France To Expand Headscarf Ban, Further Controlling Muslims’ Way Of Dress

During a press conference on August 29th, Education Minster of France Gabriel Attal announced the plan to ban students from wearing abayas (loose fitting robes typically worn by Muslim women) in public schools. The move has sparked much outrage both within the Muslim community and outside of it, with many arguing that the ban purposely targets already-marginalized immigrant communities and unfairly affects France’s people according to race. If it comes into effect, the new clothing restriction will only be the latest effect of France’s 2004 law on secularity and conspicuous religious symbols in schools.

The French government holds that the ban will help enforce laïcité, the constitutional principle of secularism usually interpreted as mandating a separation of matters of state from those of religion. “When you walk into a classroom,” Attal explained, “you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them.” The role of the school, he says, is to grant students “freedom to emancipate themselves.”

But this argument rings false, making it difficult to assume good faith. “The abaya is known not to be a religious garment,” Loubna Regui, the president of the ELF-Muslim Students of France, told Al Jazeera. “It’s actually a cultural one although the government doesn’t seem to care about this 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.”

The 2004 secularity law prohibits wearing religious symbols of all religions in public schools, including Christian crosses, Muslim headscarves, Sikh turbans, and Jewish yarmulkes and kippot. In theory, all religious communities are treated equally, but for non-Christians, wearing a religious garment is frequently not just a matter of self-expression but also a way to fulfil religious obligations. Thus, in practice, non-Christians are much more heavily impacted by the law. The French Muslim community in particular, which according to 2019 data numbers 3.35 million people (5% of France’s total population), has repeatedly protested against it, leading to the law being nicknamed the “French headscarf ban.”

Multiple private Islamic schools have been established to circumvent the restrictions against hijab. Some of them, like the Averroes High School in Lille, are currently at the top of national rankings. But while sending kids to such schools allows parents to escape the national restrictions, it can also isolate Muslim youths from their peers and put extra economic pressure on migrant families who now have to pay private school tuition.

Regardless of what one thinks about France’s legal status quo, there is no good justification for the latest ban. Although they do fulfil the Quran’s requirement that “believing women [cover] themselves with a loose garment” (33:59), abayas are not inherently a religious symbol. They are, however, culturally important. Non-Muslim women can, and in the Arab world, often do, wear abayas; wearing one indicates belonging to a particular cultural group, rather than a religious one. As such, banning them is an act of discrimination, not a lawful result of the principle of laïcité.

Though the principle of secularity is crucial to the French national identity and should be protected, it does not warrant the erasure of cultural minorities’ right to self-expression. A line has to be drawn as to what extent laws such as the 2004 ban should be able to interfere in the ways individuals choose to present themselves. The moment the ban extends from religious to cultural, it is not possible to justify in a diverse democracy.