Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced the ban this week, just days before the start of the new academic year, saying public schools have a duty to uphold “the most elementary principles of our Republic.” He likened abayas, as well as khamis, robes worn by some Muslim men, to other banned markers of an individual’s religion.
“The abaya has no place in our schools, no more than religious symbols,” he said. “Schools must, at all costs, perhaps even more than any other institution, be protected from religious proselytism, from any embryo of communitarianism, or from the refusal of our most important common rules.”
The move has been welcomed by conservative politicians — but critics and lawmakers on the left have accused the government of policing what women can wear or of trying to appeal to right-wing voters. Some critics have argued that it would be impractical to ask schools to decide what is an abaya, and what is simply a long dress.
Abayas are not worn by all Muslim women, but some, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, wear them out of modesty. The robes are typically dark-colored and loosefitting, and cover most of a woman’s body.
The French Council of the Muslim Faith, or CFCM for its French acronym, which represents several Muslim groups in France, said in a statement that abayas come in many different forms, are tied to Arab culture and are “misrepresented by some as a Muslim religious sign.”
“In the name of Secularism and the principle of separation of Religions and the State, the CFCM [strongly] disputes … that a secular authority can define what is or is not religious instead of the religious authorities of a faith,” the council said in a statement.
Online, some French people joked that, to enforce the new ban, school administrators and teachers would be given the unenviable task of distinguishing between abayas and regular long dresses.
Cécile Duflot, an environmentalist and former French minister of territorial development, posted a photo of a long black and green dress, asking why that should be seen as “an attack on secularism.” A commenter responded by saying a girl would only wear such an “ugly” dress for religious reasons — at which point Duflot revealed that the dress was not an abaya, but rather a 2,980 euros ($3,220) silk Gucci dress.
The ban has also divided politicians, particularly those on the left — highlighting how lawmakers struggle to balance France’s values of freedom and secularism.
Far-left lawmaker Jean-Luc Mélenchon said he was saddened to see the back-to-school season “politically polarized by a new absurd [and] entirely artificial religious war over women’s wear,” while Sandrine Rousseau, a lawmaker with the Green party, said the ban was a form of “social control over the bodies of women and young girls.”
However, Eric Ciotti, head of the center-right party Les Républicains, called it “a timely and long overdue decision,” while Jérôme Guedj, a lawmaker with the center-left Socialist Party, said the ban was aligned with “the spirit and the letter of the law of 2004,” and welcomed the policy as helpful for those in charge of running schools.
The announcement has also been welcomed by some school unions. A union representing school principals had asked the government for clarity on what they should do about abayas in schools, declaring themselves unprepared to handle the increased prevalence of the loosefitting, full-body robes among their student bodies and unwilling to decide for themselves if abayas constituted an “ostentatious” religious symbol.
Didier Georges, national secretary of SNPDEN-UNSA, told Reuters that, on abayas, “what we wanted from ministers was: ‘yes or no?’ … We’re satisfied because a decision was made.”
Attal said the government would train 300,000 school workers in understanding and enforcing the rules around secularism by 2025.
Controversies over what should and should not be banned in France in the name of secularism have cropped up frequently in recent years, against the backdrop of worsening relations between French authorities and the French Muslim community.
Some of the most high-profile incidents occurred in 2016, when mayors of several French cities and towns implemented beachside bans on burkinis — full-body bathing suits worn by some Muslim women who prefer to stay covered up while swimming. The move sparked outrage, particularly because it sought to control what Muslim women could wear even outside of officials settings of the state. France’s State Council, the country’s highest administrative court, overturned the bans.
The council, when asked again to rule on a similar ban imposed by a commune in southeastern France in August, again struck down the ban, arguing that it “seriously and illegally” undermined “the freedom to come and go, the freedom of conscience and individual liberty.”