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France bans Islamic abayas in schools, citing secularism

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The French education minister, Gabriel Attal, announced on Sunday that abaya dresses worn by some Muslim women will be banned in schools, arguing that the garment violated France’s strict secular laws in education. Abayas are long, loose-fitting garments that cover the body and sometimes the face. They are worn by some Muslim women as a way of complying with Islamic beliefs on modest dress, but they are also worn by other communities in North Africa and the Middle East.  Attal said in an interview with a television that he would issue “clear rules at the national level” to school heads ahead of the return to classes nationwide from September 4. “It will no longer be possible to wear an abaya at school,” he said.  He added that secularism meant “the freedom to emancipate oneself through school” and that the abaya was “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute.”  He also said that students should not be identifiable by their religion when they enter a classroom. “You enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the religion of the students by looking at them,” he said.  The move comes after months of debate over the wearing of abayas in French schools, where women have long been banned from wearing the Islamic headscarf. The right and far-right had pushed for the ban, while the left argued that it would encroach on civil liberties.  A law of March 2004 banned “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” in schools. This includes large crosses, Jewish kippahs and Islamic headscarves. Unlike headscarves, abayas had faced no outright ban until now.  The debate has intensified since a radicalized Chechen refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown students caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), near his school in a Paris suburb in 2020.  The CFCM, a national body encompassing many Muslim associations, has said items of clothing alone were not “a religious sign”.  The announcement is the first big move by Attal, 34, since he was promoted this summer to handle the hugely contentious education portfolio. Along with Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin, 40, he is seen as a rising star who could potentially play an important role after Macron steps down in 2027.

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