The abaya, according to France, is an obvious religious garment that violates their national rule of secularism.
On 27 August, the government in France announced a ban on abayas in its state schools nationwide, starting their new school term which was on Monday, 4 September.
That Monday, nearly 300 girls showed up to school still wearing the abayas and they were told to change out of the dress if they wanted to enter school property, as reported by The Telegraph.
Most of them had no choice but to agree while 67 refused and were sent home, denied the right to receive education if they were wearing religious clothing in public schools.
Abayas are a loose robe-like garment, similar to a dress or a long cardigan, that’s often worn by women in the Middle East and most Muslim countries. The ban also includes Kameez, a robe-like garment worn by Muslim men.
Attempts to challenge the ban failed
An attempt to challenge the ban by submitting a petition to the country’s Supreme Court was also overthrown on Thursday (7 September).
According to CNN, The Muslim rights group, Action Droits Des Musulmans (ADM), argued that the ban violates fundamental rights like personal freedom.
However, France’s highest court upheld the government’s ban on students in public schools from wearing the abaya as they believe that this rule does not seriously violate people’s fundamental freedom to wear what they want.
The court said that wearing an abaya shows a person’s strong religious belief, which is why they are not allowing it in schools.
Why doesn’t France allow abayas & khamis?
France has a rule on secularism called laïcité in its country, which means a separation of church and state. They believe in equal treatment and freedom of belief for all.
This means that no student, with whatever personal beliefs, shall identify him or herself with any religion inside a school as all individuals are viewed the same.
Although it originally was meant for the Catholics in 1905 to separate any religious matters out of state matters (including school & government), the rule expanded to all religions over the years and more or less fixates most on Islam in the coming years.
So far, the government has banned headscarves, kippah, crosses as well as turbans in public schools.
Abayas challenge secularism
Citing The Guardian, despite many people saying that abayas are not a religious attire but a type of fashion, the education minister, Gabriel Attal, said that abayas are a religious gesture, aimed at challenging the separation of religion and education.
When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them.Gabriel Attal, France Education Minister
Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school.
This is further supported by their government spokesperson, Olivier Véran, who said that the abayas are clearly religious clothing and viewed it as a political statement or an attempt to promote Islam.
The Telegraph also reports that the French President, Emmanuel Macron defended the controversial ban, stating that a small group in France misuses religion and challenges the country’s values, which can have serious consequences like the tragic murder of teacher Samuel Paty three years back. He said they couldn’t ignore this terrorist attack.
A little history of bans
Quoting Le Monde, in 2004, the French government banned the use of headscarves and other religious symbols in schools. Although they particularly targeted hijabs, it also banned Jewish yarmulkes or kippah (cap), large Catholic crosses and Sikh turbans from schools.
In 2011, it was illegal to wear a face-covering veil or mask such as a niqab or a burka in public spaces. This is in regard to their secularism rule, threats to security as well as concerns over sexism.
Over the years, since the students were banned from wearing hijabs in schools, the controversy of whether parents sending or accompanying them for school events should not wear headscarves was seriously debated too. Luckily, the proposal to ban headscarves on school trips for mothers was rejected, again and again.
Initially, the previous education minister, Pap Ndiaye mulled around the abaya ban as he didn’t want to create lots of rules about how long dresses should be, so he didn’t ban them. But after Attal stepped in, he immediately got started on the ban.