Soccer players challenge hijab ban in France

SARCELLES, France – Every time Diakité’s mom goes to a football game, her stomach is in knots.

This was repeated recently on Saturday afternoon in Sarcelles, a northern suburb of Paris. Her amateur team faced a local club, and Diakité, a 23-year-old Muslim midfielder, feared she would not be allowed to play in her hijab.

This time, the judge let her in. “It worked,” she said at the end of the game, leaning against the fence bordering the playground, with a smiling face wrapped in a black Nike scarf.

But Diakité just fell through the cracks.

For years, the French Football Association has banned players participating in competitions from wearing conspicuous religious symbols such as the hijab, a rule it claims is in line with the organization’s strict secular values. Although the ban is poorly enforced at the amateur level, it has hung over Muslim players for years, shattering their hopes for professional careers and driving some out of the game altogether.

In France, which is increasingly multicultural, where women’s football is flourishing, the ban has also provoked a growing reaction. At the head of the fight is Les Hijabeuses, a group of young hijab footballers from different teams who have joined forces in a campaign against what they describe as a discriminatory rule that excludes Muslim women from sports.

Their activism has touched nerves in France, reviving heated debates about the integration of Muslims in a country with a troubled relationship with Islam, and highlighting the struggle of French sports authorities to reconcile their defense of strict secular values ​​with growing calls for greater representation in the field.

“What we want is to be accepted as we are, to implement these great slogans of diversity, inclusiveness,” said Founé Diawara, president of Les Hijabeuses, which has 80 members. “Our only wish is to play football.”

The Hijabeuses was founded in 2020 with the help of researchers and community organizers in an attempt to resolve the paradox: although French law and FIFA, the world’s leading body, allow athletes to play in the hijab, the French Football Association bans it, arguing it would break the religious principle. neutrality on the ground.

Proponents of the ban say the hijab represents Islamist radicalization taking over the sport. But the personal stories of Hijabeuses emphasize how football was synonymous with emancipation – and how the ban still feels like a step backwards.

Diakité started playing football at the age of 12, initially hiding it from her parents, who saw football as a sport for boys. “I wanted to be a professional footballer,” she said, calling it a “dream.”

Jean-Claude Njehoja, her current coach, said that “when she was younger she had a lot of skills” that could have brought her to the highest level. But “from the moment she realized that the hijab ban would affect her,” he said, “she didn’t really push herself forward.”

Diakité said that she decided to wear the hijab in 2018 and give up her dream. He now plays for a third-league club and plans to open a driving school. “No regrets,” she said. “Either I am accepted as I am or I am not. And that is it.”

Karthoum Dembele, a 19-year-old midfielder wearing a nose ring, also said she had to face her mother to be allowed to play. She quickly joined a sports-intensive program in high school and participated in club rehearsals. But it wasn’t until she learned of the ban, four years ago, that she realized she would no longer be allowed to compete.

“I managed to make my mother give in and I was told that the federation would not let me play,” Dembele said. “I said to myself: what a joke!”

Other members of the group recalled episodes when referees banned them from the field, prompting some, feeling humiliated, to leave football and turn to sports where hijabs are allowed or tolerated, such as handball or indoor soccer.

Last year, Les Hijabeuses lobbied the French Football Federation to lift the ban. They sent letters, met with officials and even organized a protest at the federation’s headquarters – without success. The union declined to comment on the article.

Paradoxically, Les Hijabeuses ’toughest opponents have finally put them in the spotlight.

In January, a group of conservative senators tried to legally impose a hijab ban by the Football Association, arguing that hijabs threaten the spread of radical Islam in sports clubs. The move reflected long-standing unease in France over the Muslim veil, which regularly provokes controversy. In 2019, a French store dropped a plan to sell a hijab designed for runners after a barrage of criticism.

Encouraged by the senator’s efforts, Les Hijabeuses led an intensive lobbying campaign against the amendment. Making the most of their strong presence on social media – the group has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram – they launched a petition that collected more than 70,000 signatures; gathered dozens of sports celebrities for his goal; and organized matches in front of the Senate building and with professional athletes.

Vikash Dhorasoo, a former French midfielder who attended the match, said he was stunned by the ban. “I just don’t understand,” he said. “Muslims are being targeted here.”

Stéphane Piednoir, the senator behind the amendment, denied accusations that the law was aimed specifically at Muslims, saying the focus was on all conspicuous religious signs. But he acknowledged that the amendment was motivated by wearing a Muslim veil, which he called a “propaganda tool” of political Islam and a form of “visual proselytism”. (Piednoir also condemned the portrayal of Catholic tattoos by PSG star Neymar as “unfortunate” and wondered if the religious ban should be extended to them.)

The amendment was eventually rejected by the government majority in parliament, although not without friction. The Paris police banned the protest organized by Les Hijabeuses, and the French Minister of Sports, who is he said the law allows women wearing the hijab to play, in conflict with the government coleagues opposing the headscarf.

The Hijabe fight may not be popular in France, where six out of 10 people support a ban on the hijab on the street, according to a recent survey conducted by the CSA. Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate who will face President Emmanuel Macron in the second round of voting on April 24 – with the goal for the final victory – said that if elected, she would ban the Muslim veil in public places.

But on the football field, everyone seems to agree that hijabs should be allowed.

“Nobody cares if they play with it,” said Rana Kenar, 17, a Sarcelles player who came to watch her team face Diakité’s club one terribly cold February evening.

Kenar sat in the stands with about 20 fellow players. Everyone said that they saw the ban as a form of discrimination, emphasizing that the ban is poorly implemented at the amateur level.

Even the referee of the match in Sarcelles, who let Diakité play, looked against the ban. “I looked away,” he said, declining to say his name for fear of repercussions.

Pierre Samsonoff, former deputy head of the amateur branch of the football federation, said the issue would inevitably re-emerge in the coming years, with the development of women’s football and the 2024 Paris Olympics, which will feature Muslim athletes under the veil.

Samsonoff, who initially defended the hijab ban, said he has since softened his stance, acknowledging that the policy could end in the omission of Muslim players. “The question is whether we are not creating worse consequences by deciding to ban it in the fields than by allowing it,” he said.

Piednoir, a senator, said the players are excommunicating themselves. But he admitted that he never talked to any athletes who wear the hijab to hear their motives, comparing the situation with “firefighters” who were asked to go “listen to arsonists”.

Dembele, who manages Hijabeus’ accounts on social media, said she was often affected by the violence of online commentary and fierce political opposition.

“We’re waiting,” she said. “It’s not just for us, it’s also for young girls who will be able to dream of playing for France, for PSG tomorrow.”

Monique James contributed to reporting.

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