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France: Abaya ban triggers secular laws debate

Stephanie Höppner
August 30, 2023

After just one month in office, French Education Minister Gabriel Attal decided to ban Muslim abayas in public schools. How do other European countries compare?

A group of women wearing abayas walking down a street
The French ban on abayas is likely to trigger a renewed debate about how the state deals with religious symbolsImage: Nicolas Vallauri/MAXPPP/picture alliance

France is taking another step towards banning religious garments and symbols in state schools. It now plans to ban students from wearing abayas, which are long, loose-fitting robes some Muslim girls and women wear over their clothing.

Shortly after taking office in July, French Education Minister Gabriel Attal declared that attending school in an abaya was a "religious gesture," vowing to take action against this. Previously, teachers' unions had called on French authorities to take a clear decision regarding the garment, as ever more female students have been wearing abayas to class. The French Muslim Association, in turn, had argued that an abaya does not constitute a religious garment, while left-wing politicians had protested against the ban saying it amounted to policing dress codes.


France sees itself as a secular country in which church and state are strictly separated. The law enshrining this principle was passed as early as 1905 and originally intended to push back the influence of Catholicism. According to surveys, a majority of French people still regard secularism as a fundamental French value, with only a minority self-identifying as religious.

Today, only small minority of people in France subscribe to Islam. It is estimated that only about 8% of the population is Muslim.

Which religious symbols are already banned?

In 1994, a French law came into force banning the conspicuously religious symbols in schools. This was followed in 2004 by a complete ban on headscarves in schools. The kippah, a cap worn by Jewish men, and large Christian crosses are also banned in the classroom.

It has been illegal to wear veils fully covering the face and body, such as the burka, anywhere in public since 2010. French members of parliament have also pledged to refrain from wearing symbols that could indicate a religious affiliation from 2018 onwards. With the exception of Alsace, headscarves are banned in public buildings through France. Schools do not offer religious education classes, there are no public nativity plays, and Boxing Day is not a public holiday. Companies are also allowed to ban employees wearing headscarves. And since last year, women have not been allowed to wear a burkini, or full-body bathing suit, in public swimming pools.

Germany's complicated relationship with religion

A pupil in class wearing a headscarf
Following a protracted debate Germany allows female teachers to wear headscarvesImage: Axel Heimken/dpa/picture alliance

France probably has the strictest laws within the EU when it comes to religion. Throughout the EU, there are very different approaches to religion and religious symbols. Germany, for example, has a more complex relationship with religion overall.

Unlike France, Germany does not adhere to secularism. There is no such clause in its constitution. The basic law does, however, stipulate that the German state must be neutral and tolerant toward all worldviews and religions. In practice, the German state and Christian churches are closely linked and cooperate in many areas, for example when it comes to collecting taxes, religious education in state-run schools and regarding the protection of Christian holidays.

The situation is somewhat different when it comes to Islam. For decades, a heated debate has raged in Germany over whether or not teachers should be allowed to wear headscarves. The debate was triggered by a lawsuit filed by German-Afghan teacher Fereshta Ludin, who in 1998 was rejected as a teacher because of her headscarf.

While Ludin's lawsuit was unsuccessful, times have since changed in Germany.

All German states now allow female teachers to wear headscarves, with Berlin being the last state to lift the ban this summer. In North Rhine-Westphalia, Islamic religious classes are taught in school and it is possible to study Islamic theology at university. At the same time, many Muslim communities in Germany still do not have public law corporation status which would allow them to regulate their internal organization according to their own principles. The Germany army, meanwhile, is still struggling with the issue of Muslim military chaplains.


Two women with headscarves looking at their mobile phones
Since 2018, Belgium has permitted wearing headscarves and burkinisImage: Dursun Aydemir/Anadolu Agency/picture alliance

In Belgium, where about 5% of the population identify as Muslim, a heated debate over religious symbols has been taking place for some time now.

Since 2011, full-body veils like the burqa have been banned in public, making Belgium the second European country after France to impose such restrictions. Those who do not comply with the ban risk going to jail for days. However, a successful lawsuit did away with Belgium's headscarves ban and burkinis are also allowed again following a 2018 court ruling.

What about other European states?

Some other European states like the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Norway, Austria and Denmark also ban full-body veils like the burqa in educational institutions. Violating the ban can lead to fines. In the Netherlands and other countries fines can cost as much as €150 ($163). Yet critics say such bans are merely symbolic, as the proportion of women wearing burqas is minuscule, meaning the rule is hardly every applied.

Few countries in Europe have a headscarf or abaya ban for schools. In the Netherlands, however, such restrictions are allowed in private schools. Austria had a headscarf ban in place for those attending school. However this rule was overturned by the constitutional court in 2020, with judges saying it violated the principle of equality.

This article was translated from German.

France to ban girls from wearing abaya in schools