By Basma El Atti, The New Arab, 31 August 2023

The French authorities have been eying a ban on abayas for years. Still, they remained a grey area challenging to regulate because how can one tell the difference between Abayas and long dresses?

In its latest push for radical secularism, France announced a ban on "abayas", a loose-fitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim women at public schools, arguing the garment violates France's strict secular laws in education.

"It will no longer be possible to wear an abaya at school," Education Minister Gabriel Attal told TF1, saying he would give "clear rules at the national level" to school heads ahead of the return to classes nationwide from September 4.

The ban has triggered a fresh row over secularism, racism, sexism and Islamophobia.

Loubna Regui, president of the ELF-Muslim Students of France, told The New Arab the ban is "racist" and "illogical" as abayas are not religious clothes.

"Anyone who does a little internet research discovers that it's just a Middle Eastern cultural garment," she said

"France is the only country, alongside Afghanistan and Iran, to control what women can and cannot wear. It's dangerous that even today, the country of Simone de Beauvoir falls that low," she added.

The French Republic is built on a strict separation of Church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs.

Over the past 20 years, state schools – with no uniforms – have increasingly become the focus of rows over secularism (laicité).

In 2004, a law banned wearing ostensibly religious symbols in schools. This included Islamic headscarves, Christian crosses, Jewish kippas and Sikh turbans.

The French authorities have been eying a ban on abayas for years. Still, they remained a grey area challenging to regulate because how can one tell the difference between abayas and long dresses?

What are the differences between abayas and long dresses?

"When I look at such and such a student, I can determine what confession she is," Carole Zerbib, a headteacher in Paris, answered the journalist's question on how she would be able to tell the difference between an Abaya and a long dress in an interview on BFMTV.

Zerbib, like some other far-right-aligned French figures and politicians, admits that racial profiling might be the only way to go further with this ban.

While the last thing a teenage girl may need is being fashion policed by the school's personnel daily for the bagginess of her skirt, openly racial profiling students, which is illegal, will further traumatise migrant students from all religions, argues Loubna Regui.

"This a problem that has existed for a long time: young girls (from Arab, Turk, and African backgrounds) who are harassed by school principals by their teachers criticising their outfits. This ban will further traumatise young girls at public schools," added Regui.

France has a long history with fashion policing, which goes back to its colonisation days, usually argued by the state's vow to preserve its laicité. But the abaya ban, if applied, may breach the core of secularism.


Is it secular to ban abayas?

France's law of 1905 sets the framework for secularism based on two main principles: freedom of conscience and the separation of churches and state. This separation is linked to the neutrality of the state.

This means the state must be neutral vis-à-vis the population and grant all freedoms, including freedom of religion and expression.

"This type of policy stands in opposition to the liberal core of the 1905 Law on Separation of Church & State—a law we've been distorting and weaponising since the '90s," argues France-based constitutional law researcher Sarah-Farah Alawan.

Secularism is a significant concept interpreted differently by the French right and left, prompting endless debates on women's clothes in sports, schools and public transport.

However, in the case of the abaya, no religious source cites the garment as sacred.

For example, in North Africa, a region with a Muslim majority, Abayas are rarely worn by Muslim women. Instead, they dress in "djellabas", a less loose garment with a hood and hand embroidery on the front, or "kaftans", which come in different colours and shapes with fancy hand embroidery.

Therefore, banning abayas might breach the state's neutrality as it stepped in to decide what is religious and what is not.

"They can't issue a ban list with all the dresses we cannot wear. It's ridiculous. It is not the Met Gala, and Attal is not Anna Wintour. He cannot just ban everyone he doesn't like their dress," Chaima, a Moroccan student based in France, told TNA.

Attal's predecessor as education minister, Pap Ndiaye, avoided issuing a ban last year, saying he did not want "to publish endless catalogues to specify the lengths of dresses".

Only one month in office, Attal, who is close to the president, Emmanuel Macron, has been in two major scandals: the abaya ban and publishing a now-deleted video on Marthur Luther King's legacy with only white kids featured.