The decision by the French new Minister of National Education, Gabriel Attal, to ban the wearing of the ‘Abaya’ (and its male equivalent, the ‘Qamis’) in schools has sparked a heated controversy. Several voices, especially from the left, have risen to denounce the establishment of a “clothing police” and La France Insoumise (LFI) has announced its intention to challenge this decision in the Council of State. However, the ban on Abayas and Qamis is not a subject of much debate within the teaching profession, as shown by a survey conducted by IFOP for our monthly magazine “Screen Watch” last November.
This survey, titled “Observatory of Teachers’ Responses to Religious Expression in Schools” revealed that 80% of teachers were opposed to students being allowed to wear traditional loose clothing like “abayas” or “qamis” at school. While 60% of the teaching staff were generally opposed to the principle of “clothing freedom” which allows students to attend classes “in the attire of their choice”.
Another indicator of the unanimity among teachers regarding the ban on Abaya and Qamis is that in the ranking of behaviors considered as undermining secularism, 75% of teachers mention students wearing traditional loose clothing like “abayas” or “qamis,” closely following students wearing religious head coverings like a veil or a kippa (85%).
These figures clearly indicate that this topic is not much debated within the teaching profession and does not require any “margin of discretion” as suggested by a note from the former Minister of National Education, Pap Ndiaye, sent to rectors on September 16, 2022, recommending that school principals be given a “margin of discretion” to judge the religious nature (or lack thereof) of clothing like “abayas”, “qamis” or “djellabas.”
In response to the question, “In your opinion, are loose traditional attire such as ‘abayas’ or ‘qamis’ considered ‘worship’ attire that has no place within the premises of a public school?”, a majority of teachers (68%) answered affirmatively. Only 15% considered such attire to be “cultural” and permissible in public schools.
However, teachers’ reactions when faced with behaviors that undermine secularism seem to indicate that they consider the wearing of traditional loose clothing to be less severe than other “ostensible” religious signs. Regarding cases where students wore religious head coverings like a veil or a kippa, 71% of teachers said they had asked students to remove them. As for the wearing of traditional loose clothing like an “abaya” or a “qamis,” only 52% of teachers had asked students to remove them.
Another insight from our survey is that the number of incidents undermining secularism reported to the school administration is significantly lower than the number of cases actually observed by teachers. Regarding the wearing of ostensible religious symbols (like a veil or a kippa), only 51% of teachers claim to have reported such incidents to the administration. And concerning students wearing traditional loose clothing like an “abaya” or a “qamis,” only 56% reported such incidents.
This phenomenon can be explained by the fact that among the 69% of teachers who encountered incidents with religious or identity motivations, one out of three teachers (33%) stated that they did not feel supported by their superiors when reporting violations of secularism.
This lack of support seems to influence teachers’ behavior when facing such incidents: only 52% of them claim that in the future, if they observe a student wearing religious head coverings like a veil or a kippa, they will ask the student to remove it and report the incident to the administration. On the other hand, 28% would prefer to ask the student to remove it without informing the administration.
As for incidents involving students wearing traditional loose clothing like an abaya or a qamis”, only 41% of teachers say they would ask the students to remove them while reporting the incident, while 22% would only ask the students to remove them without making a report.
However, this observation resulting from teachers’ distrust of their superiors does not at all reflect a renunciation of the principle of secularism: as the law of March 15, 2004, which bans ostensible religious symbols in schools, enters its twentieth school year, 80% of teachers reject the ideas that are prevalent in communalist circles, claiming that this law is “Islamophobic” or hostile to Islam and Muslims.