'I am fearful': Muslim women in France speak out against the abaya ban

5 min read
08 September, 2023
France’s decision to ban Muslim girls from wearing abayas in state schools has ignited widespread condemnation from human rights organisations and Muslims globally. The New Arab interviewed three Muslim women in France who have been impacted.

Last month the French government announced it was banning abaya’s (long cloak worn by Muslim females) in state schools asserting that it broke the rules of secularism. 

The education minister, Gabriel Attal, told local French television network TVF1, “I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools,” maintaining that a person's religion should not be identifiable.

However, 15-year-old student Amira from Lyon, Southwest France, says she will not be removing her abaya.

“It’s part of my identity (the abaya), it’s part of me and I am fearful of having it forcibly removed just so that I can have an education, but I am determined not to remove it. I am in a critical year where I will be having exams and this is already affecting me," she tells The New Arab.

“I feel worried and anxious about going to school as I don’t know if they will turn me away or what the consequences of keeping it on will be,” she adds.

"If this is about secularism then shouldn’t we all have the basic right to have the freedom to choose what we wear?"

Amira is not alone, as dozens of girls were sent home for wearing the abaya, as the new school term began this week. According to official figures, there were 298 Muslim girls, mostly aged 15 and older, who turned up in abaya and 67 of those were sent home after refusing to remove the garment to come into school.

“If this is about secularism then shouldn’t we all have the basic right to have the freedom to choose what we wear? Some of my friends who wear abaya are so upset, some even feel like moving out of the country,” says Amira as her voice breaks.

Amira says not everyone agrees with the abaya ban, “Some of my friends from other faiths are angered too, they tell me what’s wrong with wearing a long dress? I feel supported by them, but not everyone is the same, there are some (students) that make me feel pressured to take it off and come back to school. They tell me the consequences will be worse if I don’t remove it.”

An organisation representing Muslims has submitted a formal request to the highest legal authority in France for grievances against the government's actions. The request seeks to challenge the prohibition of the abaya and a motion presented by the Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM) is currently under review.                                                                                                     

Laura, (name changed for confidentiality) is a mother of three girls and revert to Islam. She feels that the latest move by the government could be “detrimental” to young girls like her daughters.

“We all know that Islamophobia is a problem in this (France) country. First, there was a hijab ban then the burka ban and now the abaya. The government is acting under the guise of secularism but really this is about instilling more of a divide and isolating young Muslim girls,” she tells The New Arab.

The UN has also criticised France’s decision to ban the abaya stating that, ‘according to international human rights standards, restrictions on manifestations of religion or belief, including the choice of clothing, are only permitted in very limited circumstances, such as public safety, public order, health or morals.’

Laura believes that more organisations and rights groups should speak up worldwide. “What would you do if it was your daughter who had to face this kind of scrutiny at school just for wearing modest clothes? My daughter cried after being teased for wearing an abaya at school and this kind of bullying is reinforced by the government’s crackdown on Muslims in France and their preoccupation with what we (Muslim women) wear.”

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It’s a sentiment that is echoed by Fatima, a mother of one teenage girl and two boys who live in Paris.

“It’s a difficult time for us. My daughter wears the abaya and the ban is bringing on anxiety issues. Many young Muslim girls are having an internal conflict because, on one hand, they do want to comply with the laws but when the laws are so discriminatory they feel this is violating basic human rights,” Fatima says. 

France’s education minister Gabriel Attal had sent a letter home to the families of girls who refused to remove the abaya, saying that “secularism is not a constraint, it is a liberty”.

“If this is not a constraint to human rights I don’t know what is," Fatima continues. "My daughter had to remove it to go to school even though she didn’t want to. She can’t afford to miss her education over this but it’s a sad reality that we are faced with. I do hope that they reverse this decision and I know that activists are speaking out more now but who knows what the future will hold."

Tasnim Nazeer is an award-winning journalist, author, and Universal Peace Federation Ambassador. She has written for Al Jazeera, The Guardian, The Huffington Post, Middle East Eye, CNN, BBC, and others. She was awarded the FIPP global network of Media Rising Stars in 2018

Follow her on Twitter: @tasnimnazeer1