France will ban students from wearing the abaya, a loose-fitting, full-length dress worn by some Muslim women, in state-run schools, the country’s education minister announced Sunday.
The rule will be applied as soon as the new school year starts in September.
“When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them,” Education Minister Gabriel Attal told France’s TF1 TV network. “I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools.”
France has also banned wearing other religious symbols in schools, including Christian crosses, Jewish kippahs, and Muslim headscarves.
But critics say France’s laws have long targeted Muslims, who make up the largest religious minority group in France apart from the non-affiliated.
This is not the first law France has passed targeting Muslim dress under the country’s laws regarding separation of religion and government, also known as laïcité. Earlier this year, French courts upheld a ban on women and girls wearing the hijab while playing in France’s soccer circuit. In 2011, wearing full face veils in public was also banned, making France the first European nation to enforce a nationwide ban.
It’s not only clothing. In 2021, France passed an anti-radicalism bill that would allow the government to surveil mosques, schools and Muslim sports clubs. Muslims are less than half as likely to receive a callback for a job as Christians with the same credentials, according to a 2020 study. Mosques across the country have been shuttered for “separatist” and “extremist” ideology.
The government has argued that the laws and policies are necessary to safeguard the country from terrorism attacks, fight extremism and uphold France’s secular values.
Rim-Sarah Alouane, a researcher and Ph.D. candidate in comparative law who specializes in constitutional law and human rights at the University of Toulouse Capitole in Toulouse, France, told HuffPost that the abaya ban is a distraction from critical issues such as inflation, social tensions and issues with the nation’s public services.
“We keep weaponizing laïcité. We keep weaponizing a part of our population for political gain,” said Alouane. “And it works. It divides the nation and we don’t need that.”
At least 42% of French Muslims reported being discriminated against according to a study released by the government in 2019. For Muslims who wear the hijab, that number jumps, with 60% of Muslim women who wear a headscarf saying they have been discriminated against at least once.
“People are tired. People are exhausted. People are drained,” said Alouane. “French Muslims just want to live their lives like literally everybody else. They have struggles like everybody else.”
The announcement will result in massive legal concerns, she added, noting that it would be impossible to implement and differentiate between an abaya — a loose robe-like garment worn by some Muslim women — and a dress and would subsequently lead to a spike in profiling.
“French Muslims are not people we need to change. They are French. It’s their country as much as it is for others,” said Alouane. “They are tired of being targeted and discriminated against. They contribute to the fabric of the country. Every time this happens, it pushes for more discrimination and puts at risk our civil liberties.”