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French court upholds abaya ban in public schools

France’s highest court on Thursday upheld the government’s ban on students in public schools from wearing the abaya, a long, robe-like garment often worn by Muslim women, in a decision that rights groups warn will lead to more discrimination.

“As things stand, the judge considers that the ban on wearing these garments does not constitute a serious and manifestly illegal infringement of a fundamental freedom,” the court said in a press release published online.

The ban has its legal foundation in a law passed in 2004 forbidding the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in French schools.

The court said the wearing of the abaya “was part of a process of religious affirmation, as shown by the comments made during discussions with students.”

The legal challenge to the ban was brought forward last Friday and arguments from both sides were heard on Tuesday. Action Droits Des Musulmans (ADM), the Muslim rights group that filed the appeal, argued that the ban infringes on “fundamental rights,” such as the right to personal freedom.

The group’s lawyer, Vincent Brengarth, told journalists before the hearing that the ban had been imposed in an “arbitrary” manner as it contains no legal definition of what an abaya looks like.

Following Thursday’s ruling, ADM said in statement the court had “not fulfilled its role of protecting the fundamental freedoms of children, guaranteeing their access to education and respect for their privacy, without any form of discrimination.”

The ADM also voiced its deep concerns “about the consequences this decision could have on young girls, who are at risk of suffering daily discrimination based on their ethnic and religious appearance, the violence of these dress interrogations and the trauma and harassment they cause, thus hindering their access to education and their success at school.”

French education minister Gabriel Attal, however, praised the court’s ruling, calling it “an important decision for the schools of the Republic.”

“The purpose of schools is to welcome all students, with the same rights and duties, without discrimination or stigmatization,” Attal said on X, formerly known as Twitter.

French President Emmanuel Macron previously defended the ban, which is the latest in a series of contentious restrictions in the country on clothing associated with Muslims. Macron said the ban was not “stigmatizing” anyone, but “people who push the abaya” are.

France has pursued a series of controversial bans and restrictions on items of customarily Islamic dress in recent years, which have frequently drawn the ire of Muslim countries and international rights groups.

Last year lawmakers backed a ban on wearing the hijab and other “conspicuous religious symbols” in sports competitions. The amendment was proposed by the right-wing Les Républicains party, which argued the hijab could risk the safety of athletes wearing it while playing sports.

France’s earlier ban on the niqab – full-face veils worn by some Muslim women – violated the human rights of those who wore it, the United Nations Human Rights Committee said in 2018.

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