Banning the Abaya 

What else will be banned for French Muslimas?

By Monia Mazigh 

Nov/Dec 2023

At the end of August, a few days before the schools opened, the newly appointed French education minister Gabriel Attal announced in a memorandum that wearing the abaya, a large and long traditional dress worn by women on top of other attire, will be prohibited in public schools. The ban extended also to the qamis, a long tunic usually worn by men in several Muslim countries. 

The minister justified the ban as an urgent act to defend and preserve the principle of laïcité (secularism) in the French school system. “L’abaya has no place in our schools,” emphasized Attal in a press conference. He insisted that this ban is a response to school principals who requested clear instructions about this type of attire.

What’s really strange here is that this “pick and choose” much anticipated dress code only applied to the abaya, despite the fact that the minister never clearly defined what it looks like. Thus, school principals can interpret and apply the ban as they wish. 

The same memorandum made a dangerous and misleading association between the assassination of high school teacher Samuel Paty in 2020 by a Chechen refugee with the increase of religious attire worn by students — understood here as Muslim students. (Reported by B.F. with AFP,, Aug. 28, 2003).

Drawing dangerous parallels

But how did such an association come to be normalized and accepted as a justification of the ban? What does the wearing of this traditional garment have to do with killing and violence? In an interview with a French journalist, President Macron mentioned Paty’s killing in his reply to a question about the abaya ban. Cornered by the journalist Hugo Travers, Macron denied “making any parallel” between the two events (BMFTV). Nevertheless, the impression Macron left was his subtle attempt to “weaponize” abayas worn by a minority of young Muslimas and make it sound like a dangerous item that is “testing the principles of the French Republic.” 

Banning the abaya is neither surprising nor unexpected. Ever since this obsession with Muslima’s bodies began in 1989, the debate on religious symbols in French schools hasn’t stopped. It started with “the scarf affair,” when three middle school Muslima students were suspended for refusing to remove their headscarves. At that time, the French minister of education issued a statement that gave the school principals the latitude to judge on a case-by-case basis whether to remove or keep the headscarves. 

Thirty years later, things remain pretty much the same, for this latest additional ban makes the school principals the sole interpreter of the memorandum. Instead of stopping, the debate continued and became even more controversial. In 2003, President Jacques Chirac appointed a commission to examine the “interaction between secularism and religious symbols in schools.” That same commission released a report that recommended the banning of ostentatious religious signs in school. 

Bandanas, burkinis, and beyond

In 2004, the first official law banning the “conspicuous” religious sign was born, and the hijab became its first target. Muslimas who wanted to wear it as a sign of religious observance or modesty had to remove it before entering the school. The principals would stand in front of the main entrance to check and prevent them from entering if they refused to do so. Many Muslimas tried to get around the new law by wearing bandanas, a square colourful kerchief mostly painted in paisley. 

But even that was banned, depending on who was wearing it. Elaine Sciolino, writing for the New York Times Jan. 20, 2004, explained that, in effect, a Muslima wearing a bandana wouldn’t be allowed to enter the school, but a non-Muslima wearing it as a fashion statement could. This opened the door to racial profiling and arbitrariness. 

In 2010, another law was passed to ban the niqab, a full-face full body covering. France became the first European country to introduce such legislation; other European countries have since followed. Niqabis in public space would be fined 150 euros (US $160). The law, challenged in the European Court of Human Rights, was upheld after the court accepted the argument advanced by Paris of a “certain idea of living together.”

In 2016, another public controversy arose over the burkini (the full-body swimsuit). The picture of a Muslima napping on the beach in Nice, southern France, surrounded by four police officers who asked her to remove her burkini, considered a symbol of Islamic extremism, went viral. Once again, a Muslimas’ presence in the public space was uncomfortable to some, and their choice of covering their bodies was portrayed as proselytism or an association with extremist misogynistic ideologies. Interestingly, this ban was never the object of any legislation, but the personal initiatives of some city mayors. It was later overturned by the Conseil d’État, Frances’ highest administrative and constitutional court (similar to the Supreme Court). 

Joan Wallach Scott, an American historian and prominent professor of gender studies, argued in her “Politics of the Veil” (2007) that the 2004 French law banning the headscarf in schools is clear evidence of France’s failure to fully integrate the citizens from its former colonies. The fact that modesty or a religious choice by visibly embracing Islam came to be understood through the lenses of sexual openness and the “unavailability” of some Muslim French women to the gaze of French men, literally or figuratively, bother many French. 

Continuing colonization

The ban is a continuation of French colonization — no longer over Muslim lands, but over Muslima’s bodies. For those who support such bans, the government, extreme-right parties and some of the population, these women refuse to accept French society’s “norms” and thus refuse to integrate. The ban would be a punishment, namely, removing them from the “public space.”

Wallach Scott’s analysis is correct. During a recent interview on French media, two male French journalists kept asking a teenaged Muslima, who was wearing a long tunic and large pants and had been banned from entering her high school, whether this “large” tunic and “large” pants aren’t religious and thus create confusion with the abaya. One of them asked, “Why do you wear this kind of ‘large’ clothing? Is it because it hides your shapes?” “No, I chose it because I like it,” she responded. But the journalist, in an attempt to associate the ample tunic and pants with Islam, continued his inquisition and asked, “You also wear the headscarf, right?” (BFM TV) 

That was the core issue: racial and religious profiling. If you’re a Muslima who wears modest attire, then your allegiance to the République’s sacred values are called into question and you can never be considered a full French citizen. If you are non-Muslima and chose to wear the same attire, then you are considered just another fashionable teenager — as if for Muslimas, wearing 

nice comfortable and brand clothing can’t be an innocent choice. There is always a hidden sinister reason, like radicalization or religious extremism. 

Amid this fabricated controversy, the French education minister was able to make many citizens forget that the public education system is failing, with many teachers leaving because of the difficult teaching conditions and the challenges of finding replacements. As a result, many students won’t have teachers and won’t receive a proper education. These topics are rather “covered” by the length and the ampleness of those few Muslimas who want to dress modestly and, at the same time, be Muslim and French (Alain Gabon,, Sept. 5, 2023).

Despite some anti-racism organizations and French personalities, including Annie Ernaux, a French Nobel Prize winner in literature, signing a statement denouncing the anti-racist and Islamophobic nature of this ban (Collectif,, Sept. 13, 2023), France continues, with its pitiful populists and mainly opportunistic machinations, to “use” Muslim French women to gain votes from both the left and the right. 

Monia Mazigh, PhD, an academic, author, and human rights activist, is an adjunct professor at Carleton University (Ontario). She has published “Hope and Despair: My Struggle to Free My Husband, Maher Arar” (2008) and three novels, “Mirrors and Mirages” (2015), “Hope Has Two Daughters” (2017) and “Farida” (2020), which won the 2021 Ottawa Book Award prize for French-language fiction. She has recently published an essay/memoir “Gendered Islamophobia: My Journey with a Scar(f).”

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