Les Hijabeuses: Muslim footballers attack the French ban on the hijab | islamophobia

Paris, France РSince the age of six, Karthoum Dembel̩ has been playing football with his older brother and his friends between the cities of the Parisian suburbs.

Huge football talents have exploded in these neighborhoods in recent years, including Pogba, Mbappé and Kanté.

It was here, where street football is king, that Dembelé fell in love with football.

But now, 19, her optimism has faded.

Not because of a lack of talent or injuries, but because of French politics. As a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, Dembelé is not allowed to play in most sports competitions in France, including football.

The French Football Federation (FFF) maintains the ban on the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” despite the lifting by FIFA of its own ban on the hijab in 2014.

Debates over what Muslim women can and cannot wear have resurfaced in France recently with the controversial “anti-separatism” bill, enacted into French law on August 24.

French lawmakers attempted to use the bill to formally ban headscarves in all sporting competitions, although this was deemed unconstitutional by lawmakers on June 9.

The bill, proposed by President Emmanuel Macron’s government last year, aims to tackle “Islamist extremism” and strengthen “secularism” (secularism), but it has been heavily criticized for leaning towards the extreme right before the national elections of 2022 and stigmatized Islam and the estimated 6 million Muslims in France, the most in Europe.

Paris takes over from Tokyo 2020 for the 2024 Summer Olympics and France remains the only country in Europe to exclude women wearing the hijab from participating in most national sporting competitions.

The law, however, stipulates that in international competitions – such as the Olympics – foreign players wearing a headscarf can play in France, so questions are mounting over why France is specifically targeting its own Muslim athletes wearing a headscarf. the hijab.

Les Hijabeuses – striving for inclusiveness

There is increasing pressure on the FFF to change its rules, amid calls for more representation on the pitch.

The movement is symbolized by a collective called Les Hijabeuses, led by Dembelé and other young footballers wearing the hijab around Paris.

Last year, a group of researchers and community leaders from the Citizen Alliance, who campaign against social injustices in France, founded the collective.

More than a year later, Les Hijabeuses has around 150 members and nearly 5,000 followers on Instagram. They staged a protest at the FFF headquarters on July 23 and wrote several letters to FFF president Noël Le Graët, demanding an end to the exclusion of Muslim women – but still have not received a response.

“We are all fighting for more inclusive football, which includes all women,” Dembelé told Al Jazeera. “We try to make people understand that we are female athletes. It is not because we wear the hijab that we should be excluded from the field.

“For the FFF, now it’s time to wake up … I think they look more at our faces than our talent.”

Eight members of the Hijabeuses pose for a team portrait before their training session, carrying the flag of the Alliance Citoyenne, the group of community leaders who founded Les Hijabeuses in 2020 [Alexander Durie/Al Jazeera]

A founder, Haifa Tlili, told Al Jazeera that “the position of the FFF follows the general trend in France, which, since the 1990s, has seen an increase in Islamophobic discourse”.

“The problem is, they are objectified,” Tlili said, referring to how she thinks the FFF rule impacts Muslim female footballers.

“Women no longer want to be seen only as veils, but as footballers.”

“Forced to choose between the hijab and what we like”

The rules have been criticized by some as being intentionally vague – a way of perpetuating the exclusion of Muslim athletes.

Ask any Hijabeuse player and they’ll tell you countless stories of how they were targeted on the pitch.

Founé Diawara, one of the collective’s greatest football talents, was 15 when a referee told him: “Either take off your hijab and play, or stay on the bench.

“The worst part is that her trainer didn’t even support her. She was alone, ”said Dembelé. “I find it sad because we have to choose every time, between our hijab and what we like, between our dignity and just wanting to play a sport.”

The rules of the FFF stipulate that “the wearing of any sign or clothing ostensibly expressing a political, philosophical, religious or union affiliation” is prohibited in official games.

But on another page, he mentions that “the wearing of accessories (such as bandanas, hats, etc.) which do not involve proselytism and which respect the rules of hygiene and safety is possible”.

The Hijabs want to promote inclusive football for all women, and of its 150 members, many do not wear the hijab, like Zamya Khan, pictured here smiling. The collective welcomes anyone wishing to support the causes for which Les Hijabeuses are fighting. [Alexander Durie/Al Jazeera]

This secondary rule forced footballers wearing the hijab to find subtle ways to play their favorite sport.

Bouchra Chaïb, a 27-year-old midwife and co-president of the Hijabeuses, says she managed to obtain a medical certificate stating that she had to wear a rugby helmet for health reasons during football matches.

But one day, she stepped onto a field with her helmet on, and a referee stopped her, saying she couldn’t play. Her trainer defended her because Chaïb was too shocked to answer.

“Between you and me, I know why you’re wearing that helmet,” the referee told him.

Chaib said the notion of “remarkable” religious symbols was “really vague”, both for players and officials, and could easily be used against Muslim athletes.

According to Rim-Sarah Alouane, an academic who studies religious freedom and civil liberties in France, the FFF rules are “deliberately ambiguous”.

Likewise, the “anti-separatism” bill is filled with “vague terms to justify restricting a freedom,” she said.

Authorities “still see Muslims and Islam through the lens of security,” she said – and the hijab is turned into a weapon as a symbolic enemy.

“In France, we still see diversity as a threat, even if football shows that diversity makes us stronger.”

Islamophobia as a gender, race and class issue

While the hijab ban may seem uniquely Islamophobic, experts say it cuts across issues of gender, race and class.

“The first separatism occurred when the state decided to build these large estates, to say [to the first wave of immigrants], ‘You are not part of our population,’ ”said Alouane.

A 2019 study by the Collectif contre l’islamophobie en France highlighted how Islamophobia is a form of sexist racism, reporting that 70% of victims of anti-Muslim hate crimes were women. In the same year, another report found that 44.6% of the French population viewed Muslims as a threat to national identity.

Bouchra Chaïb, 27, co-president of the Hijabeuses and one of its first players, is a goalkeeper. She said, ‘When I play with Hijabas, it’s like playing with sisters.’ [Alexander Durie/Al Jazeera]

Chaib said she started wearing the hijab when she was 13 and had been discriminated against at school and at work since then, but hoped football would be different.

“In sports, I didn’t think I was going to be lectured about secularism, but I was, and it was a big disappointment.”

She felt “a constant feeling of rejection” that almost drove her to quit football altogether.

“You have negative feelings forming within you. You want to do nothing. You say to yourself: ‘Well I’m not going to register here, I’m not going to do that, I’m not going to do that, because I’m going to be kicked out, I’m going to be humiliated once again “, then you exclude yourself, from all over. “

But the collective and the bond between women gave him hope.

“You realize you have your place,” she said with a broad smile. “When I play with the Hijabeuses, it’s like playing with sisters.

On the way to representation

Chaïb was one of the first players to be selected for Les Hijabeuses, and now that the collective is growing, wants to inspire young Muslim women across the country.

Despite France’s large Muslim population, women wearing the hijab are a rare sight in public life and in sport, due, according to some observers, to national conversations that are often hostile towards Muslims.

“I would love to see a woman wearing a hijab playing football on TV,” Dembelé said. “I find it frustrating not to be represented in football.”

According to sports activist and journalist Shireen Ahmed: “There are generations of women who didn’t bother to play football because they just couldn’t move forward.

Ahmed, an expert on Islamophobia in sports, says that while athletes should ideally be seen as more than their outfits, having more Muslim players wearing the hijab goes a long way in normalizing diversity in the public eye.

“I am not arguing for the hijab, I am arguing for the choice,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “We ask women to be the best sportsmen themselves, and we don’t let them decide their uniforms.”

Les Hijabeuses regularly play soccer training in Saint-Denis, a suburb of Paris, where many young players grew up [Alexander Durie/Al Jazeera]

She blamed not only the FFF but also FIFA for exempting France from its statutes.

“The practice of football itself and the charter, written by FIFA, are in fact violated by France,” said Ahmed. “FIFA is also complicit in supporting this.”

Responding to a request for comment, a FIFA spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “FIFA continues to monitor the situation regarding the application of the Laws of the Game within member associations.”

The FFF sent a statement to Al Jazeera, saying it “has a public service mission; he applies the laws of the Republic. It defends and defends the values ​​of secularism, living together, neutrality and the fight against all forms of discrimination, and does not authorize the display of ostentatious political or religious signs as part of the collective and public practice of football and its competitions. “

Roxana Mărăcineanu, France’s Sports Minister, did not comment due to a “very tight schedule”.

“If I were Le Graët [the FFF President], I would be most afraid of these young women, ”said Ahmed,“ because they will bring about change.

Back on the pitch, Dembelé, ready to play with a ball in his hands, said: “I would like to be this representation [to young girls], to show them that it is possible, and then they will be like, ‘I can do this, I can go far.’ “

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