With the return to classes on the 4th, public schools in France sent around 300 girls back home for wearing abayas – a long, loose garment worn by some Muslim women and characteristic of some countries in the Middle East, North Africa and Southeast. Asian.
The use of abayas, specifically on this date, was a way of defying the new French ban on the clothing, which was considered by the French government as a “religious symbol”. The students who refused to change their clothes were sent home with an extra piece of paper: a letter to their parents saying that “secularism is not a restriction, it is a freedom”.
The young women’s demonstration occurred after the French Minister of Education, Gabriel Attal, announced that the clothing worn mainly by Muslims (abayas for girls and women and khamis for boys and men) would be banned at the start of the new school year. The argument is that the clothing violated the 2004 law, which defends secularism in schools, known as laïcité. In this law, the use of headscarves (hijab), Christian crosses, Jewish kippas and any other type of religious symbolism that would enable religious identification became prohibited.
In French history itself, it is noted that the imposition of prohibitions on any religious signs in public schools has occurred since the laws of the 19th century, which sought to eliminate any traditional Catholic influence from public education. More recently, French governments have attempted to update guidelines to include the country’s growing Muslim minority.
The most recent ban on abayas and khamis in schools was celebrated by the country’s far right, which is known for its anti-immigration speeches. The left argued that the measure represented an “affront to civil liberties”.
But are abayas “religious symbols”?
For the Minister of Education, in dialogue with the French government, yes, abayas and khamis would be religious symbols. In the announcement made, Attal stated: “When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify students’ religion just by looking at them.”
Muslim associations and organizations in France are claiming that the prohibited clothing is not of a religious nature, but of a cultural nature, as “fashion” clothing. Loubna Regui, president of the Muslim Students of France organization, told Al Jazeera that the ban targeted immigrants and was “intrinsically racist.”
Although the argument is that the ban is on any religious manifestation, in the example given during the announcement, the French government recalled the murder, three years ago, of teacher Samuel Paty after showing caricatures of the prophet Mohammed during a civics education class. It becomes clear that, in this case, the restrictions target a specific “public”.
This statement can be based on the country’s set of laws that directly affect Muslims and, specifically, Muslim women.
In 2004, for example, the use of veils (hijab) was banned in public schools, with the hijab being a choice and a fundamental part of the experience of religion for Muslim women.
In 2010, based on Bill no. 524, a ban on the use of the niqab (characteristic of the countries of the Arabian Peninsula) and the burqa (commonly used in Afghanistan and Pakistan) was approved and a revolt was generated by members of the Muslim community in the country, which totaled, at the time, , in five million inhabitants.
In 2016, the “clothing police” acted again and the French government issued other decrees against the use of “swimwear that shows religious affiliation”, such as the burkini, an outfit worn by Muslim women. According to the argument presented, “the burkini is incompatible with French values of secularism”
The current ban on the use of abayas in public schools adds to this set of previously drafted decrees which, as stated, have a target. The recent ban was even criticized by the spokesperson for the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR), Marta Hurtado: “it is worth remembering that, in accordance with international human rights standards, limitations on demonstrations of religion or belief, including choice of clothing, was only permitted in very limited circumstances – including public safety, public order, and public health or morals.”
Within this context, it is clear that the principles of liberté and laicité are not equally valid for all citizens living in France. As stated by sociologist Agnes De Feo, such measures contribute to greater stigmatization of Muslim populations.
In the same sense, we can observe the “splashes” that we still feel from September 11, 2001 in the control and policing policies of Muslim populations, especially when they are poor and immigrants. The racial and religious profile is also not disconnected from the class profile. Although the relationship of “enmity” between Europeans and Muslims predates 2001, the attacks and “combat terror” policies left their mark on the “old world”, which now has legal support and international legitimacy.
For professor and researcher Francirosy Barbosa, “the double association with terrorism and gender oppression given to women takes away their own autonomy, disregarding their choices. The ban on the use of these garments attempts to hide a certain ‘civilizational’ and ‘ideological discourse’ and promotes the erasure of difference, increasing hostility towards Islam and Muslims.”
Amidst criticism and applause, the measure was approved and, once again, in yet another place in the world, women were denied their chances of choices.
*The opinions in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Brasil de Fato
**Karime Cheaito. Master in Strategic Studies (INEST/UFF) and social scientist (UNESP). Profile administrator @des.orientese
Editing: Rodrigo Durão Coelho