Meshkatolzahra Safi may not be a name you know yet, but she broke new ground at the Australian Open this week. The 17-year-old is the first Iranian national to hit the top 100 in the world junior tennis rankings, making history – and global newslines - on Sunday as the first player from Iran to win a match in the main draw of a Grand Slam tournament.
Just five days before Safi’s win in Melbourne, where she played wearing a headscarf, the French senate voted in favour of banning the wearing of hijabs in sports competitions. The amendment, proposed by the right-wing political party Les Republicains, argued that headscarves undermine French values and put the safety of athletes at risk.
Approved by a 160-143 vote in the French Senate, the rule – if implemented – will be catastrophic to the participation of Muslim women in sport in France, and women worldwide. For elite athletes, like Safi, France could instantly become a no-go zone.
Khadijah Mellah, who became the first hijab-wearing jockey to win the Magnolia Cup in 2019, hopes to return to racing in 2022 and dreams of one day competing in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Now, she may have to rethink. “It’s straight-up Islamophobic,” Mellah told the Telegraph. “It causes me as an athlete to think twice about whether I want to train or compete in France. It limits my options which is frustrating. Essentially, it’s dictatorship over women’s bodies and what they can and cannot wear and it’s wrong. I’m lucky I live in the UK and it doesn’t affect me massively but honestly, a lot of talent will be wasted because of this decision.”
France’s war on the hijab is not new, of course. The French Football Federation already bans women from wearing the hijab in matches. Headscarves are prohibited in schools and government buildings.
West Ham United Women’s defender Hawa Cissoko recently made her return to the French national team for their 2023 World Cup Qualifiers and is frustrated about the proposed change in legislation.
“My first thoughts were, ‘What is their problem?’” said Cissoko, who wears the hijab outside of playing football. “They said they did this for equality but where is the equality for Muslim women? Where is our equality in this story?”
Cissoko’s move to London from French team Soyaux in July 2020 saw her recalled to the French national team after a three-year hiatus, but a move to the UK also aided her spiritual journey. Finally, she said, she has freedom of religious expression – something that her fellow female footballers do not have in France.
“I have professional friends in football who would like to wear the hijab but can’t. Now we say that when we stop playing football, we’re going to wear the hijab,” she pauses, and chuckles to herself. “It’s difficult because you have to choose between your faith or your career. In France, we always have to choose.”
It will not only impact individuals like Mellah, or the aspiring tennis players hoping to reach the French Open. For a nation that is set to host the 2024 Olympics, the audacity of seeking to exclude a group of women in this way is shocking. How can Paris open its doors to the best of the world’s sporting talent yet actively reject women for what they choose to wear?
At previous Games, Muslim sportswomen such as American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who won bronze at Rio 2016, and Feryal Abdelaziz, who won Egypt’s first gold medal in Tokyo, lit up the competition. But with this rule, the influence of hijab-wearing Muslim sportswomen is set to be erased for Paris 2024. The International Olympic Committee has so far failed to comment on how this change in legislation could impact athletes, an insult to the ethos the Games promotes.
As a Muslim woman I know the power of sport, and have seen it with the young people I have worked with. But when legislation like this is approved, with no outcry or opposition, it feels like we can never win.
When Muslim women are silent, we are deemed to be victims of our faith, shackled by our hijabs and oppressed. Yet when we speak or take ownership of our choices, we are perceived as if we are enforcing Islam onto the world, or told we do not belong. A woman’s strength and her ability to play are not minimised by the layers she chooses to wear.