The minister, the school and the abayas

November 22, 2022

A phenomenon is gaining momentum in schools, the wearing by girls of abayas, these long dresses covering the whole body up to the ankles, traditionally worn in certain Muslim countries. Since the start of the school year, reports on this subject have multiplied.[1], even if, at the scale of the country, the movement remains limited and probably concentrated in certain areas of the territory. Nevertheless, these behaviors, their growing diffusion in certain establishments, raise concerns among those who read them as a clear attack on the principles of secularism. We can read on this subject the interview of Dominique Schnapper, president of the Council of Elders of Secularism, in the newspaper l’Opinion[2].


The abaya trap


But the difficulty of interpretation is due to the fact that the strictly religious reading of the wearing of this garment is not so obvious that it could be considered, without there being any need to question the motivations of the authors, as a “religious” garment in essence. And it seems that students often play on this ambiguity to deny any religious character to this choice of dress, assimilating it rather to an attachment to a cultural tradition. I am not a specialist in Islam and I will be careful not to settle this question, simply noting that the wearing of this garment is compulsory for women in the most traditional countries such as Saudi Arabia, but that it is not not the case in other Muslim countries like the countries of the Maghreb where it can perhaps take on much more often, for those who wear it, the character of a simple dress habit.


In any case, it seems difficult to decide definitively on the intrinsically religious character of the abaya. If this were the case, the solution would be simple: under the 2004 law, its wearing would be prohibited in schools. The uncertain nature of its religious definition creates great difficulty in calibrating the reaction of educational authorities. Indeed, in this ambiguous situation, they must try to assess the “intentions” of the persons in question. This is what the Minister’s circular of November 9, 2022, unveiled by the magazine, recommends. Marianne the same day. “It is up to the head of the establishment, says the sheet accompanying the circular, to question the intention of the student to give it or not a religious significance, with regard to his behavior”. Damn difficult task! Moreover, it is well known that some students can quite hide their true intentions. In the survey of high school students that we conducted with Anne Muxel[3], we were struck by the fact that Muslim students, convinced of the superiority of their religion over science, confessed frankly (to the interviewer but not to their teachers) that they masked these convictions during SVT lessons and felt no difficulty in responding in the way expected by the lessons they had received in tests and homework. A kind of splitting of the social personality.


In any case, the heads of establishments are very likely to be disappointed by the circular of November 9 because, ultimately, it leaves them full responsibility to judge on a case-by-case basis whether or not the abaya is religious. Many of them were apparently waiting for much more specific instructions, which could even go so far as to establish a list of prohibited clothing on school grounds.


The school and its environment


More broadly, the debate about the abaya raises the question of the boundary between private life – that of young people in this case – and school life. Traditionally, in France, when crossing the doors of school, college or high school, the signs of belonging to an idiosyncratic universe had to be abandoned. In the 1950s and 1960s, primary school children wore a blouse. We remember Charles Trenet’s song “Douce France”: “…It comes back to my memory / Familiar memories / I see my black blouse When I was a schoolboy…”. According to the historian Claude Lelièvre, there was a practical reason which justified it, the fact that we wrote at the time with inkwells which risked staining clothes. But the blouse also marked the distance between extra-curricular life and school life. This testimony collected on the internet explains it well: “on arriving in class, having put on her blouse, we knew that it was no longer the time to have fun, it (the blouse) formed a barrier between outside school and at school »[4]. In some public high schools, until the 1960s, young girls wore blouses (this was the case, for example, as I have seen, at Camille Sée high school in the 15th arrondissement, a blue blouse and a pink blouse alternately each week).


This era is obviously over (some regret it and demand the establishment of the uniform[5]). The rules of procedure of high schools may well require “proper dress”, but this is difficult to define precisely. Recently wearing cropped top by young girls (these tops that reveal the navel) has caused controversy. In June 2021 in a magazine interview She, the President of the Republic had expressed his opposition by affirming that “school is not a place like the others” and the Minister of National Education at the time, Jean-Michel Blanquer, had outbid by recalling that ‘you have to come to school “dressed in a republican way” (without knowing very well what that means). The irony of the story is that the abaya aims to hide women’s bodies while the cropped top partially strips it. But ultimately in both cases there seems to be an exception to the rule which stipulates a certain standardization and neutrality in the clothing of the students.


Moreover, it is probable that the reactions of the students (if we put aside those who defend the abaya for strictly religious reasons) to the debate on the wearing of the abaya and on the wearing of crop tops (or other outfits such as ripped jeans), are of the same nature. For most young people, the choice of clothing is first and foremost a personal choice that defines a “style” (subject, moreover, to fluctuating fashions of which the abaya is perhaps one of the expressions). For these young people, the religious or non-religious definition of the abaya is certainly of little importance and we can be almost sure that many of them consider that this choice should be free.


So that is the larger debate: to what extent should school be a sanctuary place, impervious to all outside influences, or a place that would reflect, to some extent at least, the world in which young people evolve?


This last position is that of the UNL, the high school student union[6] and their arguments may need to be listened to. The French school is not particularly distinguished (to put it mildly) by the place it recognizes for students within it. It remains, more than any other, as Yann Algan and Elise Hillery show in a well-documented little book[7], shaped by “vertical pedagogical methods which favor listening to the teacher in a ‘lectured course’ mode with little place given to group work or project work”. The participation of pupils in the life of the establishments is low, their voice is little solicited and little listened to.


Some do not worry about it, considering that the school is a sacred temple which must remain protected from societal influences and fashions. But this closure also harbors dangers. School today is no longer that of the 1950s or 1960s. Massification has produced its effects and led to a tremendous social and cultural diversification of young people in middle school, and now in high school. But the result is also that the cultural universe of this youth pursuing secondary studies is moving further and further away from school culture. The gap is widening and the result is that a growing part of young people end up no longer being interested in school and doing their job as a student without passion and without desire (and very often with the only fear of failing) . Should we consider, as the proponents of a conservative line think, that the school, in order to adapt to this new situation, must simply recall the traditional principles of the transmission of knowledge and reinforce the authority of the teachers whose is the task? Or should we think, on the contrary, that the school, without obviously renouncing its mission of transmission, should be more open to its environment, to the increasingly diverse concerns and expectations of the public it welcomes, and that Basically, while remaining national, it becomes a little more local?


In any case, we can hope – without in any way denying the importance of the question of secularism, without denying the dangers inherent in the proselytism of certain Islamist currents – that these debates do not put under a bushel the broader question of relations, often issues between young people and school.


[1] The ministry recorded 313 reports in September, 720 in October


[2] “The abayas are a first test for Pap Ndiaye”, opinionOctober 13, 2022


[3] Olivier Galland and Anne Muxel, The Radical Temptation. Survey of high school studentsPUF, 2018


[4] https://notre-siecle.com/une-histoire-de-blouse-a-lecole/


[5] This idea is very present on the right and the extreme right but is beginning to be emulated within the majority. Le Figaro of November 18 indicated that seven Renaissance deputies (ex LERM) had submitted to the leaders of the group a bill aimed at promoting “the wearing of common school clothes”.


[6] See for example: https://www.madmoizelle.com/et-si-on-sortait-enfin-des-polemiques-sur-les-crop-tops-dans-les-ecoles-1191484


[7] Yann Algan and Elise Huillery, Economy of know-howSciences Po Press, 2022

The minister, the school and the abayas