The top administrative court in France – the State Council – has upheld a ban on the wearing of the abaya in French state schools. Aneira J. Edmunds argues that while the ban has been presented as a protection of women’s rights, it says far more about the insecurities of the French government.
On 4 September, the French government banned the wearing of the abaya in state schools, the latest in a series of bans targeting Muslim women’s dress that has already seen restrictions placed on the wearing of the hijab, the burqa and the burkini.
In line with past justifications, the ban on the abaya is couched in the language of rights and an appeal to France’s commitment to freedom and dignity for women. Such measures have a long history in France, with its isolationist Republican history, commitment to laïcité and Franco-centric view of human rights as being necessarily secular.
But the impulses run much deeper. French President Emmanuel Macron’s alleged concern for Muslim women’s rights cannot be separated from both domestic and foreign challenges. Although growing numbers of young women are choosing to wear the abaya, it remains a minority practice: running into the thousands only. To understand France’s fixation with Muslim women’s dress, it is necessary to look at the wider political pressures facing the current French government.
The perfect distraction
France is a country undergoing an existential crisis as its colonial status in Africa is coming under sustained attack. Recent developments in Niger saw people in the streets openly demanding an end to the French post-colonial presence, as well as support for Vladimir Putin. The country’s colonial legacy was also visible when Macron visited Lebanon following the Beirut port explosion in 2020. Arriving as a saviour, his promises have been left unfulfilled, leading to a growing sense of betrayal.
France has also, like many countries, been captured by the move toward far-right populism. In France, this shift has been driven by Marine Le Pen, who remains a threat to the French establishment. Macron has also been hit with a succession of street protests, ranging from the gilets jaunes movement to the huge numbers of people willing to engage in continuous (though unsuccessful) opposition to his pension reforms.
Against this backdrop, the move to ban the abaya serves as the perfect distraction from France’s domestic and international challenges, not least because it is a policy supported by most of the population. Of France’s major political figures, only Jean-Luc Mélenchon, who came third in the 2022 French presidential election, has dared to depart from popular opinion by criticising the measure.
France is also feeling the threat from a growing new generation of Muslim women who come not from the ghettos, but from the middle classes. These women are confidently asserting their right to wear religious dress and they are largely unperturbed by the popular opinion against them. They stand in opposition to the notion that the onus for co-existence in society is on culturally conscious Muslim women to give up their right to dress as they please.
This rise in rights activism can be understood as a manifestation of post-national citizenship – a mature form of citizenship that sits above national rights and duties and is particularly powerful in the new, supranational global context. The key question for these actors is that if France is such a liberal country, why is it intent on imposing restrictive policies against a marginalised minority?
Opposition to the bans on Muslim women’s dress often appeal to the right to freedom of religious expression contained in the European Convention on Human Rights. Supporters have, so far unsuccessfully, called for the protection of this right through strategic litigation over bans on the burqa, notably in the S.A.S v. France case. The European Court of Human Rights has routinely deferred to national governments over previous bans, thereby relinquishing the opportunity to establish a European-wide principle on the issue.
The need for such an approach was aptly illustrated by the reaction to a 2021 campaign by the Council of Europe to promote respect for Muslim women. Posters distributed as part of the campaign contained images of women wearing the hijab and messages encouraging citizens to respect diversity. The posters had to be pulled after a backlash from some French politicians.
This incident was another lost opportunity to tackle the contradictory idea that Muslim women’s dress is both a symbol of their victimhood from male oppression and a threat to national security. It underlined once again the need to establish a supranational principle that Muslim women are free to dress as they choose, rejecting the demand that Muslim citizens must assimilate to be accepted into French culture.
Secularism and human rights
These decisions reflect a political and legal elevation of secularism to the status of an absolute value that infringes on individual human rights in the process of protecting them collectively. Western governments have paid heavily for this adherence in the context of the Arab Spring. Dictatorships they supported for years – on the pretext of defending secularism – failed the majority of moderate Muslim citizens, both economically and politically.
The impulse for western governments, steeped in old power, to micromanage the behaviour of small minorities of women reveals more about their insecurities than it does about their concern for women’s rights. These insecurities are being exacerbated by internal dissent and external challenges as the global power balance shifts inexorably from the old colonial powers to emerging economies.
We are now seeing a growing trend among Europe’s Muslims to mobilise around human rights. This stands in stark opposition to the belief that there is an inherent incompatibility between Islam and human rights. Far from being rooted in the principles of the Enlightenment, the restrictions on Muslim women’s dress reflect domestic political interests and a sharp decline of status.
Yet there remain grounds for optimism. There are tentative signs of a countermovement emerging in France built around what Nilüfer Göle terms mixité – the positive mixing of people from different backgrounds within a given space. This movement has the potential to undo the perception that Islam and the West are at odds with one another, fostering a new multiculturalism that brings Muslims with diverse ancestries into contact with western secularism. While such views remain in the minority, there is hope that with time, a better model could become a reality.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of EUROPP – European Politics and Policy or the London School of Economics. Featured image credit: Michael Derrer Fuchs/Shutterstock.com