French education minister announces ban on Islamic dress in schools

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PARIS — French Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced on Sunday that France will ban the Islamic garment known as the abaya in schools.

“The school of the Republic was built around strong values, secularism is one of them. … When you enter a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the religion of pupils,” Attal said in an interview with French TV channel TF1.

“I announce that [pupils] will no longer be able to wear abaya at school,” he said.

The abaya is a long, flowing dress commonly worn by Muslim women as it complies with Islamic beliefs on modest dress — but it’s also worn by other communities in North Africa and the Middle East. In 2004, France banned religious symbols in schools, including large crosses, Jewish kippahs and Islamic headscarves. But the abaya occupies a gray zone and hasn’t specifically been banned.

Attal, who was appointed in July, announced that he would lead talks in the coming weeks before issuing new “clear nationwide rules” for schools.

The focus on abayas follows a reported increase in girls wearing Islamic clothing in French schools, in a trend that some say is a violation of the country’s secularist values. Last month, President of the National Assembly Yaël Braun-Pivet, who is a member of President Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance party, called for “a totally secular state school” where there is “no ramadan, no abaya, no ostentatious religious signs.”

While some politicians were calling for new legislation to ban religious dress, it appears the government will simply give school principals new guidelines.

Secularism in French schools has always been a hot-button topic with supporters claiming that religion, and Islam in particular, has been encroaching on the public space. Critics, on the other hand, maintain that religious minorities face discrimination in a historically Christian country.

Tensions over education and religion worsened in 2020 when a radicalized Chechen refugee beheaded a French teacher who had shown caricatures of the prophet Mohammad in class.