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Muslim Sisters Face Obstacles In Efforts To Help French Army

KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:

France has mobilized thousands of soldiers and police officers in response to the recent terrorist attacks. After all the one last month in Nice, it also called for volunteers to help the army. NPR's Daniel Estrin has the story of two Muslim sisters who answered that call.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: One morning a few days after the attack in Nice, a woman wearing a stylish sun hat over her hijab, or headscarf, showed up at the city's military recruitment center. Majda Belaroui is a 21-year-old university student born in Morocco and raised in France. She and her sister were among the crowd when a truck came barreling through, killing 84 people, about a third of whom were Muslims. It's still not clear if the driver acted in the name of Islam, but that's why Majda came to explore helping the army. She wanted to set an example as a Muslim.

MAJDA BELAROUI: I don't want to have a gun. I just want to show that I'm against this violence. And I want to help a lot of people who need help.

ESTRIN: Majda walked through the gates, passed the armed guards, but when she got to the receptionist, she was told she'd have to remove her headscarf to enter. It didn't surprise Majda. Secularism is state policy in France, dating back more than a century, aimed at reducing the influence of the Catholic Church. But that policy is proving a hurdle to French efforts to integrate its Muslim immigrant population, the largest in Europe.

France forbids civil servants from wearing religious clothing in government buildings, and there are similar rules for teachers and students in schools. But Yasser Louati, a Muslim civil rights activist, says that shouldn't stop Muslims with head coverings from entering a military recruitment center.

YASSER LOUATI: People have understood the law as a total ban on the Muslim headscarf or even the Jewish kippah. We have had dozens, if not hundreds, of cases of veiled Muslim women unable to enter public buildings.

ESTRIN: The French defense ministry did not return requests for comment. When Majda was asked to take off her headscarf, she walked out.

M. BELAROUI: Here a lot of Muslim girls like me want to show that we are against this violence. A lot of people have a bad vision of us, and when we want to make something, we are demotivated.

ESTRIN: Majda's 24-year-old sister Amina made her own trip to the recruitment center. She also wanted to sign up as a volunteer. And when she was asked to remove her hijab, she did.

AMINA BELAROUI: I think that the ends justify the means. You know, people are having more and more - a bad image of Muslims. And I just think that if ever I enlist at the military reserve, maybe this could change people's minds.

ESTRIN: In the wake of the Nice attack, there have been reports of anti-Muslim harassment in the city. Amina says she wants to help defend her country and unify it.

A. BELAROUI: If we stay always divided, if we say, yes, I cannot take off my headscarf and I don't want to join the army, there will always be a gap between Muslim people and non-Muslim people in France. And this is not good because when you separate communities, there are always prejudices that are existing, and prejudices create violence.

ESTRIN: Between loyalty to flag and loyalty to faith, Amina is trying to find a way to choose both. Daniel Estrin, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.