Secularism Or Discrimination? The Debate On Abayas In French Schools – OpEd


As the new school year begins in France, Muslim girls are facing a dilemma: to wear or not to wear the abaya, a loose-fitting full-length robe that covers their body and hair. The French government has announced a ban on abayas in state-run schools, arguing that they violate the secular laws that prohibit the display of religious signs in public education. The ban, which will be enforced from September 4, has sparked criticism from Muslim women and human rights groups, who see it as a form of discrimination and an attack on their freedom of expression. 

The abaya is not a mandatory dress code for Muslim women, but some choose to wear it as a sign of modesty and devotion to their faith. Some also wear it as a way of expressing their identity and culture especially in a country where they often face racism and Islamophobia. 

The abaya and the hijab are two different types of clothing worn by some Muslim women.The abaya is a loose-fitting full-length robe that covers the body and hair, while the hijab is a headscarf that covers the hair but not the face. The hijab has been banned in French state schools since 2004, as part of the country’s secular laws that prohibit the display of religious signs in public education while the abaya had not been banned in French state schools until recently. However, some school authorities had already discouraged or prevented students from wearing the abaya before the official ban, as they considered it a religious sign that violated the secular rules. 

The education minister, Gabriel Attal, said that he decided to ban the abaya because it is “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute”. He said that students should not be able to identify each other’s religion by looking at them, and that secularism means “the freedom to emancipate oneself through school”. He also said that he would give clear rules at the national level to school heads before the start of the academic year. 

However, Muslim girls who wear the abaya do not agree with his reasoning. They say that they are not trying to challenge the republic or impose their religion on others, but simply expressing their personal choice and conviction. They also say that they do not feel oppressed or alienated by wearing the abaya, but rather empowered and respected. They argue that banning the abaya will not promote integration or equality, but rather stigmatize and exclude them from the school community. 

A good number of these girls have decided to defy the ban and continue wearing the abaya, even if it means facing sanctions or expulsion. They say that they are ready to fight for their rights and dignity, and that they will not compromise their beliefs for the sake of conformity. They hope that their protest will raise awareness and spark a dialogue about the diversity and pluralism of French society. 

The ban on abayas is part of a broader crackdown on Islamic symbols and practices in France which has intensified since a series of terrorist attacks in recent years. In 2010, France banned the wearing of full-face veils in public, which provoked anger among Muslims. In 2020, President Emmanuel Macron announced a controversial bill to combat “separatism” and “radical Islamism”, which included measures to regulate mosques, associations, and schools. The bill has been criticized by Muslim leaders and activists as an infringement on religious freedom and civil liberties. 

The debate on Islamic symbols and practices has also divided public opinion and political parties in France. While some support the government’s stance as a way of defending secularism and national unity, others oppose it as a way of stigmatizing and marginalizing Muslims. The issue is likely to remain contentious and polarizing in the run-up to the presidential election next year where Macron is expected to face a strong challenge from the far-right leader Marine Le Pen. 

As far as Macron’s steps are  concerned, they are based on a distorted and negative view of Islam, which equates it with terrorism, extremism, and separatism. This view ignores the diversity of Islam and the positive contributions of Muslims to French society . 

His steps are influenced by the far-right and populist parties, which use Islamophobia and xenophobia as a way of gaining votes and power. These parties exploit the fear and anger of the French people after the terrorist attacks, and scapegoat Muslims as the enemy . 

Moreover, the steps are inconsistent and hypocritical, as they claim to defend secularism and equality, but in reality they impose a dominant culture and ideology on minorities. They also create a double standard, as they allow some religious signs and practices in public spaces, such as Christmas decorations or kosher food, but not others .

Altaf Moti

Altaf Moti writes on diverse topics such as politics, economics, and society.

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