76 October/November 2023 October/November 2023 PB
n the eve of the new French school
year in September, Education Minister
Gabriel Attal announced that abayas
— meaning coat or dress in Arabic —
would be banned in schools
immediately. Abayas are long-sleeve robes
originating in the Gulf region with a mandate – like
many dress forms that provide cover-alls for
women — from the Quran. In June the country’s
top administrative court upheld a separate ban on
female footballers wearing headscarves and in
late September the UN human rights o ce said
women should not be forced to abide by dress
codes, after the French government said athletes
representing France would be barred from
wearing headscarves during the 2024 Olympic
Games in Paris.
Back in school, on the fi rst day of term, almost
300 young girls countrywide defi ed the ban,
turning up to school in the now-banned garment.
While most of them later changed clothes when
instructed, some 67 pupils were sent home after
they refused to comply.
In support of the ban, Attal relies on the strict
laws that govern the separation of church and
state, known as ‘laïcité’ dating back to the French
Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen
in 1789, during the French Revolution.
This separation between church and state has
prevented the Catholic Church from dictating
what could and couldn’t be taught in schools and
centred education around republican values
rather than Catholic ones. However, the same
principles are now being used to target Muslims
and their religious dress.
It also isn’t the fi rst time a new law has targeted
Muslim women in the education system. In 2004,
former President Nicolas Sarkozy introduced a law
that prohibited the wearing of the hij ab in schools.
Nor is the targeting of religious dress confi ned
to schools. The long-running dispute over wearing
burkinis in public swimming pools continued
recently when the highest administrative court in
France upheld the ban following a legal challenge
by the city of Grenoble. The court said that it could
not allow “selective exceptions to the rules to
satisfy religious demands”.
This latest ban by Attal divided those on both
sides of the political divide. On the left, former
Presidential candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon called
it “an absurd new war of religion”, while those on
the right used the opportunity to denigrate the
mores of the Muslim community in France.
Equally de-privilegeing all religion has a
compelling logic for atheists and many argue that
religious signs of any kind are an attack on the
laïcité of the French state. However, the French
multicultural environment has changed
dramatically since 1789.
It might be argued that measures against the
Catholic Church in 1789 served to curtail the
abuse of privilege by the most powerful, while
measures against manifestations of Islam in 2023
serve to curtail the dignities of the least powerful.
As researcher Isaac Halpern states in the
Journal of Muslim Minority A airs, “in France,
colonial arrogance interacted with an infl ux of
immigration largely from North Africa and Asia
after WW2 to direct the focus of laïcité on
eliminating visible diversity, particularly targeting
Islam and Muslim women.
In other words, there are egalitarian reasons to
justify both scrupulous anti-religionism of any
sort and positive discrimination in favour of a
beleaguered minority.
Muslim schoolchildren already fi nd it di cult.
Since publicly funded state schools in France
must besecular under the 1905separation of
Church and State, Muslim parents who wish their
children to be educated at a religious school often
choose private (and therefore fee-paying) Catholic
schools, of which there are many. Few specifi cally
Muslim schools have been instigated.
One of the main arguments against the ban
raised by Muslim groups and campaigners is that
the abaya is considered traditional rather than
religious clothing. The French Council of Muslim
Faith, which serves as the o cial liaison with the
French state for Muslims, said banning the abaya
might create “an elevated risk of discrimination”,
fearing that the lack of a clear de nition could lead
to racial profi ling where pupils’ dress could be
evaluated on “the supposed origin, last name or
skin colour” rather than the clothes themselves.
Former Minister Cécile Dufl ot demonstrated
how easy this racial profi ling was. She posted a
By Ava Liange
picture of a long-sleeved dress on X (formerly
Twitter), and asked whether it was an attack on
the laïcité. After someone replied that no girl
would be wearing “such a hideous dress if it
wasn’t for the need to demonstrate their religion”,
Dufl ot revealed that the dress she had posted was
a Gucci-made dress worth almost €3,000.
The irony of this latest ban is that in 2021,
President Emmanuel Macron stated that French
school children should dress ‘properly’ for school,
backing comments made by then-Education
Minister Jean-Michel Blanquer calling for pupils to
come to school in “republican dress”.
These comments derived from squeamishness
about crop-tops and mini-skirts in schools. So
now French school girls can be sent home if their
clothes are considered either too short or too long.
Perhaps the French government will ultimately
legislate o cial assessments of whether out ts
are provocative sexually and provocative to the
Bye-Bye abayas
Religion in France, always an egalitarian
battleground, spawns another culture battle,
against Arabic dress in schools
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