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School skirts in focus in France

April 29, 2015

The case of a 15-year-old Muslim schoolgirl in the French Ardennes, sent home twice for wearing a long black skirt deemed to violate secular rules on school clothing, has prompted debate on the rules in French schools.

Image: picture-alliance/dpa7Levy Guillaume/L'union L'arden

Sarah K., a 15-year-old student at a high school in Charleville-Mezieres, in northeastern France, missed two days school for wearing a long black skirt deemed to contravene the country's laws guaranteeing secularism in schools.

A 2004 law outlaws the wearing of Muslim headscarves, Jewish kippas, conspicuous crucifixes and other items of clothing with an "ostensible religious appearance," although certain "discreet religious signs" - like smaller crucifixes - are permitted.

"The girl was not excluded, she was asked to come back with a neutral outfit and it seems her father did not want the student to come back to school," local education official Patrice Dutot told the French news agency AFP.

Sarah K had reportedly argued that while she was happy not to wear her headscarf, she did not consider the long black dress as an ostentatious religious symbol. She was quoted by local newspaper L'Union-L'Ardennais as saying her skirt was "nothing special, it's very simple, there's nothing conspicuous. There is no religious sign whatsoever."

When news of the case hit the local newspapers in the Ardennes region bordering Belgium and Germany - soon followed by national and even international coverage - a Twitter hashtag #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux ("I wear my skirt as I like") began trending in France. Many took a more humorous approach to the possibility of overplaying rules seeking to keep classrooms secular.

However, the local education authority appeared to hint in a statement that wearing the skirt might have been part of a concerted effort to bring attention to the classroom rules.

"When it comes to concerted protest actions by students, which follow other more visible incidents linked for instance to wearing the veil, the secular framework for education must be firmly reminded and guaranteed," the statement said, adding that school officials were keen to talk with Sarah's family.

France, a staunchly secular European country, has comparatively strict rules limiting how people can show their religious affiliation in public; a contentious ban on wearing a burqa - an enveloping item of clothing suggested for women by some stricter Islamic traditions - in public was upheld by the European Court of Human Rights last year.

msh/lw (AFP, AP)