The abaya is a loose, flowing robe worn by women across the Middle East, Northern Africa and South Asia. Though it is favored by many observant Muslims for its modesty, it is not considered religiously mandated attire and has no special spiritual significance. Nevertheless, French Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced at the end of August that the abaya would be banned from public schools on the basis that they violated France’s longstanding principle of “laicite.”
“Laicite is a form of secularism,” explains French legal scholar Rim-Sarah Alouane. But it’s a very specific form, one that took a very different path to its equivalents elsewhere. “In the U.S., the idea is to protect people’s beliefs against abuses of the state,” she tells Rasha Al Aqeedi and Erin Clare Brown. “In France, it’s the other way around.”
This unique form of secularism has its origins in the education system. “Schools were considered the place where we create the future citizen. So, we needed to protect pupils from any influence, and especially the influence of the Catholic Church,” Alouane explains.
That secular principle would go on to become one of the cornerstones of public life in the French Republic. The Law of 1905 established the separation of church and state and guaranteed individual freedom of worship while also instituting a policy of religious neutrality for government employees, forbidding them from any public display of faith.
“However, religious neutrality did not apply to the individuals,” Alouane adds. “Individuals were free to express their religiosity as long as public order is not disturbed.”
“The problem is not laicite itself. The problem is what we have done with it.”
“The problem is not laicite itself because in France, laicite is supposed to guarantee freedom of religion and freedom of conscience,” Alouane says. “The problem is what we have done with it.”
But fanned by the flames of anti-immigrant animus, Alouane says the past few decades have seen the emergence of an increasingly illiberal and uncompromising conception of secularism.
“We call it the new laicite,” she says. “This has been used as a reason to restrict religious visibility, especially targeted at Muslims. And right now, the victims are literally kids. I mean, can you imagine being so young and facing that?”
And so, as France’s youth returned to school last week, many Muslim girls had to choose between the clothes they feel comfortable in and their access to schooling. According to the education ministry, 67 girls were sent home in a single day for refusing to remove their abayas.
“France is losing its own children, I would say,” Alouane laments. “These girls will come back to school dressed differently or they will go to private schools. Is it what we want? Girls to go to religious school instead of going to the school of the republic, where everybody should be treated equally?”
Produced by Joshua Martin