France’s Education Minister Gabriel Attal announced on Sunday that the abaya, a long, wide-bottomed dress, would be banned in French schools starting this year.
“When you enter a classroom,” Attal said on a Sunday TV program, “you shouldn’t be able to identify the religion of students by looking at them.”
France has a strong state culture of laïcité, a strongly enforced state secularism that bans the display of religious symbols in official public contexts. Headscarves have been banned in French schools since 2004, and full face veils have been banned in public since 2010, reported Al Jazeera.
The abaya is traditional clothing that has its origins in the Gulf States, but it isn’t necessarily a religious garment. The vice president of the French Council on the Muslim Religion, Abdallah Zekri, said that the abaya was “a type of fashion.”
The abaya covers every part of the body except the hands and face. France is the first country in the West to have banned the clothing, said Le Monde. According to guidance issued by the French government in 2021, even garments that aren’t expressly religious can be banned in schools if they’re being worn to implicitly demonstrate religiosity.
French TikTokers are pointing out that it’s hard to distinguish the difference between an abaya and a long dress at all.
“Is it the clothing, the people who are wearing the clothing, or the two?” asked one TikToker called Anas.
For him, the new rule is about sending a message to Muslims in France. The message, he says is “make yourself at home, but don’t forget that you’re in my house.”
“The abaya is a piece of clothing invented by the bedouins to combat the heat,” explained the French politician Jean-Luc Mélenchon in one video.
“The abaya is not a problem, the problem in schools is the number of missing teachers,” Mélenchon said, making the point that banning the clothing now is an attempt by the government to distract from other issues facing the education system.
“For a lot of Muslims and a lot of Muslim institutions, the abaya isn’t a religious garment,” explained @coachdydy_education in one video.
“We in France, we believe we’re better than the rest of the world,” they said, “and that close-mindedness has become a sort of slogan in this shitty country.”
Commenters on TikTok were also dismissive of the policy.
“It’s just a style of long dress,” commented @noormont34.
“Bah, we’ll go in wearing a kimono” said @lm7.wn, “and they won’t say anything.”
“It’s been 50 years that they’ve been debating a PIECE OF CLOTHING,” said @douniaa_a8.