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A ban on wearing the abaya in French schools is causing an uproar

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

As students in France return to school this week, some have to reconsider their usual outfits. It isn't that crop tops or short shorts are banned. It's actually the exact opposite. The long, body-covering tunic that's often worn by Muslim women - known as the abaya - is now forbidden in French middle and high schools. France's highest court upheld the ban last night. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, the abaya uproar is far from over.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: France's brand-new education minister, Gabriel Attal, made the announcement to ban the abaya right before school began.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GABRIEL ATTAL: (Through interpreter) School is free. It's for everyone, and it's secular. And I don't want schools where we can identify the religion of students by looking at them or where there's pressure on certain students to wear religious attire.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting in non-English language).

BEARDSLEY: A group of opponents banged pots and pans in front of a regional school this week, calling the decree racist. Left-wing feminist parliamentarian Clementine Autain accused Education Minister Attal of turning school officials into clothing police.

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CLEMENTINE AUTAIN: (Through interpreter) And he has decided to create a smokescreen to hide the real problems, like too few teachers and soaring school supply costs.

(CROSSTALK)

BEARDSLEY: The ban has been the main topic all week in countless TV talk show debates. Despite political opponents, mostly on the left, a poll shows 80% of the French agree with the abaya ban. Strict secularism is a core French value, along with liberte, egalite and fraternite. This exchange on BFMTV between show host Julie Hammett and internationally respected Islam scholar Gilles Kepel helps explain what many outsiders see as a French obsession with secularism.

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JULIE HAMMETT: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Are we not making too much over this?" she asks. "The Anglo-Saxons say France has a dictatorship of secularism. They let people dress how they want, and it doesn't bother anybody."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GILLES KEPEL: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "Yes," says Kappel, "but we had the terrorist attacks and Samuel Paty." Samuel Paty was a middle school teacher beheaded in 2020 outside the school by a Chechen-born refugee who had seen talk on social media that Paty showed cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad in his civics class, and scores of people in France have been murdered by homegrown Islamists.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

HUGODECRYPTE: (Speaking French).

PRESIDENT EMMANUEL MACRON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In an interview with popular YouTube journalist HugoDecrypte this week, President Emmanuel Macron illustrated the link that many French see between outward expressions of religion - especially Islam - and acts of terrorism. Macron said there can be no compromise when it comes to secularism in schools.

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MACRON: (Through interpreter) School directors told us they need this law. The pressure is huge. There are people testing our secularism. We live with a minority that wants to twist religion and defy our secularism. We can't pretend Samuel Paty didn't happen.

BEARDSLEY: But is the abaya really religious clothing?

SAMIA ESSABAA: (Speaking French, laughter).

BEARDSLEY: Samia Essabaa doesn't think so. I reach her on the phone. Essabaa has taught for 20 years at a vocational high school in a heavily Muslim working-class neighborhood in the Paris suburbs.

ESSABAA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: She says a few students wear the abaya because they're overweight or want to avoid boys' comments or are embarrassed about their clothes...

ESSABAA: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "But this is not about ideology," she says. "They don't even understand the debate in the news." Essabaa suggests letting each school deal with its students' clothing. We know our students, and they know us, she says. She believes the nationwide ban on abayas could alienate some young people, making them more vulnerable to the anti-secular forces France so fears. Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF STORMZY SONG, "HIDE AND SEEK (FLO REMIX)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.