French conservatives on Monday (28 August) applauded the government’s decision to ban children from wearing the abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robes worn by some Muslim women, in state-run schools, but the move also drew criticism and some mockery.
France, which has enforced a strict ban on religious symbols in state schools since 19th century laws removed any traditional Catholic influence from public education, has struggled to update guidelines to deal with a growing Muslim minority.
The strict brand of secularism, known as “la?cit?”, is a sensitive topic, and one often quick to trigger tension.
“Our schools are continually put under test, and over the past months, breaches to la?cit? have increased considerably, in particular with (pupils) wearing religious attire like abayas and kameez,” Education Minister Gabriel Attal told a news conference to explain Sunday’s ban.
The head of the conservative Les R?publicains party, Eric Ciotti, was quick to welcome the move, stressing that his group had repeatedly asked for it.
But Cl?mentine Autain, an MP for the hard-left France Insoumise, criticised what she called the “clothes police” and a move “characteristic of an obesssional rejection of Muslims”.
The SNPDEN-UNSA union of school principals welcomed the move, saying what it needed above all was clarity, its national secretary, Didier Georges, told Reuters.
“What we wanted from ministers was: yes or no?” Georges said of the abaya. “We’re satisfied because a decision was made. We would have been equally happy if the decision had been to authorise the abaya.
“We were worried by a strong increase in the (the number of pupils) wearing the abaya. And we believe that it was not our role to arbitrate, but one for the state,” he said, speaking of concerns over principals’ security.
In 2020, history teacher Samuel Paty was killed by an Islamist radical in an attack that struck at the heart of the country’s secular values and the role teachers have.
Sophie Venetitay, from the SNES-FSU union, said it was key to focus on dialogue with pupils and families to ensure the ban did not mean children will be taken away from state-run schools to go to religious schools.
“And what is certain is that the abaya is not the main problem for schools,” she told Reuters, stressing that a lack of teachers was a much bigger issue.
In 2004, France banned headscarves in schools and passed a ban on full face veils in public in 2010, angering some in its five million-strong Muslim community.
Less than a year ago, Attal’s predecessor, Pap Ndiaye, decided against going further and specifically banning the abaya, telling the Senate that “the abaya is not easy to define, legally… it would take us to the administrative tribunal, where we would lose”.
Abdallah Zekri, vice-chair of the French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), made a similar point, saying Attal’s decision was misguided.
“The abaya is not religious attire, it’s a type of fashion,” he told BFM TV.
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