On Aug. 28, the head of France’s Ministry of Education, Gabriel Attal, announced that state-run schools would no longer permit girls to wear the “abaya.” The “abaya” is a long, loose fitting dress worn by some Muslim women. Attal claimed that teachers should not be able to identify a student’s religion just by looking at them, and that wearing a garment like an “abaya” or a kameez (a long shirt worn by men) is tantamount to proselytism. This is not the first time a law aiming to uphold laïcité, or secularism, in France has clashed with the ideal of religious freedom. The French government bars most public expressions of religion, claiming that wearing obvious “religious symbols” is equivalent to preaching one’s religion in public. In 2022, France banned the wearing of “burkinis,” or modest swimwear, in public pools. A 2004 law banned conspicuous markers of religion, such as hijabs, yarmulkes or large crosses from public schools.
Around the world, in Muslim countries and Christian ones, in religious countries and secular ones, governments are obsessed with controlling what women wear. Last March, the high court of the Indian state of Karnataka upheld a ban on girls wearing the hijab in classrooms. Egypt’s government banned the niqab, a face covering worn by some Muslim women, just last week. In Iran, women who fail to comply with mandatory veiling laws are beaten, arrested and sometimes killed. Saudi Arabia only loosened its mandatory hijab law in 2018, not with the aim of supporting women’s right, but rather to attract non-Muslim visitors and investment.
As a Muslim and a feminist, I believe women are entitled to show as much or as little of their body as they want. These laws force women to dress in a way that makes them uncomfortable, that conflicts with their religious beliefs and excludes them from public life if they refuse to comply. They are purely misogynistic and emblematic of one of the core beliefs of patriarchy: that men are entitled to control everything about women, including their autonomy and sexuality. These laws infantilize women, particularly women of color, who are already viewed by men — and white women — as incapable of making decisions on their own.
Responses to these laws, especially from non-Muslims, vary greatly. For example, after the death of Mahsa Amini and subsequent protests in Iran, celebrities, politicians and institutions like Wellesley College condemned the actions of the Iranian “morality police” and explicitly supported the actions of the protestors. The outpouring of support was remarkable, and I was glad to see that powerful figures in the West were seriously recognizing the plight of women in Iran. However, when a law demands that women show more of their bodies rather than less, these figures rarely express the same level of support. Few celebrities condemned Karnataka for banning the hijab in schools, and few institutions criticized the French government for essentially demanding that teenage girls show more skin in order to attend school. For some reason I have never been able to comprehend, men — and even feminists — in the West are incapable of understanding why a woman or girl might want to dress modestly, and that she might be dressed the way she is out of her own volition. I believe this makes them just as ignorant and misogynistic as those politicians in Iran or Saudi Arabia demanding that women cover up.
This past spring, my mom bought some “abayas” as gifts for myself and my little sister. My sister ended up wearing one of them as her graduation dress when she finished middle school in June. In our small, predominantly white, and almost 99% non-Muslim town, she would be the only one wearing a dress like that. My mom realized this, and told her that if she felt uncomfortable wearing it, we could go buy her something else. She said no, she loved that dress, and she definitely wanted to wear it to her graduation. If she went to public school in France rather than America, her principal would have turned her away at the door and told her to change. As for me, I wore those “abayas” all semester long at Wellesley: to grab food from Lulu, to events with Al-Muslimat, and to MIT to eat iftar with Muslims from all around Boston.
Reflecting on that experience in light of the “abaya” ban deepened my appreciation for living in a country that values and protects freedom of religion. At Wellesley, I can sit in class with students who are wearing whatever they want and know that we are being judged for what is in our minds, not what we choose to wear on our bodies.