France bans abayas from schools amid dispute over garment

France bans abayas from schools amid dispute over garment

Long robes, traditionally from Arab countries, will be banned from Monday in schools in France. There has been a dispute about these abayas for a long time. Are they simply a piece of clothing or a religious symbol?

France has argued a lot about headscarves and burkini bathing suits, but now a ban on abayas in schools is causing a renewed stir. At the start of the school year on Monday, the ankle-length robes traditionally worn by women in Islamic countries are taboo, as is the corresponding drape for men, the qamis. France’s new Minister of Education, Gabriel Attal, ordered this by decree. In doing so, he relies on the long-standing ban on visible religious symbols in schools in France, which is concerned with secularism, i.e. the strict separation of state and religion.

Violations of secularism in schools have increased sharply in recent months, Attal said. There was talk of around 4,700 cases in the past school year, often involving the wearing of abayas. The robes have been a topic of discussion in France for a while. Attal, who had been promoted to head of the education department before the holidays and was previously assistant budget minister and government spokesman, decided that a decisive answer was needed: “The abaya has no place in our schools.” He received full support from President Emmanuel Macron: “Religious symbols have no place in schools,” he said. School administrations should not be left alone with the problem.

Religious symbol or simple article of clothing?

But isn’t this all going too far, isn’t the government imposing dress codes on young women? And is the abaya necessarily a religious symbol or simply a piece of clothing? Those are the questions of the critics. Proponents, on the other hand, argue that the aim is not to normalize religiously motivated clothing in school in order to avoid creeping indoctrination.

The head of the education union ID-FO, Agnès Andersen, thinks that’s exaggerated. Unlike the headscarf, the dress has no religious origin, even if Salafists encourage people to wear it, she told Le Parisien newspaper in June. In the end, what counts is the intention of the young girls. For some, faith may play a role. Others wanted to cover up their curves, imitate their girlfriend or thought the long tunic was nice and inexpensive.

Macron’s center government has received criticism for the decree from parts of the opposition. “How far will the clothing police go?” said left-wing MP Clémentine Autain, who also described the ban on X (formerly Twitter) as an obsessive rejection of Muslims. The regulation was unconstitutional, she wrote. Green MP Sandra Regol said on Platform X: “Abayas, skirts, crop tops: it’s always women’s bodies that these politicians try to control.”

France’s government lacks a majority in parliament

The fact that the government is now taking a hard line on the difficult issue is also seen as reaching out to the conservative Républicains, for whose support the presidential camp is still vying for the remaining four years of government. Macron’s government has not had an absolute majority in parliament for over a year. Most of the interfaces are with the conservatives, with whom any form of cooperation has so far not been successful.

At the start of the school year, the government initially wants to focus on dialogue regarding the new ban, the decree said. Macron also said that students and families were being talked to. After that, however, disciplinary measures are threatened – which exactly is not specified.

Attal’s predecessor, Pap Ndiaye, balked at a ban. The state could not draw up a list of prohibited items of clothing, he said in the Senate. “Because that would be treading on extremely complex terrain. From a legal point of view, the abaya is not easy to define and we would be sidestepped in the next week by a certain length of the dress, a collar shape or this or that accessory, whatever the problem from week to week, forcing us to write more circulars, which would take us straight to the administrative court, where we would lose.” So far, he has not said how the new education minister intends to avoid these pitfalls.

And a first lawsuit has already been filed with the Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, by an Association for the Protection of Muslim Rights (ADM). “We have filed an emergency action with the Council of State to request the suspension of the ban on the abaya in schools, which violates several fundamental freedoms,” said the association’s lawyer, Vincent Brengarth.

Source: Stern

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