PARIS, March 6 (AFP) – Thousands of women demonstrated in Paris Saturday amid deep division over the controversial wearing of the Islamic veil in a country where Islam – with some five million adherents – has become the second religion.
The procession included a small group of women wearing headscarves under heavy escort, much to the disgust of many demonstrators who said they were marching to protest the oppression of women in the tough housing projects around French cities.
“I found it revolting,” said one demonstrator, who gave her name only as Nelly, gesturing toward the veiled women. “They don’t belong here.”
Getting into their role of provocateurs, the veiled women shook their fists and chanted, “Veiled or not veiled, together against sexism.”
The vast bulk of the procession across Paris, which marked international women’s day on Monday, was formed by a couple of groups that don’t always see eye to eye on strategy.
One was a group called “Ni Putes Ni Soumises” (Neither Whores Nor Slaves), which was set up to combat growing violence against women in the projects including gang rapes and forced marriages. Author Fedla Amara founded the organization after the immolation of a 19-year-old girl of North African origin, Sohane Benziane, in October 2002 shocked the nation.
The other group was the National Collective for the Rights of Women (CNDF), which disagrees with exclusive preoccupation about the oppression of Muslim women. It is more concerned about what it sees as the dismantling of social protection by the current center-right government.
“We condemn the veil, but we say that the social assaults by the government are just as serious,” said Maya Surduts, a spokeswoman for the Collective, which is supported by the opposition Socialist party and other left-wing groups.
But Ni Putes Ni Soumises had no reason to disagree with the government after it pushed through a law recently that will make it illegal to wear Islamic headscarves in public schools, where a long tradition of secularism is under increasing attack.
Amara walked in the demonstration alongside Nicole Guedj, a secretary of state in the justice ministry and Arlette Laguiller, leader of the radical leftist group Workers’ Struggle.
“I’m very happy to see that women are committing themselves no matter what their political affiliation,” Amara said.
Guedj said she had come to “be on the side of women who want to free themselves from the yoke of fundamentalism.”
Between two and three thousand women marched beneath the large white balloon of Ni Putes Ni Soumises. In all about 7,000 women took part in the demonstration, according to police, or 10,000, according to organizers.
“It’s years since I demonstrated, but today I am here to support those Muslim women who do not have the same rights as us,” said one marcher, Jeanne Chevalier.