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France banning Islamic abaya robes in schools, calling them an attempt to convert others to Islam

France is to ban Islamic garments known as abayas in schools from September, the government announced Sunday, with a top official calling them a “political attack” and an attempt to convert people to Islam.

In an interview onFrench TV channel TF1, education minister Gabriel Attal said the ban aligned with “laicité,” France’s hard-line version of secularism, which prohibits outward signs of religion in schools.

Critics argue the broad policy has beenweaponized to target French Muslims.

“Laicité is not a constraint, but a type of freedom, the freedom to forge one’s own opinion and emancipate oneself through school,” Attal said, echoing language about Muslim womenin France that has long been denounced as colonialist and paternalistic.

Attal described the long, flowing garment as “a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute.”

“You enter a classroom, you must not be able to identify the religion of the students by looking at them,” he said.

Government spokesman Olivier Veran said Monday that the abaya was “obviously” religious and “a political attack, a political sign,” and that he deemed the wearing of it to be an act of “proselytizing.”

Attal said he would give “clear rules at the national level” to school heads ahead of the return to classes nationwide from September 4.

The move comes after months of debate over the wearing of abayas in French schools, where women and girls have long been barred from wearing the Islamic headscarf or face coverings.

A March 2004 law banned “the wearing of signs or outfits by which students ostensibly show a religious affiliation” in schools. That includes large crosses, Jewish kippahs and Islamic headscarves.

Unlike headscarves, abayas occupied a grey area and had faced no outright ban, but the education ministry had already issued a circular on the issue in November last year, describing the abaya as one of a group of items of clothing whose wearing could be banned if they were “worn in a manner as to openly display a religious affiliation.”

The circular put bandanas and long skirts in the same category.

Some Muslim girls in the southern French city of Marseille reportedly stopped going to school months ago because teachers were humiliating them over their abayas, despite there being no official ban. In May, high school students in the city protested what they saw as “Islamophobic” treatment of Muslim girls in abayas.

“Obsessive rejection of Muslims”

At least one teachers union leader, Bruno Bobkiewicz, welcomed Attal’s announcement Sunday.

“The instructions were not clear, now they are and we welcome it,” said Bobkiewicz, general secretary of the NPDEN-UNSA, which represents school principals across France.

Eric Ciotto, head of the opposition right-wing Republicans party, also welcomed the news, saying the party had “called for the ban on abayas in our schools several times.”

But Clementine Autain, of the left-wing opposition France Unbowed party, denounced what she described as the “policing of clothing.”

Attal’s announcement was “unconstitutional” and against the founding principles of France’s secular values, she argued — and symptomatic of the government’s “obsessive rejection of Muslims.”

Barely back from the summer break, she said, President Emmanuel Macron’s administration was already trying to compete with far-right politician Marine Le Pen’s National Rally party.

The debate has intensified in France since a radicalized Chechen refugee beheaded teacher Samuel Paty, who had shown students caricatures of the Prophet Mohammed, near his school in a Paris suburb in 2020.

The CFCM, a national body encompassing many Muslim associations, has argued that items of clothing alone are not “a religious sign.”

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