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French tussle over Muslim head scarf is positive push for women's rights

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French President Jacques Chirac has been sharply criticized by Muslim clerics around the world for his recent call for a ban on the Islamic head scarf, or hijab, in French public schools. Mr. Chirac's move has been attacked as a curtailment of personal freedom and an assault on Islam.

But the proposed ban has also kicked loose a debate among Muslims everywhere. Indeed, a growing number of Muslims worldwide are coming forward to say the hijab is not a valid symbol either of freedom or Islam.

"Neither the Koran, nor the hadith [the sayings of the prophet Muhammad] require women to wear a head scarf," says Gammal Banna, the Egyptian author of several works on the rights of Muslim women and brother of the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, the influential radical Islamic movement with offshoots worldwide. While telling Agence France-Presse that he did not support the French president's interference in the personal choice to wear a head scarf, Mr. Banna noted, "The head scarf is not an obligation, but derives from an erroneous reading of the Koran."

Nor is the hijab a good symbol for freedom. Throughout the Islamic world the hijab is often something girls and women wear because they're forced to - a symbol of restriction and intimidation, not freedom. Millions of women worldwide are daily threatened - and substantial numbers even assaulted, maimed, or killed - for refusing to wear whatever the local male authorities decide they should be wearing.

In countries such as Saudi Arabia, special religious patrols beat, insult, and arrest women who aren't covered according to their stringent specifications. In Pakistan, Kashmir, and Afghanistan, hundreds of women have been blinded or maimed when acid was thrown on their unveiled faces by male fanatics who considered them improperly dressed. In post-Taliban Afghanistan, women have been raped for daring to think they could now go without theburqa.

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