eurel     Données sociologiques et juridiques sur la religion en Europe et au-delà


  • September 2023 : Controversy about the wearing of abayas in schools

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 ?

Lauren Bakir
  • April 2023 : Council of Wise People for Secularism

In 2018, the Minister of National Education installed a Council of Wise People of Secularism "in the face of the attacks on the principle of secularism that have been shaking the school institution for too long".
On 14 April, this council will welcome five new members (Gwénaële Calvès - professor of public law at the University of Cergy-Pontoise ; Christine Darnault - deputy director of the cabinet of the Rector of Créteil, in charge of educational policies ;
Jacques Fredj - Director of the Shoah Memorial ; Thomas Hochmann, professor of public law at the University of Paris-Nanterre ; Alain Policar, political scientist and sociologist at the IEP of Paris.
The other members of the Council of Wise Poeple are Dominique Schnapper (chair), Jean-Louis Auduc, Ghaleb Bencheikh, Catherine Biaggi, IAGGI, Abdennour Bidar, Médéric Chapitaux, Monique Dagnaud, Olivier Galland, Delphine Girard, Patrick Kessel, Catherine Kintzler, Frédérique de la Morena, Jean-Eric Schoettl, Vincent Ploquin (Ministry of the Interior), plus an administrative team comprising Alain Seksig, Iannis Roder, Isabelle de Mecquenem, Michèle Narvaez.

Anne-Laure Zwilling

D 11 septembre 2023    ALauren Bakir

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