International Olympic Committee should call on France to overturn hijab ban in advance of Paris 2024

FairSquare has written to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) urging it to publicly call on the French authorities to overturn a ban on its athletes wearing the hijab and to impose sanctions on the hosts of the Paris 2024 Olympics if they fail to do so.

The IOC has clarified that in line with IOC rules, athletes from other nations will not face any restrictions on wearing the hijab, which means that only the host country’s hijab-wearing athletes are excluded from participating at the 2024 games. In its letter (available in English or French), FairSquare drew the IOC’s attention to the fact that the French ban has its origins in articles of the French Football Federation that grossly misrepresent Article 50 of the Olympic Charter, and said that the ban appears to be “part of a disturbing trend towards excluding Muslims from participation in sport in France” under the guise of enforcing ‘political neutrality.’

“The IOC talks about the capacity of the Olympic Games to promote peace and unity, and yet at the same time it has said nothing about the flagrantly divisive actions of France in insisting that many of its female Muslim athletes choose between their religion and their sport,” said Nick McGeehan, co-director of FairSquare. “If the IOC does not speak out against this decision, it could set a dangerous precedent whereby the Olympic charter may be instrumentalised by other states wishing to discriminate on the basis of religious belief.”

In September 2023 French Minister of Sport Amélie Oudéa-Castéra announced in a television interview that the country’s athletes will be barred from wearing the hijab at the forthcoming Paris Olympics, based on France’s “regime of strict secularism”, which she said “means the prohibition of any form of proselytism, the absolute neutrality of public service.” Shortly after Minister Oudéa-Castéra’s announcement, the IOC clarified that there would be no restrictions on cultural or religious attire, including the hijab, for athletes competing at Paris 2024. “For the Olympic Village, the IOC rules apply,” an IOC spokesperson said, explaining that this meant that “there are no restrictions on wearing the hijab or any other religious or cultural attire.”

In her comments, Oudéa-Castéra specifically cited a June 2023 decision from France’s Conseil d’Etat, the country’s highest administrative court, as a key part of the government’s decision to ban athletes wearing the hijab from representing France at the Olympic Games. That case revolved around Article 1 of the Statutes of the French Football Federation (FFF), which was amended in 2015 to prohibit players from wearing “symbols or clothing obviously displaying one’s political, philosophical, religious or trade union views.” In Article 1, the FFF in part justifies this prohibition with reference to Article 50 of the Olympic Charter.  The IOC provision in question only prohibits “political, religious or racial propaganda. [italics added]”

Far from attempting to uphold ‘neutrality’, the French government is actively politicising its sporting bodies and its athletes.

  • In January 2022 French Senators voted in favour of a proposal stipulating that the wearing “of conspicuous religious symbols is prohibited” in all events and competitions organised by sports federations, although this was subsequently rejected by the National Assembly. Amnesty International stated that parliamentary debates on the proposals saw “politicians resort to inflammatory rhetoric and offensive stereotyping that stigmatises Muslim women and often conditions their participation in community sports on unnecessary and disproportionate limitations on their rights to freedom of expression, thought, conscience and religion.” 
  • In December 2022, the French Federation of Basketball (FFBB) introduced into its regulations a ban on “the wearing of any equipment with a religious or political connotation.” As with the case of football, its decision starkly contrasts with the position of the Fédération Internationale de Basketball (FIBA), the sport’s governing body, which overturned a ban on headscarves in 2017. 
  • In March 2024, the French Football Federation announced that players called up by French national teams cannot fast during the period of Ramadan. FFF president Philippe Diallo said in an interview that the new rules reflect the “principle of neutrality” that is written into the organisation’s statutes and that the measures “ensure that religion does not interfere with an athlete.”

In October 2023 six UN human rights experts wrote to the French government expressing their concern that the ban on French athletes wearing the hijab violates the right of Muslim women and girls in France to “participate in sporting life” and may “fuel intolerance and discrimination against them.” 

The IOC states that its mission and role is to “encourage and support the promotion of women in sport at all levels” and “to act against any form of discrimination affecting the Olympic Movement.” Since 1996, when the IOC lifted its ban on athletes wearing the hijab at the Olympics, hijab-wearing athletes have won medals in fencing, weightlifting, and taekwondo, demonstrating the success of the IOC’s reversal in broadening accessibility to sport. Article 59 of the Olympic Charter provides for a wide range of sanctions for violations of its provisions.

Another country that has attracted criticism for imposing restrictions on what its athletes can and cannot wear is Iran, whose compulsory hijab laws affect virtually every aspect of women’s public life in the country, including participation in sport. Human rights groups have repeatedly called on Iran to stop forcing women to wear the veil and have criticised the prosecution of activists who have peacefully protested against the hijab laws, which violate women’s rights to private life, personal autonomy, and freedom of expression, as well as to freedom of religion, thought, and conscience.