By Salah Lamrani
Published in French at Le Club de Mediapart, Sept. 22, 2023. The author is a French literature teacher and union activist. Translation by the author.
France’s new Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, launched the 2023 school year with a thunderous announcement: “I decided it will no longer be possible to wear an abaya at school,” he said, in the name of a preposterous conception of secularism (or “laïcité”) adopted by President Emmanuel Macron.
This “abaya ban” is a serious violation of the fundamental rights of presumed Muslim (i.e., racialized) pupils, who are unfairly stigmatized and discriminated against.
Though he is the youngest Minister of the Fifth Republic, 34-year-old Attal used the oldest and dirtiest trick in the book, namely the politics of scapegoating an oppressed, defenseless minority. Just like his predecessors, who were fond of such nauseating polemics that obscure the real and glaring problems of the French educational system.
What is an abaya?
The term “abaya” refers to a variety of dresses of varying lengths, which are in no way religion-specific garments, but simple fashion items with a cultural connotation at most. Major brands such as Zara, H & M and Dolce & Gabbana have been making their own for a long time.
As proof of this, when Sonia Backès, the French Secretary of State in charge of Citizenship, was shown on TV several types of dresses to identify if they were abayas and whether they should be accepted or forbidden in schools, she hesitated, stammered and side-stepped the question, replying that “it depends on the context.”
Thus, in a quasi-official manner, the criteria for acceptance or rejection depend not on the garment itself, but on the pupil wearing it and their supposed religion, something that has only been based on their skin color and/or name. At the height of hypocrisy, Attal justified this blatant discrimination by saying that “you shouldn’t be able to distinguish, to identify the religion of pupils by looking at them.” (Journal de Dimanche, Aug. 27)
A traumatic start to the school year
Yet this is exactly what has been happening since the start of the school year, with hundreds, if not thousands, of middle- and high- school girls being scrutinized, hounded, stigmatized and humiliated, even extorted, and ordered to partially undress or be sent home for wearing outfits as neutral as a tunic, skirt or kimono, deemed too loose or too covering, as if the suspected modesty was a crime of lese-laicity. This obsession with controlling women’s bodies is reminiscent of the colonial period.
Ironically, such a step places France alongside retrograde countries such as Saudi Arabia and Afghanistan that have instituted a “morality police” enforcing a strict dress code, with the notable distinction that French bans do not apply to everyone, but only to pupils presumed to be Muslim.
One can only be outraged by the criminalization of teenage girls through traumatizing interrogations and expulsions, which take place outside any legal framework and could only be justified by a proper disciplinary procedure. Attal’s office counted the cases of pupils wearing abayas to the nearest unit (as compared with the number of missing teachers in half the secondary schools).
Attal even sent journalists a list of the middle schools and high schools concerned, inviting them to cover the start of the new school year there. This showed no regard for the serenity and safety of staff and pupils, sacrificed to the media hype surrounding this new witch-hunt.
This amounts to real institutional harassment, sponsored by the same person who claims to find it “unbearable that a pupil should go to school with a lump in his stomach because he is harassed” and to make this issue a priority (notably through “empathy courses,” a quality this government clearly lacks). It is another eloquent example of Macron’s famous “at the same time” (advocating one thing and doing the opposite).
Laicity or “laicism”?
The abaya ban has nothing to do with secularism, which is even flouted by this political attempt to unilaterally extend the domain of what is religious. Rather, it is the very thing that the candidate Emmanuel Macron himself denounced in 2016-2017 as “laicism,” this “radical and extreme version of secularism that feeds on contemporary fears” (Challenges, Oct. 16, 2016), and which targets Islam exclusively, turning millions of our fellow Muslims into enemies of the Republic.
By considering the wearing of simple clothing as a deliberate attack on secularism, a concerted offensive “in an attempt to challenge the republican system,” (bfmtv.com, Sept. 1) or even a reminder of the 2015 terrorist attacks and the murder of the teacher Samuel Paty, who was beheaded for showing his pupils derogatory “Charlie Hebdo” cartoons depicting the Prophet of Islam, Macron and his ministers unmask themselves, adopting a discourse that was reserved for the most hateful right-wingers.
By putting tens of thousands of teenagers under suspicion – behind their qamis and abayas – of being “enemies from within,” united to bring down republican values and even of being potential terrorists and by urging us to be “relentless” against these migrants, they are descending into a kind of state conspiracy mongering that is as absurd as it is abject.
This insidious logic of stigmatization and exclusion was already at work in the 2004 law banning conspicuous religious symbols in schools, opposed by teacher unions such as the CGT Éduc’action as it only really targeted the Islamic veil, described as “proselytizing” and “ostentatious” in a grotesque abuse of language that heralded current and future excesses.
Far from turning schools into a protected “sanctuary,” these politically driven measures are spreading racism, sexism and hatred and turning them into a veritable battlegrounds. This alleged desire for emancipation through coercion to impose an arbitrarily defined “republican dress code” on suspicious middle- and high-school girls flouts the concept of equal treatment of pupils and the inalienable right of some of them to choose their clothing style, driving them to angst and failure at school. Will we have to wait for a tragedy to put an end to this “shame”?
Worse still, these vexatious measures may give rise to a whole generation of teenagers — an age that is particularly sensitive to injustice — who have a legitimate distrust and resentment of the institution and its staff, who are transformed into the zealous auxiliaries of a kind of “dress police,” coupled with a “police of intentions” summoned to track down alleged Islamist overtones (which would be both conspicuous and concealed — a very French oxymoron) behind inoffensive fabrics.
The “communitarianism” and “separatism” that are supposedly fought against can only emerge stronger, just like the right wing, which is closer to power than ever thanks to the institutional backing given to its prejudices, rhetoric and fallacious battles, adopted by a dubious “republican arc,” which reaches as far as the French Communist Party.
The real priorities
This umpteenth polemic, validated by docile and irresponsible media echo chambers, and by part of the left, conveniently eclipses from the headlines all the glaring problems from which public education, its staff and users are suffering: shortage of teachers and assistants for pupils with special needs; job cuts and class closures; incessant budget cuts; lack of attractiveness of our underpaid professions; difficult working conditions; overcrowded and overheated classrooms due to under-resourcing of establishments and inadequacy of equipment and premises; international downgrading in terms of achievements; inflation; impoverishment of the population, with nearly 2,000 children on the street and tens of thousands out of schools; and so on.
Instead of tackling these fundamental problems, the government prefers to continue its authoritarian headlong rush and its policy of deliberately destroying public services for the benefit of the private sector. Moreover, this same government will have no trouble presenting the General National Service [a monthly session in military facilities for high school pupils] and the uniform — symbols of its reactionary vision of schooling currently being tested — as a panacea for problems fully of its own creation and which tend only to bring young people into line and divide society even further.
Every individual has the fundamental right to choose their clothing without being subjected to discriminatory restrictions. The abaya ban is an unacceptable intrusion into pupils’ privacy and constitutes an attack on their freedom and personal identity, trampling underfoot the ideas of inclusion, living-together and acceptance of differences that are officially advocated.
The lack of response from teachers’ unions and the civil society to this iniquitous law, which scorns the vocation of educational staff and tarnishes the image of France abroad, speaks volumes about the normalization of Islamophobia in the so-called “Cradle of Human Rights” and the oppression of its millions-strong Muslim community.