In August, 2023, the French education minister, Gabriel Attal, put the prohibition in place, saying that the garment breached the “principle of secularism”.
The top administrative court in France has upheld a government ban on the wearing of the abaya in schools. Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM) had filed the motion with the State Council, seeking an injunction against the ban, claiming it was discriminatory and might incite hatred against the Muslim community.
The Conseil d’État – or State Council, dismissed complaints that the ban was discriminatory and could potentially incite hatred and serious illegal harm to respect for personal lives, freedom of religion, the right to education, the wellbeing of children, or the principle of non-discrimination.
Staying true to the French law of secularism, a pillar of the Republic since 1905, the State Council found that wearing the garments “follows the logic of religious affirmation”. Separation of religion and state is a core principle of French law, and the abaya ban was upheld based on that fact, which does not allow anyone to wear visible signs of any religious affiliation in schools.
Ahead of the court’s ruling, France’s Council of the Muslim Faith had raised concerns that the banning of the abaya could create “an elevated risk of discrimination” against Muslims, both schoolchildren and older. ADM’s lawyer, Vincent Brengarth, had argued during the court hearing that the abaya should be considered a traditional garment, not a religious one, and accused the French government of using the ban to further its political aims. Taking to social media after the Council’s decision, he condemned the move, writing: “A very unmotivated decision after a hearing of nearly two hours. This decision, which simply endorses the government’s position, is not up to the challenge”.
The State Council has previously overturned bans seen as discriminatory to those of the Muslim faith. In 2016, they reversed a prohibition against the ‘burkini’ – a swimsuit which covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet – saying it was not a threat to public order. More recently, though, the abaya ban has caused uproar from both sides of the political fence. Since pupils went back to class on 4 September, dozens of girls have been sent home for refusing to remove their abayas.
While flouting the ban may anger some who think it’s a solid idea, a psychology expert Bayu Prihandito says that it could lead to an identity crisis “Adolescence is a critical period for building our identity. The abaya, for many, isn’t just attire but a symbol of faith, culture, and personal choice”, Prihandito explains, adding, “Restricting its use can lead to an identity crisis, where students struggle with questions about who they are and where they can fit within the society”.
France has enforced vetoes on religious symbols in state schools since 2004, including forbidding headscarves in schools and full face veils in public. Known as laïcité, it’s a strict brand of secularism and one which has proved divisive, regularly triggering political tension in the country. The more than five million-strong Muslim community have frequently spoken out against the decisions.