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France’s Abaya Ban: Yet Another Attack on the Rights of Muslim Women

France’s Abaya Ban: Yet Another Attack on the Rights of Muslim Women

Categories: Latest News

Tuesday September 26 2023

On the first day of the new academic year in France, dozens of French schoolgirls were singled out  by their teachers and sent home. These girls had two things in common: they were all Muslim and they chose to rebel against France’s new ban on the Abaya by wearing the traditional piece of Islamic dress to school. The decision by French teachers followed an announcement made last month by France’s Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, who proclaimed that he had “decided” that Abayas would be banned from state schools. There is an obvious absurdity in this situation: a middle aged white man thinking it morally permissible for himself to regulate the clothing choices of ethnic minority schoolgirls. However, this is just the latest episode of the French state’s attacks on the right of religious people, particularly Muslims, and particularly Muslim women, to express their religious identity.

Freedom of religious practice is enshrined in a raft of international human rights legislation. Specifically, the right to “manifest” one’s religious belief is a central tenet of this principle. Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Article 9 of the European Convention on Human Rights all contain this directive. The right to manifest one’s religion is understood as meaning the right to express one’s religious beliefs publicly and/or privately through speech, acts of worship, as well as through wearing certain symbols and garments. Attal outlined his rationale behind the recent Abaya ban by explaining, [w]hen you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them.” Yet, this is precisely the point behind the aforementioned human rights doctrine. As the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) itself has stated, “an individual who has made religion a central tenet of his or her life must, in principle, be able to communicate that belief to others, inter alia by wearing religious symbols and items of clothing.” While the ECHR has in the past granted leeway to France in banning face veils in certain public settings, other bodies, such as the United Nations Human Rights Committee (UNHRC), have disagreed, and ruled that to do so is a violation of the right of Muslim women to manifest their religion.

Regardless, in recent years France has shown time and time again its willingness to violate this sacred right. Indeed, the Abaya ban is just the latest move by France to regulate the clothing choices of Muslim women. In 2004, President Jacques Chirac’s government banned all religious signs and clothing from state-run schools. While it is true that this law also applied to other religious groups and their symbols, such as the wearing of crucifixes by Christians, it was widely seen as being aimed at veiled Muslim girls within the context of an intensified national debate over immigration and culture during the height of the so-called War on Terror. After investigating the case of one girl who was forced to remove her hijab, the UNHRC concluded that France had violated the above-mentioned ICCPR. The UNHRC concluded in its ruling that preventing the woman from “participating in her continuing education course while wearing a headscarf constitute[d] a restriction on her freedom of religion in violation of the treaty [ICCPR].”

Nevertheless, this condemnation did not generate a cause for pause in Paris; instead, the French state set out implementing more bans on Muslim female dress in the years ahead. In 2009, then-president Nicholas Sarkozy said that religious face veils were “not welcome” in France. Subsequently, in 2010, a law was passed which criminalised concealing one’s face in public, including the Niqab and Burqa. The law widely became known as “the burqa ban,” as it was Muslim women who appeared to be disproportionately effected, highlighted by numerous cases of enforced public removal of face veils and the paying of fines of up to €150 for wearing them. In 2016, French authorities doubled down on their Islamophobia by imposing a ban on modest swimwear worn by some Muslim women, known as the Burkini. This draconian legislation saw Muslim women being arrested for the alleged crime of wanting to cover their bodies at the beach and at public pools. Given this, we can see that the new Abaya ban is just the latest effort in a broader campaign aimed at coercing Muslim women into adopting Western style dress codes, regardless of how uncomfortable this may make them feel, and in violation of their religious rights.

Such infringements on the rights of faith communities are a consequence of France’s strict constitutional principle of secularism, or Laïcité, which essentially bars religious expression from the public sphere. According to the theory of Laïcité, confining religion to the private space (such as in one’s home or a place of worship) creates an equality between citizens in the public realm, ensuring that favour is not given to an individual based upon their religious affiliations. French officials often invoke the concept when justifying bans on religious apparel. For example, upon announcing the Burkini ban in summer 2016, the mayor of Cannes said that it was important to prohibit “beachwear ostentatiously showing a religious affiliation.” However, revealing the way in which the principle is often weaponised in the name of national security, he added that it was important to do so “while France and places of religious significance are the target of terror attacks.” Although France was recovering at the time from a series of horrific ISIS-inspired terrorist atrocities, including on churches, the idea that this necessitated a crackdown on modest swimwear worn by Muslim women was, and remains, absurd. In the eyes of many French Muslims, Laïcité seems more like a tool used to erase their cultural and religious identities while absorbing them into the customs and norms of ‘Frenchness’ as defined by the political elites of the day.

Fortunately in Britain, the government has for the most part shied away from tampering with peoples’ right to manifest their religious identity. In 2017 then-Prime Minister Theresa May said that she believed that it was the right of Muslim to veil themselves “without fear,” saying also that “what a woman wears is a woman’s choice.” Indeed, Article 9 of the Human Rights Act 1998 gives people a “qualified” right to manifest their religion or belief, including through clothing. Although the right is “qualified,” meaning that in certain situations it may be overrode, such as for health and safety at work, there is no total ban on wearing religious clothing in the public space.

Yet, there has been a worrying trend in recent years in the rhetoric of some right-leaning political figures toward Muslim women for the way they dress. In 2018 Boris Johnson infamously called the burqa “oppressive,” arguing that “it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.” While Johnson nonetheless said he opposed any ban, it must be understood that such reckless language shows contempt for the reality that many Muslim women opt to wear such clothing for religious and/or cultural reasons. Highlighting this, 100 self-described “free women” who chose to wear the Burqa or Niqab wrote a letter condemning Johnson’s bigotry. The biggest risk of course is that such language risks presenting Muslim women as an ‘Other’ in British society, feeding Islamophobia against them. In fact, in the weeks following Johnson’s remarks, Islamophobic attacks reportedly rose by 375%, mostly against women. What this shows is that when we turn the clothing of Muslim women into an arena for culture wars, it is often, unsurprisingly, the women wearing the clothing who suffer. There have also been a handful of cases of schools trying to ban Islamic female attire. In 2018, one prominent school in London banned the  hijab for girls under eight years old, but quickly reversed the decision after complaints from parents.

Unfortunately, in the case of France, it seems that Muslims will likely remain the targets for the state’s policy of forced secularisation. All who champion the principle of tolerance for diversity, and believe in the right of individuals to manifest their religious beliefs free from the fear of state-backed discrimination, should be alarmed by Paris’ abaya ban. Therefore, MEND calls upon the relevant parties, including the Council of Europe and the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, to engage with French authorities over the rights of Muslims, and all faith communities, to express their religious identities. Any failure to remedy this clear state overreach may risk creating animosities between France and her Muslim population for years to come.


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