U.N. criticizes French move to bar Olympians from wearing headscarves


A U.N. body has criticized France’s ban on its Olympic athletes wearing headscarves at the 2024 Paris Games, amplifying the debate over religious expression in a country with a long history of restricting Islamic dress in the name of secularism.

When asked about the decision during a news conference Tuesday, Sept. 26, 2023,  in Geneva, a spokeswoman for the U.N. human rights office said, “No one should impose on a woman what she needs to wear or not wear.”

“Discriminatory practices against a group can have harmful consequences,” Marta Hurtado said, noting that under international human rights law, “restrictions of expressions of religions or beliefs” are “only acceptable under really specific circumstances,” such as public health or safety.

French Sports Minister Amélie Oudéa-Castéra told a news program Sunday that those competing for France in the Olympics next year would not be permitted to wear hijabs at the event.

The government’s “regime of strict secularism” is “strictly applied to the field of sport,” Oudéa-Castéra said, according to French media.

The Olympic restriction echoes the French soccer federation’s ban on hijabs, which the French Council of State upheld in June.

Critics have condemned these policies as discriminatory and say they foment Islamophobia, while the government has defended them as critical to maintaining national unity and curbing perceived threats of religious influence on society. When the Summer Olympics return to France for the first time in a century in July, they will offer an international stage for the country to project its identity to the world, an identity that the government is increasingly defining by the principles of secularism.

France has repeatedly focused on Islamic dress in its efforts to limit the presence of religion in public life. Such efforts are tied to the French idea of “laïcité” – translated as “secularism” – which is enshrined in the constitution.

Hijabs have been prohibited in state-run schools since 2004, when a law banned “ostentatious” religious symbols, which also applies to items such as crosses and turbans. In 2010, France became the first European country to ban full face coverings, including niqabs, in public areas. Last month, it banned abayas, the long robes worn by some Muslim women, in public schools.

These policies are particularly influential in France, which has the highest number of Muslims of any country in Europe, making up about 10 percent of its population, according to government data.

John Bowen, an anthropology professor at Washington University in Saint Louis and the author of “Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves: Islam, the State, and Public Space,” traces the spirit behind these bans to at least 1789, when he said Catholics were seen as a political threat to the French state. The opposition to displays of religion “is about a visible source of ideological challenges to the unity of the Republic,” he said in an email.

“Public space meant, and means, rival claims to national unity, not just being outdoors,” he added. The ban at the Olympics “is about representing France publicly.”

The French constitution protects freedom of religion, but it is different from U.S. secularism, which “focuses on individual freedom of religion whereas French laïcité focuses on collective freedom from religious institutions,” according to a 2021 report in Foreign Policy.

In response to a French bill that would have banned hijabs at all sporting events but failed to pass last year, Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer and the first Muslim American woman to wear a hijab while competing at the Olympics, wrote on Instagram that “every woman should have the choice to wear what she wants and the opportunity to play sports, regardless of her faith.”

“Challenging us on hijab only strengthens our resolve to wear it,” she said.



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