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OPINION: France's abaya ban cannot be a veil to hide real inequality in schools

John Lichfield
John Lichfield - [email protected]
OPINION: France's abaya ban cannot be a veil to hide real inequality in schools
French President Emmanuel Macron and Education Minister Gabriel Attal (L) visit the Daniel Argote secondary school in Orthez, southwest France, on the first day of term. Photo by Caroline BLUMBERG / POOL / AFP

Once again, the issue of how some Muslim women and girls dress is making headlines in France and around the world - John Lichfield looks at the context of France's abaya ban and accusations of Islamophobia.


On the first day of the explicit ban on Muslim robes in French state schools, 298 pupils turned up for class improperly dressed. That amounts to 0.002 percent of all kids in the state education system.

All were girls. Most took off their floor-length, flowing robes or “abayas” and attended lessons in the jeans or long skirts that they had taken care to wear underneath. Only 67 of the girls (0.0005 percent of the total school population) refused and went home.

Two conflicting lessons can be drawn from these figures.


First, the ban on the abaya, and its male equivalent the kamis, will be accepted without too much fuss – as was the  2004 law which forbade all “explicit” religious dress or symbols in state schools.

Alternatively, the circular banning the abaya and the kamis issued last week by the ambitious, young education minister Gabriel Attal was a solution to a problem that scarcely existed. A fuss about nothing. A political gesture to the Right and Far Right.

Neither conclusion tells the whole story.

The abaya affair has dominated a complicated political and educational rentrée in France. I doubt that Gabriel Attal, or the rest of the government, are very disturbed by that.

No doubt, the government hopes to impress some voters on the Right. As for the Far Right, forget it. Only a complete ban on headscarves - or a ban on Muslims - would satisfy them.

The anti-abaya circular has provoked the usual, simplistic accusations of Islamophobia against France in the Muslim world and by liberal or Left-leaning commentators in the United States and Britain. This is based partly on ignorance – or the imposition of an Anglo-Saxon world-view which refuses to accept that France has a different history and a different culture.

One form of intolerance complains about another alleged form of intolerance which is (the French say) not intolerance at all but a guarantee of tolerance.

Since 1905 (1940-44 apart), France has been governed by the principle of secularism (laicité). All religions are allowed; none is favoured. There is a  guarantee of freedom of religion - and freedom from religion. State institutions, and especially the state education system, must be secular.

READ ALSO What does laïcité really mean in France?

The first school circular, based on the 1905 law separating church and state, goes back to 1937 – banning ostentatious Catholic symbols in the classroom. The 2004 law explicitly banned Muslim headscarves, Jewish kippa and large Christian crucifixes.


That law applies ONLY to state schools. You still see comments by people who should know better which suggest that all Muslim forms of dress - and only Muslim forms of dress - are banned in France.

Not so. The burka, or face-covering, full-length robe with veil, is banned in public. Everything else is allowed.

The present government, like previous governments, has rejected pressure from Marine Le Pen’s Far Right and parts of the Right to ban the Muslim headscarf or hijab from French streets.

But why focus on schools? The French view is that the national  education system makes the nation. All pupils should appear in class as equal and the same. None should wear clothing or symbols which mark them out as belonging to one religion rather than another.

That view is widely held in France. Opinion polls suggest that the ban on the abayas and the kamis is supported by  French people of all political persuasions – over 80 percent of all voters, more than 70 percent of people who vote Left and even a majority (58 percent) of supporters of the hard-left, ostentatiously anti-racist La France Insoumise (LFI).


It would be a great surprise if the state watchdog, the Conseil d’Etat, takes a different view.

Hypocrisies, however, abound on all sides.

Prominent leaders of the hard Left and the Greens have accused the government of Islamophobia, even though the great majority of their supporters approve of the ban. Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the LFI said the government was starting a “war of religion.” The eco-feminist leader Sandrine Rousseau said the state was trying to “control women’s bodies”.

Ms Rousseau is opposed to lipstick and high-heels as symbols of male domination of female minds; she says that the abaya is a fashion statement.

Muslim commentators in France and abroad accuse the French government of oppressing Muslims and especially Muslim women. They say little about the extreme, institutional misogyny of the Afghan or Saudi governments.


There is another hypocrisy lurking in the background of the hard-left and Muslim opposition to the abaya ban - the de facto oppression of girls and young women in some multi-racial French, suburban housing estates.

It is very difficult for girls to appear in public in such places – and certainly not without a headscarf. Mélenchon, Rousseau and the Muslim commentariat have little to say about that.

But there are also hypocrisies on the side of the state and the government.

The abaya and kermis had become a problem in around 500 of the 60,000 schools in France. They are evidently a religious statement; it made no sense the ban the headscarf and not the abaya. But they were hardly an urgent problem and other problems are available.

In the name of equality between all pupils, Gabriel Attal plans to announce local experiments with school uniforms this autumn. That may be possible in primary schools. But French 16 to 18-year-old lycée students in uniforms? Good luck with that.

If all pupils in the state education system are equal and the same, the state should not tolerate the vast discrepancies in the quality of education and opportunity offered to children in different neighbourhoods of the same towns. President Emmanuel Macron has, to his credit, promised to make that a personal priority of his second term. He has, however, already been in office for more than six years.

The ban on the abaya and the kermis is justified in French terms. It is not racist or Islamophobic. But the ban should not in itself be a loose veil for other problems in the French inner suburbs and education system.



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