Creating new perspectives since 2009

France’s obsession with Muslim women’s bodies

September 17, 2023 at 11:45 am

Muslim people hold a banner as they protest against the interdiction of Abaya in front of the school Lycee La Plaine de Neauphle in Trappes, France on September 08, 2023 [Mohamad Salaheldin Abdelg Alsayed/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images]

The Fifth French Republic is continuing to be haunted by racism.

Following the death of Nahel M., which sparked protests throughout France this summer, the hijab ban for pupils in public schools is now being surpassed by yet another regulation of the education minister that reveals the infinite obsession of France’s political elite with Muslim women’s bodies.

An ideological sign: Abaya ban in schools

What started with the expulsion of a 13-year-old girl in 1989, culminated in numerous regulations restricting hijab-wearing women’s access to education. The 2004 hijab ban that outlawed the wearing of clothing deemed too “ostensible” has now been surpassed. It followed months-long debates about banning abayas. The quiet, young, and newly appointed National Education and Youth Minister under President Emmanuel Macron, Gabriel Attal, used the ban to introduce himself to a wide audience. During his first high-profile interview in late August, he announced the abaya ban. And Macron fully supported him, saying he would enforce the ban “uncompromisingly.”

Alain Gabon, professor of French Studies at Virginia Wesleyan University in the US, criticised the fact that the ban was implemented just when “the public school system has been collapsing under multiple structural problems, including dramatically insufficient salaries, the loss of social consideration and status for teachers, increasingly difficult working conditions, and high levels of burnout, anxiety, and depression.”

In other words, the ban appears to be a useful distraction, turning attention from the political failures that affect all of French society to the wretchedness of the French postcolonial state.

The argumentation of the French political elite has been as ideologically tainted as usual. Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne and Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin both argued that the abaya would constitute a sign of “proselytism.”

READ: No distinction between students based on religion

Championing secularism and defending the regulations by drawing on the idea of the separation of church and state has since long turned into post-colonial paternalism.

On the one hand, it further demonstrates the colonialist attitude of white men saving brown women from brown men, as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has so famously characterised the superiority complex of European colonisers. On the other hand, it demonstrates the ongoing problematisation of spaces not efficiently regulated by the post-colonial regime. The Banlieue — the poor urban spaces where people of color and especially many Muslims live — has long become highly politicised, envisaging them as the ghetto of the secular republic, a cultural ghetto that has to be policed and where Black and Brown lives are less worthy of dignity.

Racialisation of Muslim bodies

Since the new school year started, videos have spread across the globe showing how security personnel are checking every single female student’s clothes. Videos are posted on social media that show young ladies taking off their wide clothes, deemed abayas, following the disciplining of the police.

While the abaya is generally a loose-fitting, full-length robe worn by some Muslim women as a sign of their modesty, it is by no means easy to define which clothes fulfill the criteria of being an abaya and which do not. Above that, it does not represent a specific religious garment. Therefore, this restriction can be read as yet another measure that reveals how racialised Muslim bodies have become. France becomes a member of the club of other authoritarian regimes, such as Afghanistan and Iran, that dictate to women what they ought to wear and what they are not allowed to wear.

While only a few hundred girls seem to have gone to school wearing their abayas and been sent back home, thus protesting the discriminatory policy and using civil disobedience as a form of politics, the government has already framed the abaya as not solely religious but political.

OPINION: ‘Removing a part of me’, France abaya ban revives painful memories for Muslim women

Government spokesman Olivier Veran added to the argument that the abaya represented religion by saying it was “a political attack, a political sign.”

In reality, it is a further step toward more policing of the otherised within France. When the French government announced that 14,000 educational personnel in leadership positions would be trained by the end of this year and 300,000 personnel would be trained by 2025 to implement and monitor the regulation, what the French government is saying is that it is further circumscribing Muslim women’s ability to move freely as they want and further entrench the authoritarian state.

Critics of abaya ban

While French opposition parties, from the conservative Les Republicains (LR) party to the far-right like Eric Zemmour, are applauding the new stunt of the government, with little opposition coming from the left such as La France Insoumise (criticising the measure as clothes police), some international voices have uttered their critique. Abraham Cooper, chair of the US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), argued: “France continues to wield a specific interpretation of secularism to target and intimidate religious groups, particularly Muslims. While no government should use its authority to impose a specific religion on its population, it is equally condemnable to restrict the peaceful practice of individuals’ religious beliefs to promote secularism.” USCIRF argues that France’s actions are in direct contrast to Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which both guarantee religious freedom to every person, including the freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs through symbols or clothing.

READ: France top Court upholds government ban on Muslim dress abaya in schools

While France was originally participating in the draft of the UDHR, voted for its adoption nearly 75 years ago, and is a state party to the ICCPR, the France of today seems to have backed away from those political values.

Meanwhile, legal steps might be the most promising option available to counteract the ban given the hegemonic Islamophobic outlook of France’s current political leadership. The French abaya ban has already been challenged before the Council of State by Muslim rights groups on different legal grounds. We will have to wait to see how deep the Islamophobic outlook goes in the justice system.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.