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France to ban Muslim abaya dress in state schools

'It will no longer be possible to wear an abaya at school,' says Education Minister
France, which has enforced a strict ban on religious signs in state schools since 19th-century. photo via AFP
France, which has enforced a strict ban on religious signs in state schools since 19th-century. photo via AFP
French Education Minister Gabriel Attal arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting, after a government reshuffle, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 21, 2023. Reuters
French Education Minister Gabriel Attal arrives to attend the weekly cabinet meeting, after a government reshuffle, at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, July 21, 2023. Reuters

France will ban children from wearing the abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robes worn by some Muslim women, in state-run schools, its education minister said on Sunday ahead of the back-to-school season.

France, which has enforced a strict ban on religious signs in state schools since 19th-century laws removed any traditional Catholic influence from public education, has struggled to update guidelines to deal with a growing Muslim minority.

In 2004, it banned headscarves in schools and passed a ban on full-face veils in public in 2010, angering some in its five million-strong Muslim community.

Defending secularism is a rallying cry in France that resonates across the political spectrum, from left-wingers upholding the liberal values of the Enlightenment to far-right voters seeking a bulwark against the growing role of Islam in French society.

“It will no longer be possible to wear an abaya at school,” Education Minister Gabriel Attal told France’s television TF1, saying he would give “clear rules at the national level” to school heads ahead of the return to classes nationwide from September 4.

The move comes after months of debate over the wearing of abayas in French schools, where women have long been banned from wearing the Islamic headscarf.

The right and far right had pushed for the ban, which the left argued would encroach on civil liberties.

There have been reports of abayas being increasingly worn in schools and tensions within schools over the issue between teachers and parents.

“Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school,” Attal said, describing the abaya as “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute.

“You enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the religion of the students by looking at them,” he said.

A law of March 2004 banned “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” in schools.

This includes large crosses, Jewish kippas and Islamic headscarves.

Unlike headscarves, abayas – a long, baggy garment worn to comply with Islamic beliefs on modest dress – occupied a grey area and had faced no outright ban until now.

But the education ministry had already issued a circular on the issue in November last year.

It described the abaya as one of a group of items of clothing whose wearing could be banned if they were “worn in a manner as to openly display a religious affiliation”. The circular put bandanas and long skirts in the same category.