France abaya ban: Muslim schoolgirl sent home for wearing kimono

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A woman holds a placard reading ‘my veil is my freedom’ during a protest in 2019 (AFP)

Education minister says as many as 67 girls were sent home after refusing to take off loose-fitting robesA Muslim girl in France became one the first to be excluded from school after a ban on wearing an abaya, a full-length robe worn by many Muslim women.

The girl from the French city of Leon came to school dressed in a kimono, a long loose-fitting robe with wide sleeves, leading to objections from her headteacher, who interpreted it as a religious garment. 

Last month the French government announced a ban on the garment, the latest in a string of decisions over the past two decades targeting the way Muslim women dress.

Under the country’s hardline interepretation of laicite, or secularism, outward symbols of faith in state schools are banned. Initially this applied to headscarfs but policymakers have since decided to include other items of clothing considered to be based on religious ideas of modesty.

In previous incidents, schoolgirls have been excluded after wearing skirts that were deemed to be not short enough.

The lawyer for the girl, who has not been named for legal reasons, said she went to school “wearing jeans, a T-shirt and an open kimono”.

The student was taken to the headteacher who told her she could not stay in the school wearing the garment. 

“This scenario illustrates the dangerous excesses that could legitimately be expected from the recent instructions,” said Nabil Boudi, a lawyer acting on behalf of the student. 

“There is nothing in the wearing of a kimono that makes it possible to characterise an ostensible manifestation of belonging to a religion,” Boudi added.

The lawyer went on to argue that the teacher was assuming the student’s religion when excluding her from the school, since the kimono, a traditional Japanese outfit, has no religious connotation. 

“Discriminatory acts committed by civil servants are punishable by criminal law,” said Boudi, explaining that he had filed a criminal complaint to the public prosecutor of Lyon.


Critics of the ban have long argued that it would lead to discrimination against schoolchildren. 

“This blanket ban can’t be implemented without resorting to racial profiling. Literally everything can be considered religious if the person is considered or perceived as Muslim,” said Rim-Sarah Alouane, a PhD candidate researching constitutional law, discrimination, religious freedom and civil liberties in France, Europe and North America. 

Speaking for the first time since the ban officially came in on Monday, the start of the French school year, the country’s education minister, Gabriel Attal, said in an interview that up to 300 girls had defied the ban on long loose-fitting robes being worn to school. 

While some girls had agreed to take off the robe, as many as 67 refused and were sent home, he told BFM, a French TV station. 

Attal added that the girls who were sent home on Monday were given letters addressed to their families proclaiming that “secularism is not a constraint, it is a liberty”.

If they continued coming to school wearing long loose-fitting robes, there would be “new dialogue”, added the minister ominously. 

‘Secularism means freedom’

“I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools,” said Attal in a surprise announcement last month.

“Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school,” he said, describing the abaya as “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the Republic towards the secular sanctuary that school must constitute”.

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Attal’s decision was condemned by some members of the opposition, with Clementine Autain of the left-wing France Unbowed party criticising the “policing of clothing”.

She accused the government of harbouring an “obsessive rejection” of the country’s estimated five million Muslim population, and said Attal’s announcement was “unconstitutional”.

The announcement was the first big move by Attal since being promoted in the summer to handle the hugely contentious education portfolio.

Activists and rights groups have long expressed concern that an intense focus on the hijab – often under the guise of policies prohibiting religious symbols – is a symptom of normalised Islamophobia in some EU countries.

In 2004, France banned “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” in schools. This ban included large crosses and Jewish kippas as well as Islamic headscarves.

In 2010, it passed a ban on full-face veils in public, a decision that the United Nations Human Rights Committee decried as violating human rights.

Unlike headscarves, the abaya – a garment worn to comply with Islamic beliefs on modest dress – occupied a grey area until last November.

The education ministry issued a circular at the time including the abaya in a group of items of clothing which could be banned should they be donned “in a manner as to openly display a religious affiliation”.

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