SARCELLES, France — Every time Mama Diakité heads to soccer game, her stomach is in knots.
It happened again on a recent Saturday afternoon in Sarcelles, a northern suburb of Paris. Her amateur team had come to face the local club, and Diakité, a 23-year-old Muslim midfielder, feared she would not be allowed to play in her hijab.
This time, the referee let her in. “It worked,” she said at the end of the game, leaning against the fence bordering the field, her smiling face wrapped in a black Nike head scarf.
But Diakité had only fallen through the cracks.
For years, France’s soccer federation has banned players participating in competitions from wearing conspicuous religious symbols such as hijabs, a rule it contends is in keeping with the organization’s strict secular values. Although the ban is loosely enforced at the amateur level, it has hung over Muslim women’s players for years, shattering their hopes of professional careers and driving some away from the game altogether.
In an ever more multicultural France, where women’s soccer is booming, the ban has also sparked a growing backlash. At the forefront of the fight is Les Hijabeuses, a group of young hijab-wearing soccer players from different teams who have joined forces to campaign against what they describe as a discriminatory rule that excludes Muslim women from sports.
Their activism has touched a nerve in France, reviving heated debates on the integration of Muslims in a country with a tortured relationship with Islam, and highlighting the struggle of French sports authorities to reconcile their defense of strict secular values with growing calls for greater representation on the field.
“What we want is to be accepted as we are, to implement these grand slogans of diversity, inclusiveness,” said Founé Diawara, the president of Les Hijabeuses, which has 80 members. “Our only desire is to play soccer.”
The Hijabeuses collective was created in 2020 with the help of researchers and community organizers in an attempt to solve a paradox: Although French laws and FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, allow sportswomen to play in hijabs, France’s soccer federation prohibits it, arguing that it would break with the principle of religious neutrality on the field.
Supporters of the ban say hijabs portend an Islamist radicalization taking over sports. But the personal stories of Hijabeuses members emphasize how soccer has been synonymous with emancipation — and how the ban continues to feel like a step backward.
Diakité began playing soccer at age 12, initially hiding it from her parents, who saw soccer as a boys’ sport. “I wanted to be a professional soccer player,” she said, calling it “a dream.”
Jean-Claude Njehoya, her current coach, said that “when she was younger, she had a lot of skills” that could have propelled her to the highest level. But “from the moment” she understood the hijab ban would impact her, he said, “she didn’t really push herself further.”
Diakité said she decided on her own to wear the hijab in 2018 — and to give up her dream. She now plays for a third-division club and plans to open a driving school. “No regret,” she said. “Either I’m accepted as I am, or I’m not. And that’s it.”
Karthoum Dembele, a 19-year-old midfielder who wears a nose ring, also said she had to confront her mother to be allowed to play. She quickly joined a sports-intensive program in middle school and participated in club tryouts. But it wasn’t until she learned about the ban, four years ago, that she realized she may no longer be allowed to compete.
“I had managed to make my mother give in and I’m told the federation won’t let me play,” Dembele said. “I told myself: What a joke!”
Other members of the group recalled episodes when referees barred them from the field, prompting some, feeling humiliated, to quit soccer and turn to sports where hijabs are allowed or tolerated, like handball or futsal.
Throughout last year, Les Hijabeuses lobbied the French soccer federation to overturn the ban. They sent letters, met with officials and even staged a protest at the federation’s headquarters — to no avail. The federation declined to comment for this article.
Paradoxically, it was Les Hijabeuses’ staunchest opponents who finally put them in the spotlight.
In January, a group of conservative senators tried to enshrine the soccer federation’s hijab ban in law, arguing that hijabs threatened to spread radical Islam in sports clubs. The move reflected a lingering malaise in France regarding the Muslim veil, which regularly stirs controversy. In 2019, a French store dropped a plan to sell a hijab designed for runners after a barrage of criticism.
Energized by the senators’ efforts, Les Hijabeuses waged an intense lobbying campaign against the amendment. Making the most of their strong social media presence — the group has nearly 30,000 followers on Instagram — they launched a petition that gathered more than 70,000 signatures; rallied dozens of sport celebrities to their cause; and organized games before the Senate building and with professional athletes.
Vikash Dhorasoo, a former France midfielder who attended a game, said the ban left him dumbfounded. “I just don’t get it,” he said. “It’s the Muslims who are targeted here.”
Stéphane Piednoir, the senator behind the amendment, denied the accusation that the legislation was aimed at Muslims specifically, saying its focus was all conspicuous religious signs. But he acknowledged that the amendment had been motivated by the wearing of the Muslim veil, which he called “a propaganda vehicle” for political Islam and a form of “visual proselytizing.” (Piednoir also has condemned the display of the Catholic tattoos of the P.S.G. star Neymar as “unfortunate” and wondered if the religious ban should extend to them.)
The amendment was eventually rejected by the government’s majority in parliament, although not without frictions. The Paris police banned a protest organized by Les Hijabeuses, and the French sports minister, who said the law allows hijab-wearing women to play, clashed with government colleagues opposing the head scarf.
The Hijabeuses’ fight may not be a popular one in France, where six in 10 people support banning hijabs in the street, according to a recent survey by the polling firm CSA. Marine Le Pen, the far-right presidential candidate who will face President Emmanuel Macron in a runoff vote on April 24 — with a shot at a final victory — has said that if elected, she will ban the Muslim veil in public spaces.
But, on the soccer field, everyone seems to agree that hijabs should be allowed.
“Nobody minds if they play with it,” said Rana Kenar, 17, a Sarcelles player who had come to watch her team face Diakité’s club on a bitterly cold February evening.
Kenar was sitting in the bleachers with about 20 fellow players. All said they saw the ban as a form of discrimination, noting that, at the amateur level, the ban was loosely enforced.
Even the referee of the game in Sarcelles, who had let Diakité play, seemed at odds with the ban. “I looked the other away,” he said, declining to give his name for fear of repercussions.
Pierre Samsonoff, the former deputy head of the soccer federation’s amateur branch, said the issue would inevitably come up again in the coming years, with the development of women’s soccer and the hosting of the 2024 Olympics in Paris, which will feature veiled athletes from Muslim countries.
Samsonoff, who initially defended banning the hijab, said he had since softened his stance, acknowledging the policy could end up ostracizing Muslim players. “The issue is whether we are not creating worse consequences by deciding to ban it on the fields than by deciding to allow it,” he said.
Piednoir, the senator, said the players were ostracizing themselves. But he acknowledged never having spoken with any hijab-wearing athletes to hear their motivations, comparing the situation to “firefighters” being asked to go “listen to pyromaniacs.”
Dembele, who manages the Hijabeuses’ social media accounts, said she was often struck by the violence of online comments and the fierce political opposition.
“We hold on,” she said. “It’s not just for us, it’s also for the young girls who tomorrow will be able to dream of playing for France, for P.S.G.”
Monique Jaques contributed reporting.