Footballers challenge the French hijab ban

SORSEL, France – Every time Diakite’s mother goes to a football match, she has knots in her stomach.

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

This time the referee missed her. “It worked,” she said at the end of the game, leaning against a fence bordering the field, and her smiling face was wrapped in a black Nike handkerchief.

But Diakite only failed through the cracks.

For years, the French Football Federation has banned players from wearing prominent religious symbols, such as the hijab, a rule she says 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 a professional career and completely driving some away from the game.

In France, which is becoming increasingly multicultural, where women’s football is booming, the ban has also caused a growing reaction. At the forefront of the fight is Les Hijabeuses, a group of young hijab footballers from different teams who have joined forces to fight against what they describe as a discriminatory rule that excludes Muslim women from the sport.

Their activism has touched nerves in France, reviving the heated debate over the integration of Muslims into a country with painful relations with Islam, and underscoring the French sports authorities’ struggle to reconcile their defense of strict secular values ​​with growing calls for greater representation on the field.

“We want to be accepted as we are to implement these grand slogans of diversity, inclusiveness,” said Foune Diavara, president of Les Hijabeuses, which has 80 members. “Our only desire is to play football.”

The Hijabeuses team was formed in 2020 with the help of researchers and community organizers in an attempt to unravel the paradox: although French law and FIFA, the governing body of world football, allow athletes to play hijabs, the French Football Federation bans it, arguing it would violate religious principles. on the field.

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

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

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

Diakite said that she decided to wear a hijab in 2018 – and give up her dream. Now she plays for the third division club and plans to open a driving school. “I’m not sorry,” she said. “Either I am accepted as I am or not. And that’s it. “

Khartoum Dembele, a 19-year-old midfielder who wears a nose ring, also said she had to face her mother to be allowed to play. She quickly joined a high school sports program and participated in club rehearsals. But it was only when she learned of the ban four years ago that she realized she would no longer be allowed to compete.

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

Other members of the group recalled episodes when referees forbade them to go out on the field, encouraging some, feeling humiliated, to quit football and turn to sports where hijabs are allowed or tolerated, such as handball or futsal.

For the past year, Les Hijabeuses has been lobbying the French Football Federation to lift the ban. They sent letters, met with officials and even protested at the federation’s headquarters – to no avail. The federation declined to comment on the article.

Paradoxically, they were finally highlighted by the most ardent opponents of Les Hijabeuses.

In January, a group of conservative senators tried to legislate a ban on the football federation’s hijab, arguing that the hijab threatens the spread of radical Islam in sports clubs. The move reflects the inconvenience in France over the Muslim veil, which regularly causes controversy. In 2019, the French store abandoned a plan to sell the hijab intended for runners, after a flurry of criticism.

Fueled by the senators ’efforts, Les Hijabeuses launched an intensive lobbying campaign against the amendment. Taking advantage of their strong social media presence – to a group of nearly 30,000 Instagram followers – they launched a petition that garnered more than 70,000 signatures; brought together dozens of sports celebrities for their cause; and organized games in front of the Senate building and with professional athletes.

Vikas Doras, a former French midfielder who attended the game, said the ban surprised him. “I just don’t understand,” he said. “Muslims are the target here.”

Stephane Penoir, a senator who advocated the amendment, dismissed accusations that the law was aimed specifically at Muslims, saying his focus was on all prominent religious features. But he acknowledged that the amendment was motivated by the wearing of the Muslim veil, which he called a “propaganda tool” of political Islam and a form of “visual proselytism.” (Piednoir also condemned the display of Catholic tattoos by PSG star Neymar as “unfortunate” and wondered whether a religious ban should apply to them.)

The amendment was eventually rejected by a majority of the government in parliament, though not without controversy. Paris police have banned a protest organized by Les Hijabeuses, and the French Minister of Sport, who said the law allows women who wear the hijab to play in conflict with the government colleagues contrasting the head scarf.

According to a recent CSA poll, the hijab fight may not be popular in France, where six out of 10 people support a ban on hijabs on the street. Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate who will face President Emanuel Macron in the second round of voting on April 24 – and win the final victory – said she would ban the Muslim veil in public if elected.

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

“No one minds if they play with it,” said 17-year-old Rana Kenar, a Sarcello player who came to watch her team face the Diakité club on a fiercely cold February evening.

Kenar sat in the stands with about 20 players. All said they saw the ban as a form of discrimination, noting that at the amateur level the ban was enforced insignificantly.

Even the referee of the game in Sarcel, who allowed Diakita to play, seemed to contradict the distance. “I looked at another,” he said, declining to give his name for fear of repercussions.

Pierre Samsanov, former deputy head of the amateur division of the Football Federation, said the issue would inevitably rise again in the coming years, with the development of women’s football and the 2024 Paris Olympics, which will be attended by athletes in the veil. countries.

Samsanov, who initially defended the hijab ban, said he has since softened his stance, acknowledging that the policy could end in the expulsion of Muslim players. “The question is whether we are creating worse consequences by deciding to ban it in the fields than if we allow it,” he said.

Penoir, a senator, said the players are exposing themselves to astrocism. But he admitted that he never spoke to athletes wearing hijabs to hear their motivation, comparing the situation to the fact that “firefighters” were asked to “listen to the pyromaniacs.”

Dembele, who manages Hijabe’s social media accounts, said she was often affected by violence in online comments and fierce political opposition.

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

Monique James contributed to accountability.

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