Sheema Khan is the author of Of Hockey and Hijab: Reflections of a Canadian Muslim Woman.
Thus far, the FIFA World Cup has not disappointed. Electrifying plays on the field, compelling storylines from Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo and Robert Lewandowski, and the festive, colourful fandom in the stands. It’s called the beautiful game for a reason. Soccer has a simple, universal appeal – all you need is a ball, a couple of teammates, and voilà, the dreams are yours to make.
Except if you are a Muslim woman in France who wears a hijab. According to a decree by the French Football Federation (FFF), anyone playing, coaching or officiating on a French football pitch is banned from wearing religious symbols. For all the focus in World Cup media coverage on Qatar’s policies towards migrant workers, women and the LGBTQ community, hardly anyone has made a peep about how a soccer powerhouse – France – bars Muslim women from participating in the sport simply for wearing a hijab.
France has a tortuous history of harmonizing its growing Muslim population and its official policy of secularity, or laicité. Suffice it to say that the hijab has never been welcomed in the land of liberté, égalité et fraternité. After a 2004 ban on wearing “conspicuous religious symbols,” including the hijab, in French public schools came into effect, the niqab was also banned in public spaces in 2010. Curiously, while mask mandates were implemented in France throughout the pandemic, niqabs were still subject to fines.
The FFF’s rule runs contrary to official FIFA policy, which lifted its own hijab ban in 2014. The 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. Some have grown up in the same Paris banlieues that produced Kylian Mbappé, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté. During childhood, some of these young female players faced opposition from their own conservative families, who deemed soccer too masculine. As they thrived at sport-intensive programs and club tryouts, the families gave in – only to have the FFF turn their daughters away from the pitch because of their hijabs.
Yet the FFF could not kill the spirits of these remarkable young women, or their love of the game. In response to being excluded by the FFF, 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. Co-president Founé Diawara recalled feeling angry and excluded when being told to leave the pitch for wearing her hijab at the age of 15: “I was trapped between my passion [for football] and something that is a huge part of my identity. It’s like they tried to tell me that I had to choose between the two,” she told The Guardian in 2021.
Les Hijabeuses have used their strong social media following to rally against the FFF’s ban. They’ve launched petitions, gathered support from the broader sports community (including Nike), and organized soccer matches outside the French Senate building as a form of protest. 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. It is a refuge, providing a safe space for Muslims to be who they are, while playing the sport they love. They have even lobbied the FFF to overturn the ban, and are now taking them to court. Earlier this year, the French Senate tried, unsuccessfully, to codify the FFF ban into law, arguing that the hijab was a means to spread radical Islam to sports clubs. Senator Stéphane Piednoir, a ban supporter, told The New York Times that he has yet to speak with a hijab-clad athlete, comparing such an encounter to a “firefighter” listening “to pyromaniacs.”
The ban is even more galling given that France is the only European country that excludes hijabis from playing in most competitive domestic sports, while 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?
More importantly, why has the rest of the world been silent on this issue in recent weeks, especially during coverage of the World Cup? International media should be shining a spotlight on the FFF’s exclusionary policies. National soccer federations (including Canada Soccer) should be mounting a united stand against the FFF’s overt discrimination through boycotts and other measures. FIFA should sanction the FFF for violating official FIFA policy.
I have played soccer almost my entire life. I am an accredited soccer coach. But because I wear a hijab, I can’t play, coach or officiate on a soccer pitch in France. In Qatar, no problem. Let that sink in.