France bans female students from wearing abayas in state schools

France will ban children from wearing the abaya, the loose-fitting, full-length robes worn by some Muslim women, in state-run schools, its education minister said on Sunday ahead of the back-to-school season.

France, which has enforced a strict ban on religious signs in state schools since 19th century laws removed any traditional Catholic influence from public education, has struggled to update guidelines to deal with a growing Muslim minority.

In 2004, it banned headscarves in schools and passed a ban on full face veils in public in 2010, angering some in its five million-strong Muslim community.

This ban also included large crosses, Jewish kippas and Islamic headscarves.

Unlike headscarves, abayas - a long, baggy garment worn to comply with Islamic beliefs on modest dress - occupied a grey area and had faced no outright ban until now.

Defending secularism is a rallying cry in France that resonates across the political spectrum, from left-wingers upholding the liberal values of the Enlightenment to far-right voters seeking a bulwark against the growing role of Islam in French society.

There have been reports of abayas being increasingly worn in schools and tensions within school over the issue between teachers and parents.

"I have decided that the abaya could no longer be worn in schools," Education Minister Gabriel Attal said in an interview with TV channel TF1.

"When you walk into a classroom, you shouldn't be able to identify the pupils' religion just by looking at them," he said. 

"Secularism means the freedom to emancipate oneself through school," Attal said, describing the abaya as "a religious gesture, aimed at testing the resistance of the republic toward the secular sanctuary that school must constitute."

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