Proposed French law banning hijab in sport is heinous and harmful

The belief by some in France that hijabs compromise the equal status of players and connect to extremism is nonsensical, writes Shireen Ahmed.

Exclusion of Muslim women from sport in France is gendered Islamophobia

An Iranian soccer player wears a hijab, something now not permitted in France because of a French Football Federation policy. (AFP via Getty Images)

This is a column by Shireen Ahmed, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

As I watched highlights from the Women's Asian Cup, I was delighted to see that the Iranian women's national soccer team was playing. 

For many years women in hijab (the headscarf worn by Muslim women) could not play soccer due to a hijab ban. This was struck down by FIFA in 2014.

While it will take decades for Muslim women to emerge in elite development programs around the world, there is hope. Jordan hosted a Women's World Cup (U17) in 2016, the first FIFA-sanctioned tournament to ever be hosted in the Middle East. There have been teams and leagues in Afghanistan (before the Taliban regime took control) and Saudi Arabia.

But there is one country that has refused to allow hijab-wearing women to participate in soccer. A country that boasts about its freedoms while rejecting personal religious expression and banning women from choosing their own clothing: France.

Last week, France voted 160-143 in favour of banning hijab not just from one sport, but from every conceivable competition, be it recreational activity or high-level participation. The proposed law could be ratified as early as January 31 by a vote in the second chamber. While President Emmanuel Macron and his party opposed the ban, supporters of this law insist that "religious neutrality" is required in sports and a hijab stands in opposition of this. In addition, they argue that banning Islam will prevent the spread of "radical Islam."

This exclusion of Muslim women from sport is gendered Islamophobia masquerading as a shield to protect secularism in the European nation. Do men not regularly make the symbol of the cross before stepping on the pitch to play? Religious imagery is permissible it seems, just not with women with hijab. 

The existence of 5.4 million followers of Islam living in France is a topic that is polarizing for a country that does not believe in multiple identities along with being, well, French. This may seem baffling considering that historically, the triumphs of French soccer have come at the feet of West African and North African men from Muslim diasporic cultures. There are groups campaigning the French Football Federation (FFF) such as les hijabeuses, who are a youth collective trying to fight this ban. 

The belief by some in France that hijabs compromise the equal status of players and connect to extremism is nonsensical. As a Muslim woman who has played soccer for more than 40 years, I can assure you that many players, fans, coaches and officials who love the beautiful game just happen to be Muslim. And our intention is not to convert the masses, it is to complete our passes. My objective is to put the ball at the back of the net, not assemble a squad to take to the mosque for worship and then decidedly plot against any nation. I would be heartbroken and angry if I was stripped of my right to play. 

"This will impact the well-being and mental health of not just Muslim women but young Muslim women as well," said Dr. Ahmad, a sports sociologist based in Colorado who specializes in Muslim women in sport, representation, and their identities. "The French government will be responsible for negatively impacting the health of these women, their education, and essentially the economy."

This focus on villainizing the hijab is heinous and harmful.

"C'est une obsession Francaise!" [it's a French obsession!]," Kaouther Ben Mohamed said on the French RMC program called "Les Grandes Gueles" on Jan. 21 just days after the vote. In the segment, Ben Mohamed (who does not wear hijab) noted that these policies prevent Muslim women from living normal lives. 

Banning hijabs is not a feminist answer; feminism implies freedom of choice of spiritual practice, clothing and mobility. Forcing women out of clothing is as violent as forcing women into it. Laws and policies that prevent choice for women are Draconian and are unacceptable anywhere — including France. 

This is more alarming when we consider that France will host the Olympics in 2024. There are so many athletes from around the world who choose to cover for very personal and spiritual reasons. Athletes have a right to play and train in safety and without discrimination of any kind. What kind of mega-event that is supposed to unite people through sport actively rejects women because of what they choose to wear?

Just before the Tokyo Olympics in the summer of 2021, the Norwegian beach handball team drew international attention when it was reported that they were fined for choosing to wear longer shorts instead of the mandated bikini bottoms. This lack of choice is antithetical to respect for women in sports, and France is doing the same thing. 

France should not only be stripped from hosting the 2024 Olympics but it should also be penalized by FIFA and other governing bodies for allowing this type of flagrant discrimination to continue. 

Quebec's Bill 21 is a problem

In Canada, we do have the right to wear hijab and play, but things are shifting here, too. Just a few months ago, a teacher in Quebec was removed from her classroom because she wears a hijab. Her students were devastated and the community supports her. But if this is a reality because of Bill 21 in a Canadian province, is it far-fetched to think it will set a dangerous precedent elsewhere? Particularly when the initial FIFA ban was set into motion in 2007 because of a young soccer player from Ottawa named Asmahan Mansour

There is absolutely no proof that the hijab causes injury to athletes or opponents, a fact the International Football Association Board, which governs the rules of soccer, tested rigorously in labs during the process to lift the FIFA hijab ban. 

It is discouraging and upsetting for women and girls to have to choose between their faith and their passion. I have a 20-year-old daughter who has played soccer since she was four. She played on rep teams and trains at university. After hearing about this horrible French law, she asked me: "Would I be able to play for PSG?" I paused and then quietly told her no. 

Shireen Ahmed's soccer-playing daughter. (Photo by Shireen Ahmed)

Her decision to wear a headscarf came when she was 14. In fact, she told her rep basketball team before telling me. (She assured me that consulting your point guard was imperative when making important spiritual decisions.) But this decision meant she could not follow in the footsteps of her beloved Steph Labbe, the legendary Canadian goalkeeper who announced her retirement last week. 

My daughter had the rare opportunity to meet Labbe just before the Women's World Cup in 2019. A fellow goalkeeper, Labbe gave her time, respect and fantastic advice. It is a moment etched into my daughter's brain (yes, under her hijab) and one that she has held close. 

Labbe played not only in the National Women's Soccer League, she also played for storied Paris Saint-Germain in France, something my daughter would not be permitted to do. Her role model, an Olympic champion, told her she should do it, but racists in France have decided she can not. 

Taking away the opportunity for women and girls to engage in sport is cruel at best. 

"This law violates women's rights and specifically Muslim women. And further stigmatizes Muslim girls and women, and erases a sense of belonging while cementing harmful stereotypes," Dr. Ahmad said. 

The Muslim Women in Sport Network is coordinating a worldwide social media campaign with CCIE has started immediately with the hashtag #LetUsPlay. 

Liberté, égalité, fraternité, but only for the ones who do not wear hijab. A stark reminder that selective inclusion is not inclusion at all. 


Shireen Ahmed

Senior Contributor

Shireen Ahmed is a multi-platform sports journalist, a TEDx speaker, mentor, and an award-winning sports activist who focuses on the intersections of racism and misogyny in sports. She is an industry expert on Muslim women in sports, and her academic research and contributions have been widely published. She is co-creator and co-host of the “Burn It All Down” feminist sports podcast team. In addition to being a seasoned investigative reporter, her commentary is featured by media outlets in Canada, the USA, Europe and Australia. She holds an MA in Media Production from Toronto Metropolitan University where she now teaches Sports Journalism and Sports Media. You can find Shireen tweeting or drinking coffee, or tweeting about drinking coffee. She lives with her four children and her cat.

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