TORCY, FRANCE -- Noura Jaballah pours tea and passes Turkish cookies in her spotless living room, just a few miles from Disneyland Paris. She lives in a leafy Paris bedroom community that could be any U.S. suburb where young mothers push strollers down neat blocks of look-alike houses.
Jaballah is a French soccer mom spinoff, who shuttles her three children from home to school to shopping mall in a lime-green family van.
But her role is not one of coaching neighborhood teams. Tunisian-born Jaballah is championing the right of Muslim girls to cover their heads -- an option increasingly under siege in France, as calls grow to ban head scarves in public schools.
At least four parliamentary bills have been drafted calling for outlawing veils and head scarves in public schools, along with other religious accessories, such as crosses and skullcaps. Similar laws already prohibit them for public school teachers and government employees. Now the government of French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin is reportedly poised to introduce its own anti-veil legislation.
"The government must intervene," says Juliette Minces, a sociologist who has written a number of books on the veil and Islam. "Teachers have a hard time with these girls, who come to school wearing the veil, who refuse to attend gym or biology courses, who won't read Voltaire because he was a nonbeliever."
But Jaballah and other advocates argue that banning the veil in school would threaten basic French liberties, including the right to religious expression.
"If I wasn't convinced it was an obligation to veil, I wouldn't," says Jaballah, 43, whose eldest daughter donned a head scarf several years ago. "Life here would be a lot easier if I didn't."
The battle over the veil is playing out across Europe and the Middle East as well as in the United States, where a Florida judge barred a Muslim woman from obtaining her driver's license with a face-covering niqab.
Scandinavian countries such as Sweden, with tiny Muslim populations, have generally tolerated veiling. But women in Turkey and Tunisia are barred from wearing the veil in schools, universities and public workplaces, as part of larger crackdowns against Muslim fundamentalists. Even in Egypt, women wearing niqabs or other cover-all apparel can be harassed as suspected members of banned Islamic groups.
In France, home to about 5 million Muslims, one of Western Europe's largest Muslim populations, the veil issue weaves fears of growing fundamentalism with women's rights issues. It pits the country's fiercely secular creed against European human rights laws.
It illustrates, too, the sharp divide between a well-educated and upwardly mobile French Muslim minority and thousands of second- and third-generation immigrants who remain angry and isolated in the suburbs. Some have found solace in religion.
"The head scarf today symbolizes a defeat for the French government, which has failed to integrate these minorities," says Francois Gaspard, a sociologist at the Advanced Group of Social Studies in Paris, who opposes a veil ban.
"I can't predict the future," she adds. "But banning the veil may lead to new Quranic schools. And it's unlikely they will teach French values of secularity. Or about equality between men and women."
France's veil battles began in 1989, when three girls were kicked out of a school in northern France for covering their heads. By the mid-1990s, educators were grappling with how to respond to thousands of veiled girls arriving to class. The cultural clash quickly took new dimensions.
"We began seeing girls and boys who wouldn't shake hands in the name of Islam," says Hanifa Cherifi, who handles veil issues at the Ministry of Education. "Boys would dispute the authority of female teachers. Girls would refuse to attend gym class."
The official answer -- murky rules permitting veils in school, so long as they were not ostentatious, and students did not proselytize -- was no answer, critics say. Even today, the French government appears divided on tougher rules, with President Jacques Chirac opposed to anti-veil legislation backed by members of his governing party, Union for a Popular Movement.
"If we want the school to remain a sanctuary, we cannot avoid creating a law," says UMP lawmaker Francois Baroin, who is championing anti-veil legislation in France's National Assembly.
School veil disputes have dropped radically in recent years. But the statistics are deceiving, experts say. In some cases, teachers work out compromises or look the other way.
Noura Jaballah's daughter Alaa began wearing a head scarf in high school without a hitch.
"I've never had problems," says the 19-year-old, wearing a gray scarf one recent afternoon. "My teachers and my friends look beyond my appearance."
In other cases, school administrators offer girls a stark choice: school or the veil. Samira Makhlouf chose the veil. She dropped out of France's public school system and finished high school by correspondence.