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Women’s Lack of Agency: Legal Bans and Requirements on Religious Clothing in France and Iran

Visible elements of religion are being controlled in both secular and non-secular countries, especially affecting women.


France, a secular country, faces seemingly anti-Muslim campaigns that are justified by secular aims, but are seen by some to strip women of their religious agency.


Early this September, a ban in France’s state schools prohibiting female students from wearing abayas, dress-like Muslim robes, took into effect. On the first day of school, dozens of girls wearing abayas were sent home and 67 girls went home out of choice rather than remove their garments, preventing these girls from receiving their education.


French President Emmanueal Macron justified the ban stating, “religious symbols of any kind have no place” in schools due to the country’s secular practice. However, critics have argued that the new ban is Islamophobic as clothing items alone are not a religious sign.


The Action Droits Des Musulmans (ADM) group has filed an appeal to France’s State Council and claims that the ban is legally ambiguous as it contains no definition of what an abaya looks like. Abayas have never before been formally classified as religious symbols and are considered to be ‘traditional’ dress by opponents of the ban.


Strict rules are in place in France to keep religious symbols out of state schools. The country has a controversial history with Islamic laws as it was the first European country to ban the full-face Islamic veil from public spaces in 2011. Nicolas Sarkozy, who was president at the time of this ban, claimed that the veils were "not welcome" in France because they oppress women, an issue with Islam, rather than the veils causing an issue with secularism.


Many people claim the bans violate human rights. In 2018, the United Nations Human Rights Committee declared that France’s previous ban on the Muslim full-face veil, the niqab, violated the human rights of the women who chose to wear it. The debate begs the question whether creating these bans effectively separates religion, or inherently intertwines religion with the state as a result of a conservative viewpoint that limits freedom of expression.


On the other hand of the political spectrum, the Islamic Republic of Iran has been criticised for its Islamic extremism. Iran’s constitution mandates that all laws and regulations must be based on ‘Islamic criteria’


In Iran, women face up to 10 years in prison if they do not comply with the mandatory hijab law in place. A new draft bill in the Iranian parliament would enforce even harsher punishments on women and girls who fail to properly wear the hijab, instil the use of artificial intelligence to identify women, and create stricter penalties for businesses and celebrities who break the law. The sentences listed in the draft bill are similar lengths to those in place for murder and drug trafficking


The bill is currently under review by Iran’s Guardian Council, a body of 12 men, and if approved, could come into effect by October. The bill would be piloted for three to five years and afterwards could be progressed into permanent law.


The United Nations expressed its concern over this bill, stating that if approved, the bill could create a ‘gender apartheid’ in Iran, as it forces women and girls into submission. This discrimination is not new, and since 1999 the United States State Department has designated Iran as a ‘“Country of Particular Concern” (CPC) for having engaged in or tolerated particularly severe violations of religious freedom.”


Iran has introduced stricter punishments and systemic discrimination against women following protests over the death of Iranian woman, Jina Mahsa Amini. In 2022, Amini was detained for improperly wearing her hijab, and later passed away in the custody of Iran’s Guidance Patrol, triggering nationwide protests.


The hijab has been mandatory in Iran since its 1979 Islamic revolution, and has become a symbol of oppression for many women because of their lack of choice in the matter. While the hijab has long been a cultural expression for many women; there are varying ways to wear it by different cultures, yet activists claim that in Iran the hijab is not a cultural matter, but rather a way to oppress women.


Iran and France are not the only countries facing gender discrimination in these ways; many countries such as Afghanistan and Bulgaria have strict enforcements and bans regarding women’s religious clothing. While the reasons are unclear and differences vary by country, in all cases it is made clear that religious freedom and women’s rights are being threatened. It begs the question, especially in a male dominated political scene, is the reason simply to limit women’s rights?

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