France Bans the Abaya in Its Schools

The Muslim response sadly is again about demanding exceptionalism

The French government has promulgated a law which will ban the wearing of abayas within state schools. No sooner was this announcement made, the media got flooded with news reports that the move was Islamophobic, specifically designed to target Muslim students. In the melee, everyone forgot about France’s rapacious neo-imperialist attack on Niger and other Francophone countries in Africa. The growing movement against the continued exploitation of Niger’s natural resources by France appears to be a lost cause now. Away from the limelight of the media, the French are now putting together a counter-revolutionary alliance to break the resistance of the African people.

But let us get back to the clothing in question. The abaya is a lose fitting garment which is worn over any dress, the intention being to cover the contours of the body completely. When men put on such a long dress, it is normally called a thobe; the word abaya being restricted to women’s clothing only. It must be stated that while very few Muslim men in France wear the thobe, there is an increasing trend amongst Muslim women wearing the abaya. The French authorities intend to ban it starting 4th September when schools reopen. This is not the first time the French have moved against apparel which they view as religious.

In 2004, France passed a law which banned any display of religious symbolism within its schools. The ban was not just restricted to the Muslim veil but also to the Jewish kippa and the Christian cross. However, the narrative spun around it was that it was specifically designed to stop the expression of Muslim religious symbols. The narrative got credence because it is actually true that amongst those insisting on wearing such religious symbols, the majority were Muslims.

The 2004 law, though, did not name the abaya. When the concern was raised by school principals, the government gave them discretion to do as they deemed fit. However, in the absence of a clear law, many schools were reluctant to take a firm stand on the issue. This concern now seems to be fulfilled by the new law banning the abaya. Schools were becoming wary about the display of abayas since many years. In a report published in 2022, school principals had argued that abayas were the new means through which religious symbolism was entering the schools. They had also argued that this was being done by a determined minority to create space for their religion in the public sphere, something that should be an anathema to French secularism.

While the French right has welcomed this move by the government, the left is divided on the issue. This is a win-win for the present centrist government as it has signaled a shift to the right but has also made sure that the left is in a disarray. Muslim organizations have predictably opposed the move citing it as another instance of putting curbs on religious expression. Some Muslims and those on the left have argued that the abaya is not a religious but rather a cultural garment, with Muslims from specific regions donning it. However, this does not sound convincing as the vast majority of those who are insisting on wearing the abaya happen to be Muslims.

What the narrative also does not tell us is that the law will only be restricted to state schools. In other words, students are free to wear what they like in private schools. Also, it must be underlined that except in state institutions, Muslims (and other religious groups) are free to wear what they like, including the veil and abaya. The government has reiterated that these restrictions will apply only in state schools.

Why are Muslims insistent on wearing the abaya and other forms of religious signifiers? Why is it that other religious communities are not so particular about this observance? The simple answer to this is that there is marked absence of secularization in Muslim societies and cultures. And one is not talking about countries in which Muslims are in a majority. Even in countries of Europe where Muslims are in a minority and within a secular state, they tend to put a premium on sacralizing the public sphere. The more complex answer might come from answering the question who benefits from such an assertion of religiosity. The veil and the now the abaya seem to be the symbols of political Islam. Scholars who have worked on the issue point out how they became potent symbols of Islamism, first in the context of countries like Egypt and later due to migration in Europe. Behind this simple garment is a very organized attempt, not just to assert political Islam, but also to gradually dismantle the principles on which the secular state is premised.

The Muslim response is also hypocritical. Every nation has its foundational myth; it can be secular or religious but these myths provide nations with a feeling of belonging. Islamists respect the foundational myths of their countries but have no regard for them when they talk of non-Muslim countries. Just take the example of the recent attempt at perestroika which is being undertaken by the Saudi government. The country now is experimenting with music, dance, cinema and other cultural markers associated with the west. The Islamist is up in arms because he thinks that such cultural imports destroy the foundational myths, the principles on which the kingdom was founded. But when it comes to France or any other European country, this observation is suspended as if these countries had no principles to start with. If the principle of the secularism is one of the foundational myths of France, what gives Muslims the right to tinker with it? For the Islamist, Europe is a barren land with naked women and no principles. It is waiting to be conquered by Muslims, as promised by God.

Consider again, the football world cup hosted by Qatar. Some fans raised the issue of non-availability of beer and wanted Qatar to make special provision for it. But Muslims sided with the government of Qatar arguing that the country was well within its rights to formulate and implement its own rule. But the same Muslims are now having a problem when France is wanting its Muslim citizens to abide by the rules it is making.

The Muslim teenagers who are wearing the abaya in France as a mark of resistance to the state are not to be blamed. After all, teens anywhere in the world are non-conformists. But behind this teenage irrational rage, there is also the scepter of Islamism with very different ideas of how society should be organized. In the past and in the present, Muslims themselves have been the biggest victims of societal re-organization by the Islamists. More then anyone else, they should be vigilant against the march of Islamism.

Arshad Alam is an independent researcher.   



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