‘How do you distinguish between an abaya and a maxi dress?’

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By Webdesk

Paris, France – When French students returned to class a few weeks ago, the government issued a ban on abayas and qamis in public middle and high schools, a move that saw already fraught tensions between the state and Muslim minority deepen.

The government sees the full-length robes worn by some Muslims as a religious symbol.

On Monday, the State Council, France’s top administrative court, which oversees disputes concerning civil liberties, upheld the abaya ban.

Gabriel Attal, France’s education minister, said the measure was an extension of France’s principle of secularism, known as laicite.

“When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn’t be able to identify the pupils’ religion just by looking at them,” Attal said in a TV interview.

But as many have struggled to distinguish between an abaya and any other long dress, a sense of confusion and anger prevails among those being targeted.

Since September, several young women have been sent home from school for wearing various long dresses, including an open kimono. Others have reportedly been told to wear belts to “show off their curves”, instead of loose robes.

France is home to Europe’s largest Muslim minority, a community of about five million people.

“There is clearly a discriminatory element. It is such a blanket ban that can be applied so broadly,” Rim-Sarah Alouane, a French expert on constitutional law and religious freedom, told Al Jazeera. “How do you distinguish between an abaya and a maxi dress? You profile the person. If he or she is a Muslim, there is a de facto suspicion.”

Supporters of laicite see it as a way to separate church from state, but critics argue that it has become an indirect form of discrimination.

“Laicite has been really misused, and it is quite concerning to see such a necessary principle be weaponised to target a population that has been discriminated against for quite some time,” Alouane said.

The French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), a national body of Muslim associations, said the abaya on its own is not “a religious sign”.

“The word abaya just means dress. If we actually stop people who wear Middle Eastern abayas, almost nobody will be stopped, but we’re controlling girls wearing 5-euro [$5.25] H&M dresses,” Emma, a high school teacher near Strasbourg, told Al Jazeera.

‘I’m there to do my job and not to control the bodies of minors’

Many teachers and activists said the abaya ban is being used to detract from broader issues in France’s education system, including unequal salaries and a significant shortage of teachers, particularly in under-privileged neighbourhoods.

According to a recent survey of 508 schools, nearly half of schools lacked a teacher at the start of this school year.

“There is a lack of budget and a big pay inequality in the education system,” Emma said, pointing out the inequality between civil servants, who received a pay increase last year, and contract teachers like herself, who are increasingly deployed by the government yet don’t receive the same benefits.

French teachers are significantly underpaid in comparison to many other European countries.

A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) published last year revealed that primary schoolteachers in France with 15 years of experience earn about 20 percent less than the OECD average — an average of 37,700 euros ($39,800) a year – three times less than their German neighbours.

These frustrations, along with long working hours and crowded classrooms, have led teachers to suffer from depression and burnout, according to Emma. At her school, teacher positions remained vacant for long periods due to staff shortages.

“In middle school, some pupils didn’t have an English teacher for a whole year before I had them in high school.”

Enforcing the abaya ban adds another responsibility to already overworked teachers.

“It puts pressure on teachers because we’re supposed to inspect students when we arrive in class,” she said. “As an adult and as a teacher, I would never think of looking at my pupils’ bodies or clothes. I’m there to do my job and not to control the bodies of minors.”

Recently, a student at the school where Emma teaches was contacted by the headmaster who “thought her dress was too large”.

The headmaster offered the student, who is 13, “a chance to wear a belt to show off her curves and to not confuse it with an Islamic dress”.

“It’s 2023, and in the country of human rights, minors are being asked to show off their bodies or wear less clothing,” Emma said.

‘We are going to further isolate Muslim students’

According to Yasser Louati, political activist and head of the Committee for Justice and Liberties, the abaya ban in schools does nothing to address the need for education reform.

“The idea that imposing dress on students will solve the country’s education problems is ridiculous,” Louati told Al Jazeera. “[President Emmanuel] Macron has loads of ideas for the market but nothing for our kids or our teachers”.

France prohibited symbols that “ostensibly display a religious affiliation” in a 2004 law that critics say has been used to target Muslims.

“The danger is that we are going to further isolate Muslim students from the rest of the population,” he said. “Imagine the situation in 10 to 15 years when these kids grow up to be adults, and they have been singled out by French laws.”

Since the abaya ban went into effect, several students have been sent home for wearing long garments, including a 15-year-old girl wearing an open kimono over jeans and a shirt in Lyon. The student said her clothes did not represent any religious affiliation.

Al Jazeera obtained a recording of a meeting between the student and the head of her school, who insisted that the student’s dress was an abaya.

“Do not take me for a fool. That outfit is similar to an abaya. As headmaster, I must forbid you from entering school in this way, in this outfit,” he said.

The student insisted that her kimono was not an abaya.

“It is not an abaya. There are no sleeves,” she said.

When the student refused to change, the head of school called her parents to pick her up.

Human rights lawyer Nabil Boudi filed a complaint for acts of discrimination on the basis of religious affiliation on behalf of the student.

“The kimono was open, and she was asked to leave the class. A kimono is not a religious symbol,” Boudi told Al Jazeera.

“We’re no longer talking just about religious symbols. We’re talking about any clothing that could even be considered religious, and it is up to the head of the school to decide,” he added.

Boudi sent a letter to the special rapporteur on contemporary forms of racism at the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights on behalf of his client, detailing issues he found with the abaya ban in schools.

“We believe that the French government and in particular the ministry of education has failed to take the necessary measures to prevent all forms of discrimination against women,” Boudi said.

With additional reporting by Alexander Durie.

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