School Battlegrounds: Islamophobia on the Rise in France

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Protestors resisting France’s new law banning the abaya (Image credit: Human Rights Watch)

Gabriel Attal, France’s new education minister, announced last week the prohibition of the abaya, in schools. An abaya is a traditional middle eastern dress that is typically long and loose with long sleeves. It is a Muslim garment and often associated with Islam and its standards for modesty. This announcement is not the first of its kind– France has been subject to many laws that target Muslims, and as a result, these regulations have labelled the government as islamophobic. Despite many French laws regarding the separation of Church and State, a basis of the French democracy, rhe right to even wear the hijab or pray in public is under fire. 10% of French residents are Muslims, which makes these laws hit home for millions. However, places of education have always been a safe haven. French schools, until now, have been fairly tolerant of all religions and allow Muslims to coexist without forcing them to let go of their religious identity.

The law prohibits the wear of conspicuous religious symbols at school. This not only applies to public schools from kindergarten to the twelfth grade, but also applies to colleges in France. While the law claims to promote secularism, it has been interpreted as an attack on Muslims because while discrete symbols are allowed, the “Islamic veil” is specifically mentioned as an indiscreet display of religion.

In a very particular context with the economical struggles of inflation that the French society is facing, the passing of the most recent law banning the abaya was highly criticized as considered by a lot of citizens as a way to distract the general attention from more important matters. However, French president Emmanuel Macron defended this decision saying the country needed to be firm about it in a video interview with Hugo Décrypte, suggesting that this is also a serious issue. In the same interview, Macron reflected on last year’s controversy about young girls wearing crop tops to school which he qualified last year as non-republican clothing. He remarked that experimentation in schools of different uniforms is encouraged.

This Monday was back to school day in France, and over 300 girls made a statement and protested these laws by wearing abayas on the first day. Among these 300 girls, 67 chose to remain in their abayas after being told to remove them and were subsequently dismissed from school.  This situation highlights the ongoing dialogue and challenges surrounding the intersection of religion, culture, and secularism in France, with no easy resolution in sight as the miscorrelation between Islam and terrorism is still present in French society. The wear of religious clothing remains a topic of deep concern and debate among citizens and policymakers alike and reflects a lot about the situation of refugees, migrants and marginalized communities.

Written by Imane Moumen

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