The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) has condemned France’s decision to prohibit wearing abayas, loose robe-like garments, in public schools, saying that the country is using secularism to “target and intimidate” its Muslim population.
“In a misguided effort to promote the French value of laïcité, the government is encroaching on religious freedom,” said USCIRF Chair Abraham Cooper, in an official statement. “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,” Cooper said in the statement released in September.
USCIRF Commissioner @nuryturkel: "The international community should continue to speak out against laws that threaten the religious freedom of all people in #France, as well as other countries in #Europe." https://t.co/lsDSETYysM— USCIRF (@USCIRF) September 8, 2023
According to a 2004 French law, wearing of any religious symbols or clothing in schools such as Jewish kippas, Christian crosses, or Islamic headscarves is prohibited.
In recent months, French public debate started questioning whether an abaya violates France’s policy of laïcité or secularism.
School authorities who sought to comply with the law were unsure how to regulate abayas which are mainly worn by Muslim girls as part of their modesty and religious obligation. Abayas, unlike headscarves, occupied a grey area and faced no outright ban until this year.
Due to lack of consensus on whether the clothing constituted religious dress, the education minister in September released standard guidelines that officially barred students from wearing abayas to school.
On September 4, the first day of school in France, nearly 300 girls went to school wearing abayas. While many eventually changed their clothes so they could attend classes, dozens of girls refused, on the basis of their religion, and were sent home.
The 2004 law has impacted all religious groups in France but Muslim girls have faced particular scrutiny and restrictions since its passage, the USCIRF said in its statement.
France’s actions are in “direct contrast to Article 18 of both the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR),” which guarantees religious freedom to every person, including the freedom to manifest one’s religious beliefs through symbols or clothing, the USCIRF said.
“It’s an unfair restriction and it’s unfair to the girls wo choose to wear their ethno-religious clothing,” USCIRF Commissioner Nury Turkel said in a video published by Turkish broadcaster TRT World on Saturday.
“We are very concerned that some of the rhetoric is specifically coming from President Emmanuel Macron himself linking this abaya ban and religious clothing to terrorism.”
French authorities will be “uncompromising” in their enforcement of a new ban on abayas in schools, Macron told reporters in September after visiting a professional school in the Vaucluse region of southern France.
“Schools in our country are secular, free, and compulsory. But they are secular. Because this is the very condition that makes citizenship possible and therefore religious symbols of any kind have no place in them. And we will vigorously defend this secularism,” he was quoted as saying by CNN.
Teachers and heads of French schools “will not be left alone” when it comes to enforcing the ban, Macron said, adding that French authorities will be “uncompromising on this subject.”
France’s abaya ban has been criticized by many opposition lawmakers, including Danièle Obono, who called it a “new Islamophobic campaign.”