Opponents of the French Government’s decision to ban abayas in schools were awaiting a ruling on Thursday from the Conseil d’état (state council), the highest court for complaints against state authorities, on whether or not to suspend the new rule.
Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced last week that he was introducing a ban on the garment – a robe-like dress worn by some Muslim women – because he said it went against France’s rules on secularism (laïcité) in education.
Laïcité is a constitutional principle in France requiring the separation of religious and government affairs, and of a person’s private religious practices and their participation in the public sphere. This involves restrictions on wearing conspicuous religious symbols in public schools, including, for example, Christian crosses, Sikh turbans and Muslim hijabs.
Proponents argue that laïcité promotes freedom of thought and religion, while opponents believe that it limits a person’s right to freedom of religious expression.
When pupils returned to school in France this week, some 300 girls were reported to have defied the new rule and arrived in an abaya, but Mr Attal said that the “vast majority” agreed to take it off. However, 67 did not, and were sent home with a letter for their parents stating that “secularism is not a constraint, it is a liberty.”
The state council has been asked to suspend the rule by Action Droits des Musulmans (ADM), an association representing Muslims in France which argues that abayas are not a religious, but a cultural garment, and that the ban is an attack on the right to education and to a private life.
Vincent Brengarth, the lawyer representing the organisation, told i: “The best demonstration of the fact that it is not by its nature a religious garment is that it can be worn by everyone.
“If a ‘Mrs Smith’ wore an abaya it would not be interpreted as religious.
“There are signs or outfits that have always been seen, ostensibly, to be religious – the kippah for example, or the Catholic cross – they don’t only refer to a religious practice but they can only be worn by people who have that connection with the religion.”
He argued that in the case of the abaya however, “the law on secularism is not being broken; this is something cultural.
“This is a very sensitive issue. There is a growing societal movement to the extreme right. It goes back to the discourse against immigration and it will only make it worse.
“I think the religious argument [about banning abayas in schools] is a bit of a cover for something else. I think that there is a section of public opinion which – whether it is religious or not – connects this garment with a tradition which is not their own; there is a lack of understanding and therefore an intolerance.”
Mr Brengarth added that he believes that this change plays into a view that the abaya “does not conform with our political and cultural identity” in France.
He also criticised the way in which the issue is being illustrated by French news articles, where school pupils are sometimes being shown covered head to toe.
“It is false that the abaya is systematically accompanied by a hijab and it is not a garment that covers the head. In addition to being false, I think that it gives people a warped sense of reality,” he said.
Mr Brengarth added that there is a “risk” that girls who refuse to take their abaya off when told will miss out on schooling because of the ban, and said he has heard testimonies of students who were wrongly identified as wearing the garment by teachers just because what they were wearing was loose and long.
This may be because “this ban has not been defined in any way,” he continued. “The Education Minister does not define, in his ruling, what can be considered to be an abaya. We have gathered together several testimonies which shows that there are pupils who entered their school buildings and were stopped by staff because they were wearing loose clothing, but not an abaya.
“They decided it was an abaya probably because the garment was worn by women who could – based on their origins, their appearance – belong to a certain religion.”
Benoît Del Torchio, a science teacher at the Maurice-Utrillo high school on the outskirts of Paris, is taking part in a strike involving half of the teaching staff. He told i that he did not want to become “the clothes police”.
“We did not become teachers to do this, but to teach in decent conditions,” he said.
“It is difficult to say what an abaya is. We don’t know the criteria.”
He added that he and his colleagues want to “uncouple themselves from the racist policy of this Government,” which he said is seeking to “stigmatise” a portion of society in order to “avoid” having to face up to “the lack of resources in public services”.
Mr Del Torchio and his colleagues were joined by some local school pupils when they demonstrated outside the school on Wednesday, with one telling Franceinfo: “Freedom is being able to wear what we want.”
Another told the news outlet that she “feel[s] like Muslims are being targeted again,” and that the abaya “is just an item of clothing, not a religious symbol.”
On Monday, President Emmanuel Macron defended the ban, saying in an interview on YouTube chancel HugoDécrypte that “school must remain a neutral place”.
“It’s respectful, it’s benevolent, it’s secularism. We’re not preventing them from having a faith, but that does not have a place in school.”
He added that a “minority” in France “hijack a religion and challenge the republic and secularism,” and that that had “sometimes” led to the “worst” consequences. “We cannot act as if we did not have the terrorist attack and murderer of Samuel Paty,” a teacher who was beheaded after he allegedly showed his class cartoons of the prophet Muhammad.