The school abayas row: Muslims are already excluded from French political life

Kaoutar Harchi :

When Gabriel Attal, the French education minister, went on national television for an interview to mark the start of the new school term, he had a clear message: “I have decided that the abaya can no longer be worn in school.”

He elaborated: “When you walk into a classroom, you should not be able to identify the pupils’ religion by looking at them.”

An official statement came a few days later confirming the ban on the long, loose dress worn by some Muslim women and girls.

The practical effect of the announcement is that any young woman who turns up at the gates of her school wearing an abaya faces being barred from attending class or mixing with her classmates.

“But,” added the minister, “students will be welcomed and there will be a conversation with them to explain the meaning of the rule.”

The ban on wearing the abaya should be seen as part of the colonial relationship that exists between the French state and French citizens descended from postcolonial immigration.

It has a history marked by three key events: in 1989 the principal of a school expelled three teenage girls for wearing headscarves in class.

In 1994 a government memorandum created a distinction between so-called “discreet” religious symbols, which it said were acceptable in schools, and “ostentatious” religious symbols, which were not.

In 2004 a new law banned the wearing of veils or any “conspicuous” religious symbols in state schools.

And now adolescent girls are to be refused the right to study, move freely within their educational establishments or associate with classmates and teachers while wearing the abaya.

The ban is justified by the defence of secularism. Historically, the principle of secularism, or “laïcité”, in France was about protecting the right to freedom of conscience: it requires the state to remain strictly neutral.

However, over time and under the influence of partisan interests and political alignments, secularism has been enlisted to serve a discourse supposedly aimed at protecting the principle of equality between men and women.

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A discourse, in other words, that casts Islam as a patriarchal religion and a threat to French democracy. It is up to this democracy then to save Muslim women from Muslim men and, more broadly, from the culture of Islam.

However, when you listen carefully to some of the speeches justifying the ban on the abaya in schools, it becomes clear that there has been a shift.

It is no longer so much a question of banning a long, loose garment to free young women from the grip of the Muslim patriarchy as about protecting other students from the proselytising threat that these abaya-wearing adolescents could present. These girls are now seen as school-going envoys of global Islamism.

It should be noted that the right and far right in France agree that the abaya is a religious garment. On the left, there is a palpable unease about defining it. Some are clear that it is not an item of religious dress; others are not so sure.

But anyone wading into this debate to make arguments about the nature and significance of a long dress is making a serious mistake, because the debate itself is based on a sexist premise: that these adolescents are sexualised through a femininity that is abnormal.

It is also based on a racist premise: that these adolescent girls are racialised by being Muslims, a religion that seeks to determine their entire being and behaviour. These sexist and racist theories combine to produce a third hypothesis: that these adolescents, as women and as “foreigners”, must be conspiring against the French nation.

The only debate we should be having is not about what these young girls do with their bodies and what they devote their minds to, but rather the policies deployed by the French state to control the bodies and minds of racial minorities.

Remember that on 27 June 2023, a 17-year-old named Nahel was killed by a bullet from a police gun at point-blank range – a tragic loss of life that became the 21st fatal traffic-stop shooting by French police since 2020. Most of the victims were of black or Arab origin.

How, then, can we not link schools’ control of the bodies of racialised adolescents to police control of the bodies of racialised adolescents?
How can we not perceive that to different degrees, but right the way up the social ladder, young Muslim women and young Muslim men belong to a group that is subjected to exceptional political treatment?

How can we fail to understand that no matter what these young men and women do or think, they are always and already trapped in an otherness that reduces them to bodies without the capacity to reason and who must therefore be governed by white reason?

This is what lies at the heart of this debate: the exclusion of part of the French population from participation in political life. We need to reaffirm the right of every French person, Muslim or otherwise, to exercise their full and complete entitlement to French citizenship.

(The writer is a French sociologist and the author of As We Exist: A Postcolonial Autobiography)

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