Pupils will be banned from wearing abayas, loose-fitting full-length robes worn by some Muslim women, in France’s state-run schools, the education minister has declared.

 Since the 19th century, France has abided by a law separating church and state, which means that no one has the right to assert their religion in the public arena, unlike in the United States, where everyone is free to express their religion.

This commitment to secularism has led France to grapple with the issue of religious symbols in public spaces; since 2004, for instance, pupils haven’t been allowed to wear headscarves in schools.

This law dates back to an era of rejection of Catholicism in the public sphere, but today, with its growing Muslim minority, France struggles to update its guidelines.

The start of the new school year, on September 4, 2023, marked the return of restrictions to the school system.

“Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school,” the Education Minister Gabriel Attal told TV channel TF1, arguing the abaya is “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute.” 

“I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools,” he continues, “when you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them.”

These rules on what girls can and can’t wear have been pushed by the right and the far right, while the left argues it encroaches on civil liberties.

The government alone has unlimited control over what clothing is tolerated on the bodies of girls who are no longer allowed to dress as they please; while most school rules already forbid clothing deemed too “short”, now skirts deemed as too “long” are also frowned upon.

The French state has embarked on a disconcerting, patriarchal journey of controlling how loose or long a dress should be – all in the name of secularism. 

This debate has broader societal implications by touching on the delicate balance between cultural diversity and national identity. It questions the hijab bans’ compatibility with religious freedom and human rights by asking these young women to unveil themselves in order to be accepted and integrated.

The Minister of Education also claimed that banning the veil in schools was preventing the radicalization of young girls. This attitude reflects a patronizing view, assuming that Muslim women do not know what is right for them, need to be told how to be free, or must be saved from their own “backwards” culture and religion.