Earlier this month, France’s top administrative court upheld the government’s decision to ban abayas in schools, after a Muslim rights group had argued that the measure was discriminatory.
The French government has justified the abaya ban on the basis of the constitutional principle of secularism. But it is difficult to visualise how a handful of children wearing abayas poses a threat to France’s secularism. According to AJ+, the number of pupils who wear abayas in school represents less than 0.00005 per cent of all students in the country.
Since the beginning of the academic year, dozens of schoolgirls have been sent home for wearing abayas. Among those targeted were a 15-year-old wearing a Japanese kimono, and a girl wearing a large T-shirt and pants. The French state has embarked on a disconcerting, patriarchal journey of controlling how loose or long a dress should be – all in the name of secularism.
In determining whether a piece of clothing contravenes secularism, the abaya ban stipulates that teachers should assess the pupil’s general ‘behaviour’. According to human rights lawyer Nabil Boudi, this implicitly legitimises discrimination based on race and religion.
‘If my name is Samira and I am wearing a kimono or abaya, it is religious clothing; but if my name is Sophie and I wear the same kimono, then it’s not religious clothing,’ he told BFM TV.
In 1989, the same court ruled that forbidding headscarves at school was a flagrant violation of fundamental freedoms, noting that all pupils should be able to access education regardless of their religious beliefs. This displeased the French government, and parliament subsequently passed a law in 2004 forbidding all religious symbols in schools, including headscarves. Since then, France has continued legislating Muslim women’s bodies, regulating what they can or cannot wear.
In 2010, France passed a law banning full-face veils, such as niqabs and burqas, in the streets. The UN Human Rights Committee has said that this legislation constitutes a violation of human rights.
In 2016, some beaches in southern France banned the burkini, a modest form of swimsuit traditionally worn by Muslim women. Many were outraged upon the publication of a photograph showing French police forcing a Muslim woman at the beach to strip down.
The saga did not end there. This summer, the country’s top administrative court upheld the French Football Federation’s decision to bar women from wearing headscarves. The abaya ban thus fits into France’s legal history of undressing Muslim women.