Covering dress in violation of the separation of church and state

Covering dress in violation of the separation of church and state

An audience at the Abaya Rally event at the Museum of the Future in Dubai.Photo by Ali Haider/AFP

Veils, skullcaps, and large crosses have long been banned in French classrooms. Since 2004, the wearing of “flashy” religious symbols in schools has been banned by law in France. But the abaya, the long flowing dress that reveals only the head, hands and feet, has been a subject of discussion for a long time. Is the piece of clothing worn mainly in Islamic countries a religious symbol or rather a cultural phenomenon or fashion?

For the new Minister of Education, Gabriel Attal, the answer is clear: a woman or girl who wears the abaya shows that she is Islamic. Attracting something like this to the school is, according to Attal, an attack on the separation of church and state in education, where students must be protected from religious pressures from the environment. Thus, the abaya is now banned in French primary and secondary schools.

Finished by the author
Ellen Huisman is the France correspondent for De Volkskrant. She lives in Paris.

fierce debate

The ban follows a long-running debate about the emergence of “Islamic clothing” in French education. Since the killing in October 2020 of history teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded after a lesson on caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, the number of reports from schools has increased.

Supported by videos on TikTok, in addition to the abaya, the chemise, which Muslim men traditionally wear to pray at the mosque, is also on the rise among French students.

Earlier this year, the far-right National Rally, the largest opposition party in parliament, pushed forward a motion to make school uniforms compulsory. This would counterbalance the “Islamist pressure” and, in passing, prevent competition among young people over expensive clothing. The proposal fell through, but the heated debate continued.

Atal’s predecessor, Babe Ndiaye, chose to leave the judgment on the abaya (and shirt) to the school itself, whether or not it was backed by the education inspectorate. For N’Diaye, the intention of the student was of paramount importance – is it religious or not? In conversation with students or parents, teachers can then make their own judgment.


Minister Atal’s decision to put an end to this freedom sparked mixed reactions. The head of the teachers’ union, SNES-FSU, told France Inter radio on Monday that it concerned several thousand girls who wore the abaya at school. According to her, 95 percent of cases can be resolved through conversation, and she also noted that schools are facing more pressing problems.

On the other hand, there is also relief: the main union of secondary school principals, SNDPEN, has welcomed the end of uncertainty and the very heavy responsibility schools bear in the decision.

Whether the cloak was in fact a religious symbol is disputed within France. The French Council of Muslims, CFCM, describes clothing as a cultural expression and many anthropologists point out that its meaning varies from person to person.

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