13 September 2023, The Hague

The ban on the Abaya in French schools, announced by Education Minister Gabriel Atta only a few days before the start of the new school year, fits seamlessly into a sad series of Islamophobically motivated laws in France, which began in 2004 with the ban on the hijab at schools.

While the French government talks about “conspicuous religious symbols” and the “protection of secularism” in its ongoing ban campaign, the public discussion on this law and others quickly makes clear what it is really about: Muslims and Islam.

The new ban on the Abaya in schools, however, is more than “just” the prohibition of a particular garment as part of the ban on anything manifestly religious in public spaces.

Although the Abaya is commonly associated with the Arab and North African region because it is worn by many women there – which nevertheless does not make it a religious symbol, at most a cultural one -, there are no clear characteristics that make a garment an Abaya other than that it is a floor- or ankle-length dress with long sleeves.

Apart from this, Abayas come in a wide variety of colours and embellishments. There are Abayas in A-line, butterfly or straight cuts, with wide trumpet sleeves, buttons, zippers, belts or completely plain. Many Muslim women wear maxi dresses from well-known fashion chains as Abayas, just like their non-Muslim counterparts.

And this is where we get to the heart of the problem, because even the French Ministry of Education does not provide a clear definition of what an Abaya is. However, looking at the Ministry of Education’s reasoning, it becomes clear that an abaya is 

  • a long dress
  • worn by a woman
  • of Muslim faith 

This view is also reflected in initial reports from a secondary school in Lyon:

Before school starts, teachers stand at the entrance to check clothes. Female students who attract their attention are sent to the headmaster, who in turn decides who has to go home to change.

One girl wears trousers, a T-shirt and over it a kimono, a kind of long cadigan that is open at the front. She is sent home to change. So is another girl who used to wear a classic abaya and has now opted for a long summer dress. She is told to change while two of her friends are allowed to go to class in a similar outfit. She thinks it is because the teachers saw her when she took off her headscarf in front of the school. 

Other girls are also looking for alternatives, long skirts and loose blouses perhaps? They are stressed because they don’t know if the particular outfit is ok or not. Others are to the point of wanting to drop out of school. They feel monitored, discriminated against, restricted in their personal freedom and treated unfairly.

The French government, however, sees things differently:

It is about schools welcoming all pupils, with the same rights and duties, without discrimination and stigmatisation, says the French education minister. Furthermore, pupils should not be able to be identified as belonging to a religion on the basis of their appearance, and finally, schools also serve to emancipate themselves – but unfortunately not from discrimination by the state. A very narrow, not to say completely twisted perception of reality.

The French Supreme Court also ruled that the abaya ban was permissible under the 2004 law banning the hijab in schools and did not constitute a serious and manifestly unlawful interference with fundamental freedoms. A mockery for all concerned.

Two reasons are usually given for the French government’s Islamophobic policy of prohibition, which mainly affects Muslim women: French secularism and the protection or emancipation of women.

However, if one looks into French history, one can see what lies behind these phrases.

French laïcité was originally based on the idea that the state must be protected from the harmful influences of the (Catholic) Church as an institution. Beyond that, however, it also includes the protection and equality of all religions. Laïcité was enshrined in the constitution in 1958; the legal separation of state and church had already taken place in 1905.

But France’s fight against the hijab, the Muslim woman and Islam began much earlier and is rooted in its colonial history.

Colonial “Unveiling” – Forced Assimilation in the Name of Liberation

During the French colonial rule over Algeria and Tunisia from 1830 onwards, there were repeated “unveilings” of Muslim women, including staged “liberation marches”, most recently in 1958, in which the participating women demonstratively took off their traditional dresses and hijabs. The fact that a large number of these women were forced to do so by threats of job loss or even the execution of imprisoned family members remained unknown for a long time.

The liberation of Muslim women was one of the core arguments of the French “mission civilisatrice”, the idea that French colonial rule would improve the lives and society of the “racially inferior” Muslims in the colonies. The hijab served as a kind of yardstick for the progress of civilisation. 

Hypocrisy of “Secularism” and “Women’s Rights” Justifications

French feminism from the early 20th century onwards also used the image of the oppressed Muslim woman who had to be protected and liberated. In doing so, they paid little attention to the voices of those they claimed to represent and rather used the discourse for their own domestic political interests within France. Meanwhile, women in the colonies were raped by French soldiers, their families were killed, they were deprived of their economic livelihoods, and there could be little talk of education in the two-class system of the French colonial masters.

In 1954, 98% of Algerian women were illiterate.

It is clear, however, that the roots of the French government’s prohibitions, paternalism and “unveiling” of Muslim women go back a long way. 

It is about the sovereignty of interpretation of how a “modern” and self-determined woman has to be. It is about power. It is about cultural assimilation. And this shows that France has by no means discarded its colonial mindset, the idea of the superiority of the French, the idea of the “mission civilisatrice”.

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