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France to ban female students from wearing abayas in public schools

French public schools do not permit the wearing of large crosses, Jewish kippas, or headscarves

abaya ban in france

BS Web Team New Delhi
Students in France's public schools will no longer be permitted to wear the abaya, a loose-fitting, full-length dress some Muslim women adorn.

Ahead of the new term starting on September 4, Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced on Sunday, "I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools.

"When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn't be able to identify the pupils' religion just by looking at them," he told TV channel TF1.

The measure is the latest in a long line of actions France has taken in response to what it calls an "affront to secularism”. Many others see it as an indication of growing Islamophobia in the European nation.

Before we get into the details of the ban, here's a little primer on what an abaya is. It is typically a black garment covering everything except the face, hands and feet and is made in the style of a loose robe or kaftan. It's important not to confuse the abaya with a burqa or hijab – other Islamic dress forms for women. The burqa is a garment that covers the entire face, with a crocheted mesh grill over the eyes. The hijab, on the other hand, is a head scarf.

The ban on abaya

In declaring a ban on abayas in state schools, Education Minister Attal described the Islamic garment as "a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic towards the secular sanctuary that schools must constitute".

In France, there's been a strict ban on religious signs at schools since the 19th century, including Christian symbols such as large crosses. The ban also applies to Muslim headscarves and Jewish kippa.

Attal's decision to ban abayas from the coming term in French state schools has been applauded by the right and far right groups, which want to limit Islam's expanding influence in French culture.

Head teachers' union leader Bruno Bobkiewicz welcomed the announcement.

Eric Ciotto, head of the Opposition right-wing Republican Party, also welcomed the news, stating: "We called for the ban on abayas in our schools several times."

On the other hand, Clementine Autain of the left-wing Opposition France Unbowed Party described the ban as the "policing of clothing".

"Attal's announcement was unconstitutional and against the founding principles of France's secular values, and symptomatic of the government's obsessive rejection of Muslims", she said.

What else is banned in France?

The ban on abaya is a continuation of France's war against Islamic clothes.

In 2010, France banned the wearing of full-face veils in public which infuriated the country's five-million-strong Muslim community. The only exception to the rule was worshipping in a religious place or travelling as a passenger in a car.

The law was enacted to prohibit the concealment of the face in public spaces. Lawmakers who backed this legislation also said that headscarves and face coverings were a sign of oppression faced by women, which in turn is believed to be an embodiment of secularism, an ideal highly regarded in France.

A year later, in 2011, the government under Nikolas Sarkozy banned the wearing of the hijab and even turbans in school classrooms.

The summer of 2016 saw the anti-burkini decrees announced across the country. Muslim women were barred from wearing swimsuits that covered their bodies entirely. It all started with the cancellation of a "burkini" event at a water theme park in Marseilles. Then the Riviera town of Cannes banned the full-body swimsuit on its public beaches.

Then Prime Minister Manuel Valls had expressed his support for the bans, saying the swimsuit represented what he called a "provocation" and "an archaic vision". In June 2022, the nation's highest administrative court upheld the ban on the wearing of burkinis in public pools after the authorities in Grenoble challenged it.

And despite football body Fifa having lifted its ban on female athletes wearing the headscarf during international matches in 2014, France's footballing institution – the French Football Federation (FFF) – maintains a ban on the wearing of "conspicuous religious symbols", which includes the headscarf.

Taking this a step further, the French Senate in January last year voted 160 to 143 to ban the wearing of the hijab and other "ostensible religious symbols" in all sports competitions. While some argue that the move is to uphold neutrality in sports, critics call it "gendered Islamophobia”.

Shireen Ahmed, senior contributor with CBC Sports, had told CNN then: "Excuses of 'we want laïcité and we want secularism' – they're really a shield, because they don't apply fairly to the men performing crosses before they step on to the pitch.”

"Where's the consistency here," she asked, adding: "It's a deliberate exclusion."

Fatima Bent, head of French feminist and anti-racist organisation Lallab, also told the news outlet that "this argument of banning the hijab has nothing to do with liberation, helping Muslim women, and nothing to do with sports conditions… This discourse stems from this colonial European approach where Muslim women are always depicted as women to save: from their families, their origin, who have to deny their identities to assimilate.”

"It is a continuation of a story of a European colonial power that asserts dominance, asserts that Muslim women submit, and considers them as inferior," she added.

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First Published: Aug 28 2023 | 6:24 PM IST

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