France’s Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera announced on 3rd September 2023 on France 3 that athletes representing France will be barred from wearing hijabs or other religious symbols while competing at the upcoming 2024 Summer Olympics in Paris.1
The minister stated that the ban upholds France’s principle of “strict secularism” or “la laïcité,” in sports and will apply to all members of the French Olympic team. She referenced a recent ruling by the Council of State upholding the hijab ban for football matches2 which has been enforced by the French Football Federation since 2016.3
Her announcement is in contradiction with the policy of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which considers hijabs a cultural rather than religious symbol. An IOC spokesperson reasserted that “There are no restrictions on wearing the hijab.”4
Furthermore, just days after the Sports Minister’s announcement, the International Olympic Committee ruled that participants in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games are free to wear the hijab in the Athletes’ Village. A spokesperson for Olympic committee declated that it was in contact with the French Olympic Committee (CNOSF) to better understand the situation with the French athletes.5
The spokesperson explained to the Reuters News Agency that “For the Olympic Village, the IOC rules apply6. “There are no restrictions on wearing the hijab or any other religious or cultural attire.” The Olympic Village becomes home to most of the 10,000 athletes who attend the Olympic Games, where they share common spaces such as dining halls and recreational facilities.
Furthemore, The IOC stated that athletes are subject to the rules of their sporting federations during the Olympic Games. “For sporting competitions at Paris 2024, the wearing of the hijab is dependent on the competition regulations set by the relevant International Federation (IF). Paris 2024 organizers said that rules concerning the wearing of the hijab in French sport extended “far beyond” their jurisdiction, adding that their responsibility is to welcome athletes from around the world in the best possible conditions. 7
The French Sports minister’s decision provoked strong criticism internationally. On 27th September, The United Nations Rights Office spokeswoman Marta Hurtado said in a statement said that no one should impose on a woman what to wear or not to wear.8
The Riyadh-based Islamic Solidarity Sports Federation (ISSF) which represents 59 countries denounced on its social media channels the Olympic hijab ban as infringing religious freedom and barring Muslim participation.9. It stated that the ban contradicts the principle of equality, inclusivity and cultural diversity which is at the very core of what the Olympics stands. The hijab as an aspect of many Muslim women’s identity must be respected. According to the statement, the ban “not only infringes upon the religious freedom of French Muslim athletes but could also deny them the opportunity to participate in the Olympics, representing their country and inspiring others. “The statement claimed that the ban was an attack on sportswomen from around the world, not just Muslim athletes hoping to represent France at Paris 2024.10
The FIFA also expressed concerns that the prohibition may prevent some Muslim female athletes from competing in Paris 2024.11 In 2014, the FIFA lifted its own 2007 ban on hijabs during matches after deeming the initial restriction discriminatory.12
The decision of banning hijab in the 2024 Olympics comes at a time when France is already under scrutiny for its ban on abayas in schools.
Abaya ban in French Schools
On August 28, 2022, the 34-year-old newly appointed France’s Minister of National Education and Youth Gabriel Attal announced the ban on the abaya, a long loose-fitting robe traditionally worn by some Muslim women, in public schools. This ban also targets the qamis (loose dress worn by men). Attal declared that the ban upholds France’s secularism (laïcité) against conspicuous religious symbols.13
The French Council of Muslim Faith (CFCM), the national representative body of Islam condemned the ban and said that the items of clothing alone were not “a religious sign”.14. It warned that banning the garments could create “an elevated risk of discrimination” and said it was considering lodging a court complaint against the decision of the Minister of Education.15
On August 31, Action for the Rights of Muslims (ADM)16 filed a motion with the State Council seeking an injunction against the ban on the ground it is discriminatory and can incite hatred against Muslims.17 Vincent Brengarth, the lawyer of ADM argued that the abaya should be considered a traditional garment, not a religious one. He also accused the French government of seeking political advantage with the ban.
On 4th September, nearly 300 school girls defied the ban and refused to remove their abayas on the first day of the French school year.. On 5th September Gabriel Attal in one of his interviews on BFM TV said that most of the students agreed to change their garments but 67 refused and were sent home.18
On 6th September, students and teachers at the Maurice Utrillo High School in Stains near Paris staged a strike opposing what they called an “Islamophobic” abaya ban. The statement of the protest group read: “We want to distance ourselves from the government’s Islamophobic policy,” read a statement from the protest group.19
On 7th September, the Council of State rejected the ADM’s argument by saying that wearing the garments “follows the logic of religious affirmation”. The ban was based on French law, which did not allow anyone wearing visible signs of any religious affiliation in schools, the Council said. The government ban did not, the Council added, cause “serious or illegal harm to the respect for personal lives, freedom of religion, the right to education, the wellbeing of children or the principle of non-discrimination”. 20 Vincent Bergranth described the decision as very unmotivated and simply endorsing the government’s position.21
According to French sociologist, Agnes De Feo, the ban is going to hurt Muslims in general and they will feel stigmatised., “ It’s a shame because people will judge these young girls while it [the abaya] is a teenage expression without consequences.”22
Loubna Regui, president of the ELF(Etudiants Musulmans de France ) https://x.com/EMFasso?s=20 -Muslim Students of France described the ban as “inherently racist” and targeting immigrants.25
While the CFCM insists that the garment has no religious meaning, the government spokesman Olivier Veran on the other hand described the abaya as “obviously” religious and “a political attack, a political sign”. He deemed the wearing of the abaya to be an act of “proselytising”26
To enforce the abaya ban, Gabriel Attal has announced that 14,000 educational personnel in leadership positions would be trained by the end of this year to deal with enforcement and other issues in upholding secularism, and 300,000 personnel would be trained by 2025.29
According to a poll conducted by IFOP in September 2023 , 81% of French people support the ban on the abaya and consider its “religious character” undeniable.30
On September 4, 2023, Ali Al-Qaradaghi, the Secretary-General of the Qatar-funded International Union of Muslim Scholars (IUMS), published a post on X platform, formerly known as Twitter, , in which he described the ban of the abaya as a “racist policy” and a “step in the wrong direction.” Adding that “it would be difficult to imagine banning clothing that represents the religious identity of a specific group without discriminating against this group.”31
Moroccan Islamic scholar and former president of the IUMS, Ahmad Al-Raysouni, published on September 3 on the IUMS website an article titled “Shaken Secularism,”,32 in which he argues that France “is fearful for its shaken secularism… and works to protect it from anything that carries the scent of Islam”.
Sheikh Muhammad Al-Saghir, a Turkey-based Egyptian cleric, and a former Member of Parliament in the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt, on 6th September, accused France of waging war on Islam. In a video released on the X platform, he said, “France raises the banner of anti-Islam by tightening control over mosques, associations, centres, expelling imams, and combatting religious practices.33
Paris-based cleric Cheikh Zakaria Seddiki, the director of La Maison Des Savoirs, declared that the ban goes against the principles of the French state, where secularism, as they claim, is the separation of religion and state.34
Abdallah Ben Mansour, the former head of the Federation of Islamic Organizations in Europe, considered the ban as a part of an ongoing campaign against Islam, and as a distraction from France’s economic problems, as well as an attempt to cover up its failure to address other pressing issues.35
The Secretary-General of the United Nations, António Guterres on 19th September implicitly opposed the abaya ban in French schools. Addressing representatives of states worldwide, e Guteress spoke in French and stated: “In some countries, women and girls are punished for wearing too much clothing. In others, because they don’t wear enough.”36
Along the same line, the UN Human Rights Committee has listed this restriction among its “principal subjects of concern and recommendations”. It has also ruled in favour of women who wear the niqab, hence challenging the legislation taken by several European countries to ban it37
Ahmed Shaheed, the expert appointed by the UN to promote religious freedom, considered French laws on religious clothing to be “Islamophobic.” His report on the subject, entitled “Combating Islamophobia” (2021), echoed the Programme of Action of the powerful Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC).38
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR) has also condemned France’s bans on abayas in schools and hijabs at the 2024 Olympics. On 26th September 2023, CAIR sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken, urging the U.S. government to forcefully denounce these policies violating religious freedom. CAIR Director Robert S. McCaw said France’s intolerance towards its Muslim citizens demands international action. He argued the U.S. should compel France to respect the rights of all citizens, including Muslims, and investigate its recurrent breaches of religious liberties. CAIR highlighted discriminatory restrictions on Muslim expression leading to inequality. It called for inclusive policies respecting France’s diverse society.39
It’s yet to be seen how the abaya ban will affect French Muslims, who make up about 10 per of the French population 40 and the students.
France Insoumise is a democratic socialist, a left-wing populist political party in France, launched on 10 February 2016 by Jean-Luc Mélenchon, then a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) and former co-president of the Left Party (PG). It aims to implement the ecosocialist programme L’Avenir en commun ( “A Shared Future”) La France Insoumise formed a parliamentary group of 17 members of the National Assembly, with Mélenchon as the group’s president. In the 2019 European Parliament election, it however only won six seats, below its expectations. ↩