Why the abaya is at the centre of France's latest secularism row

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Why the abaya is at the centre of France's latest secularism row
A model walks wearing Afrik Abaya designs during the African Fashion show in Lagos, Nigeria in 2016 (Photo by PIUS UTOMI EKPEI / AFP)

As French schools return, teachers will have an extra rule to enforce - a ban on pupils wearing the long, loose robe or dress known as the abaya.


The dispute is not a mere matter of fashion - France's secularism laws mean that symbols of religion cannot be worn in schools and certain other public spaces.

The newly appointed education minister Gabriel Attal thinks that the garment is "a religious gesture" and announced that from the start of the new school year on Monday, September 4th, pupils and teachers will be banned from wearing it.

"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.

But is the abaya truly a religious garment, or merely one that is common for women in certain parts of the world? 

France's Council of Muslim Worship have previously written that the abaya does not have any religious association with Islam.

The council is a national, elected body that often functions as an interlocutor with the French government, particularly when it comes to the regulation of religious activities such as Halal meat and mosque construction.


"We are entitled to question the authority which, in our secular Republic, has decreed that the abaya is a Muslim religious sign. For us, the garment is not one", the CFCM wrote in their press release. 


"You only have to travel through Muslim-majority countries to realise that the citizens of these countries, of all faiths, are indistinguishable based on the clothes they wear,” the group said, in defence of the abaya as a cultural rather than religious symbol.

The French government's decision to ban abayas in schools ended up being challenged. An association representing Muslims filed a motion with the State Council, France's highest court for complaints against state authorities, for an injunction against the ban on the abaya and the qamis, its equivalent dress for men.

The association said the ban was discriminatory and could incite hatred against Muslims, as well as racial profiling.

But after examining the motion -- filed by the Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM) -- for two days, the State Council rejected the arguments, upholding the ban on abayas in French public schools.

The background to the ban

The previous education minister, Pap Ndiaye, had encouraged schools to step up enforcement of rules on secularism, but stopped short of a ban on the abaya.

Speaking in June, he said: "We are not going to publish a catalogue of hundreds of pages with sleeve shapes or colours", adding that when the clothing is determined to be religious in nature, it is up to school administrators to apply sanctions "when dialogue could not be concluded with the family".

He lost his job in a reshuffle in July, shortly before the French parliament broke for summer. He was replaced by Attal, 34, a career politician who is seen as close to Emmanuel Macron.

READ MORE: EXPLAINED: What does laïcité (secularism) really mean in France?

In France, state secularism, or laïcité, mean that there are also no displays of religion in public institutions, so schools do not have prayer meetings, religious assemblies or religious events such as Nativity Plays at Christmas. 

In 2004, this was extended when France banned "the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols or garb" in state schools. It became known as "the French headscarf ban" abroad, though it applies to symbols of all religions.

Laïcité can be hard for foreigners to comprehend, but it's not always well understood in France either and arguments over some aspect of laïcité, especially women's clothing, are common.

Recent examples have included the regular clashes over whether the full-body swimsuit known as the burkini can be worn on beaches or at public pools, and whether school secularism rules cover mums in headscarfs who accompany school trips.

READ ALSO Is there really a hijab ban in France


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