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Polémiques autour du port de l’abaya à l’école

On 27 August, French Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced on the TF1 television news programme that the abaya would be banned from state schools. The abaya is a long, loose-fitting dress, a cultural garment from the Arabian Peninsula.

There has been recurrent controversy in recent months over the wearing of the abaya in secondary schools by girls. A few days before the start of the 2023 academic year, the French Education Minister took a stand and indicated that he would ban the wearing of this garment from the start of the new academic year. While this announcement has reignited controversy and debate on the issue, it has also raised questions among legal experts.

The debate about the way pupils dress stems from the principle that state schools must be places of religious neutrality, in accordance with the principle of laïcité (secularism). Although this religious neutrality initially only concerned public service employees, the law of 15 March 2004 extends this neutrality to users of the national education public service, that is pupils. The law of 15 March 2004 prohibits the wearing of signs or clothing by which pupils would ostensibly manifest a religious affiliation in state schools. While signs that are objectively religious are prohibited - the headscarf, the kippah, the large cross - other signs have raised questions for judges in recent years. This applies to the wearing of a bandana or a long skirt, for example. To determine the extent to which this type of sign does or does not fall within the scope of the 2004 law, the Conseil d’Etat has ruled that the wearing of such signs is an ostensible manifestation of religious affiliation only because of the pupil’s behaviour - the assessment is therefore made on a case-by-case basis.

The Minister’s memo, published in the Bulletin officiel de l’Education nationale on 31 August, brings the abaya within the scope of the law of 15 March 2004. His predecessor, Pap Ndiaye, had already published a circular in 2022 aimed at clarifying the legal framework applicable to abayas, among other things. For some legal experts, this announcement is nothing more and nothing less than an exercise in political communication.

In France, there are frequent debates about the place of religion in the public sphere - particularly when it comes to the religious symbols worn by Muslim women : the veil, the burkini, the full veil and now the abaya. This latest controversy raises many questions. On the one hand, on the basis of what information is the government declaring that the abaya is a religious garment, despite the contrary opinion of the CFCM ? Although this garment does meet the requirements of religious modesty, it is above all cultural ; the government therefore seems to be adopting the definition of the abaya held by some members of a certain current of Islam, and some members of a certain current of secularism. Moreover, this controversy once again raises questions about the definition of laïcité : is it a liberal legal principle, or will religious neutrality end up definitively replacing secularism, the legal safeguard of religious freedom ?

D 11 septembre 2023    ALauren Bakir

CNRS Unistra Dres Gsrl

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