The French government’s decision to ban children in state-run schools from wearing the abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim women, has drawn criticism but also applause from the right.
Loubna Regui, president of the ELF-Muslim Students of France, told Al Jazeera the ban targeted immigrants and was “inherently racist”.
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“The abaya is known not to be a religious garment. It’s actually a cultural one although the government doesn’t seem to care about this information and still bans it, which is interesting because alongside Afghanistan and Iran, France is the only other country to legislate what women can and cannot wear,” Regui said.
Many on the left also denounced the move announced on Sunday, including Clementine Autain, a lawmaker for the France Insoumise party, who criticised what she called the “clothes police” and a move “characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims”.
France has enforced a ban on religious symbols in state schools since 2004 to uphold its strict brand of secularism, known as “laicite”. The topic is a sensitive one, regularly triggering political tension in the country.
Government spokesman Olivier Veran said on Monday the abaya was “obviously” religious and “a political attack, a political sign”. He deemed the wearing of the abaya to be an act of “proselytizing”.
‘Really a shame’
Some academics agreed the move could be counterproductive, all the more so because it touched on clothing they said was worn for fashion or identity rather than religion.
“It’s going to hurt Muslims in general. They will, once again, feel stigmatised,” sociologist Agnes De Feo said. “It’s really a shame because people will judge these young girls while it [the abaya] is a teenage expression without consequences.”
In 2004, France banned headscarves in schools and passed a ban on full face veils in public in 2010, angering some members of its more than five million-strong Muslim community and triggering the creation of private Muslim schools, De Feo said.
To enforce the ban on abayas in classrooms, Education Minister Gabriel Attal said 14,000 educational personnel in leadership positions would be trained by the end of this year and 300,000 personnel would be trained by 2025.
Voices were quickly raised against the plan to ban long robes from schools.
“For me, the abaya is not a religious garb. It’s a kind of fashion,” Abdallah Zekri, a leader of the French Council for the Muslim Faith, said on the news station BFMTV.
However, the head of the conservative Les Republicains party, Eric Ciotti, was quick to welcome Sunday’s move, which he said was long overdue.
Right-wing politician Eric Zemmour, head of the small Reconquest! party opposed to immigrants, posted on X: “Banning abayas is a good first step if it is applied.”
But Autain called the move “anti-constitutional”, asking, “How far will the clothes police go?”