‘Islamophobic policy’: French high school goes on strike over abaya ban

Teachers and students of a school in the Seine-Saint-Denis suburb are protesting against the government’s new measures.

A Muslim woman walks in a street in Nantes, France [File: Stephane Mahe/Reuters]

Teachers and students of a French high school have gone on strike in protest against the government’s decision to ban abaya and qamis – long and loose garments worn by some Muslim women and men, respectively – in public schools.

“We want to distance ourselves from the government’s Islamophobic policy,” read a statement from the protest group at the Maurice Utrillo high school in Stains, Seine-Saint-Denis, calling for a strike which started on Wednesday.

“Students must be welcomed at the Maurice Utrillo high school and we do not have to police the clothing. We refuse to stigmatise students who wear an abaya or a qamis.”

Seine-Saint-Denis, which is northeast of Paris, is an impoverished suburb – or banlieue – where many residents have ancestry in Africa and the Middle East.

The school’s decision follows a government ban on the two outfits for schoolchildren, saying that the garments break French rules on secularism in education.

“For months and months, we had no teachers as there were no replacements, but they found time for this?” one of the students who joined the strike in front of the Utrillo school told local television BFM.

Parents joined the demonstration, during which the school’s staff decried budget issues – criticising what they called a “drastic drop” in necessary resources to teach well, including cuts on personnel and on teaching hours.

“We are not waiting for ministries who tell us how to dress, we are waiting for ministries who give us the tools to provide our children some serenity … and that gives our teachers the best tools,” a student’s mother told local media.

The display of religious symbols has long been a topic of controversy in France, which is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority.

On Monday, dozens of girls were sent home on their first day of school for refusing to remove their abayas.

Religious symbols in state schools have been strictly banned in the country since the 19th century, with laws removing any traditional Catholic influence from public education. French public schools do not permit the wearing of large crosses.

It is also forbidden for students to wear Jewish kippas and, in 2004, France also banned Muslim headscarves in schools, while in 2010 it passed a ban on full face veils in public, angering many in its five million-strong Muslim community.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies