Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
On the eve of the Women’s World Cup, as soccer fans cheer our talented female athletes, let’s not forget the many women and girls worldwide who are being denied the opportunity to play the beautiful game.
Here in Canada in 2007, 11-year-old Asmahan Mansour was set to enter a tournament match in Laval, Que., when a referee barred her from the soccer pitch for wearing a hijab. There had been no issues in previous games; this ref insisted on following a memo from the Quebec Soccer Federation (QSF) forbidding all religious headgear. Asmahan’s teammates, their parents, and coach rallied in her support by forfeiting the match and withdrawing from the tournament in protest – as did four other Ottawa-based teams.
The QSF insisted it was a safety issue. The matter made it all the way to FIFA, which initially upheld the hijab ban, then reversed it in 2012. In the interim, the Canadian Soccer Association allowed the hijab, provided it met safety standards.
In 2013, the QSF banned Sikh turbans, basing the decision on its interpretation of FIFA’s rules. Turbaned children in Quebec could play in their backyards, but not in official matches. The QSF backed down after its suspension by the Canadian Soccer Association, claiming it was all a misunderstanding. Soccer peace ensued; children from all backgrounds can now play “the beautiful game” across Canada. It was admirable to see the pushback against discrimination by ordinary Canadians, who insisted on inclusion and fair play for all children.
Unfortunately, women and girls are denied the opportunity to play the beautiful game elsewhere in the world. Afghanistan comes to mind. And France, where since 2016, the French Football Federation (FFF) has banned any player, coach or referee from wearing the hijab – contrary to FIFA rules. The FFF insists it is in keeping with the official French policy of laïcité, which restricts religious expression in the public sphere. To paraphrase a memorable Seinfeld character, the FFF has declared “No soccer for you!” to hijabi footballers.
This policy has had a painful impact on many aspiring French Muslim female soccer players, who have faced a choice between the sport they love and their faith. In response, Les Hijabeuses, a collective of French female Muslim soccer players, was formed in 2020 with the aim of ensuring that all women can play the sport they love. They’ve launched petitions, gathering support from the broader sports community (including Nike). The members and their allies play soccer together, connect with other French teams and provide training sessions to encourage other young Muslim women to get into the sport. They have gone to court to try to overturn the ban, citing FIFA’s ruling.
Last month, the public rapporteur of France’s highest administrative court (Le Conseil d’État) recommended annulment of the ban, stating that wearing the hijab is neither “proselytism” nor “provocation.” Nor is “neutrality” required for soccer players, since they are not public servants. According to the rapporteur, religious symbols are already present: players cross themselves before entering the pitch. The rapporteur’s recommendation is usually adopted by Le Conseil.
Surprisingly, Le Conseil upheld the ban, in order “to guarantee the smooth running of matches and prevent any confrontation,” while acknowledging this limits freedom of expression and conviction. Without a hint of irony, the FFF welcomed the ruling, stating it would reaffirm “its total commitment to combating all forms of discrimination.” If laïcité was meant to supplant the Catholic Church, it still denies the personal agency of women.
The ban is even more galling given that France is the only European country that excludes hijabis from playing in most competitive domestic sports, and it is unclear whether foreign players with hijabs will be allowed to compete in the 2024 Paris Olympics. Why is France denying Olympic opportunities for its own hijab-clad athletes?
On the eve of the Women’s World Cup, there has been thundering silence from FIFA and national soccer federations regarding the French exclusion. Contrast this to the protests raised against one of the tournament’s sponsors: for the country’s treatment of women’s rights defenders, FIFA’s revoked the sponsorship of Saudi Arabia’s state tourism authority. National soccer federations should mount a united stand against France’s blatant discrimination, with the Canadian Soccer Association taking the lead. FIFA should at least sanction the FFF for violating official FIFA policy.
Listen to Asmahan Mansour’s young Ottawa teammates in 2007: “I like to play soccer, but Azzy is my friend, and I don’t want to play if she’s not going to play,” one said. “If one person can’t play soccer because of her religion, it just wouldn’t be fair. Inside is what matters, not the outside,” said another.