French Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, said that the style of long, flowing dresses worn by some Muslim women, would no longer be allowed when the new term begins next week because they violated the French principle of secularism, or laïcité.
Attal told a press conference on Monday: “Our schools are continually put under test, and over the past months, breaches to laïcité have increased considerably, in particular with [pupils] wearing religious attire like abayas and kameez [long shirts].”
“I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools,” Attal told French television. “When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them.”
He said: “Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school,” describing the abaya as “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must be”.
The government has not spelled out exactly how abayas or loose dresses could be restricted in schools, but Attal said advice would be given to head teachers in the coming days.
The ban by Attal, who is close to the president, Emmanuel Macron, has caused a fresh political debate about France’s secular rules and whether they discriminate against the country’s Muslim minority.
The government spokesperson, Olivier Véran, said the abaya was “obviously” a religious garment and “a political attack, a political sign” that he saw as an act of “proselytising” or trying to convert to Islam. He told the news channel BFMTV that school was a secular space.
Attal’s predecessor as education minister, Pap Ndiaye, last year avoided issuing a ban, saying he did not want “to publish endless catalogues to specify the lengths of dresses”.
Clémentine Autain, an MP for the radical left party La France Insoumise, criticised what she called the “clothes police” and called the ban “characteristic of an obsessional rejection of Muslims”. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, the leader of La France Insoumise, said the September return to school was being “politically polarised by a new absurd form of war of religion”.
Politicians on the right and far right had pushed for an outright ban on abayas – with many in recent years arguing that the ban on wearing all religious symbols should be widened to universities and even parents accompanying children on school outings. The far-right leader Marine Le Pen went further in her presidential campaign last year, proposing to ban all Muslim headscarves from public streets.
Sophie Venetitay, from the SNES-FSU teachers union, said it was important to focus on dialogue with pupils and families to ensure the ban did not take children away from state-run schools to go to religious schools. “What is certain is that the abaya is not the main problem for schools,” she told Reuters, stressing that a lack of teachers was a much bigger issue.
Abdallah Zekri, vice-chair of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, said the abaya was not religious attire but a type of fashion.
The French republic is built on a strict separation of church and state, intended to foster equality for all private beliefs. But over the past 20 years, state schools – where there are no uniforms and children can dress as they please – have increasingly become the focus of rows over secularism. In 2004, a law banned the wearing of ostensibly religious symbols in schools. This included the Islamic headscarf, Jewish kippas, Sikh turbans and Christian crosses.
Until now, baggy dresses, abayas or long skirts have been seen as a grey area difficult to regulate. Muslim groups have said that abayas are not required religious attire and some on the left have warned that girls in plain long skirts or dresses could be unfairly singled out.