Ahead of the start of the new school year, France’s education minister has said that wearing abaya, a loose-fitting, full-length robe worn by certain Muslim women, will be banned in state-run schools.
Since 19th century legislation eliminated any traditional Catholic influence from public education, France has strictly prohibited religious signs in state-run schools and has struggled to modernize regulations to meet with a rising Muslim population. The wearing of huge crosses, Jewish kippas, or Islamic headscarves is not permitted in French public schools.
Both the 2004 and 2010 bans on full face veils in public spaces infuriated a large portion of the nation’s five million Muslim population. “I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools,” media reported quoting Education Minister Gabriel Attal’s interview with TV channel. “When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them.”
The decision was made following months of discussion on the wearing of abayas at French schools, where women have traditionally been prohibited from donning the hijab. The ban had been promoted by the right and extreme right, who claimed it would violate civil liberties. Abayas, in contrast to headscarves, were in the grey region and had not yet been banned.
Clothing alone is not “a religious sign,” according to the French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), a national organisation that represents numerous Muslim organisations. Across the political spectrum, from left-wingers preserving the liberal ideas of the Enlightenment to far-right conservatives seeking a bulwark against the rising influence of Islam in French society, the defence of secularism is a rallying cry in France.