The recent decision by the French government to prohibit the wearing of abaya robes by children in state-run schools has sparked both approval and criticism from various quarters, particularly within French conservative circles. This move has ignited discussions about the balance between secularism and religious expression in the country.
For a considerable period, France has adhered to a secularism doctrine termed “laïcité,” which possesses an extensive past and traditionally encompasses the prohibition of religious emblems within state educational institutions dating back to the 1800s. This was done to eliminate any traces of Catholic influence from public education. However, in recent years, the country has been grappling with how to address the needs of its growing Muslim minority while upholding its commitment to secularism.
Education Minister Gabriel Attal highlighted the increasing breaches of laïcité in schools, particularly with students wearing religious attire like abayas and kameez. The decision to ban abayas was explained during a news conference on Sunday.
Eric Ciotti, the leader of the conservative Les Républicains party, welcomed the ban, underscoring his group’s repeated calls for such measures. Conversely, Clémentine Autain, a member of parliament representing the far-left France Insoumise party, condemned the decision, labeling it as a manifestation of “attire policing” and a sign of an “obsessive prejudice against Muslims.”
Meanwhile, the school principals’ union, SNPDEN-UNSA, backed the prohibition, underlining the necessity for clear guidelines. Didier Georges, the union’s national secretary, highlighted their concern about a significant rise in the number of students wearing abayas. He noted that their role was not to arbitrate but to follow the state’s decision.
The ban on abayas raises concerns about possible repercussions. In the wake of the 2020 killing of history teacher Samuel Paty, dialogue with students and families has been emphasized as crucial to prevent students from being diverted from state-run schools to religious institutions.
France has a history of contentious decisions regarding religious attire in public spaces. The ban on headscarves in schools was enacted in 2004, and the prohibition of full-face veils in public followed in 2010. These measures have generated tensions within the Muslim community in France.
Previously, Education Minister Pap Ndiaye decided against a specific ban on abayas, citing difficulties in defining the garment legally. Some experts and officials argue that abayas are more of a fashion choice than religious attire.
Abdallah Zekri, “vice-chair of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM),” echoed this sentiment, stating that the abaya is not inherently religious but rather a fashion item. The debate over abayas in French schools continues to spark discussions about the intersection of culture, religion, and secularism in the country.