Paris, France – Since she was six, Karthoum Dembelé has played football with her older brother and his friends between housing estates in the Parisian banlieues – or suburbs.
Huge football talents have broken out from these neighbourhoods in recent years, including Pogba, Mbappé, and Kanté.
Here, where street football is king, is where Dembelé fell in love with football.
But now, aged 19, her optimism has dimmed.
Not because of a lack of talent or injuries, but because of French politics. As a Muslim woman wearing the hijab, Dembelé is not allowed to play in most sport competitions in France, including football.
The French Football Federation (FFF) maintains a ban on the wearing of “conspicuous religious symbols” despite FIFA lifting its own hijab ban in 2014.
Debates around what Muslim women can or cannot wear have resurfaced lately in France with the controversial “anti-separatism” bill, enacted into French law on August 24.
French MPs tried to use the bill to formally ban the wearing of headscarves in all sport competitions, though this was deemed unconstitutional by lawmakers on June 9.
The bill, proposed by President Emmanuel Macron’s government last year, aims to battle “Islamist extremism” and strengthen “laicite” (secularism), but it has been heavily criticised for leaning into far-right politics ahead of the 2022 national elections, and stigmatising Islam and the estimated 6 million Muslims in France, the most in Europe.
Paris takes over the Olympic relay from Tokyo 2020 for the 2024 Summer Olympic Games and France remains the only country in Europe that excludes hijab-wearing women from playing in most domestic sports competitions.
The law, however, states that in international competitions – such as the Olympics – foreign players with a headscarf can play in France so questions are mounting over why France specifically targets its own hijab-wearing Muslim athletes.
Les Hijabeuses – fighting for inclusivity
There is growing pressure on the FFF to change its rules, amid calls for more representation on the pitch.
The movement is symbolised by a collective called Les Hijabeuses, led by Dembelé and other young hijab-wearing female footballers around Paris.
Last year, a group of researchers and community organisers from the Citizen’s Alliance, who campaign against social injustices in France, founded the collective.
More than a year later, Les Hijabeuses has around 150 members and nearly 5,000 followers on Instagram. They staged a protest at the FFF headquarters on July 23 and have written several letters to FFF President Noël Le Graët, demanding an end to the exclusion of Muslim women – but are yet to receive a reply.
“We are all fighting for more inclusive football, which would integrate all women,” Dembelé told Al Jazeera. “We are trying to make people understand that we are female athletes. It’s not because we wear the hijab that we should be excluded from the pitch.
“For the FFF, now, it’s time to wake up … I think they look more at our faces than our talent.”
One founder, Haïfa Tlili, told Al Jazeera that “the FFF’s position follows the widespread trend in France, which, since the 1990s, has seen an increase in Islamophobic discourse.”
“The problem is that they’re being objectified,” Tlili said, referring to how she believes the FFF rule impacts Muslim female footballers.
“Women no longer want to be seen only as veils, but as footballers.”
‘Forced to choose between hijab and what we love’
The rules have been criticised by some as intentionally vague – a way of perpetuating the exclusion of Muslim athletes.
Ask any player from Les Hijabeuses, and they will recount countless stories of how they have been targeted on the pitch.
Founé Diawara, one of the biggest football talents in the collective, was 15 when she was told by a referee: “Either you take off your hijab and you play, or you stay on the bench.”
“The worst thing is that her coach did not even support her. She was alone,” Dembelé said. “I find it sad because we are forced to choose every time, between our hijab and what we love, between our dignity and just wanting to play a sport.”
The FFF rulebook stipulates that “the wearing of any sign or clothing conspicuously expressing a political, philosophical, religious or trade union affiliation” is forbidden in official games.
But on another page, it mentions that “the wearing of accessories (such as bandanas, hats, etc.) that do not involve proselytising and that comply with health and safety regulations is possible.”
This side-rule has meant that hijab-wearing footballers have had to find subtle ways to play their favourite sport.
Bouchra Chaïb, a 27-year-old midwife and co-president of Les Hijabeuses, says she managed to get a doctor’s certificate claiming that she needed to wear a rugby helmet for health reasons during football matches.
But one day, she walked onto a pitch with her helmet, and a referee stopped her, saying she could not play. Her coach defended her, as Chaïb was too shocked to respond.
“Between you and me, I know why you’re wearing this helmet,” the referee told her.
Chaïb said that the notion of “conspicuous” religious signs was “really vague,” both to players and officials, and could easily be used against Muslim athletes.
According to Rim-Sarah Alouane, an academic researching religious freedom and civil liberties in France, the FFF rulebook is “ambiguous on purpose”.
In a similar manner, the “anti-separatism” bill is filled with “fuzzy terms to justify the restriction of a liberty”, she said.
Authorities “always see Muslims and Islam through the prism of security”, she said – and the hijab is weaponised as a symbolic enemy.
“In France, we still consider diversity a threat, even though football precisely shows that diversity makes us stronger.”
Islamophobia as a gender, race, and class issue
Though the hijab ban may appear solely Islamophobic, experts say that it intersects gender, race, and class issues.
“The first separatism occurred when the state decided to build those big housing estates, to say [to the first wave of immigrants], ‘You’re not part of our population’,” said Alouane.
A 2019 study by the Collective Against Islamophobia in France highlighted how Islamophobia is a form of gendered racism, reporting that 70 percent of anti-Muslim hate crime victims were women. In that same year, another report found that 44.6 percent of the French population considered Muslims a threat to national identity.
Chaïb said she started wearing the hijab at 13, and has been discriminated at school and at work since then, but hoped football would be different.
“In sport, I didn’t think I was going to be lectured about secularism, but I was, and that was a big disappointment.”
She felt “a constant feeling of rejection” that almost made her quit football altogether.
“You have negative feelings that form in you. You feel like doing nothing. You tell yourself: ‘Well I’m not going to sign up here, I’m not going to do this, I’m not going to do that, because I’m going to get excluded, I’m going to get humiliated again,’ so you exclude yourself, from everywhere.”
But the collective and the bond between the women gave her hope.
“You realise that you have your place,” she said, smiling widely. “When I play with the Hijabeuses it’s like playing with sisters.”
On the path to representation
Chaïb was one of the first players to be selected for Les Hijabeuses, and now that the collective is expanding, wants to inspire young Muslim women across the country.
Despite France’s large Muslim population, hijab-wearing women are a rare sight in public life and in sports, because, according to some observers, of the often hostile national conversations regarding Muslims.
“I would love to see a woman wearing a hijab playing football on TV,” Dembelé said. “I find it frustrating to not have representation in football.”
According to sports activist and journalist Shireen Ahmed: “There are generations of women who didn’t bother playing football because they simply couldn’t advance.”
Ahmed, an expert on Islamophobia in sports, says that even though athletes should ideally be seen as more than their outfits, having more hijab-wearing Muslim players helps enormously to normalise diversity in the public eye.
“I’m not advocating for the hijab, I’m advocating for choice,” Ahmed told Al Jazeera. “We’re out here asking women to be their best athletic selves, and we’re not letting them decide their uniforms.”
She pinned blame not only on the FFF but also FIFA for exempting France from its statutes.
“The practice of football itself and the charter, written by FIFA, is actually being broken by France,” Ahmed said. “FIFA also is complicit in that they put up with this.”
In response to a request for comment, a FIFA spokesperson told Al Jazeera: “FIFA continues to monitor the situation regarding the application of the Laws of the Game within member associations.”
The FFF sent a statement to Al Jazeera, saying it “has a public service mission; it applies the laws of the Republic. It upholds and defends the values of secularism, of living together, neutrality and the fight against all forms of discrimination, and does not authorise the display of conspicuous political or religious symbols in the context of the collective and public practice of football and its competitions.”
Roxana Mărăcineanu, the French sports minister, did not comment due to “a very tight agenda”.
“If I was Le Graët [the FFF President], I would be most afraid of these young women,” Ahmed said, “because they will enact change.”
Back on the pitch, Dembelé, ready to play with a ball in her hands, said: “I would like to be this representation [to young girls], to show them that it is possible, and so they will tell themselves: ‘I can do it, I can go far.’”