Blog Post

UN Criticizes France’s Ban on Athletes Wearing Headscarves at the Olympics

The UN Human Rights Office is the latest body to condemn France’s decision to ban Olympic athletes from wearing headscarves at the 2024 Paris Games.

On September 26, in response to the ban, Marta Hurtado, a spokeswoman for the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, said “[n]o one should impose on a woman what she needs to wear, or not wear.” Hurtado noted that under international human rights law “restrictions of expressions of religions or beliefs such as attire choices are only acceptable under really specific circumstances” such as public safety or health. This condemnation comes days after France’s minister for sport Amélie Oudéa-Castéra said French athletes will not be allowed to wear hijabs at the Paris Olympics.

The ban was first approved in January 2022, when the French Senate voted to ban sports players from wearing headscarves during competitions. While the vote received an outpouring of public critique, it was not the first time the country has been criticized for restricting religious freedoms. Religious symbols have been banned in French public schools since 2004. Face veils are not permitted in public areas, and last month, the country enacted a ban on abayas (long, robe-like dresses worn by some Muslim women) in public schools.

The contentious restriction is not commonplace in the sports world. In 2012, FIFA, football’s governing body, lifted its ban allowing players to wear head covers for religious reasons during matches. On September 29, the International Olympic Committee (the “IOC”) confirmed athletes can wear a hijab in the Paris 2024 Olympic Games athletes' village without any restriction. "For the Olympic Village, the IOC rules apply … there are no restrictions on wearing the hijab or any other religious or cultural attire," said an IOC spokesperson. The IOC confirmed that it is working with the French National Olympic and Sports Committee to better understand the ban.

The Olympic stage is no stranger to sociopolitical protests and with the world as its captive audience, athletes have historically made public demonstrations during the games. Will athletes, other international sports federations, or the IOC put pressure on France to reverse the ban? We will have to wait and see.