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2024 Olympics: Why France bans veiled athletes

September 28, 2023

The next Olympic host nation has been embroiled in a debate around head coverings, even though no high-level French athletes wear them. It has become an increasingly thorny subject in a number of sports.

Hijab Frauenfussball
Les Hijabeuses lost their appeal to play football wearing the hijab in JuneImage: BERTRAND GUAY/AFP/Getty Images

France insists that none of its athletes will be allowed to wear the hijab, or any religious items, during the Olympic Games in Paris next year. The reiteration of national policy comes even though no top-level French athletes wear the head covering. Sports minister Amelie Oudea-Castera confirmed last weekend that no member of the country's delegation will be allowed to wear a veil because of France's strict policy of secularism in public life.

"That means a ban on any type of proselytizing. That means absolute neutrality in public services," Oudea-Castera told France 3 television. "The France team will not wear the headscarf."

IOC: Hijab is allowed in the Olympic Village

In response to a set of questions from DW, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) stated that athletes are only subject to the rules of their sporting federations at 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). In the Olympic Village, athletes are free to wear the Hijab at any time," an IOC spokesperson wrote.

The French sports ministry told DW: "In order to apply this constitutional principle, members of the French teams cannot express their opinions and religious beliefs. Thus, one cannot wear the veil (or any other accessory or outfit demonstrating religious affiliation) when representing France in a national or international sporting competition."

Paris 2024 organizers told DW that rules concerning the wearing of the hijab in French sport extended "far beyond" their jurisdiction, adding: "Our responsibility is to welcome athletes from around the world in the best possible conditions."  

Why is the hijab a political issue in France?

French law maintains strict secularism, and the issue of religious dress goes to the heart of that. These laws are intended to keep the state neutral in religious matters while guaranteeing citizens the right to freely practice their religion in private. They prohibit wearing religious symbols in some contexts, such as in state schools and by civil servants. It outlawed full-face coverings in 2010.

This year has also seen the ban on the abaya, a loose-fitting dress often worn by Muslim women, in schools.

In June, the Conseil d'Etat (Council of State) affirmed a law banning the hijab in football after a pressure group called Les Hijabeuses and the Human Rights League filed for it to be overturned.

The Council of State supported the FFF's (the French Football Federation) ban and stated that it "is appropriate and proportionate."

Les hijabeuses called the decision "shocking," adding that it legitimized "violence against women, against Islam, which exists in French society" by excluding those women.

No discrimination against women – UN

The United Nations Human Rights Office spoke out against the French law's discriminatory effects against women this week.

"No one should impose on a woman what she needs to wear or not wear," said the organization's spokeswoman, Marta Hurtado.

She stressed that the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women ruled out discriminatory practices.

"Any state party to the convention, in this case France, has an obligation to ... modify social or cultural patterns which are based on the idea of the inferiority or superiority of either sex," Hurtado said.

"Discriminatory practices against a group can have harmful consequences," she pointed out.

Nouhaila Benzina / Marokko / Frauen FIFA
Nouhaila Benzina was the first woman to wear a Hijab at the World CupImage: James Ross/AAP/IMAGO

Hijab in football

Morocco's Nouhaila Benzina became the first woman to wear the hijab at the FIFA Women's World Cup this year. She played for the Atlas Lionesses, who reached the second round at their first-ever World Cup in Australia and New Zealand.

But it was not long ago that football governing body FIFA lifted its ban on the hijab, declaring it safe to wear during football matches. This came after a Canadian teenager was stopped from playing in a Hijab in 2007. The Iranian women's national team had also been stopped from playing an Olympic qualifier in Jordan in 2011.

Hijab at the Olympics

US fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad is the most high-profile athlete to have worn the hijab at the Olympic Games. She won a bronze medal in Team Sabre at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro wearing the head covering, which made her a leading voice for diversity and equality in sport.

Other sports disciplines that allow the hijab include weightlifting, taekwondo, volleyball and athletics.

Ibtihaj Muhammad
Ibtihaj Muhammad won a bronze medal in Fencing for the US in 2016Image: Jason Getz/USA TODAY Network/IMAGO

Additional reporting: Jonathan Crane. 

Edited by: Matt Pearson