Almost 70 girls were sent home from school last month, accused of breaking a 2004 law which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols in state schools.
They had arrived wearing abayas, long robes worn over other clothes, which had been banned by the Education Minister days earlier under the principle of laïcité or religious neutrality.
Two appeals were lodged with France’s highest appeals court, the Conseil d’État, claiming the ban violated a 1905 law separating religions and the state. The court upheld the ban but said it would give a final decision ‘later’.
Most people (77%) who took part in an Ifop-Fiduciary poll of 1,003 adults in France said they oppose religious symbols in secondary schools.
Unions claimed the ban was being used to deflect attention from more pressing problems in education, such as the lack of teachers and large class sizes.
The ban followed a reported 4,700 incidents of people breaking rules by wearing clothing with religious connotations in the 2022-23 school year – a 150% increase on the previous year.
Many have questioned if the abaya – a garment from the Middle East that many people had never heard of until recently – is of a religious nature or not.
Two experts give their opposing views.
For: ‘We must not give in’
Anthropologist and Islam specialist Florence Bergeaud-Blackler supports the abaya ban, arguing that it enables “secular, scientific teaching”.
“As someone who has studied Islamism in France for 30 years, I know the use of the abaya is indeed religious,” she told The Connexion.
“It doesn’t belong to the tradition of these young girls, who are generally of African or North African or Turkish origin.
“I also know that for activists, Salafists [hardline Islamic traditionalists] in particular, this is a test and a provocation to try to roll back and eventually abolish the 2004 law.”
In some cases, girls are persuaded by radical preachers to show their love of God by wearing them, she claims.
Asked why there has been much less debate surrounding the qamis, a robe worn by some Muslim men, Ms Bergeaud-Blackler, who is also a senior researcher at France’s National Centre of Scientific Research, said it was used far less than the abaya.
Furthermore, it has no “religious function”, she said, unlike the abaya, which is associated by many people with Islamic teachings on female modesty.
“You don’t have to cover your modesty by wearing a qamis, because men’s modesty extends from their navel to their knees,” she said.
“The abaya is used to hide the shape of a girl’s body because femininity must not appear in the public space.”
She said people who objected to the abaya’s prohibition on the basis of women’s freedom to dress modestly had “missed the point”.
“If there were one or two people in each school, it wouldn’t be a problem because you might think it’s a personal choice,” she said.
“But that’s not the case. There are clear signs of a coordinated offensive on social media.
“We have to stand firm on common values, which will allow Muslims who remain outside the influence of activists to continue to be able to go to state schools.
“We must not forget that it is a minority of girls wearing an abaya, not the majority. It is political activism aimed at influencing others. We must not give in.
“If they want to leave state school, let them leave, but we must be able to keep the majority of Muslims within the French state school system.”
Against: ‘A misguided effort’
Abraham Cooper, chairman of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (Uscirf), has accused the French government of encroaching on that freedom “in a misguided effort to promote laïcité”.
In a statement on behalf of the commission, an independent US government body that looks at religious freedom across the world, he said: “France continues to wield a specific interpretation of secularism to target and intimidate religious groups, particularly Muslims.
“While no government should use its authority to impose a specific religion on its population, it is equally condemnable to restrict the peaceful practice of individuals’ religious beliefs to promote secularism.”
The commission pointed to public debate questioning if wearing an abaya to school violated laïcité.
Read more: Laïcité: a bedrock of modern France
It said many school authorities that sought to comply with the 2004 law were unsure how to regulate abayas, which are mainly worn by Muslims to reflect a personal modesty that for many is a religious obligation.
In July, the agency released a report highlighting its concerns about freedom of religion or belief in the European Union, which referred to France’s restrictions on religious clothing and laws and policies that “particularly target Muslims”.
The organisation claims the abaya ban is in direct contrast to Article 18 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which guarantee religious freedom to every person, including the freedom to manifest religious beliefs via symbols or clothing.
France was instrumental in the drafting of the UDHR and voted for its adoption 75 years ago this December. It is a state party to the ICCPR.
Uscirf commissioner Nury Turkel said: “Muslim girls in France should not have to put aside their religious beliefs and practices when stepping into a classroom, nor should they have to compromise their basic human rights, including their right to an education, in order to uphold their beliefs.
“The international community should continue to speak out against laws that threaten the religious freedom of all people in France, as well as other countries in Europe.”