- Written by Hugh Schofield, Kheddiatou Cissé and Ken Berry
- BBC News in Paris and London
Why can’t a teenage girl express her religious beliefs and at the same time continue her education in school?
It’s a difficult question, but one to which the French believe they have an answer.
This is, broadly speaking, because there is such a thing as the French nation, and the teenager is part of it. Nothing defines and separates France from its neighbors so clearly as a cause Secularismor secularism.
So this week, while outsiders watched with a mixture of astonishment and anger the ban on the traditional Islamic abaya in schools, the French themselves approved of the measure by an overwhelming majority of 81%, according to opinion polls.
What was seen by many in the outside world – as well as French Muslim women – as a blatant violation of human freedom, was seen in France as a means of achieving another of the Holy Republic’s trilogy: equality.
And it was so little diluted by the third value — fraternity, or rather, sorority — that they couldn’t see why it should be a problem.
In fact, the cloak is just a new iteration of a debate that goes back more than 30 years.
The first reported case of Muslim girls being refused admission to schools because of their dress – the head covering – was in the town of Creel near Paris in 1989.
Since then, France has enacted a 2004 law banning the “obvious” display of religious affiliation in schools. The 2010 law banning the niqab in public places; And the dispute that broke out in 2016 over the burkini, which ended with it not being banned.
Recently, there have been many controversies over the Islamic hijab in sports.
This latest controversy has been sparked by government figures who have shown that in the past academic year there has been a significant increase in what are described as “violations of secularism” in schools.
In the period 2021-2022, only 617 cases were documented. This has risen to 1,984.
The vast majority of these were Muslim teenage girls wearing the abaya.
Pronounced “ah-bye-ah”, it is a loose, long-sleeved robe traditionally worn by women over other clothing in parts of the Middle East and Africa.
Its massive shape covers the entire body except the head, neck, and feet.
It was believed to have come from Iraq or Syria more than 80 years ago, but then made its way to the Arab Gulf states, North Africa, and some sub-Saharan countries.
Traditionally popular in black, it is now available in different colours, shades and patterns.
For many Muslim women, it has become a fashion icon as much as it has tradition and identity. Luxury fashion brand Dolce & Gabbana launched an abaya collection in 2016 in the Middle East.
In France, the government believes that the appearance of abayas in greater numbers in schools is not just random stories of teenage girls rediscovering their interest in their cultural heritage.
She sees them as intentional attempts – and to varying degrees organized attempts – to challenge the system and find out the extent of it Secularism It can be pushed back.
A 2004 law bans “visible” signs of religion – and this apparently includes the Islamic headscarf, which has now disappeared from French schools. But did it also include long Islamic-style dresses?
School heads demanded guidance from the government because they saw the fad becoming a trend, encouraged by social media influencers and, according to some, religious groups linked to the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood.
Former Education Minister Pape Ndiaye has refused to take a position, influenced, according to his critics, by his background in academia in the United States and the “woke” value system there. His replacement since July, Gabriel Attal, a young ally of President Emmanuel Macron, had no such concerns.
He was the one who ordered the abaya to be banned just before the beginning of this chapter.
For many French Muslims, this rule is an insult because they feel that it is their religion that is always taken lightly.
“If little girls can wear shorts, leggings and dresses, they should also have the right to wear abayas,” complains Chimay, a North African Muslim woman who left France because of the disrespect she felt.
Sokhna Maimouna Sow, a Muslim woman of Senegalese origin who came to France to study 11 years ago, says the ban is nonsense: “They say this is a country of freedom, but you are not allowed to do things that are part of your life.” Culture and Religion.
Lina, a 21-year-old Parisian, believes that the abaya is cultural and has nothing to do with Islam: “Every year, France introduces some new laws when it comes to Muslims.”
Dora, a French Muslim woman of Egyptian origin, agrees: “It’s just a long dress like any other dress, so why ban it in schools? I don’t wear abayas, but I’m sad that France has reached this point.”
Such views are supported by a small but important part of the political spectrum: the radical left.
The “France Don’t Bend” party, led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, strongly condemned the ban, accusing the government of being “obsessed” with Muslims and pandering to the right.
But the rest of the political establishment, reflecting broad popular support, sided with the government.
Even left-wing teaching unions broadly support this, limiting their attacks to claims that the cloak “hides the real issues” of underfunding schools and so on.
A non-Muslim teacher called Manon told the BBC: “The abaya should be banned in school.” “Because when you get to class, you shouldn’t be able to tell apart anyone’s religion.”
The truth is that most French people, including of course many Muslims, really believe in keeping religion out of schools.
When President Macron says it is impossible to look at a student and know his religious faith, they agree.
And when he claims that being strict about this actually guarantees individual freedom in the long run, and that it prevents a united France from splitting into countless “communities,” they believe him too.
When women’s rights activists say that the abaya may not technically be a religious garment, but its body-concealing shape was defined by traditional Islam, most people in France agree.
A week after the ban was implemented, the level of opposition remained low.
There were some acts of defiance, as 67 girls refused to change their abayas on the first day of the new term.
But there is no sign of a mass resistance movement. It is forbidden to wear abayas collectively, and no sit-ins.
Once again, France shows how different it is from other places.
France’s highest administrative court, the Council of State, rejected the attempt to overturn the ban, ruling that it was based on French law and did not cause “serious or clearly unlawful harm.”
Outsiders may raise their hands in horror at the abaya ban, but the French generally do not.
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