Just like, as students are returning to school many debates are provoked all over the world. This year, however, comes with a different problem: the students’ outfits. In August 2023, the Ministry of Education in France announced the ban on “abayas” in French schools.
An abaya is a long, loose-fitting robe, which is originated from the Middle East. Traditionally, it covers the whole body and can be worn with a niqab for religious concerns in Islam. Excluding several Muslim countries, such as Qatar, Yemen, Saudi Arabia, and UAE, in most Arab states, it is common for women to wear these outfits for special occasions, religious celebrations, or in general during the month of Ramadan.
All clothing that demonstrates religious symbols has been banned from state-run French schools, with the approval of the French Senate, since 2004. During those years, the French Government faced much criticism, especially from the US, on the grounds that it violated the freedom of religion and secularism. Today, the freedom of religious practices and the concerns in the context of secularism have been evoked once again, following the public announcement of the French Minister of Education, Gabriel Attal. In his announcement, he expressed: “School is free. It's for everyone, and it's secular. And I don't want schools where we can identify the religion of students by looking at them or where there's pressure on certain students to wear religious attire.” This announcement immediately faced many criticisms and provoked many questions on its legitimacy. To address this concern, the highest French court (Le Conséil d’Etat) ruled in favor of this declaration, stating that it does not violate any fundamental rights and that the wearing of abayas fits in the logic religious affirmation. However, there are now many people opposing to these assertions by various arguments, one of them being Vincent Brengarth, a lawyer in the Paris Bar Association and the lawyer of the group Action Droits Des Musulmans (ADM). He suggests that the decision does not have any legal basis and that the declaration was arbitrary, on the grounds that abaya is not defined by the executive power, thus can not be counted as a religious clothing and that the ban violates human rights to liberty.
Furthermore, women’s rights activists also emphasize the fact that the abaya is a traditional dress worn by women, thus this ban offers governmental control on women’s clothing, which invalidates all efforts put into ensuring the freedom of women in all its aspects. In a world where women used to be — and some, apparently, are still — told what to wear or not by everyone around them fighting for such a fundamental liberty, this governmental restriction appears to be a step back, as expressed by the activists.
Additionally, the ban encouraged people to recall the principles of secularism (thus democracy), and evaluate the world agenda from their own point of view. Concerning this point, Nesrine Slaoui, journalist and writer on societal issues, emphasizes the importance of three principles of secularism, with a specific emphasis on the separation of the state and government. According to her statements, the government banning a certain type of clothing and associating it with religion violates the mentioned principle, and it further indicates major threats to the continuation of secularism.
People who support the ban on abayas also tend to suggest that the attack in 2020 against the middle school teacher Samuel Paty, who was killed after showing caricatures of the prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free expression, is one of the reasons why all religious contexts should be left outside of school. For that matter, French President Emmanuel Macron puts this situation forward, as an example of the importance of secularism. He further states that there was a minority who try to hijack a religion and challenge the republic and secularism. He stated “We cannot act as if the terrorist attack, the murder of Samuel Paty, had not happened”, indicating a relation between the attack and religious contexts or symbols at schools.
As per the latest reports, most female students tend to remove their abayas before entering school in France, with some refusing to do so. Even though there are hundreds of ongoing debates regarding this issue, the French government insists on not compromising.
Written by: Şevval Kalkan
Edited by: Melisa Altıntaş & Yağmur Ece Nisanoğlu
Reva Dhingra, S. R. (2016, July 28). Veiled meaning: The French law banning religious symbols in public schools. Brookings. https://www.brookings.edu/articles/veiled-meaning-the-french-law-banning-religious-symbols-in-public-schools/
Beardsley, E. (2023, September 8). A ban on wearing the abaya in French schools is causing an uproar. NPR. https://www.npr.org/2023/09/08/1198520450/a-ban-on-wearing-the-abaya-in-french-schools-is-causing-an-uproar
Mawad, D., Kennedy, N., & Guy, J. (2023, September 6). French schools turn away girls wearing abayas as Muslim rights group challenges ban. CNN. https://edition.cnn.com/2023/09/06/europe/france-abaya-ban-scli-intl/index.html
France’s top court upholds government ban on Muslim dress abaya in schools. Anadolu Ajansı. (n.d.). https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/frances-top-court-upholds-government-ban-on-muslim-dress-abaya-in-schools/2986236
Protest against abaya ban in French schools takes place in Vienna. Anadolu Ajansı. (n.d.-b). https://www.aa.com.tr/en/europe/protest-against-abaya-ban-in-french-schools-takes-place-in-vienna/2993744