Mama Diakité is 23, and has been playing club football for the past 10 years. But all of that could change, she says, if a ban on wearing the hijab while playing sports proposed by the French senate becomes law.
“It almost means the end of soccer for me,” Diakité, a member of Paris based Les Hijabeuses, a collective of young hijab-wearing female footballers campaigning against the ban, and fighting what they describe as the exclusion of Muslim women from sports.
The French senate in January voted 160 to 143 to ban the wearing of the hijab and other “ostensible religious symbols” in sports competitions following a proposed amendment from Les Républicains, a right wing party who argued that headscarves can risk the safety of athletes wearing them.
Les Républicains Senator Jaqueline Eustache-Brinio said that the French government must have the “courage” to resist what she described as the “Islamist grip” on the country – something her party believes has taken hold in both sport and education.
“We must have the courage, wherever possible to do so, to preserve the unity and cohesion of the Republic,” she told RMC, radio partner of CNN affiliate BFMTV.
An estimated five million people make up France’s Muslim population, the largest in Europe.
“Sport and school are two places that we must preserve and for which we must resist. Sport is a place where – whether you are rich or poor, black or white, atheist or believer – we can practice together and have shared time,” she said.
“What we want to do is apply the article of the Olympic charter that exists, but that no one wants to hear. Article 50 specifies that in sport, it is neither a political nor a religious element. I think that in sport and in sporting competitions, we have to maintain neutrality until the end.”
Muslim women in France already face restrictions on what they can wear in certain places. The full Islamic veil (burqa and niqab) has been banned from public places – including streets, public transport, shops, hospitals, and cinemas – in France since April 2021, following a law prohibiting the concealment of the face in the public space.
Several other countries, including Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands and Denmark followed with their own bans, partial bans and local bans of face coverings.
The hijab – a general term for all modest dress, which is also synonymous with a headscarf that covers a woman’s hair in the West – is authorized in all public areas in France, with the exception of public schools, middle schools and high schools, following a 2004 law, which prohibits the wearing of religious symbols deemed “conspicuous” in schools.
Now, some politicians are taking further aim at sports. The French Football Federation already bans women from wearing the hijab in official matches and competitions – despite FIFA sanctioning the wearing of them in 2014 after a seven-year ban.
On Monday, the senate conceded that bitter disagreement amongst lawmakers over the proposed ban would prevent the bill from being passed in its current state.
It expressed “regret” over the government’s “lack of will” to put a stop to what they described as the “development of Islamism in sport.”
The law will now be revised by the National Assembly, which is expected to have the final word.
Nicolas Cadene – co-founder of “Vigie Laïcité,” an organization that works on a better understanding of French secularism known as laïcité – explained that over the past few years, France has witnessed “strong tensions between those who want to distance themselves from religion and those who want to affirm it, especially when it comes to Islam.”
Cadene told CNN that the veil is being politically “instrumentalized” by a part of the French political class that wants to show that it is “tougher and more firm when it comes to laïcité,” especially when it comes to Islam and the veil – a religious symbol that “is misunderstood by the public.”
Secularism is deeply ingrained in French culture, with many believing that nothing – not even one’s religion – should come before national identity.
He added that there was “a confusion between the practice of Islam as a religion and radicalism,” which some politicians are taking advantage of to portray themselves as defending a French identity threatened by foreigners.
“It’s terrible because the French Muslims are not foreigners, and there is not one single French identity,” he added.
Critics of the bill say that far from maintaining neutrality in sports, ongoing discussions surrounding Muslim dress and so-called claims of women’s emancipation and integration in French society are simply “gendered Islamophobia.”
With the French presidential election looming this year, the proposed bill is just a part of a wider ongoing debate in the larger political sphere about secularism, freedom of speech and religious equality.
“Excuses of ‘we want laïcité and we want secularism’ – they’re really a shield, because they don’t apply fairly to the men performing crosses before they step onto the pitch,” Shireen Ahmed, senior contributor with CBC Sports, told CNN.
“They don’t apply to footballers who do that, even within the French league. So where are the rules about this, where half the Paris Saint-Germain F.C. does it [making the sign of the cross] before they step onto the pitch. Where’s the consistency here?” she said. “It’s a deliberate exclusion.”
Cadene said the new amendment does not include gestures, which shows its objective is “political and only targets the veil.”
“Laïcité is being wrongly put forward, it only assumes the neutrality of those who practice a public service, or students in public schools but not sports,” he said. “Secularism is for those who represent the state only – when you are in service.”
Fatima Bent, head of French feminist and anti-racist organization Lallab, told CNN that “this argument of banning the hijab has nothing to do with liberation, helping Muslim women, and nothing to do with sports conditions.
“This discourse stems from this colonial European approach where Muslim women are always depicted as women to save: from their families, their origin, who have to deny their identities to assimilate.”
“It is a continuation of a story of a European colonial power that asserts dominance, asserts that Muslim women submit, and considers them as inferior,” she added.
The French held colonies in various forms from the 17th century, mainly in Africa and Southeast Asia, losing much of its overseas territory after World War II as independence movements around the world gained strength.
France under President Emmanuel Macron has sought to reckon with its colonial past, with the president previously calling colonialism a “grave mistake” and a fault of the republic.
An anti-hijab amendment was proposed last year by a group of right-wing senators as part of a law “against separatism.” The National Assembly, which had the final say on the bill, rejected it, and is expected to reject that amendment once again this year. Macron’s party is opposed to the hijab ban in sports, as is sports minister Roxana Maracinenau.
But even if the amendment is not implemented and is not voted through, it will have a great effect, Bent said.
“These political debates and amendments participate in the creation of a narrative in which we see women are either victims, or dangerous and complicit in Islamism,” she said.
“It shows the dehumanization of Muslim women,” she added.
Widening the gulf in sports
Statistics that show physical activity participation by different religious groups are hard to come by, but the UK’s Women’s Sports Foundation says that Muslim women already have comparatively lower participation rate in sport because of “religious misinterpretations or simply a lack of awareness” and a lack of single sex provisions which can put young women off sport and physical activity.
“When I was in high school, I had to take my veil off every time I went to school, and it was a real humiliation,” Founé Diawara, Co-President of Les Hijabeuses said. “Sports are supposed to be open to everyone and are supposed to be synonymous with unity and diversity.”
“They should stop thinking that the veil is a political flag. When we come to play soccer for 90 minutes we only think about the ball, and kicking the ball. We are not there to make demands or to promote our religion,” she added.
Worldwide, critics say restrictive legislation is further blocking Muslim women’s access to sports.
“I was hoping to become the first Bangladeshi girl to represent England on the England International team, but unfortunately that didn’t happen,” UK based former professional soccer player Lipa Nessa told CNN. “My dreams were cut short.”
Football’s world governing body FIFA enforced a 2007 ban on headscarves – and it wasn’t until seven years later in 2014 that they were sanctioned. Meanwhile, the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) changed its rules to allow players to wear religious head coverings during games only as recently as 2017
“People around me were telling me that they would have to check if I would be allowed to play competitively, because it was still new,” Nessa told CNN.
Nessa was eventually allowed to play football, but says her negative experiences in the sport caused her to give up on her dreams of playing professionally.
She told CNN that when she was 16 and playing semi-professionally, “the parents of the opposition started making airplane noises, booing me, and started making other noises that I don’t really want to mention, but they were in relation to attacks that have happened during my lifetime, unfortunately.”
Diawara, who was excluded from a French soccer field at the age of 15, told CNN: “Even without this amendment, there is a real impact for girls and women who want to do sports. We have many, many testimonies of women and girls who tell us I want to do sports, but I do not know if I can because I wear the hijab.”
It’s a sentiment echoed by Nazma Khan, the founder of the World Hijab Day organization, who says that placing regulations on women’s bodies and how women choose to dress could prevent them from pursuing their passions.
“Countries like France talk about women’s empowerment, but when it comes to Muslim women, they are going backwards by marginalizing Muslim women through hijab bans,” Khan told CNN ahead of World Hijab Day on February 1.
Some advocates of the bill say they are doing so in support of women’s freedoms, but this is a view contested by some Muslim women.
Meanwhile, Ahmed told CNN that “forcing women out of clothing is as violent as forcing them into it.”
“What kind of feminism is a feminism that ignores the voices of the women it’s affecting? That’s violence, that’s oppressive in its very nature: you don’t get to decide for someone what their religious beliefs are or constitute,” Ahmed said.
If they are unable to dress modestly, Muslim women could choose not to participate in sports, because it would contradict their religious beliefs, or affect their safety, she added.
“I think that itself is a shame for society.”
Joseph Ataman, Camille Knight and Xiaofei Xu contributed to this report from Paris.