When you are Muslim or when you frequent Muslim circles in France, you always fear seeing the resurgence of veil cases, which you know are periodic. However, this fall, I discovered an unexpected variation: the abaya. I uttered this word for years, having to explain it every time I spoke about what I saw in the countries where I resided, and here it is today on everyone’s lips, everyone going from their theory and of his knowledge on the subject.
Cultural or religious object? This is the whole question, the answer to which depends on the application of the law to public schools. For my part, looking at my small collection brought back from the Middle East – embroidered traditional ones, colorful stylized ones, black functional modern ones, witnesses of my wanderings in various countries –, I thought I would risk an accusation of cultural appropriation by donning the one of them in France, and not – like the veil – an offense to secularism to which I am attached.
Muslim or Gothic
Having to give up wearing certain clothes in France no longer poses too many problems for me on a personal level, each country has its cultural limits, and today I have other concerns. On the other hand, if I was old enough to go to high school, I certainly would not have had such a conciliatory attitude towards this new affair… And for good reason, I was able to experience in high school both the wearing of this which was similar to an abaya, and for a year abroad wearing a uniform, which some present as the ideal solution to these “anti-republican” fabrics from elsewhere.
In high school, I wore very loose clothes, often black, and even lined with a long cape – I was not Muslim, but I was goth, a fan of Lord of the Rings, and very uncomfortable in my body. In addition, it was one of the rare ways of claiming a difference, like many shy people: what we cannot say, we express differently, notably through clothes.
A knee-length skirt
It was also in high school that I found myself for a year in an Australian Catholic establishment, with compulsory costume. Beyond the shock for the Frenchwoman that I was, free to dress as she wants every morning – impose a uniform on me, and then what? –, the fact that the uniform in question consisted, among other things, of a skirt reaching the knee or barely above it caused stress in me that I could have done without.
Certainly, all the other girls were in the same boat, but that matters little to the teenager who is uncomfortable in her body. And it doesn’t help at all to accept it. This body was more easily accepted later, when I found the freedom to cover it or not with big dresses and big skirts…
This Australian school year was fortunately one of the best for other reasons, but I remember from the uniform that it is in no way a solution. It seems egalitarian, but we knew very well how to identify the differences between each of us, difference in wealth, cultural difference, etc., by tiny distinctive signs: a way of putting on a tie, an earring, a brand shoe (all black, without heels, etc., but everything then depends on the subtlety of the quality of the leather or sole!), a gait, a lock of hair, an accent…
Ultimately, the only real advantage of the uniform was the saving of time when dressing. What alleviated possible problems, as there are in all schools, was the luxury of being less than twenty per class, with well-paid teachers, resulting in more fluid communication and more time devoted to each.
Back in France, in my abayas which were not yet there at the time, and my capes dragging on the ground, what would they have said to me today? Ban because of a potentially religious sign? According to who and what? Or authorization because I am white, and therefore unlikely to be an Islamist claim? Racial discrimination, in this case… And forgetting that Muslims can be of all colors.
And that many adolescent girls see a good way in a well-cut abaya to assert their difference from society, to push adults to their limits, to play with limits – it’s so easy now, all it takes is a piece of fabric –, as in other times we did with piercings or tattoos.
I know that I will be presented with the argument of religion, and of some plan by I don’t know what Islamist group to infiltrate society… But listening to these arguments, I can only hear an echo of the debates of the “satanic panic” in the United States in the 1990s, a generational misunderstanding in a society crossed by religion, often misunderstood.
At the same time, I also have enough examples around me of women who claimed to wear the veil in their past, only to then simply remove it after a spiritual process (loss of faith or, on the contrary, strengthening of faith beyond the need for a visible marker) so as not to worry too much about this “fashion” of abayas and the business that is made of them: let’s let the teenagers dress as they want, it is not a ban that will help those who are really concerned by family imposition and an Islamist strategy – these would only disappear from the school radar, thus shifting the problem.
In short, deciding what is religious and what is not, in the era of ultra-rapid changes in fashion and multiple identity and cultural demands, is a very difficult choice left to teachers and school leaders who seem to deserve tools other than this false good solution to very real problems which sometimes overlap (Islamism, body image, discomfort, quest for identity, incomprehension of secularism, etc.).
The last solution of this kind, the uniform would only tend towards an ideal of perfect resemblance which cannot be achieved, the difference always resurfacing very quickly and in an even more original way – the uniform as a solution curiously defended by many people who would be the first to decry the generalization of abayas in other countries…