The law, which forbids conspicuous religious symbols and apparel in public schools, calls for a period of dialogue for those who fail to comply. If students do not agree to follow the new law during the discussions, which can last several weeks, measures are taken to expel them.
The law is meant to bring France's increasingly vocal Muslim population, estimated at 5 million, into line with its cherished principle of secularism.
While the law targets Muslim head scarves, it also forbids Jewish skull caps and large Christian crosses in classrooms. Discreet symbols are permitted.
Sikhs (search), who number 5,000-7,000 in France, were mostly forgotten during marathon debates that preceded the law's passage in March even though many of them wear turbans (search) to cover their unshorn hair. The turban is considered an article of faith for practicing Sikhs.
When the new academic year started, it became clear that turbans also were unacceptable in public schools.
At one Paris region high school, teachers refused to let three Sikhs wearing turbans get past the front door until Tuesday, members of the Sikh community said. Even then, the students weren't allowed to attend class and were made to wait in the cafeteria, Sikhs said.
"We're victims," said Gurdial Singh, whose 14-year-old son, Jasvir, was among the three students unable to attend classes at Louise-Michel High School in Bobigny, northwest of Paris.
Having refused to let the boys in for three days, teachers who firmly support the law relented Tuesday, letting them in for discussions about the measure, Jasvir's father said.
School officials refused to discuss the cases. The other boys are aged 15 and 18.
An education official confirmed those three cases and said that two Sikhs in two other high schools in the Seine-Saint-Denis region north of Paris also were barred from attending classes because of their turbans.
United Sikhs representative Kudrat Singh said a count made Sunday put the number at 17 but that some boys may since have agreed to replace turbans with smaller head coverings acceptable to officials at their schools. The newspaper Le Monde put the number of Sikh boys wearing turbans at nine.
To break the impasse over turbans, Sikhs have proposed allowing students with very long hair, be they male or female, to wear a covering that leaves the forehead, neck and ears bare, Singh said.
He said Sikhs do not want a special dispensation that applies only to them.
Gurdial Singh said he was ready to send his son to a school that would accept his turban as long as it was a reasonable distance from home. The law gives individual schools leeway in deciding what is acceptable.
Officials proposed a new school for Jasvir, but "they then telephoned to say he won't be accepted there either," said Gurdial Singh.