By Hajer M'tiri
On a warm Thursday morning last month, 15-year-old Sarah started her typical one-hour journey to school.
The French Muslim girl of Algerian descent had grown accustomed to taking her headscarf off just before she stepped into Leo Lagrange junior-high school in Charleville-Mezieres.
Sarah has been wearing the hijab, Islamic veil, for the past year, but in order to receive an education, she was forced to take it off because of a 2004 French law that bans students from wearing any "conspicuous signs" of religion, such as headscarves, skullcaps or crucifixes at school.
On that mid-April day, however, she was in for a big surprise.
"I was getting ready to take off my headscarf as usual, before I saw the headmaster waiting for me a few meters outside the school," Sarah told The Anadolu Agency. "She approached me and asked me to go back home and change my outfit."
Sarah was wearing a long skirt. She was told her outfit was "too religious."
Because she lives far away, Sarah asked the principal to allow her in for the day, after promising to change her outfit the next day.
Her request was denied. The next day, she came in with pants. No problem.
But when she came back the next school day wearing a long black skirt, Sarah was banned again and sent back home with a letter to her parents.
"That was not a valid reason to suspend me," Sarah said. "The skirt is simply a style of dress, not an ostentatious sign. It is a beautiful skirt and I felt like wearing it."
Local French officials, however, have defended the principal's actions, saying they were in line with policy.
"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 regional education office in northern France’s Charleville-Mezieres town said in a statement Tuesday.
Sarah's story has caused outrage on social media platforms, with the hashtag #JePorteMaJupeCommeJeVeux (I wear my skirt as I please) going viral across the world.
Abdallah Zekri, president of the National Observatory against Islamophobia, told The Anadolu Agency on Wednesday that it was “outrageous and unacceptable” that a girl was suspended on the pretext of breaching principles of secularism.
“Wearing a long skirt is nothing ostentatious,” Zekri said. "The girl has respected the law by not wearing her headscarf inside the school, so I can't see which secularism they are speaking about."
"I believe I was suspended because the school administration knows I wear a headscarf outside," Sarah said. "Why were other girls who are non-Muslim but are wearing long skirts allowed in?"
Elsa Ray, spokeswoman for the Collective Against Islamophobia in France watchdog group, told The Anadolu Agency that Sarah's case was not an isolated incident.
"For the last two years, we dealt with hundreds of similar cases," Ray said. "In the last few months, several girls were excluded from classes for wearing skirts seen as too long in the southern city of Montpellier."
"Suspension from school for such a reason is against the law. It is an attack on the freedom of these girls, who have the right, as others, to dress the way they want," she added.
Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, said on Twitter following the incident that France is "carrying secularism too far."
"I'm looking forward to going back to school to pursue my education and I’ll put on my skirt," Sarah said in a defying tone.
Asked what she would do if she gets suspended again, Sarah smiled and said, "Let's wait and see."
*Additional reporting by Feyzullah Yarımbaş and Dursun AydemirAnadolu Agency website contains only a portion of the news stories offered to subscribers in the AA News Broadcasting System (HAS), and in summarized form. Please contact us for subscription options.