Is wearing the abaya at school an attack on secularism?

Is wearing the abaya at school an attack on secularism?

► Why is the abaya controversial?

The Minister of National Education, Pap Ndiaye, brought together the rectors of academies on Tuesday, June 6, asking them in particular to “firmness” in the application of the principles of secularism at school. Among the violations noted, the wearing of “abayas” – the increase in which the minister had pointed out in the fall – is the subject of recurring controversy. These were relaunched on Wednesday June 7 while the daily The Parisian dedicated its front page to them.

If the figures for attacks on secularism – which are now the subject of a monthly report – show a drop of 30% for the month of May, with 438 reports reported by the heads of establishments, the share of reports for port on the other hand, signs and outfits increased, representing 56% of all attacks, compared to 37% the previous month.

Questioned by the Public Senate channel, Wednesday, June 7, on the increase in the wearing of abayas, Pap Ndiaye confirmed that this garment was concerned by the 2004 law on the wearing of religious symbols at school. “We are not going to publish a catalog of hundreds of pages with handle shapes or colors, we would not get out of it from a legal point of view”, he judged. The whole question is indeed whether or not this long dress from the Middle East manifests the student’s religious affiliation.

Wednesday, June 7, the Minister of National Education affirmed that “the appreciation of the religious character or not, it is the heads of establishment who must bring it”.

► Can the abaya be considered a religious garment?

“The abaya is a black and dark dress, which is part of the women’s wardrobe in the Gulf countries”, says historian Oissila Saaidia, author of the book “Islamic” Veils in Muslim and European Societies. History of a debate (19th-21st century) (Ed. of Cerf, 2023).

Worn today by young girls in France, it takes on different colors here. The French Council for Muslim Worship said in a press release on Sunday June 11 that in its eyes, this garment was not a Muslim religious sign. “Within the CFCM, we would like to reaffirm that in the Muslim tradition, which we defend, any item of clothing is not a religious sign in itself. » An opinion shared by the Foundation for Islam in France, which had expressed an opinion to this effect in October 2022.

In fact, it is a question of knowing what makes a garment, whatever it is, take on a religious connotation. “A garment by definition is neither religious nor non-religious. It depends on how we look at it and how the people who wear it claim it,” poses Oissila Saaidia, taking as an example the wearing of the yarmulke, “on which rabbis debated until the 19th century whether it was obligatory or not”. “The notion of religious clothing changes throughout history and according to societies”, develops the researcher.

► Is wearing this garment an attack on secularism?

The application circular of the 2004 law on secularism in schools explicitly mentions three signs “whose wearing leads to immediate recognition by one’s religious affiliation” : the Islamic veil, the yarmulke and the large cross. “But since the law came into effect, other signs have fallen under the law,” notes Stéphanie Hennette-Vauchez, professor of public law. “Because in reality, the 2004 law also makes it possible to prohibit signs which, without being religious in themselves, fall within the framework of the law because of the student’s behavior. »

In a circular published by the national education system last November, abayas are thus considered – like bandanas and long skirts – as outfits that can be prohibited if they are “worn in such a way as to openly manifest a religious affiliation”.

However, the lawyer sees a problem there: Extensive interpretation of the law runs the risk of becoming selective. » With the danger of targeting only one category of students. In this context, the appearance of abayas raises a question: “Faced with new forms of religious expression, what response should democratic societies adopt? Is the prohibition reflex the right one? »

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