France’s Education Minister, Gabriel Attal, has sparked controversy with the recent announcement of a ban on the wearing of Muslim abayas in public schools. Attal cited the abaya as a “religious gesture” and argued that it goes against France’s laws banning religious garments and symbols in state schools.
France takes a strict stance on secularism, viewing itself as a secular country where church and state should be separated. In addition to the abaya ban, France has previously banned headscarves, kippahs, and large Christian crosses in schools, as well as full-face veils in public places.
Surveys have shown that the majority of French people still consider secularism a fundamental French value, with only a small minority identifying as religious. It is estimated that roughly 8% of the population in France is Muslim.
The approach to religion and religious symbols differs among other European countries. Germany, for example, does not enforce secularism but instead values neutrality and tolerance towards all worldviews and religions. However, Germany has had a longstanding debate about whether female teachers should be allowed to wear headscarves, with all German states now permitting it.
Belgium has also been at the center of a heated debate surrounding religious symbols. The country has had a ban on full-body veils, such as the burqa, since 2011. However, a successful lawsuit resulted in the lifting of the ban on headscarves, and burkinis are now allowed as well, following a 2018 court ruling.
Several other European countries, including the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Austria, and Denmark, have also implemented bans on full-body veils in educational institutions, with violators facing fines. Critics argue that these bans are largely symbolic, as the number of women wearing burqas is minimal in most countries.
Overall, France’s ban on Muslim abayas in public schools highlights its commitment to secularism and the separation of church and state. While some other European countries have similar bans on full-body veils, the enforcement and extent of these bans vary. It remains to be seen how this decision by France will be received both domestically and internationally.