Founé Diawara was 15 years old when she was first told she could not wear her hijab in a football match.
It was an important game. She had recently got into the team of a club in Meaux, the town north-east of Paris where she grew up, and they were playing a local rival. Diawara had been wearing her hijab during training, but as she was about to walk on to the pitch, the referee said she must remove it if she wanted to play.
The French football federation (FFF), football’s governing body in France, bans women from wearing the hijab in official club matches, as well as during international games. It is a rule that is out of step with football’s international governing body, Fifa, which lifted its hijab ban in 2014.
Diawara refused to take her hijab off. “It’s in accordance with my beliefs,” she says. “It’s something that I choose to wear.” The referee refused to budge. She spent the match on the bench, watching her team play without her.
Now 21, and studying for a master’s in Paris, Diawara said the encounter left her feeling angry and as if she did not belong. “I was trapped between my passion [for football] and something that is a huge part of my identity. It’s like they tried to tell me that I had to choose between the two,” she says.
Diawara has channelled her anger into action and is co-president of Les Hijabeuses, a collective of young hijab-wearing female footballers campaigning against the FFF’s ban as part of a wider battle to promote a more inclusive society in France, which has seen a rise in far-right groups and Islamophobia.
Formed in May 2020 by community organisers from the Citizen’s Alliance, which campaigns against social injustices in France, the Paris-based Hijabeuses now has more than 100 members. They play football together, connect with other teams across France and put on training sessions to encourage other young hijab-wearing women to get into football.
Les Hijabeuses are like family for Hawa Doucouré, 19, who studies computer science at university. “They push me and encourage me,” she says. Football has always been a big part of her life: she plays with her family every Saturday afternoon and loves watching matches. “But as a woman, I never really went ahead and [played for a club], so when I discovered the Hijabeuses, it was a way for me to start playing,” she says.
Leïla Kellou, another Hijabeuses member, says her Algerian and French heritage is responsible for the “strong love of football in my blood”. The 29-year-old, who works at the TV station Canal+, began wearing the hijab at 19 because “it was the natural path for my spiritual and personal conviction”. She does not understand why some people in France believe that Muslim women are forced to wear the hijab, yet refuse to listen to the perspectives of “the actual people wearing the hijab”.
For many players, Les Hijabeuses feels like a refuge. Karthoum Dembélé, an 18-year-old student in digital communications, joined the group to “be part of their campaign and play freely without fearing anything happening to me”.
Her older brother was the one to spark her interest in football: “I thought if he can play, so can I.” When she started playing with him, it was difficult at first being the only girl, she says, but she persevered. “I love everything about football; I love the competition and I love to win. I like sharing all these emotions together.”
Dembélé describes the group as being “a safe space” for her. “There’s a lot of kindness between all the players. We share a lot, we laugh a lot.” She would like to become a professional footballer, but if the FFF ban continues, there will be a moment where “I won’t be able to go any further,” she says.
Bouchra Chaïb’s favourite position is goalkeeper. The 27-year-old midwife from Saint-Denis in the north of Paris is the other Hijabeuses co-president. She plays football whenever she has the chance and says when she plays, she is “not a woman wearing a hijab playing football, just a woman who loves football”.
Chaïb discovered Les Hijabeuses after a bad experience playing a match for her club. Chaïb wears a headguard, similar to ones worn in rugby, which covers most of her hair and is usually allowed, even under FFF rules. However, before the match the referee told her to take it off and would not let her explain why she had to wear it. She felt humiliated and scared. “It was really frightening,” she says.
Her coach persuaded the referee to let Chaïb play. But after the match, she went online to find others who had had similar experiences, which is when she found Les Hijabeuses.
The group’s aim, says Chaïb, is that all women “whatever they believe or whatever they wear or whatever their background, can play freely without being stigmatised and without having to mentally prepare themselves to go into battle – because this is what it feels like”.
The FFF declined a request for comment and instead pointed to its statutes and a guide that set out the organisation’s commitments to neutrality, nondiscrimination and laïcité. Laïcité, which loosely translates as secularism, originally meant the separation of church and state in France but has come to denote the neutrality of the state to all religions.
In the last two decades this has manifested itself in the banning of religious symbols, including prohibiting the hijab in state schools. In 2011, France became the first European country to ban women from wearing a niqab, or full-face veil, outside their homes. A controversial bill is going through parliament, which includes a ban on women under the age of 18 wearing the hijab in public places. Critics argue that the law would curtail civil liberties and further stigmatise France’s estimated 5.7 million Muslims.
“They are treating us like children,” says Doucouré of the law, “like we don’t have a brain, like we can’t talk or think for ourselves”. Chaïb says the government thinks they are “heroes”, saving Muslim women from the hijab.
Les Hijabeuses and a community organiser for the Citizen’s Alliance, which helped set up the group
Despite the uphill battle, Les Hijabeuses remain committed to changing the perception of hijab-wearing women, one football match at a time. “We’re not trying to promote our religion,” says Diawara. “We’re just here because we love football, like anyone else. It’s just about the game.”