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French court upholds ban on girls wearing abayas in schools

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France’s highest administrative court has confirmed the government’s decision to prohibit students in public schools from wearing the abaya, a long, robe-like garment often worn by Muslim women. The court rejected the complaints that the ban was discriminatory and could incite hatred against Muslims.

The ban was announced by President Emmanuel Macron’s government last month as part of its policy to enforce secularism, or laïcité, in education. Muslim headscarves have already been banned on the grounds that they constitute a display of religious affiliation.

The Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM), a group representing Muslims, filed a motion with the state council, France’s highest court for complaints against state authorities, for an injunction against the ban on the abaya and the qamis, its equivalent dress for men. The ADM argued that the ban violated “fundamental rights”, such as the right to personal freedom.

However, after examining the motion for two days, the state council dismissed the arguments. It said that wearing the abaya “follows the logic of religious affirmation” and that the ban was based on French law, which does not allow anyone to wear visible signs of any religious affiliation in schools.

The state council also said that the ban did not cause “serious or obviously illegal harm to the respect for personal lives, freedom of religion, the right to education, the well-being of children or the principle of non-discrimination”.

The ADM expressed its disappointment with the ruling and said that it would appeal to the European Court of Human Rights. The group said that the court had “not fulfilled its role of protecting the fundamental freedoms of children” and that it was concerned about “the consequences this decision could have on young girls, who are at risk of suffering daily discrimination based on their ethnic and religious appearance”.

The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM), another group representing Muslims, also criticized the ban and said that it was considering filing its own complaint before the state council. The CFCM said that the absence of “a clear definition of this garment creates vagueness and legal uncertainty” and that banning the abaya could create “an elevated risk of discrimination”.

The education ministry defended the ban and said that it was consistent with France’s secular culture. The education minister, Gabriel Attal, praised the court’s ruling and called it “an important decision for the schools of the Republic”. He said that “the purpose of schools is to welcome all students, with the same rights and duties, without discrimination or stigmatization”.

President Macron also supported the ban and said that it was not “stigmatizing” anyone, but “people who push the abaya” are. He said that France was facing a “crisis of Islamism” and that he wanted to defend “the values of our Republic”.

France has pursued a series of controversial bans and restrictions on items of customarily Islamic dress in recent years, which have frequently drawn the ire of Muslim countries and international rights groups. In 2010, France became the first European country to ban full-face veils in public spaces. In 2016, several French towns banned burkinis, full-body swimsuits worn by some Muslim women, from their beaches. In 2020, France passed a law against separatism, which included measures to regulate religious associations and prevent foreign influence.

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