The French government’s decision to ban schoolgirls from wearing the abaya is an example of the new Education Minister’s desire to please a far-right constituency and highlights the secular country’s complicated history with religion, experts say.
The exaggerated importance given to the abaya, reportedly worn by a few thousand secondary schoolgirls, finds its roots in the century-old idea that displaying signs of religiosity immediately undermines state authority, said Haoues Seniguer, a specialist on Islam at the Institute of Political Studies in Lyon.
“It’s a perfect example of a storm in a teacup. It contributes to creating a sense of moral panic,” he told The National.
“France is hypersensitive to the visible displays of religiosity, especially when it comes to Islam.”
Religious experts say the abaya is not a religious dress but the new Education Minister Gabriel Attal has equated it to “religious proselytism” and “communitarianism”, from which schools must be protected.
Headscarves, turbans, large crosses or kippas were outlawed in French schools in 2004. The abaya was considered to occupy a grey area between religious dress and fashion until its ban, announced on Sunday by Mr Attal.
The prohibition has drawn applause from the far-right and sharp criticism from the far-left political party La France Insoumise.
Its co-ordinator Manuel Bompard on Tuesday described it as “unconstitutional” and said his party would issue an official complaint to the Council of State, a public body that advises the government.
By polarising the debate on the abaya, described this summer as a “challenge” for schools on the front page of Le Parisien newspaper, politicians seem to want to shift the focus from more pressing issues.
They include low replacement rates for absent teachers and a 10 per cent yearly increase in the price of essential school supplies bought by parents.
“I do not think that the abaya is at the top of the mind of most French people,” said Mr Seniguer. “It’s an artificially constructed problem.”
Though the number of women who wear the abaya remains low, it has attracted attention because of its growth in popularity in recent years. Schools have increasingly flagged it as a breach of secular law.
Between the 2021-2022 and 2022-2023 school years, signs of infringement on secularism increased by 120 per cent, from 2,167 to 4,710, according to a confidential government note obtained by French daily Le Monde.
Rising popularity of abaya
The increase was due largely to the wearing of religious clothes such as abayas and khamis, a male garment, it said. Reports of religious clothing represented 15 to 20 per cent of infringements on secularism until spring 2022.
Such reports now exceed 40 per cent of breaches.
Infringements may include religious clothing, proselytising or refusing to participate in certain school activities.
There are 12 million schoolchildren in France, including more than 5.7 million in secondary education.
But the reason behind the increase in the popularity of the abaya and the khamis has been difficult to pinpoint.
Whether it is fashion, rebelliousness or a display of religious feelings, the figures need to be better understood, said Mr Seniguer.
“It’s true that some teenager girls wear it with religious intentions,” he said. “But is it up to the state to give a religious meaning to an outfit? I don’t think so.”
Questioned by Le Parisien on Tuesday, young adults described the abaya as “just a modesty outfit”.
“The risk is that nothing will be said to young white girls who arrive with long floral dresses, while young Arabs who wear plain covering dresses will have to undress,” Basma, a university student, told the newspaper.
By issuing a ban, Mr Attal is hoping to raise his public profile with right-wing and far-right wing voters, his critics say.
The 34-year-old politician and former government spokesman was appointed Education and Youth Minister in last month's government reshuffle.
He replaces his short-lived predecessor Pap Ndiaye, 57, an academic and historian of Senegalese origin who was criticised by the far-right for his alleged wokeism – a sensitivity to social injustice.
“Attal is trying to be the opposite of Pap Ndiaye,” said Mr Seniguer.
Mr Ndiaye had refused to take a strong position on the abaya, saying he would not regulate “the length of dresses”.
Until the ban, schoolteachers had to decide on a case-by-case basis whether or not the wearing of the abaya was a breach of secularism.
Mr Seniguer argues this approach would have best been continued.
“I understand why this can be difficult for school directors but we cannot lump all abaya-wearers in the same category,” he said, highlighting that some women in the Middle East wear the abaya but not a headscarf.
“Personally, I think it’s shocking that women are being told by men how to dress. It’s sexist.”