French Supreme Court Upholds Hijab Ban in Football Games: Another Affront to Religious Freedom

On Thursday, 29th June 2023, the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) the highest administrative court in France, upheld a ban on Muslim women football players wearing hijab during all matches organized by the  French Football Federation (FFF).[fn][/fn]   The case was brought before the Council of State on 26th June 2023. [fn] [/fn]  after the FFF banned the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” despite FIFA  having lifted hijab ban in 2014[fn][/fn]. According to  Article 1 of the French Football Federation’s charter, introduced in 2016,  players are not allowed to wear “symbols or clothing obviously displaying one’s political, philosophical, religious or trade union views”. This article is intended to defend French secularism or laicite in sports and received support from the French senate. [fn][/fn]

On 18th January 2022, The French Senate voted in favor of banning the wearing of headscarves in all sports competitions, arguing that neutrality is a requirement of  competition hence widening the scope of the ban imposed by the FFF on its players. [fn]  [/fn] . It was however rejected in the lower house.[fn] [/fn][fn][/fn]

In November 2021, a collective of Muslim women known as “the Hijabeuses” initiated a legal challenge against the  FFF ban, arguing that they were discriminatory and violated their freedom to practice their religion without constraints.” [fn][/fn][fn]Les Hijabeuses is a French collective fighting against the FFF ban to promote a more inclusive society in France. The collective is led by Dembelè and other young hijab-wearing female footballers around Paris. They have more than 150 members and more than 29K followers on Instagram. Their activism has touched a nerve in France, reviving heated debates on the integration of Muslims in a country with a tortured relationship with Islam, and highlighting the struggle of French sports authorities to reconcile their defense of strict secular values with growing calls for greater representation on the field.[/fn]

Their case was presented to the French Constitutional Council on 26th June, where the public rapporteur, whose opinions are typically followed by the council’s nine members, expressed opposition to the federation’s regulations and recommended a revision of the rules. [fn][/fn] They argued that several non-Muslim players cross themselves before going out on the field and have tattoos of Christian figures and symbols that are in plain sight. [fn][/fn]

His position was met with wide political rejection. Minister of Interior,  Gerald Darmanin, known for his tough stance on law and order, expressed his hopes for upholding neutrality on sports fields, stating, “When you play football, you don’t need to know the religion of the person in front of you.” [fn][/fn]

Other voices from the conservative Republicans party and the far-right National Rally also condemned the rapporteur’s position. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right, took to Twitter, declaring, “No to the hijab in sport. And we will pass a law to make sure it is respected.” [fn][/fn]Eric Ciotti, head of the Republican party, stated that his party would introduce a bill on the topic if the court permitted the hijab. [fn][/fn]Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera hinted at the possibility of legislative action from President Macron’s government, emphasizing the need for clarity and not ruling out any options. [fn][/fn]

In response, Founé Diawara, spokeswoman and co-President of the Hijabeuses collective stated that our combat is neither political, nor religious. It is about sport and only sport.[fn][/fn]

The judges thus faced significant political pressure ahead of the ruling as mainstream parties aimed to counter the rising influence of the far right in the polls. Laicite, a somewhat stricter form of secularism, is a highly sensitive topic in France, with its proponents framing it as a means to ensure the state’s religious neutrality, while critics view it as a veiled attack on ethnic and religious minorities, particularly Muslims. The Conseil d’Etat defended its rapporteur, calling the attacks against him an assault on a vital democratic institution.

Nonetheless, on Thursday 29th June, it did not follow its public rapporteur’ s recommendations.[fn][/fn]. It ruled  that “the ban enacted by the FFF is suitable and proportionate”:  “Sports federations, in charge of  managing public service may impose on their players an obligation of outfit neutrality during competitions” . [fn],or%20in%20connection%20with%20the[/fn]

Marion Ogier, the lawyer representing the Hijabeuses, expressed disappointment, arguing that the decision in fact undermines secularism and freedom of expression while disregarding three decades of legal precedent on the matter: “This ruling contradicts social cohesion in a country founded on diversity and pluralism,” she said. The FFF, in response to the ruling, acknowledged it and reaffirmed its commitment to promoting equality and fighting against discrimination, emphasizing the republican and civic values that football embodies. [fn][/fn]

Ms. Diakité,  who played football  with a hijab for a decade  and is  now a member of Les Hijabeuses , surmised the ruling was based on political ideology and not fact. If the court had come to speak to the players and club managers in the suburbs, she said, it would have learned that there has never been violence on the soccer field because of players wearing the hijab. She was hoping for dialogue, connection, and inclusion. Instead, she felt the opposite.“We have French identity cards,” she said. “But we don’t feel completely at home.” [fn][/fn]

Responding to the Conseil d’Etat ‘s ruling, Anna Blus, Amnesty International’s Researcher – Women’s Rights in Europe, said: “The deeply disappointing decision today from the Conseil d’État entrenches both racism and gender discrimination in French football. The Football Federation’s ban on religious clothing not only prevents Muslim women footballers who wear headscarves from playing in competitive matches, it also violates their rights to freedom of expression, association, and religion… It means that Muslim women football players in France will continue to experience differential treatment to other players, in clear breach of several of the country’s international human rights obligations.” [fn][/fn]

The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization has also condemned the ruling saying its ” an affront to religious freedom and represents yet another attack on Islamic practice in the country (..) We stand in solidarity with French Muslims against global Islamophobia and we call on nations that claim to support freedom to condemn France’s continued targeting of Muslims.”  CAIR’s representative, Ibrahim Hooper, added that last year CAIR condemned the French law that  could ban Islamic headscarves  during the 2024 Paris Olympics. [fn][/fn]

As a matter of fact,  the ruling rises questions on the participation of hijab-wearing Muslim women in the upcoming 2024 Paris Olympics.

Share Button