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Abaya Ban in French Schools Reignites Secularism Debate

“I have decided that the abaya can no longer be worn in schools,” said France’s Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, in a recent interview. 

 The abaya is a loose, flowing, full-length dress worn by many Muslim girls and women in order to preserve modesty and show piety. It is often worn alongside the hijab or headscarf, niqab (a cloth that covers the face but leaves the eyes uncovered), or burka (a long garment that covers both the face and body, again leaving the eyes uncovered). These three religious attires had already been banned in French schools, but as of now, the abaya will join them. 

 Previously, the abaya was not specified in this law, often leading schools to decide for themselves whether it was deemed appropriate or not. 

 This interview was broadcast on TF1 television, on August 27th at 8:00 p.m. During the news interview, Attal argued that wearing the abaya reveals a student’s identity as a Muslim and thus interferes with France’s secular agenda, otherwise known as laïcité. He states, “You must not be able to identify the religion of the students by looking at them.” 


Attal argues that schools are secular spaces in which children should not be exposed to religious influences or anything that has the potential to proselytise young children. 


While laïcité, when first enforced in 1905, referred to separation between the church and the state (in particular the Catholic Church), it is now used more vaguely to refer to a general separation between religion and other factors of life, such as school, work, and politics. It is the foundation of France’s secularity, with more recent laws in France building upon this. 


Many left-wing activists and politicians, both in France and globally, question whether this law violates the European Convention on Fundamental Human Rights due to its restriction of religion and religious expression. Those against the ban call it discriminatory and think it has been implemented to target the Muslim population of France - roughly 10% of citizens.


In particular, French politician Clémentine Autain posted on X (formerly known as Twitter), her contempt for the ban. “How far will the clothing police go?”


Despite recent outrage, it is not the first time we have heard of this in French politics. Religion and religious expression have been an ongoing debate alongside France’s secularism. 


On the 15th March 2004, the government passed a bill titled, “Law no.2004-228, concerning, as an application of the principle of the separation of church and state, the wearing of symbols or outfits which show religious affiliation in public primary and secondary schools." This forbade the wearing of any religious symbol or item that could signify one’s religious beliefs, such as Islamic hijabs, Christian cross symbols or veils, and Jewish kippahs (skull caps).


A vast amount of the French population seemed to support this at the time. In a survey conducted by Le Conseil Supérieur de l’audiovisuel (CSA) (The Superior Audiovisual Council), 69% of the population was for this proposition, while 29% were against it. 


Later on, niqabs, burkas, and other face coverings such as balaclavas or face masks were banned on 14th September 2010. This was not just in school settings but in any public space. This also received mixed opinions.


Right-wing and far-right-wing parties have praised Attal’s decision to preserve France as the secular country that it is, without religious influences. They argue it is no different than Muslim countries which base their laws on Sharia (the Islamic code of living for all Muslims and how they conduct themselves).


Many Muslims are also in agreement with this, stating that, unlike the hijab, the abaya is not mandatory. The same school of thought was shared when niqabs were banned in the past. Despite this, other Muslims, argue that the abaya is not a clear indicator of religion but rather a cultural Arab garment worn for centuries, not to signify they are Muslim but to show general modesty for their body. 


Critics such as sociologist Agnes de Feo expressed her viewpoint in an interview conducted by Times Radio, questioning whether the new ban will only cause Muslim girls to feel more stigmatised and resist the law, rather than preserve France’s secularism.


The French authorities intend to enforce this ban in time for the new school year, starting 4th September. Attal has not announced what specifically is being restricted in terms of abayas and other modest clothing but will inform headteachers before term time. 


The enforcement of the rule will vary from school to school. All state-run schools will have to abide by this. Schools in France have most often been strict about dress codes, sometimes sending students home for wearing maxi dresses and long skirts due to their modesty supposedly being a clear indicator of their religious identity. Whether a student is violating laws of laïcité will continue to be assessed individually, however, much more strictly.


Despite this, private schools will not have to abide by this new law but may choose to follow the government and its values. Following the increase of private Muslim French schools opening after the 2004 law, this new ban may receive a similar response.

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Tags: Religion France Muslim Secularism Abaya


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