The French government's recent decision to prohibit the wearing of abaya robes, traditional loose-fitting garments worn by some Muslim women, in state-run schools has ignited a mix of applause and criticism. The move is in line with France's longstanding ban on religious symbols in schools, implemented in 2004 to uphold the principle of secularism, or "laicite." While supporters argue that the ban reinforces secular values, critics view it as a contentious infringement on personal freedom and religious expression.
Education Minister Gabriel Attal, in a press conference on August 27, defended the decision by citing a growing number of breaches of secularism within schools, particularly involving students wearing religious attire such as abayas and kameez. The decision has been hailed by conservative figures, including Eric Ciotti of the Les Republicains party, who considers it long overdue.
"Our schools are continually put under test, and over the past months, breaches to laicite have increased considerably, in particular with (pupils) wearing religious attire like abayas and kameez," Gabriel Attal noted.
The SNPDEN-UNSA union of school principals also expressed support, emphasizing the need for clarity from the government. Didier Georges, the union's national secretary, welcomed the decision, stating,
"What we wanted from ministers was: 'yes or no?' We're satisfied because a decision was made."
However, the ban has sparked intense criticism from various quarters. Clementine Autain, an MP representing the far-left France Insoumise party, condemned the move as an example of the "clothes police" and a manifestation of an "obsessional rejection of Muslims." Many critics, including sociologist Agnes De Feo, argue that the ban might lead to the stigmatization of Muslim girls and that the abaya is often worn as a fashion or identity statement rather than strictly for religious reasons.
Agnes De Feo, who has researched French women wearing niqab, stated;
"It's going to hurt Muslims in general. They will, once again, feel stigmatized. It's really a shame because people will judge these young girls, while it (the abaya) is a teenage expression without consequences."
Some individuals, like twenty-two-year-old Djennat, find it difficult to comprehend the rationale behind the ban. Djennat, who wears abayas at home, expressed her confusion.
"It's a long dress, quite loose, it's a normal garment, there is no religious meaning attached to it," Djennat shared.
This move follows previous bans on religious symbols, such as the headscarf ban in 2004 and the full-face veil ban in 2010. These bans have generated controversy and, in some cases, have led to the establishment of private Muslim schools.
Experts argue that differentiating between religious attire and fashion could result in profiling students based on their identities. Daoud Riffi, who teaches Islam studies at the Lille Institute of Political Studies, emphasized the complexity of defining an "Islamic outfit" and called for a challenge to the perception that such clothing is inherently religious.
As the debate surrounding the ban continues, France remains divided over the balance between secular values, individual rights, and religious freedom within its educational institutions.