After the French government expanded its ban on religious apparel to include a form of Muslim dress, public schools in France have become the latest battleground in the country’s struggle between secularism and religious expression.
As a result, nearly three hundred girls who showed up at school wearing an abaya—the forbidden garment—were turned away and required to change.
Abaya Dress Ban
On August 27th, France’s education minister announced that students could no longer wear abayas to school. Typically worn by Muslim women and girls, these dresses are long, loose-fitting, modest garments that cover the whole body.
According to the Education and Youth Minister, Gabriel Attal, wearing an abaya represents an “attack” on French secularism.
Not Welcome in the Schools
“The abaya has no place in our schools,” Attal told journalists in a press conference, and added, “You enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the religion of the students by looking at them.”
The ban, which went into effect at the beginning of the new academic year, has already caused issues at some French public schools.
On September 4th, the first day of class, 298 girls turned up at school wearing the prohibited dresses and were denied entry. Most were teenage girls over the age of 15.
Although the majority of these students were later admitted after speaking with school staff and changing their clothes, 67 students refused to follow the new policy and were barred from attending classes.
The French government has instructed schools to dialogue with parents who resist the abaya ban. However, if the parents or girl cannot be persuaded, then the student will not be allowed to return to school.
Praise Vs. Criticism Across The Country
Since its announcement, the controversial abaya ban has garnered both criticism and praise.
Right-wing and far-right parties in France have expressed their support for the government measure, while politicians on the left have denounced the move as “unconstitutional.”
In a scathing tweet, Clementine Autain (leader of the left-wing opposition party) asked users: “How far will the clothing police go?”
She also called the government’s ban “symptomatic of the obsessive rejection of Muslims” and “contrary to the founding principles of secularism.”
Despite public debate, the abaya ban will remain law in France for the foreseeable future. This past week, the country’s highest court ruled to uphold the government’s prohibition, striking down the first legal challenge to the ban.
Court Rejects Allegations of Discrimination
“As things stand, the judge considers that the ban on wearing these garments does not constitute a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of a fundamental freedom,” the court decided, rejecting allegations that the abaya ban was discriminatory.
On the question of whether the abaya was a religious or cultural garment, the court established that wearing the garment “was part of a process of religious affirmation, as shown by the comments made during discussions with students.”
Fight For Freedom
The Muslim rights group, Action Droits Des Musulmans (ADM), had requested an injunction against the ban from France’s state council, the country’s highest court for complaints against state authorities.
In the wake of the ruling, ADM released a statement alleging that the court had failed to protect the “fundamental freedoms” of students and to guarantee their access to education “without any form of discrimination.”
Young girls would be most impacted by this decision, the ADM argued, since they “are at risk of suffering daily discrimination based on their ethnic and religious appearance, the violence of these dress interrogations and the trauma and harassment they cause, thus hindering their access to education and their success at school.”
France has banned wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in schools since 2004, when lawmakers approved legislation that aimed to limit religious influence in schools.
Other religious garments and accessories like Christian crosses, Muslim hijabs, and Jewish yarmulkes are also forbidden.
Similar laws, such as the prohibition of full-face veils in 2010, were also heavily criticized by French Muslims and international organizations—the United Nations Human Rights Committee considered the niqab ban to violate freedom of religion.
Per 2023 data, as much as 10% of France’s population identifies as Mulsim and they make up the second largest religious group in the country.
The President Defends the Secularism
Emmanuel Macron, president of France, came out as a staunch defender of secularism and the abaya ban:
“Schools in our country are secular, free, and compulsory. But they are secular. Because this is the very condition that makes citizenship possible, and therefore religious symbols of any kind have no place in them. And we will vigorously defend this secularism.”
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This article was produced and syndicated by TPR Teaching. Source.
Caitriona Maria is an education writer and founder of TPR Teaching, crafting inspiring pieces that promote the importance of developing new skills. For 7 years, she has been committed to providing students with the best learning opportunities possible, both domestically and abroad. Dedicated to unlocking students' potential, Caitriona has taught English in several countries and continues to explore new cultures through her travels.