The Council of State, France’s premier administrative court, affirmed the government’s recent decree prohibiting students in public schools from donning the abaya, a full-length robe typically worn by Muslim women. This decision stands in line with the French law established in 2004 that disallows students from wearing “conspicuous” symbols with a distinct religious connotation.
- The abaya is considered a part of a “logic of religious affirmation” by the court.
- Since 2004, symbols such as Catholic crosses, Jewish skullcaps, and Muslim headscarves have been banned in middle and high schools.
- The updated ban is a response to the escalating disputes in the secular school system.
- Incidents related to “laïcité” or secularism have surged over the past year, with many concerning the wearing of abayas.
The updated ban has garnered criticism, particularly from groups who deem it a discriminatory measure primarily targeting Muslim girls’ attire. One of the prominent voices against the ban is Action Droits des Musulmans, a Muslim advocacy group that lodged the emergency petition against the decree. Their concerns are anchored in:
- The potential daily discrimination young girls might face due to their religious and ethnic appearance.
- Arbitrary nature of the ban, which lacks a clear legal definition of the abaya.
- The harmful impact on students’ access to education.
The United Nations Human Rights Committee had previously stated in 2018 that France’s ban on the niqab, a full-face veil, infringed on wearers’ human rights.
French Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, emphasized the importance of the ruling for the “schools of the Republic.” He highlighted:
- Approximately 300 students turned up wearing abayas on the first day of the summer break.
- 67 students were sent back after they declined to remove them.
- School authorities maintain a “dialogue” with students and their families who defy the ban.
The Broader Context
The situation surrounding the abaya isn’t isolated but is indicative of a larger debate in French society. France’s model of secularism, or “laïcité,” is distinct from many other Western countries. Rooted in the French Revolution’s ideals, it insists on the strict separation of church and state, aiming to ensure that religious beliefs don’t interfere with civic duties and public life.
The Evolution of “Laïcité”
- 1905: France adopted the Law on the Separation of the Churches and State, formally establishing state secularism.
- 2004: The law banning “conspicuous” religious symbols in schools, targeting items like the hijab, kippah, and large crucifixes.
- 2010: The Senate approved a bill that made it illegal to wear garments concealing the face in public, affecting wearers of the niqab.
French President Emmanuel Macron backed the ban, asserting that it doesn’t stigmatize anyone but targets those propagating the wearing of the abaya. This move is a continuation of France’s contentious policies surrounding attire commonly associated with Muslims, which have often been at odds with Muslim nations and international rights groups.
Many question the government’s priorities, alleging that more pressing concerns like school infrastructure need attention. In Stains, a Parisian suburb, educators protested against the government’s focus on the abaya, urging for better resources and school refurbishments. Students have also voiced their perspectives. Safiatou Baradji, a 10th grader, commented that the abaya was “a normal piece of clothing” she occasionally wore in the previous academic year. Another student, Noah Sevede, opined that the government should prioritize enhancing educational facilities rather than dictating clothing choices.
While the decision by the Council of State has given the government’s ban on the abaya in public schools a legal backing, it has sparked debates and concerns regarding freedom of expression, discrimination, and the role of secularism in the French educational system in the midst of a rapidly diversifying global landscape. This ban is the latest in a series of legal and societal decisions that reflect the ongoing challenge of balancing France’s commitment to secularism with the country’s increasing multicultural demographic.