What is France's abaya ban and why is it so controversial?

What is France's abaya ban and why is it so controversial?
France's decision to ban the abaya has been met with much controversy. But why did they ban it in the first place and why is it so controversial?
4 min read
08 September, 2023
French teachers and students join the picket lines in a strike against the French government's ban of the abaya in schools [Getty]

Last month, the government of France announced that it was banning the abaya in state schools. The move has caused a great deal of controversy, with French Muslims once again feeling under attack and isolated in their own country.

The New Arab breaks down the controversy around France's abaya ban.

What is the abaya?

The abaya is a loose-fitting dress worn by women.  Though the garment was historically worn around the world in different forms and among a plurality of religious cultures, it is now mostly found in the Muslim world and among Muslim communities. In France, it is exclusively related to the country’s Muslim minority and Muslim women in particular. Only some Muslim women and girls choose to wear the abaya.

Why has France banned it?

France adheres to a strict constitutional tradition of secularism and the separation of any religious influence from every aspect of the state known as laicite.

Citing this, the French government have claimed that the wearing of the abaya by young Muslim women in schools undermines the adherence to secularism in education.

Live Story

Why is the ban so controversial?

The ban has caused much consternation among Muslims because many see it as the French government using laicite to single out and attack their religious freedoms. More generally, even non-Muslim political figures have criticised the ban for blurring the lines between the constitutional demand of secularism and freedom of expression and religion.

Many feminist critics see it as an example of the policing of how women dress by a male-dominated government. Some have even linked France's attitudes to Muslims to its recent history of colonialism in Algeria, claiming it continues to consider French Muslims - many of whom originate from France's former colonies - more like colonial subjects to be ruled rather than equal citizens. 

Under French President Emmanuel Macron, many critics have noted that his policies towards Muslims have been laced with a hostility that is considered Islamophobic. For example, France under Macron introduced a controversial ‘anti-separatism’ bill in 2021, which critics assert essentially further polices the behaviours and practices of French Muslims.

Others note that Macron has increasingly attempted to mimic or even outdo the Islamophobic far-right in France in order to win their votes. It is notable that the abaya ban was widely popular with French far-right figures, including Macron's main presidential rival Marine Le Pen.

With French Muslims facing widespread institutional and societal discrimination, the government attempting to control how Muslims dress is seen as perpetuating such discrimination and further alienating Muslims. Critics have argued it could further drive Muslim women out of education, given some won’t feel comfortable being forced to dress in a manner with which they’re not comfortable.

What has the reaction been to it?

Many Muslim girls have simply refused to stop wearing it. Hundreds of female Muslim pupils attended school wearing the abaya after the ban came into effect. Though many were forced to change dress, some refused and were sent home. In one school, teachers and students went on strike against what they called the government's "Islamophobic policy". 

In an example of what many would cite is the counterintuitive nature of the ban, one Muslim father was arrested and held by French police for threatening school principle after his daughter was prohibited from entering school while wearing the abaya.

Live Story

Critics argue that bans like this are likely to push Muslims further to the fringes and towards ideologies that are hostile to the French government and a perceived French society that doesn’t accept their religious expressions.

Following the announcement of the ban, a group called Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM) filed a request with France’s highest court for complaints against public authorities for an injunction against the ban. ADM’s injunction claimed the ban was “discriminatory” and could “incite hatred” against Muslims. The court, however, did not agree and dismissed the case. Other groups representing Muslims are considering more legal action.

Has France imposed other similar measures on dress before?

In 2004, under then President Jacques Chirac, France infamously introduced a ban on “all religious signs” from schools.

While this included Christian crucifixes and Jewish kippahs, it was noted at the time that the legislation was aimed at Muslim female pupils wearing the headscarf. The niqab has also been banned under the same legislation.

More recently, as part of the ‘anti-separatism’ act, France introduced a “neutrality principle”, which stopped female Muslim civil servants wearing the hijab or any other ostensibly religious dress.