You really could not make this up.
In France, Muslim women using their agency, and exercising their human rights to wear whatever they choose to wear, is deemed a safety risk. France’s attempt to apparently liberate and save Muslim women from ourselves and our headscarves is a racist and colonial project dressed up as upholding the country’s secular values. The project heaps Islamophobic harm on Muslim women.
Indeed, it is misogynistic and hateful to force women to remove hijab – as much as it is misogynistic and hateful to force women to wear hijab.
In just two years, France is also hosting the Olympics, meant to bring nations together in a united show of inclusivity on the world stage. A divisive and discriminatory hijab ban only shines a further spotlight on how ill at ease France is with building a modern multiculturalism state.
The proposed law will now be revised by the National Assembly, which is expected to have the final word. All of which means that, for now, Muslim women playing sports in hijab have been given extra time to do so with the bill prevented from being passed in its current state.
The attempts to ban Muslim women from wearing hijab while playing sports is viewed by many Muslim women and activists I’ve spoken to as taking a page straight out of the Afghan Taliban and Iranian regime’s playbook by denying women their own agency. This ban is viewed as being about much more than denying women the right to play sports, if that was not outrageous enough.
The sports hijab ban is about further dehumanizing, minimizing and erasing French Muslim women who choose to wear hijab. It makes Muslim women targets of state-sanctioned gendered Islamophobia and right-wing hate.
Our campaign made headlines in the UK and received global media attention. However, if we were three French Muslim women, we likely would not have been permitted to enter the country’s mainstream public or political space in the same way – simply because we wear hijab.
I was told I could not enter the parliament building because of my hijab. I explained that I was a journalist, there to interview a politician. Yes, I’m a Muslim woman wearing hijab, but I’m also British – “I’m as British as fish and chips,” I told the receptionist in the hope she would understand that my hijab was irrelevant to how I do my job. The receptionist looked horrified and confused and then told me I could proceed for my interview.
In Europe, there is a tried-and-tested winning formula for politicians hoping to appeal to voters on the right-wing fringes ahead of national elections. And that involves turning Muslim women and our clothing choices into a political football. Many a populist European politician in Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Denmark, Netherlands and Switzerland, and of course France, has used this tactic as a way of attracting voters. They delve into Muslim women’s wardrobes and pull out hijab, niqab and burqa as exhibits supposedly threatening the very fabric of western values and way of life.
In France, we have of course been here before. Multiple times. In 2004, France banned the wearing of hijab in schools alongside Christian crosses and the yarmulkes, worn by observant Jews. The ban was imposed, so the state said, on the grounds that state institutions are supposed to be “religiously neutral.”
In 2016, authorities across 15 towns and municipalities across France banned the “burkini” – an all-in-one modest swimsuit that covers the whole body except the face. Again, the ban was imposed to supposedly uphold France’s secular values.
The post attracted widespread criticism from Muslim women and others pointing out the double standard of a white, wealthy, famous, American actress being praised for wearing a headscarf as a fashion choice – while a French Muslim woman choosing to wear a headscarf in her own country faces restrictions on her life choices and movements and possibly being fined and criminalized by the state. Vogue France later deleted the Instagram post.
This is the hypocrisy that France must grapple with. Denying Muslim women our rights in the name of upholding so called neutrality is a fig leaf for further mainstreaming anti-Muslim bigotry and misogyny against Muslim women. French Muslim women are simply not standing for it anymore, and neither are many more Muslim women outside of France. We are collectively calling time on this racism and Islamophobia.
Football and sports belong to all of us – however we choose to dress. Let Us Play.