US panel denounces France abaya ban as intimidating Muslims

Commission on International Religious Freedom says 'condemnable to restrict the peaceful practice of individuals' religious beliefs'

A woman in Lille, northern France, on August 28, 2023. A US commission says banning girls from wearing the garment to school is misguided. AFP
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A US government advisory panel on Friday denounced ally France's ban on schoolgirls wearing abayas, saying the restriction on the long, flowing dresses was meant to “intimidate” the Muslim minority.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom has the job of making recommendations to the US government but does not set policy itself.

The commission's chairman, Abraham Cooper, called the abaya ban a “misguided effort to promote the French value of laicite”, the country's official secularism.

“France continues to wield a specific interpretation of secularism to target and intimidate religious groups, particularly Muslims,” Mr Cooper said.

“While no government should use its authority to impose a specific religion on its population, it is equally condemnable to restrict the peaceful practice of individuals' religious beliefs to promote secularism.”

French Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced last month that schools would no longer allow girls to wear abayas, the flowing dresses of Middle Eastern origin.

In 2004, France banned schoolchildren from wearing “signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” and outlawed headscarves, turbans, large crosses or kippahs.

But abayas had fallen into a grey area with some women saying that they wear them because of their cultural identity rather than religious belief.

Conservative French politicians have sought to widen restrictions. Far-right leader Marine Le Pen, who came in second to President Emmanuel Macron in last year's presidential election, has campaigned for the banning of wearing veils in the street.

The ban on the abaya was denounced in France by some Muslim leaders and by left-wing political leader Jean-Luc Melenchon, who called it a move to fan division.

The US Commission on International Religious Freedom is made up of appointees of both major political parties but some of its recommendations have been repeatedly ignored by the State Department, including its calls to condemn India.

The US also has a constitutional separation of church and state but interprets secularism differently, with the government imposing minimal restrictions related to religion.

Updated: September 09, 2023, 4:28 AM