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What is the Abaya, the Garment France Wants to Ban?

France's education minister is seeking to ban the traditional over-garment on the grounds that it is an ostensibly religious symbol.

In front of a Strasbourg high school during the baccalauréat results in June 2023. [FREDERICK FLORIN / AFP]

By William Audureau

August 29, 2023

"I have decided that it is no longer permissible to wear the abaya to school," Minister of National Education and Youth Gabriel Attal announced on French television channel TF1 on Sunday, August 27. "When you enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the students' religion by looking at them." "Wherever the Republic is tested, we must stand together," the national education minister had already told education officers firmly in his meeting with them on Thursday.

What is an abaya?

An abaya (Arabic for "toga" or "cloak") is an over-garment, often loose and light, worn from the shoulders to the feet. It is similar to the djellaba worn in North Africa or the qamis worn in West Africa. Although it is a women's garment, it can also be worn by men, albeit with a different cut. Though largely neutral in color, the abaya has also developed into fashion apparel with brighter hues.

How can you tell it apart from similar garments?

The djellaba, of Berber origin, is distinguished by its usually brighter colors and more elaborate ornamental motifs. The qamis, often considered the male equivalent of the abaya, has straighter lines.

Loose-fitting dresses (qamis, abaya, djellab) are traditional garments that can be worn by men and women alike, as seen in Arles, France, during the Aïd-el-Kébir festival in June 2022. [HESHAM ELSHERIF / GETTY IMAGES]

On the social network X (formerly Twitter), former Minister for Equality of Territories and Housing Cécile Duflot asked her followers whether a long covering dress of which she posted a photo was an "attack on secularism." It was in fact a "2,980 Gucci dress," Duflot later specified after someone mistook the luxury dress for an abaya, thus proving her point that it can be hard to tell the difference between a long-covering dress and an abaya.

Why is this garment so controversial?

According to a government memo seen by Le Monde, reports of breaches of secularism in schools have been on the rise over the past year (4,710 in 2022-2023, compared with 2,167 the previous year), and over 40% of monthly reports now concern clothing that may be both cultural and religious – such as the qamis or djellaba for men, or the abaya for women. These reports concern around 150 schools, out of several thousand primary and secondary schools.

Some see this as a breach of the 2004 law, which prohibits "the wearing of signs or clothing by which pupils ostensibly express a religious affiliation." The previous education minister, Pap Ndiaye, had issued a directive in November 2022, leaving it up to individual school principals to decide whether or not such dress was religious. This stance was deemed too moderate, indeed lax, by the right-wing and far-right opposition.

Is it a religious garment?

This is one of the main questions facing national education staff. The abaya is first and foremost a traditional garment. In his Detailed Lexicon Of Clothing Names Among Arabs (1845), the Dutch orientalist Reinhart Dozy defined it as "the characteristic garment of the Bedouin at nearly all times." Simple and rustic, it spread throughout the Persian Gulf and surrounding areas.

Until the late 1970s, short and even colorful abayas were accepted in Saudi Arabia. Following a hostage-taking incident by fundamentalist rebels in Mecca in 1979, King Khal Aziz Al Saud made a number of pledges to the supporters of one of the most literalist and strict visions of Islam. Among the landmark laws was the compulsory wearing of the black abaya by women, who also lost many of their freedoms. The garment became a fixture in Saudi Arabia and a hallmark of Salafist Islam in the Western imagination.

Seen from France, where the Wahhabi trend gained influence in the 2010s, the abaya can appear as a sign of religious affiliation. This interpretation has been disputed by the French Muslim Council, which, through vice president Abdallah Zekri, has simply described as "a kind of fashion."

As things stand, school principals' assessment of the religious nature of the abaya depends above all on the context and the intention of the wearer. The handbook on secularism in schools, published in 2021 by the French Ministry of Education, specifies that "a sign or outfit that is not, strictly speaking, religious, may thus be prohibited if it is worn to ostensibly manifest a religious affiliation." A piece of clothing or a garment is considered to show signs of religious value if it is provocative, worn repeatedly, or a student refuses to remove it.

Have other countries banned the abaya?

France is the first Western country to announce its intention to ban the abaya from schools. But the first country to actually do so was Saudi Arabia, which, under the impetus of Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman, has undertaken a liberal turn in recent years. Since 2022, the Wahhabi kingdom has outlawed the wearing of abaya for women during examinations. This is one of a number of measures aimed at modernizing society in the oil-rich monarchy, such as the lifting of the driving ban for Saudi women.

© Le Monde

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