French Public Schools Ban the Abaya

On Sunday, August 27, 2023, Gabriel Attal, Minister of Education, announced a ban on wearing abayas, a long, traditional Muslim robe, in public schools. For many Americans, whose schools allow for great vestimentary expression, religious or otherwise, the ban on abayas might sound like an attack on religious rights and freedom of speech. The Republic of France values liberty, fraternity, and equality and believes they are best enjoyed when the State is neutral in religious matters and religion does not intrude into public spaces. The public school system exists to educate young people to be good citizens. Religion is a private matter and is freely exercised in religious spaces.

Unsurprisingly, for France in any case, the phenomenon of girls wearing abayas has raised concerns. Does wearing an abaya violate the principle of laïcité (secularity) which relates to the separation of religion and the State? Is the abaya a religious symbol?

For Razika Adnani, philosopher and islamologist, the abaya illustrates the rise of Islamic fundamentalism in France. She recognizes that objects in themselves have no religious signification and that humans attribute religious meaning to clothing and accessories. Girls who wear abayas at school remove their veils at the door of educational establishments in accordance with the law of 2004 when the French Conseil d’État ruled that “ostensible” religious clothing and accessories were not allowed in public schools. For these girls, the abaya has taken on a religious signification and serves to distinguish them from non-Muslims. Adnani insists that the abaya is more in conformity with Quranic recommendations than the headscarf. She refers to verse 59 of the Surat 33 where Mohammed was told to instruct women to wear a jilbab, designating a long and ample robe. Islamic commentators and jurists have insisted that women cover their hair and wear a jilbab of somber color to conceal the female form and beauty. The use of the term abaya reveals the desire of French Muslim women to resemble Saudi women where the term abaya is used in Saudi Arabia to designate a long, full robe for both men and women.[1]

The ban on abayas has not been uncontested, especially by those on the political Left who see this as a new war of religion. They understand laïcité as an instrument of peace and see the new regulation as unconstitutional, dangerous, discriminatory, and cruel. The majority of French people, however, support the ban with only 23% favorable to permitting abayas in schools. Even a majority of those belonging to left-leaning political parties support the ban.[2] Many Muslims have adapted to living in the West and according to its laws. Some have the sentiment of living in societies that do not allow them to be good Muslims. Others go further in seeking to force laws to adapt to their religion. The issue may work its way through the courts and ultimately be decided by the Conseil Constitutionnel.     



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