Muslim women footballers spar with French government on hijab ban in sport

Muslim women footballers spar with French government on hijab ban in sport

A day after police banned a protest by the ‘Hijabeuses’, women footballers fighting for the right to wear religious headscarves in competition, the ban was overturned by a court. Victories are beginning to mount for the activist group: France’s equality minister has also voiced her support for them. The affair is becoming a hot topic in French politics, just two months away from presidential elections.
At around 6pm on Wednesday evening, a group of young women, some of them wearing hijabs, gathered on the grassy Esplanade des Invalides in Paris, armed with placards painted with slogans like “Football for all” and “Let us play”.
These women are part of the activist group ‘The Hijabeuses’, a collective of female football players fighting for the right to wear a hijab in official matches, which is banned in France. French Football Federation rules currently prevent players taking part in competitive matches from wearing “ostentatious” religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves or the Jewish kippa.
The young footballers started to knock around a ball in the dark, in front of the imposing, illuminated dome of the Invalides, their game lit up by smartphone screens and torches. Just an hour earlier they’d been informed that an administrative tribunal in Paris had overturned a ban on a demonstration they had planned for that same afternoon at 4:30pm. They decided to make their way to the place where they’d originally planned to protest anyway. The location was significant: This stretch of lawn is just metres away from France’s lower-house National Assembly, where that morning lawmakers had hotly debated, for six hours, an amendment that would ban religious clothing or symbols in sports events.

Political storm
It’s a topic that has provoked fierce debate in the two chambers of France’s parliament. The amendment was originally introduced by the right-wing party Les Républicains, and it was adopted on January 19 by the upper-house Senate with 160 votes to 143.
At Wednesday’s debate in the National Assembly, Les Républicains MP Éric Ciotti, an advisor to the party’s presidential candidate Valérie Pécresse, lambasted the government for what he considers its meekness in the face of creeping Islamism in French society. “Islamism is spreading in prayer rooms, mosques, homes and now in sports clubs!” he said.
Régis Juanico, an MP for the centre-left Socialist Party, responded that sport is “a vehicle for integration, republican fraternity, and not hate or division”. Communist Party politician Marie-George Buffet reminded the Assembly that “secularism and neutrality are at the heart of our sporting culture”.
Speaking to radio station LCI on Thursday, France’s Minister for Gender Equality Élisabeth Moreno said: “The law says that these young women can wear a headscarf and play football. On football pitches today, headscarves are not forbidden. I want the law to be respected.” She later added, in comments to press agency AFP, that “women should be allowed to dress as they please”.
Her comments came in the wake of the court’s decision to overturn the ban on the Hijabeuses’ protest. The court said that the ban “constituted a serious and clearly illegal infraction on the fundamental freedom of the right to protest” and ordered the police commissioner to pay a €1000 fine, which would go to the activist collective and to rights charity the Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (Human Rights League).

The FFF in the crosshairs
This latest victory hasn’t made the collective forget their overall goal: to get rid of Article 1 in the French Football Federation’s (FFF) regulations, which forbids wearing anything that could identify a player as having any sort of affiliation with a “political, philosophical, religious or trade union” group. This is the rule that senators want to extend to other federations in the sporting world.
“Our objective is to fight against the exclusion of and banning of women who wear the headscarf in sport competitions. We shouldn’t have to choose between wearing the headscarf and playing sport in this day and age. You just have to revisit the law and read what it says about freedom of belief and secularism to know that the law is on our side,” Inès, the secretary general of the Hijabeuses, told FRANCE 24.
“What we are asking for today is for the FFF to change its rules and enable every woman to express herself, take advantage of her passion and take part in competitions without having her heart in her mouth and the stress of constantly wondering if she’s going to be able to play that day or not,” she added.

Support across the sport world
The Hijabeuses collective began in 2020. It organises matches, sit-ins and social media campaigns to put public pressure on the FFF. Other football federations, notably FIFA, don’t ban players who wear a hijab.
The pressure is certainly mounting. The French newspaper Libération published an open letter on Wednesday with the headline “Let women wearing the hijab play!” It was signed by dozens of celebrities from the world of sport, including Eric Cantona, Candice Prévost and Asisat Oshoala.
The debate is ongoing, with France’s Senate at odds with the National Assembly. The amendment will again go before the Senate on February 16 before going back to the Assembly for possible adoption on February 24.

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