Women footballers are challenging France’s hijab ban

SARSELLES, France – Whenever Mama Diaky goes to play football, she has a knot in her stomach.

It happened again last Saturday afternoon in Sarsells, in the northern suburbs of Paris. His amateur team confronted the local club, and 23-year-old Muslim midfielder Diakité feared he would not be allowed to play after his hijab.

This time, the referee let him in. “It worked,” he said at the end of the game, leaning against the fence near the field boundary, his smiling face wrapped in a black Nike head scarf.

But the dialect was just cracking.

For years, the Soccer Federation of France has banned athletes from participating in the competition wearing clear religious symbols, such as the hijab, a rule that is consistent with the organization’s strict secular values. Although the ban has been loosely enforced at the amateur level, it has hung over Muslim female players for years, shattering their professional career hopes and removing some from the game altogether.

In more multicultural France, where women’s football is evolving, the ban has sparked a growing reaction. At the forefront of the fight are Les Hijabeuses, a group of young hijab-wearing footballers from different teams who have joined the force to campaign against what they describe as a discriminatory rule that excludes Muslim women from the sport.

Their activism has touched a nerve in France, revived the heated debate over the unification of Muslims in a country with a persecuted relationship with Islam, and highlighted the struggle to coordinate with the growing call for greater representation in defense of the strict secular values ​​of the French sports authorities. Field.

“What we want is diversity, to be embraced as we are to realize these great slogans of inclusion,” said Foun Dewara, president of Les Hijabius, which has 80 members. “Our only wish is to play football.”

The hijabis group was formed in 2020 with the help of researchers and community organizers in an attempt to solve a paradox: although French law and FIFA, the world governing body for world football, allow athletes to play after the hijab, the French soccer federation bans it, arguing that it violates religious grounds. Will break with.

Proponents of the ban say the hijab represents an Islamic extremist occupation of the sport. But the personal stories of hijabis members emphasize how football has become synonymous with liberation – and how the ban seems to be a step backwards.

Diaki started playing football at the age of 12, initially hiding it from his parents, who saw football as a boys’ sport. “I wanted to be a professional footballer,” he said, “a dream.”

His current coach Jean-Claude Najehoa says “when he was younger, he had a lot of skills” that could take him to the highest level. But “from the moment” he realized that the hijab ban would affect him, he said, “he didn’t really push himself any further.”

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

Carthum Dembele, a 19-year-old midfielder wearing a nose ring, said he had to face his mother to be allowed to play. He quickly joined a sports-intensive program in middle school and participated in club tryouts. But even though he did not know about the ban four years ago, he realized that he would no longer be allowed to compete.

“I was able to beat my mother and I was told the federation would not let me play,” Dembele said. “I said to myself: What a joke!”

Other members of the group recall occasions when referees barred them from the field, persuaded someone, felt humiliated, left football and returned to sports where the hijab was allowed or tolerated, such as handball or futsal.

Last year, Les Hijabeuses lobbied the French Soccer 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 for this article.

Unusually, it was Les Hijabeus’s arch-opponents who put them in the spotlight in the end.

In January, a group of conservative senators sought to include the Football Federation’s hijab ban in law, arguing that the hijab threatened to spread extremist Islam in sports clubs. The move reflects a chronic discomfort in France over the Muslim veil, which has sparked regular controversy. In 2019, a French shop dropped a plan to sell a hijab designed for runners after a barrage of criticism.

Encouraged by the senators’ efforts, Les Hijabius launched an intense lobbying campaign against the amendment. Building on their strongest social media presence – the group has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram – they launched a petition to collect more than 70,000 signatures; Dozens of sports celebrity gatherings due to them; And hosts games in front of the Senate building and with professional athletes.

Bikash Dhorasu, a former France midfielder who played in a game, said he was shocked by the ban. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “Muslims have been targeted here.”

Stephen Pidnovar, the senator behind the amendment, denied allegations that the law was specifically aimed at Muslims, saying its focus was on all obvious religious signs. But he acknowledged that the amendment was inspired by the wearing of the Muslim burqa, which he called “a propaganda vehicle” and “visual conversion” for political Islam. (Pidner also condemned PSG star Neymar’s display of Catholic tattoos as “unfortunate” and wondered if religious restrictions should be extended to them.)

The amendment was eventually rejected by a government majority in parliament, though not without controversy. Paris police banned a protest organized by Les Hijabeuses, and the French sports minister, who Says The law allows women wearing the hijab to play, clashing with the government Colleagues Oppose the head scarf.

Fighting for the hijab may not be popular in France, where six out of 10 people support a ban on the hijab on the streets, according to a recent poll by polling firm CSA. Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate who will face President Emanuel Macron on April 24 – with a final victory shot – said he would ban the Muslim veil in public if elected.

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

“No one would mind if someone could play with it,” said Rana Kenner, 17, a Surrey player who came to see his team face the club in Diakit on a cold February evening.

Kenner sat in the bleachers with about 20 colleagues. Everyone said they saw the ban as a form of discrimination, noting that the ban was relaxed at the amateur level.

Even the referee of the game, who allowed Diakite to play, disagreed with the ban. “I looked the other way,” he said, refusing to give his name for fear of retaliation.

Pierre Samsonoff, a former vice president of the amateur branch of the Soccer Federation, says the problem will inevitably re-emerge in the coming years with the development of women’s football and the hosting of the 2024 Olympics in Paris, where Muslim to veiled athletes will be present. Countries

Samsonoff, who was initially in favor of banning the hijab, said he had softened his stance, acknowledging that the policy could expel Muslim players. “The issue is whether we are making worse decisions about banning it on the field than we are about allowing it,” he said.

“The players are depriving themselves,” said Senator Piednoar. But he admits he never spoke to any hijab-wearing athletes to listen to their inspiration, comparing the situation to “firefighters” being told to “listen to pyromaniacs”.

Dembele, who manages the hijabis’ social media accounts, says he has often been the victim of online comments and violent political opposition.

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

Monique James Contributing Reporting.

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