Opinion – French government’s Abaya ban: A new smokescreen to distract from struggling schooling system

Mahrukh Arif-Tayyeb, MA Social Science, France

Teacher strikes in France have brought attention to a struggling school system that is causing exhaustion among teachers and school administrators while also negatively impacting students’ potential and mental well-being.

Instead of addressing these urgent concerns, which governments often ignore, the newly-elected Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, has chosen to implement a controversial populist policy that specifically targets Muslim girls.

It is no longer a mystery that “back to school” means another controversy for Muslims in France. After the hijab and the burkini, it is now the abaya, a traditional long dress worn mainly in North Africa, that has hit the headlines. The newly elected Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, described the garment as a religious dress posing a serious threat to French secularism in public schools. This decision sparked outrage, as many Muslim women came to defend their right to dress modestly and felt this new ban was a direct attack on their identity and religious freedom.

During a podcast interview on the YouTube channel HugoDecrypte, French President Emmanuel Macron was asked to give his views on the new policy. The latter commended his Education Minister for his courage and clarity, stating that the abaya is a clear display of religious affirmation to the Islamic faith, which poses a threat to the principle of neutrality desired to be achieved in schools. Macron said the abaya ban was not implemented to “target” a specific religion, but in a positive spirit to avoid any discrimination and/or sense of separatism in schools.

He contended that there is undeniably a presence of separatism within schools, emphasising the need for robust government actions in response, particularly in the aftermath of the tragic assassination of Samuel Paty, a teacher who was brutally killed by an 18-year-old student outside his school.

However, this candid interview with the president, marked by ambiguous language, unfortunately, leaves viewers with a perilous oversimplification: abaya = religious attire = Islam = separatism = the motive behind Samuel Paty’s murder.

Under the guise of dealing with discrimination, the French government has in fact enacted a sexist, discriminatory policy that is having the opposite effect of what it claims to be. In the name of secularism and the desire to enforce equality, young girls have been discriminated against at the entrance of schools and told to go back home.

From the videos circulating online, it is clear that some girls are not even wearing an abaya, and even those who chose to come to school in a long floral dress have been told to change and wear appropriate “republican clothing”. Instead of creating a comfortable, harmonious atmosphere for pupils getting back to school, this ban has invited a divisive start to school, favouring ethnic profiling and unjust control and restrictions.

To be sure, the abaya is not an inherently Islamic symbol, and thus, the abaya ban is not a religious freedom issue; many non-Muslim women in North Africa and elsewhere also wear it as they enjoy the loose cut and comfort it provides.

It is important to mention that while the 2004 ban on the headscarf was a serious issue pertaining to religious freedom, the abaya ban is not. Claiming that the abaya ban restricts religious freedom would mean falling into the trap of the dangerous equation the French government would like its citizens to believe.

Having said that, it is very clear that this ban is felt as an attack on Islam, as the abaya is also worn culturally in Muslim countries in North Africa. Nonetheless, there is no explicit reference to the abaya in the Islamic tradition or the Quran. Islam, being a universally followed religion, has embraced a significant number of cultures that have appropriated the verses on modesty instructed to women (and men) according to their specific societal needs and practices. The abaya is nothing more than any other piece of clothing with a loose fit and a straight cut, and Muslim women can absolutely dress modestly without an abaya.

Considering the alarming state of teachers and state schools in France, it is evident that the abaya ban by the French government is the new smokescreen presented to divert attention.

If I recall my own experience growing up in Banlieue, I certainly did not have the same resources as any student growing up in the centre of Paris. Schools in Banlieue are mostly underfunded and overcrowded with students from less privileged economic backgrounds. For this reason, the teacher’s role in Banlieue schools was not merely limited to giving a lesson and going back home; they were asked to connect with students emotionally and understand their personal situations, which often explained the occasional disrupted behaviour in classrooms. This resulted in more teachers leaving suburb schools for better-funded and better-resourced schools, leaving us with temporary teachers.

While the priority of the Education Minister should be to seriously address these practical issues and focus on improving the standard and quality of a deteriorating and unfair school system in France, school administrations, who have been given the authority to judge what falls or does not fall in the category of an “abaya” – are currently wasting time looking for girls in long dresses and randomly expelling students, depriving them of the education they need.

In the name of equality, the government is favouring more discrimination, and in the name of education, the government is favouring more school dropouts, equating to less liberté, less égalité and less fraternité.

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