France’s top court rejects appeal against ban on wearing abaya in schools

Action for the Rights of Muslims sought injunction against ban saying it was discriminatory and could incite hatred.

A young woman wearing an Abaya (C) speaks with others on a street in Nantes, western France on August 31, 2023. - The French government's decision to ban schoolgirls wearing abayas -- long, flowing dresses of Middle Eastern origin -- has opened a fresh debate about the country's secular laws and the treatment of Muslim minorities. (Photo by LOIC VENANCE / AFP)
A young woman wearing an abaya, centre, on a street in Nantes, western France, on August 31, 2023 [File: Loic Venance/AFP]

France’s top administrative court has upheld a government ban on the wearing of traditional abaya  – long and loose garments worn by some Muslim women – in public schools, dismissing complaints that the ban was discriminatory and could incite hatred.

The State Council, France’s highest court for complaints against public authorities, said on Thursday that it had rejected a request for an injunction against the ban.

Ahead of the court’s ruling on Thursday, France’s Council of the Muslim Faith, established to represent Muslims before the government, warned that banning the garments could create “an elevated risk of discrimination” and said it was considering lodging its own court complaint with the Council.

French President Emmanuel Macron’s government announced last month that it was banning the abaya and qamis – also a long, loose-fitting garment worn by some Muslim men – in schools, claiming the attire broke the rules on secularism in education. Muslim headscarves have already been banned on the grounds that they constitute a display of religious affiliation.

Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM) – an association representing Muslims – filed the motion with the State Council seeking an injunction against the ban saying it was discriminatory and could incite hatred against Muslims.

After examining the motion, the State Council on Thursday rejected the argument, saying that wearing the garments “follows the logic of religious affirmation”.

The ban was based on French law, which did not allow anyone wearing visible signs of any religious affiliation in schools, the Council said.

The government ban did not, the Council added, cause “serious or obviously illegal harm to the respect for personal lives, freedom of religion, the right to education, the wellbeing of children or the principle of non-discrimination”.

ADM’s lawyer Vincent Brengarth argued during the court hearing that the abaya should be considered a traditional garment, not a religious one.

He also accused the French government of seeking political advantage with the ban.

“A very unmotivated decision after a hearing of nearly two hours. This decision, which simply endorses the government’s position, is not up to the challenge,” Brengarth wrote later on social media.

Nearly 300 schoolgirls defied the ban and refused to remove their abayas on the first day of the French school year this week. Most agreed to change garments but 67 refused and were sent home, Education Minister Gabriel Attal said.

On Wednesday, teachers and students at a French high school went on strike in protest against the ban.

“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, northeast of Paris.

“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,” the group said.

In 2016, the State Council overturned a ban in a French Riviera resort against the “burkini”, saying it failed to see any threat to public order from the long bathing suit worn by some Muslim women.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies