Gabriel Attal, new Minister of National Education, has put an end to the ambiguity on the wearing of abayas at school. He announced the outright banning of this traditional garment.

[Updated August 28, 2023 3:10 PM] Wearing the abaya will no longer be allowed in school. The announcement was made by Gabriel Attal, the new Minister of National Education, on the 8 p.m. set of TF1, Sunday August 27, and confirmed the next day at a press conference. This decision comes after fiery debates on the growing presence of these long dresses of Arab origin in French schools. The Minister has thus responded to the call from heads of schools seeking clarification on this thorny issue.

The abaya, this outfit worn over clothing, has sparked a lively debate as to its religious significance in France. If the experts do not all agree on their interpretation, Gabriel Attal has decided in favor of a clear position. According to the tenant on rue de Grenelle, wearing the abaya at school constitutes a “religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the Republic to the secular sanctuary that the School must constitute”. The ban on wearing the abaya aims, according to the minister, to preserve secularism in schools and to avoid any religious identification of students in classrooms.

The controversy surrounding the abaya has grown in recent months. According to AFP, a note from state services revealed an increase of more than 150% in the wearing of religious signs and dress throughout the last school year. Arguments differ as to the religious nature of the abaya. Pap Ndiaye, former Minister of National Education, believed that the interpretation of religious clothing could not be reduced to elements such as the length or the color of the dress. For him, this is a set of signs that must be taken into account.

Anne-Laure Zwilling, an anthropologist of religions at the CNRS, pointed out to Franceinfo that “if the abaya was a religious garment, all Muslim women should wear it”. The abaya is not mentioned in Muslim religious texts and is not part of the practice of all Muslims. The abaya is not recognized as a religious symbol by the French Council for Muslim Worship.

Nevertheless, the wearing of the abaya has crystallized tensions in schools, because some students choose it for religious reasons. The question is complex because it lies in a gray area of ​​the 2004 law, which prohibits “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation”. Some believe that the abaya, like the qamis, a similar outfit reserved for men, are religious markers. The looming return to school will allow us to measure the concrete impact of Gabriel Attal’s decision. Schools will be closely scrutinized to see how this abaya ban will be implemented and whether it will manage to ease tensions surrounding this sensitive issue.

Gabriel Attal was firm on the ban on wearing the abaya at school. But when there is no consensus on the religious character of the garment, how does he plan to go about it? The Minister indicated at a press conference on August 28 that a “memorandum” will specify the terms of this ban on schools and that the “vade-mecum of secularism” will be “updated”.

The Minister of National Education believes that “in the vast majority of cases things will be settled, from the first days, through dialogue”. To help headteachers implement the ban, “human support” is planned for the start of the school year and in schools that request it, “secularism teams” from the rectorate will be deployed on site. In addition to administrative maneuvers, the minister says he is counting on “pedagogy” and “exchange with families” to understand the decision and respect the ban. In the most difficult cases, “a letter signed by (the) hand” of the minister will be sent to the families concerned.

The abaya is also known by other names such as “chador” or “burqa”. It is a traditional clothing exclusively for women and from Islamic culture. This long dress is intended to cover the entire woman’s body except for the face, hands and feet. Camouflaging the shapes of the body, the abaya is a sign of modesty in Islamic culture. This garment can be considered as an extension of the veil which must cover the woman’s hair and is adopted by some Muslim women. Often black, abaya models have taken on color in recent years.

Wearing the abaya is not systematically compulsory for Muslim women, it depends on the legislation of each State. In Saudi Arabia, in other Gulf countries or in Iran, all Muslim women or not are forced to wear the abaya. But the countries where the wearing of this long dress is compulsory are not the majority; in the rest of the Middle East clothing is not compulsory, any more than in the Maghreb. The forced wearing of the abaya is often decided in countries where power is intimately linked to religion: where the Sharia governs the laws or in the Islamic Republics for example. Even in these countries, senior religious leaders are campaigning for the compulsory wearing of the abaya to be abolished and for the choice to be returned to women.

The qami is in a way the male counterpart of the abaya. The garment also comes from Islamic culture but is reserved for men. It looks like a long tunic which, as for women, must camouflage the shapes of the body and respect modesty. The shape of the qami is reminiscent of other similar clothing, but named differently depending on the geographical area: the djellaba in North Africa or the boubou in West Africa, note that these clothes are also worn by both men and women.

For Muslims who practice the strictest religious precepts, it is appropriate for men and women to cover the private parts of their bodies, especially during religious celebrations or prayers. Women are then required to cover their entire body and their hair except for the face, hands and feet, while men must cover themselves at least from the waist to the knees or from the upper body to the knees in the presence of women. Abayas and qamis make it possible to respect these religious principles. The religious character which is lent to these clothes is also linked to the tradition and practices of the Islamic prophet Muhammad. The hadiths, prophetic stories, claim in particular that the prophet wore the qami. Clothing is therefore a means of approaching or imitating the example of Muhammad.

The origin of the abaya and the qami could also be more cultural than religious. The existence of similar clothing but yet without a direct link to Islam as seen above in this article feeds this thesis. It should also be noted that the Koran does not explicitly mention the wearing of the abaya or the qami as Muslim precepts and is content to request modesty and the absence of vanity from the faithful. Modesty can actually go through the way of dressing without requiring the wearing of a long dress as proven by Muslim women who have chosen not to wear the abaya.

Over time, wearing the abaya and qami in the Islamic world may have become a dress habit more than a religious symbol. A nuance made by certain professors contacted by Le Monde who observe that “students and sometimes their families frequently deny any religious dimension to the wearing of these outfits highlighting their cultural character”. The question then is how to recognize the worship practice or the cultural habit. The vice-president of the French Council for Muslim Worship (CFCM), Abdallah Zekri, agrees and said on BFMTV that “the abaya is not a religious outfit, it’s a form of fashion”.

The “values ​​of the Republic” cells of the Ministry of National Education explained at the end of 2022 in a letter that Le Monde consulted that it is necessary to distinguish ostensibly religious signs from those “which are not by nature signs of religious affiliation. “but who can become so “behaviour-wise”. The abayas and the qamis belong to this second category, it is then necessary to know if they come under the cult or the culture to help several clues such as the regularity of the wearing of the outfit, “the persistence of the refusal to remove it or “the fact that these are traditional outfits worn on religious holidays,” the note clarifies. However, it is difficult to make an individual assessment of the wearing of the abaya or the qami for each student. Didier Georges, principal and national secretary of the SNPDEN-UNSA, estimated, with Le Monde, that “there can be pitfalls but, most of the time, the heads of establishments know how to say what is going on”. He welcomed that a decision is “finally made” by the ministry.