Top French Court Upholds Abaya Ban in Schools

A top court in France on Thursday upheld a new government decree barring children in public schools from wearing the abaya, a loosefitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim women, in a blow to critics who had called the ban discriminatory and had filed an emergency petition to strike it down.

The Council of State, France’s top administrative court, which has jurisdiction over disputes concerning civil liberties, ruled that the ban was not a “serious and obviously illegal infringement of a fundamental freedom.”

Wearing an abaya is part of a “logic of religious affirmation,” the court said in a statement, adding that the ban was therefore in line with a French law that “prohibits the wearing by pupils of signs or clothing ostensibly expressing religious affiliation, either in and of themselves, or because of the pupil’s behavior.”

Since 2004, students have not been able to wear “ostentatious” symbols that have a clear religious meaning, like Catholic crosses, Jewish skullcaps or Muslim head scarves, in middle and high schools.

While the abaya — a long dress that covers the legs and arms, but not the hands, feet or head — falls into a grayer area, in France it is mostly worn by Muslim women who want to follow the Quran’s teachings on modesty.

Until last week, it was up to individual principals to decide whether the 2004 rules applied. The government said that the nationwide ban was merely an update to the existing rules that was needed to stop a ballooning number of disputes in its secular school system.

The number of incidents in schools related to “laïcité” — France’s version of secularism, which guarantees freedom of conscience but also the neutrality of the state and of some public spaces — more than tripled over the last school year compared with the one before, from about 600 to nearly 2,000, according to the French authorities. Many of those incidents related to students wearing abayas, the authorities say.

But critics of the ban say it is a discriminatory measure that unfairly polices the clothing of Muslim girls and unnecessarily puts them at the center of yet another political firestorm over the way they dress. Action Droits des Musulmans, a Muslim advocacy group, had filed the emergency petition.

The group said in a statement after Thursday’s ruling that it was “deeply concerned about the consequences this decision could have on young girls, who risk being discriminated against on a daily basis because of their ethnic and religious appearance.”

The ban, which also applies to similar but less common full-length robes worn by boys, went into effect on Monday as millions of students returned to classes after the summer break.

Gabriel Attal, France’s education minister, said that about 300 students had arrived at school on Monday morning wearing abayas. Sixty-seven of them had been sent home after refusing to take them off, he said.

“I obviously want to enforce rules at school, but a rule has to be explained,” Mr. Attal told the BFMTV news channel on Tuesday. He said school officials were in constant “dialogue” with students who refused to comply with the ban, and with their families.

While an overwhelming majority of students have complied with the ban, some question the government’s priorities.

In Stains, a northern suburb of Paris, teachers at a local high school organized a protest on Wednesday accusing the government of fueling debates over the abaya instead of adequately funding and renovating their establishment.

Safiatou Baradji, a 10th-grade student, who wore a Muslim veil outside of school, said that she had occasionally worn an abaya during the previous school year and insisted that it was “a normal piece of clothing.”

But in its ruling, the Council of State noted that in most cases, students who were confronted by school officials for wearing an abaya said they were doing so primarily for religious reasons — meaning that the 2004 law clearly applied.

Noah Sevede, another 10th-grade student in Stains, said most of the students at his school who wore a Muslim veil also wore an abaya outside of school, including his sister — who had not wanted to come to class until his parents forced her. But he said French authorities should focus on improving material conditions in schools instead of policing clothing.

“There are other things that need to be fixed first,” he said. “Who are they to tell girls how to dress?”

Juliette Guéron-Gabrielle contributed reporting from Stains, France.

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