“I have decided …” said France’s Education Minister Gabriel Attal in late August. And with those three words, he instituted another sweeping ban affecting Muslim girls and women. In 2004 it was the hijab. In 2011 it was the niqab, or face veil. In 2016 they banned the burkini (full-coverage swimsuit) in public pools and beaches, which was upheld by France’s administrative court in 2022. In 2022, France passed an amendment banning hijab in sports competition
And now? The abaya.
"Our schools are continually put under test, and over the past months, breaches to laicite
(the constitutional principle of secularism in France) have increased considerably, in particular with (pupils) wearing religious attire like abayas and kameez," Attal said in a news conference
explaining his decision to ban students from wearing the abaya in state-run schools.
Let’s parse his statement for a moment. France, specifically the French government, has made it abundantly clear for years that secularism is extremely important and trumps most anything else. And while their bans on wearing religious clothing or headwear includes things like large crosses and kippahs, It disproportionately affects the country’s Muslim population.
In his statement, Attal mentioned abayas and kameez. From what I know about the kameez (because I wear them all the time), it’s an Urdu word referring to a tunic or longer-length shirt. It’s derived from the Arabic word, qamis. So, basically the French education minister is saying anything that looks “Muslim-y” has GOT TO GO. Abaya has been banned. Kameez is on the chopping block. What’s next? Wide-leg trousers? Maxi dresses? Maxi skirts? Anything loose? Long cardigans? Anything that covers one’s skin?
France's Education Minister, Gabriel Attal; image source: Wikimedia Commons
While this entire pattern of banning representation of religious symbols and clothing (particularly aimed at Muslim women) is hugely problematic (and Islamophobic), this latest iteration takes it to a new level based on interpretation and, quite honestly, fashion and clothing choice.
What all is going to fall into this French-determined category of religious attire? Do open front, long kimonos that many women wear over shirts and pants or jeans indicate one’s religiosity? If a woman wears full-coverage clothing, no matter what that clothing is, because she likes to be covered, is that too religious for France? Is loose clothing that camouflages body shape defendu (forbidden)?
Twenty-two-year- old Djennat, who wears abayas at home, said she could not understand why it was banne
An open abaya worn over shirt and pants.
"It's a long dress, quite loose, it's a normal garment, there is no religious meaning attached to it," she told Reuters. She declined to give her name because she was training to become a teacher.
Less than a year ago, [French Education Minister] Attal's predecessor, Pap Ndiaye, said he was against 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."
Daoud Riffi, who teaches Islam studies at the Lille Institute of Political Studies, agreed. "In and of itself, there's no such thing as an Islamic outfit. We need to challenge that myth," he told Reuters.
Riffi said there was a wider fashion trend among female high school students, who buy long dresses and kimonos online. Both Riffi and De Feo said that to differentiate between fashion and religion could lead to pupils being profiled based on their identity.
In an interview we did two years ago with Rim-Sarah Alouane
, a Ph.D. candidate in comparative law and a researcher/legal academic at the University of Toulouse, she explained how there is a a deep French history (stemming from their colonizing past) of suspicion and a near animosity towards religion going back to the country’s history with the Roman Catholic Church. In understanding this push-pull history between religion and a secular state, one can gain a greater understanding of why hijab, niqab, burkini and now abaya bans as well as a rise in Islamophobia has been a constant issue in France, especially in the past two decades.
“People want to be treated as equals. And that shakes up the establishment,” Rim-Sarah explained. “They accuse of Muslims of not being able to integrate. French Muslim are French, but are never enough French. If you are wearing a hijab, you cannot be French. This is the thinking.
“It’s all about visibility. Nobody cares about the hijab when it's your maid who is wearing it. Because when Layla is going to clean a senator’s office, she is invisible. But when Layla’s kid, Sumayra, is highly educated, went to college, wears hijab, wants to have a more visible position and is fighting for her rights and is doing things that are very empowering, her visibility becomes a problem,” Rim-Sarah said.
“France never asks Muslim women what they think. Because imagine if we did – we are empowering them.”
Imagine that – asking women who happen to be French and Muslim what they’d like to be able to wear and do, and if what they wear and what they do takes away from their French identity.
We stand with the Muslim women of France and all others who face bans, amendments and laws infringing upon their rights to wear what they want. As France prepares to host the Summer Olympics in 2024 (after banning hijab in sports competitions
), will all hijab- or full-coverage-clothing-wearing athletes be forbidden from competing? What will be banned next? Because this is not just oppression of Muslim women, it is the canary in the coal mine that human rights are at risk.