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France has just banned school children from wearing abayas (a type of robe popular with Muslim women). Let’s discuss why France has banned any religious clothes or symbols from public schools and talk about France’s unique form of secularism!

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  • Multiculturalism (n): The coexistence of diverse cultural, ethnic, and religious groups within a society.
    • France’s multiculturalism has contributed to its rich tapestry of traditions and beliefs.
  • Secularism (n): The principle of separating religion from government and public institutions.
    • France’s commitment to secularism ensures that religious institutions do not have undue influence on its government and public spaces.
  • Secular (adj): Related to things that are not religious or spiritual in nature, or not affiliated with any particular religion.
    • In a secular society, public schools are expected to maintain a secular environment without religious influences.
  • To prohibit (v): To formally forbid or disallow something by law, rule, or authority.
    • France has prohibited the wearing of conspicuous religious symbols in public schools.
  • Policy (n): A set of principles, guidelines, or rules that dictate how decisions are made and actions are taken within an organization or government.
    • France’s policy on religious clothing in schools reflects its commitment to secularism.
  • Neutrality (n): The state of being impartial or not taking sides in a conflict, dispute, or issue.
    • The principle of neutrality ensures that public institutions, like schools, do not favour any particular religion.
  • Conspicuous (adj): Easily noticeable or standing out due to being prominent, obvious, or striking.
    • The ban on conspicuous religious symbols in French schools aims to maintain a neutral educational environment.
  • Citizenship (n): The status of being a member of a particular country and enjoying the rights and responsibilities that come with it.
    • Encouraging citizenship and social integration is one of the goals of the ban on religious clothing in French schools.

What is Happening?

At the beginning of September, thousands of French children returned to school after enjoying their summer vacations. But dozens of girls were turned away from the school gates due to their choice of clothing.

France has now officially banned the abaya, a type of long robe most popular among Muslim women in parts of the Middle East and Africa, from public school in the country.

According to government figures, 298 girls in the country were stopped from entering the classroom in various parts of the country, with 67 refusing to change clothes and being sent home.

This is not the first-time religious clothing has caused controversy in French schools. Islamic headscarves (along with Jewish skullcaps and Christian crosses) have been banned in schools since 2004.

Today, I’d like to explore this topic in more detail. Let’s discuss France’s unique secular society, why France is banning religious clothing in schools, and why the policy is very popular in the country!

France and Islam

First, I think it is important to take a look at the historical background and context of France’s complex relationship with its Muslim population. Understanding this history can help us understand the reasons behind the recent bans on Muslim clothing in schools.

France has a deep-rooted connection with Islam that dates back centuries. This connection was primarily established through trade, diplomacy, and migration. French colonial history, particularly in North Africa, has left an enduring impact on the nation’s demographics and culture.

France is home to one of the largest Muslim populations in Europe. The majority of French Muslims are descendants of immigrants from former colonies, particularly Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia. The Muslim community has grown and diversified over the years, making France an incredibly multicultural community.

While this multiculturalism has brought massive benefits to French society, it has also brought challenges. In particular, combining a diverse population with France’s religious policies has caused problems.  

If you come from a country with a tradition of liberal multiculturalism (like the UK or Germany), France’s restrictions of Islamic clothing in schools may seem like the opposite of the right to religious freedom. But in France, it is seen as necessary, accepted, and even popular.


France and Religion

To understand France’s approach to religion, we must discuss with the concept of “laïcité,” which translates in English to secularism. Laïcité is enshrined in the French Constitution, emphasizing the separation of church and state.

Laïcité was a product of 18th century Enlightenment philosphy. I’ve talked a little about the enlightenment before (in an episode on the French Revolution) – and one of the key themes was a rejection of the Catholic church from public society.

This French form of secularism became a law in 1905. The policy is designed to do three things: protect the right of people to believe in religion; protect the right of people not to believe in religion; and make sure the government and public institutions (including schools) are neutral when it comes to religion.

It applies in a number of different areas of public life. In French hospitals, for example, employees are not allowed to wear religious clothing and French society has a general aversion to open displays of religion in public. Religion is seen as a private thing to be conducted in private spaces – public buildings, hospitals, and schools are not private spaces.  

France’s secularism in schools came as a reaction to the traditional dominance of Catholic churches in schools. 100 years ago, secular politicians were fighting Catholic churches for control of schools, and the result was a policy designed to stop schools having any religious influence.

Balancing this secular ideal with the diverse religious and cultural practices of its citizens has proven to be a delicate task. Issues surrounding identity, cultural clashes, and religious freedom have become prominent in recent decades, especially in the context of schools.

Previous Bans on Religious Clothing in France

As I’ve mentioned, France has a long-standing tradition of secularism, enshrined in the French Constitution since 1905. This principle separates religion from public institutions and spaces, including schools. Over the years, this has led to several bans on religious symbols in educational institutions.

The most significant of these bans came in 2004 when France prohibited students from wearing “conspicuous” religious symbols in public schools. This included the Muslim headscarf (hijab), Jewish skullcaps, and large Christian crosses. It targeted any clear and direct symbol of religion.

In 2010, France took a further controversial step by banning the full-face veil, such as the niqab or burqa, in public spaces. The law argued that facial coverings posed a security risk and hindered communication in a social setting.

And some of you may remember the controversy in 2016 in which France, or some French towns and regions, considered banning the burkini – a form of full-body swimsuit which allowed Muslim women to swim in pools and at the beach.

These bans were justified under the principles of secularism and the need to maintain a neutral environment in public institutions.

In 2020, a French school teacher who showed images of the Prophet Muhammed in his class as part of a free speech discussion, was killed by a religious fanatic. Since then, the government has become even more committed to ensuring secularism in schools – and that no one is exempt to this.  

Fast forward to the present, and France is again in the middle of another contentious debate. France’s education minister, Gabriel Attal, has announced a ban on abayas, full-length robes worn by some Muslim women, in public schools.

The Ban on Abayas in French Schools

Abayas are loose-fitting, full-length robes worn by some women in parts of the Middle East and Africa. It covers the whole body, excluding the head, neck, and feet, and tends to be predominantly worn by Muslim women who choose to follow the Quran’s teachings on modesty.

However, unlike certain religious symbols, the abaya does not have a clear religious significance. Many people argue that rather than being a specifically Islamic dress it is an Arabic cultural dress.

As such, it has existed in a grey area, and it has become a subject of debate in France. The law in 2004 banned “conspicuous” signs of religion. This clearly meant Islamic headscarves, but until now no one was sure about the abaya.

Over the past few years, the abaya has become more popular in France. Schools had asked the government for guidance as they noticed the abaya being encouraged and promoted on social media and by Muslim community groups in the country.

France has now decided that abayas are a religious symbol, and at the end of August they decided to ban the abaya in schools for the coming year.

According to France’s Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, abayas have no place in schools. In a TV interview, he said “When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them… I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools.”

Mr. Attal argued that when entering a classroom, students’ religious affiliations should not be discernible. The ban on abayas is framed as an effort to maintain this sense of neutrality, preventing any ostentatious religious symbols from being displayed.

And it has been a very popular policy so far. 81% of French people support the ban of abayas in school.  

In recent years, incidents related to laïcité reported by school officials have surged, with hundreds of cases per month among the student population. France’s education system has witnessed growing debates around secularism, making schools a focal point for discussions about the balance between individual religious expression and the state’s commitment to neutrality.

The ban on abayas has generated diverse reactions. School administration unions have welcomed it, as it provides clarity on how to address the issue uniformly. Teacher unions have been more cautious, with some considering it a political move by President Emmanuel Macron.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith and some opposition parties argue that the abaya is not inherently religious but tied to Arab culture. They emphasize the importance of not allowing the government to determine what constitutes a religious symbol.

Debates and Perspectives on the Abaya Ban

Let’s take a deeper look at the debates and various perspectives surrounding the ban on abayas in French schools.

Supporters of the Ban:

  1. Preservation of Laïcité: Those in favour of the ban argue that it upholds the fundamental principle of laïcité, which has a significant historical and cultural role in France. They contend that maintaining neutrality in schools is crucial for encouraging citizenship and protecting students from religious influences.
  2. Equality and Integration: Supporters of the ban argue that it promotes equality in French schools. They believe it helps students from various backgrounds integrate into society.
  3. Uniformity and Clarity: School administration unions support the ban as it provides clear, consistent guidelines for handling abayas across all schools. This ensures that the decision is not left to individual headmasters and minimizes potential discrepancies.

Opponents of the Ban:

  1. Disproportionate Measure: Critics, including some politicians, view the nationwide abaya ban as an overreaction. They argue that it brings undue attention to an issue that affects only a small number of students and could have been handled with more discretion.
  2. Fear of Discrimination: The French Council of the Muslim Faith contends that unless all long dresses are banned regardless of religious affiliation, targeting the abaya specifically may lead to discrimination. They emphasize the importance of not allowing the government to define what is religious or cultural.
  3. Islamophobia: Others argue that France’s secular policies target Muslims disproportionately.

The ban has exposed a political divide in France. While right-wing parties have largely supported it, left-wing parties are divided. Some leftist politicians view it as an attack on Muslim communities, while others argue that when abayas are worn as ostentatious religious symbols, they violate the 2004 law banning religious symbols in schools.

The core issue underlying these debates is the balance between individual freedoms and societal responsibility. It raises questions about whether schools should regulate what students wear and to what extent, and whether such regulations could lead to discrimination or uphold secularism.

Final Thought

The ban on religious clothing, including the abaya, in French schools is a complex issue that reflects France’s commitment to secularism. France’s multicultural society has both benefited the nation and posed challenges when it comes to keeping a secular environment in public institutions like schools.

The ban on religious symbols is rooted in the principle of laïcité, which emphasizes the separation of church and state. It aims to preserve neutrality in schools, foster citizenship, and protect students from religious influences.

The debate over the abaya ban highlights the delicate balance between individual freedoms and societal responsibilities. It forces us to question the extent to which schools should regulate student clothing and whether such regulations can really maintain secularism without inadvertently targeting specific religious or cultural practices.

In a country where these debates are passionate and complex, understanding France’s unique approach to secularism is essential. Ultimately, the ban on religious clothing in schools reflects a broader conversation about the place of religion in public life!

What do you think? Should the government choose the kind of clothes school children can wear?

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By Tom Wilkinson

Host and founder of Thinking in English, Tom is committed to providing quality and interesting content to all English learners. Previously a research student at a top Japanese university and with a background in English teaching, political research, and Asian languages, Tom is now working fulltime on bettering Thinking in English!

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