The abaya ban – how the French government instrumentalises the principle of laïcité

The abaya ban – how the French government instrumentalises the principle of laïcité

In late August last year France’s Minister of Education declared that wearing the abaya would no longer be permitted in public schools. Narrative Change Academy participant Yasmine Djidel shares her thoughts on this long-standing issue. She sheds light on the principle of the separation of church and state in France from a historical perspective and places recent developments within this context.

“I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools […] when you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils‘ religion just by looking at them,“[1] said Gabriel Attal, former French Education Minister and freshly appointed Prime Minister. This is how the French government decided to ring in the back-to-school season in 2023 despite more pressing concerns regarding schools.  According to an investigation by Sneas-Fsu, 48% of schools in France are currently lacking teachers. However, the government decided to divert public attention away from this significant issue by creating another controversy involving Muslims. To justify this ban, Attal argues that the wearing of abayas is a breach of the famous French principle of secularism, otherwise known as laïcité.

What is laïcité? Where does it come from?

Laïcité comes from the famous 1905 French law on the Separation of the Churches and the State. Articles 1 and 2 of this law base the principle of laïcité on three fundamental rules: the freedom of religion within the limits of public order, the neutrality of the state and its organs; and the equality of all before the law, whatever their beliefs or convictions. To understand the complexities of this law, we must first look into the historical causes leading to its adoption in 1905.

Some centuries ago, the French Revolution (1789-1799) drastically changed the place held by the Clergy in French society. During the ancien régime (before 1789), the Church enjoyed vast privileges, owned many properties, and had vast influence and power across society. The French Revolution put an end to this hegemony by reducing the power of the Church and putting it under the control of the State. Nevertheless, during the 19th century, the place of the Church was still widely discussed, especially inside Parliament, where Republicans advocated for reducing the influence of the church, and Monarchists and Conservatives advocated for a strong Church-state bond. The establishment of the Third Republic (in 1870) marked a climax in tensions between the Republicans, the Catholic Church and Monarchist groups. Indeed, by the late 19th century, there was a strong anticlerical movement – particularly among the radical left who believed that the stability of the Republic was threatened by the Church and its supporters. An anticlerical campaign was developed by 1880 that vilified the Church to rally French public opinion to join this movement.

The breaking point happened in the summer of 1904 when the Third Republic, led by Émile Combes, adopted the “Combes Law”. This law consisted of a series of anticlerical measures that aimed to reduce the influence of the Catholic Church. The most important measure was the one forbidding religious congregations from teaching in both public and private schools unless they were given formal authorisation by the government. Due to this measure, more than 2,500 religious schools were closed. This led to a major diplomatic crisis between the Vatican and France, which broke off all diplomatic relations with France on July 30, 1904. Paris called its ambassador back and closed its Vatican embassy. It took seventeen years for France and the Vatican to reconcile.

It is in this specific context (mixed with the Dreyfus Affair public backlash) that the law on the Separation of the Churches and the State came into life in 1905. Paul Deschanel, a member of Parliament at the time, described the law as “a moderate law, one that could not be denounced as a law of persecution and hatred”[2] at the end of the debates adopting this law. As Anastasia Colosimo, Professor of Political Theology at the Institut Montaigne said about the principle of laïcité, it is “the product of a long evolution of the relationship between the Church and the State”[3]. French secularism originated from the will to put an end to the hegemony of the Clergy and its malversations over society.

The school’s director argued that the headscarves are a threat to "secular serenity", although no legislation characterises the wearing of religious symbols as a breach to laïcité

What about today? Why do we hear about this law so often?

Today, more than a century after the adoption of the 1905 law, with numerous waves of immigration, laïcité is back in the public eye. This has especially been the case since 2004 with the adoption of the law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools under the presidency of right-wing politician Jacques Chirac. This law bans the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols such as the hijab, the kippah and crosses that have an excessive size in French primary and secondary schools. This political-oriented law was adopted after years of public debate over the wearing of religious signs at school; especially since the 1989 Creil “headscarf affair”, which is considered one of the first controversies over the wearing of the hijab at school.

To contextualise this event, three Muslim students were expelled from the Gabriel-Havez secondary school in Creil because they refused to remove their headscarves. The school’s director argued that the headscarves worn by the students are a threat to “secular serenity”[4], although no legislation characterises the wearing of religious symbols as a breach to laïcité. This case caused huge public debate that led the then-prime minister Lionel Jospin to ask the Conseil d’État (French highest administrative court) whether or not this was a violation of the principle of laicité. The Conseil d’État concluded that pupils have the freedom to express and manifest their beliefs in schools, while respecting pluralism and the freedom of others, and without prejudice to teaching activities, curriculum content or to the obligation of attendance. As long as the wearing of religious symbols would not appear in concreto as “an act of pressure, provocation, proselytism or propaganda”[5], the Conseil d’État concluded that such an act does not constitute a violation of the principle.

As expected, this legal-opinion did not calm the debate – quite the contrary. The French Iranian sociologist Farhad Khosrokhavar pointed out the fact that before this affair, “we weren’t talking about Islam. With Creil, we realise that the religious problem, which we thought had been settled since the 1960s, can resurface and that there is a problem linked to the place of Muslims in French society“[6]. Similar controversies occurred in other French schools, fuelling the debate that led to the adoption of the 2004 law, which expressively states that this interdiction applies the principle of laicité, definitively linking the two together. The adoption of this law opened the door to “many actors to promote extensive interpretations of the 2004 regime – not only inside schools but around schools as well, thus nurturing the idea that laïcité entails religious neutrality in a variety of social settings. To the extent that the past decade can be read as having witnessed a genuine reversal of the meaning of laïcité with respect to private individuals, it no longer serves as a guarantee of religious freedom but as its antonym”[7], as underlined by Stéphanie Hennette Vauchez, Professor of Public Law at the University of Nanterre. It is exactly through this pandora box of a law that Attal has legally justified his abaya ban, identifying the abaya as a symbol that is part of “a logic of religious affirmation”[8].

In reality, how women, especially North African Muslim women, dress has always been a French obsession. Some even call this obsession a “symptom of postcolonial rape culture”[9]. Indeed, already during the French colonisation of Algeria, the French government was obsessed with dictating how Muslim women should dress. The government engaged in wide propaganda campaigns accompanied by public unveiling ceremonies during which they forcefully took off the headscarves of women in front of the crowd as a sort of public punishment in a logic to annihilate the Algerian-Muslim identity and assert their authority.

The body of the Muslim woman has always been an object of surveillance on which White and Western authority has been asserted

Frantz Fanon analysed this colonial obsession during the Algerian war (1954-1962) in his book, A Dying Colonialism. In his book, Fanon says, “the European experiences his relation with the Algerian woman at a highly complex level. There is in it the will to bring this woman within his reach, to make her a possible object of possession. This woman who sees without being seen frustrates the colonizer. There is no reciprocity. She does not yield herself, does not give herself, does not offer herself.”[10] The body of the Muslim woman has always been an object of surveillance on which White and Western authority has been asserted. Unfortunately, it seems that more than 61 years after the Algerian war, this colonial trope left some marks on the way the French government and most of French society envision Muslim women.

Surprisingly enough (not at all, though, really), when asked how they planned to detect which dresses are abayas, the French government responded that they would do trainings to teach the heads of schools about this form of dress. I would personally love to assist one of those trainings. I, for instance, Yasmine, a French person of Algerian descent, have worn abayas all my life as my go-to dress when I didn’t feel like dressing up. That being said, I cannot honestly answer the question: “What is an abaya?” The abaya originally appeared to come from traditional Bedouin clothing, worn by women from the desert to protect themselves from the sun and loose because of extreme heat. The richness of our Arab cultures, globalisation and also gentrification gave us different types of abayas (that even Anna Wintour would die for); from traditional Tunisian jebbas to the infamous bling-bling Dubai abayas, short abayas, long abayas, long-sleeve abayas, short-sleeve abayas, abayas with a decoletté, abayas without a décolleté, and I could go on and on… I honestly cannot tell what constitutes an abaya nowadays, and surely, I am not the only one. Last I heard, abayas are not a religious clothing, when I pray, I do not put on my latest bling-bling Dubai abaya with glitter and sequins. But who am I? I’m not an imam, neither am I a Muslim scholar, so maybe I am wrong…

The French Council of the Muslim Faith, a nationally-elected body created in 2003 at the initiative of former President Nicolas Sarkozy, published a statement regarding the “muslimanity” (pardon this neologism) of abayas. According to the Council, abayas have never been “a religious garment”[11], although they may testify to one’s ethnic background. Maybe that is a part of the problem…

It seems that the judgement on what constitutes an abaya is not the abaya in itself, but mainly the ethnicity of the person who is wearing it

Today, four months after this abaya ban, several young women have come forward to speak up about the treatment they have received from their teachers and principals because of it. Interviewed by Revolution Permanente, Khadijah, a young woman from Créteil explained that her school principal told her that because of her loose dress, they were not able to “see (her) shapes enough”[12], and to that she responded, “Sir, I’m a teenager, my body changes, I don’t necessarily want to show it to everyone. What am I supposed to wear, a mini skirt and a crop top?“[13]. Isn’t that appalling?

All in all, the abaya ban is yet another example of how the French government has altered the principle of laïcité from its very first aim. The principle no longer guarantees religious groups to exercise their religious freedoms but now serves as a legal weapon to target Islam and French Muslims. This ban has opened the door to even more racial profiling in schools, and, in practice, it seems that the judgement on what constitutes an abaya is not the abaya in itself, but mainly the ethnicity of the person who is wearing it… This is actively contributing to and feeding the current rise of racism and islamophobia in France; also giving in to the hypersexualisation of young women and especially young racialized women in our society… When will it be enough?

[1] French Education Minister bans abayas in schools

[2] Guerlac, O. (1908). The Separation of Church and State in France. Political Science Quarterly, 23(2), 259–296. Separation of Church and State in France | Political Science Quarterly | Oxford Academic

[3] Laïcité: Why French Secularism is So Hard to Grasp | Institut Montaigne

[4] France’s century-long crusade against religious symbols at school, from the crucifix to the abaya

[5] Avis n° 346.893 du Conseil d’Etat – 27/11/1989 – Port du foulard islamique – APHP DAJDP

[6] France’s century-long crusade against religious symbols at school, from the crucifix to the abaya

[7] Is French laïcité Still Liberal? The Republican Project under Pressure (2004–15) | Human Rights Law Review | Oxford Academic

[8] New French education minister bans abaya dresses in schools

[9] L’obsession pour l’abaya: symptôme d’une culture du viol postcoloniale | Le Club

[10] Fanon, F. A Dying Colonialism, 1959.

[11] Communiqué: Une tenue ne saurait être religieuse par simple suspicion – CFCM

[12] « Le directeur m’a dit ‘on ne voit pas assez vos formes‘ » : des lycéennes racontent la chasse aux abayas

[13] Ibid.

  • by Yasmine Djidel
  • on 25. January 2024