PARIS (AFP) - Students at an elite Paris university sparked bitter debate on Wednesday (April 20) by inviting classmates to wear the Muslim veil for a day in a bid to "demystify" a practice viewed as highly divisive in France.
Students at Sciences Po urged women to take part in Hijab Day "if you too think all women should have the right to dress as they wish and have their choice respected".
France is grappling with rising Islamophobia after a wave of terror attacks by extremists, and the students' Facebook page said that those agreeing to put on the veil would "experience the stigmatisation experienced by veiled women in France".
The page lashed out at Prime Minister Manuel Valls who earlier this month said the veil was being used as a political symbol for the "enslavement of women".
His comments came after the minister for women's rights sparked a furore last month when she compared veiled women to "negroes who accepted slavery".
France has banned the full-face veil in public places, and Valls said the headscarf was being used by some as a challenge to France's prized secular society.
The Sciences Po initiative, which trended at the top of French Twitter under the hashtag #HijabDay, drew a mixture of praise and anger.
Writing on its Facebook page, the student wing of the rightwing National Front (FN) described the initiative as "nauseating" and said it stemmed from a "Parisian middle class disconnected from social reality".
"This initiative is particularly nauseating when women all over the world are fighting to throw off their shackles. In Iran, for example, women have acid thrown in their faces if they don't wear the veil," it said.
Philosopher and author Bernard-Henri Levy tweeted: "Hijab Day at Sc Po. When will there be a sharia day? Stoning? Slavery?"
But a feminist group on campus, Politique'elles, threw its full support behind the move.
"Whatever they wear, whether a miniskirt or a veil, (women) are criticised," a group statement said. "Feminism must remain universal to defend all women, independent of their religion, origin or social class."
The university distanced itself from the initiative in a statement on Twitter.
"The hijab question in higher education institutes and more widely in France is a current debate that provokes a wide variety of positions.
"If it is legitimate to bring this debate to our school, the mode of communication chosen to do so can be questioned and the holding of this event... should not be interpreted as support for this initiative."