Muslim women have continuously been oppressed by a country that lectures so-called secularism through its political academia and sports.
The ban on hijabs for French athletes at the 2024 Olympic Games is the latest attack in France’s decades-long war against Islamic-related garments, and the decision has once again placed Paris in the line of fire for its relentless targeting of Muslim women in particular.
“The France team will not wear the headscarf,” Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera said during her televised address, pointing towards upholding the principles of secularism as the main reason for the decision.
Despite the shocking move, the move comes as no surprise.
Experts say the French state’s obsession with controlling what Muslim women wear is not new, as the country has prohibited several Islamic garments – from burqas to hijabs and even the burkinis – citing secularism as the motive in all cases.
Upholders of French civil affairs like Castera or President Emmanuel Macron have claimed that ‘Laïcité’ or secularism is vital to the French political and social fabric.
However, for decades, concerns have been raised that such principles have unfairly targeted and alienated Muslims in France, which ironically houses the largest Muslim population in Europe.
Responding to the ban, Sports journalist Shireen Ahmed told Doha News that France has an “unparalleled commitment to hating Muslim women.”
Speaking at a panel conference on Islamophobia in Doha, Ahmed said, “I don’t actually think it was radical. I think it was actually predictable of France. They have an unparalleled commitment to hating Muslim women and to really being draconian in such a specific and very terrible way.”
“They’re threatened by the power and possibility of sport, which is so problematic. And I mean, I think that we’ll see conversations more and more about it because I still don’t see enough,” Ahmed added.
The award-winning sports journalist suggested France’s focus on French women in particular exposes cracks in its own reasonings.
“If you think about it, they weren’t able to ban all Muslim women, so they banned their own. How is that egalite? How is that liberte? How is that fraternite?” she questioned.
“There’s an insecurity in their own national identity,” Ahmed added.
Liberté, égalité, fraternité
France’s national motto is “liberté, égalité, fraternité” a proclamation intended on embracing all citizens regardless of their faith. However, the expression has appeared to take its grip on Muslims in recent decades, particularly after the North African decolonisation in the 1960s.
The increase of migrants from North Africa to France, led primarily by French officials keen on producing a desperately needed workforce, led to a new generation of French-born Muslims of Arab and African descent.
By 1989, murmurs on the hijab formed into full blown conversations on the national level after one particular incident.
According to an archived report by The New York Times, the debate over Islamic women’s rights was initiated after a school principal told three Muslim teenagers that they could not attend school if they wore the hijab.
Ultimately, the discussion led to then-Education Minister Lionel Jospin, who eventually became France’s Prime Minister, deciding that Muslim students should be “persuaded” to take off their hijabs, as any force would violate religious discrimination laws.
However, nearly a decade later, the French Senate approved a bill prohibiting the wearing of “conspicuous” religious symbols in state schools, paving the way for the 2010 ban on full-face veils, or niqabs.
“This year marks the 20th anniversary of the initial hijab bans in French schools, and it’s troubling to see the Olympics becoming the latest battleground. The recent ban on the ‘abaya’ in public schools, which is now been claimed as a religious emblem, serves as an example of the targeted character of these moves against Islam,” acclaimed British-Iraqi Filmmaker Saoud Khalaf told Doha News.
He said definitions of religious symbols should not be governed by the French government but by relevant religious authorities.
“The determination of what constitutes a religious sign should rightfully remain in the custody of the relevant religious authority; it is not within the scope of the state to impose such guidelines. The French Council of the Muslim Faith (CFCM) has unequivocally stated that the abaya is not a religious symbol,” Khalaf adds.
Addressing the Olympic ban, the British-Iraqi filmmaker said recent measures could pave the way for more anti-Muslim racism in Europe or even the world.
“What if the next phase of France’s marginalisation mission involves banning the hijab for all athletes at the Olympics? Would this lead to a stronger, more coordinated global push to persuade them to reverse their xenophobic policies?
“It shouldn’t require such extreme measures for a strong and concerted global movement to dismantle this authoritarian control over women’s bodies,” Khalaf told Doha News.
“We Muslims have long been conscious of the institutionalised discrimination we can experience in any public setting. This ban doesn’t come as a shock to many Muslims; it’s simply the next part of the progression of anti-Muslim racism in Europe. It will be up to us to stand up for our honour and rights, and no gold medal will ever be worth more to us than our faith,” the filmmaker added.
Condemning without action?
The International Olympic Committee (IOC), along with the United Nations (UN), have both condemned the decision of Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera, but no actual intervention has yet been taken.
Just days after the sports minister’s decision was publicised, the IOC clarified that athletes at the Olympic games would be allowed to wear the hijab in the athletes’ village. Despite this, French athletes must adhere to the ban from their government while playing the games.
“For the Olympic Village, the IOC rules apply. There are no restrictions on wearing the hijab or any other religious or cultural attire,” an IOC spokesperson clarified.
UN Human Rights Office official, Marta Hurtado also weighed in on the issue stating: “According to international human right standards, restrictions of expressions of religions or beliefs such as attire choices are only acceptable under really specific circumstances that address legitimate concerns for public safety, public order or public health or morals in a necessary and proportionate fashion.”
While the UN Human Rights Committee has long criticiced France’s attacks on Muslim women, it has fallen short of taking action to hold the government responsible for its islamophobic policies.
Hajer Naili, a vocal French Muslim commentator on global issues, including racial and religious discrimination, said every prohibition set by French officials is “sought to erase Muslim women from public life.”
“With each ban and ruling, France’s elected officials have sought to erase Muslim women from public life, first by removing them from public classrooms and now by keeping them away from fields and pitches,” Naili told Doha News.
Citing research from the University of Standford which concluded France’s bans on headscarves in public schools hindered Muslim girls’ ability to finish school, Naili also pointed to the weaponisation of secularism as a method for the French to punish followers of the religion.
“France has weaponised its principle of laicite (secularism) to punish Muslims for who they choose to be and wear. And we, Muslim women in France, are used as cannon fodder,” Naili told Doha News.
“From the ban on hijab in public schools and offices to the ban of niqab in all places and the ban of burkinis and abayas, to name only a few, the list of attacks against Muslim women, under the guise of secularism, is long,” Naili adds.
The former journalist says there needs to be more international pressure from global institutions, specifically the IOC.
“For the Olympic International Committee (IOC) it claims on its website and its charter that non-discrimination has been at the core of the Games. Besides, an IOC representative interviewed last year assured that there will no discrimination at the 2024 Paris Olympic Games and that all athletes will be allowed to compete “whatever their backgrounds or beliefs are and free from fear of any form of discrimination,” Naili stated.
“IOC should immediately urge France to abandon its decision to ban French athletes wearing the hijab and guarantee a safe environment for all Muslim athletes during the 2024 Games in Paris.”
Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sport and Geopolitical Economy at Skema Business School, expressed similar sentiments, stating the French government must explain and be accountable for its actions.
“Outside the specific context of France, this episode does raise issues about how global mega-events and local laws, norms, and customs interact within one another and, notably, whether differences between the two can ever be effectively reconciled,” Chadwick told Doha News.
“The French government must explain and be accountable for its actions, but equally the IOC and other such governors of global sport need to be more proactive and decisive in dealing with such matters.
“After all, the IOC makes the legislative protection of its sponsors a requirement when its awards Olympics hosting rights, so why doesn’t it take a similarly clear and assertive position on the wearing of religious items,” Chadwick added.