The United Nations Rights Office has criticized the French government following the recent declaration by the French sports minister that French athletes will be prohibited from wearing hijabs during the upcoming Paris Olympics due to the country's secularism laws.
Speaking from Geneva, United Nations (UN) spokeswoman Marta Hurtado underscored the importance of not imposing restrictions on women's clothing choices. Her remarks followed the reaffirmation by French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera of the government's position against the display of religious symbols during sports events on Sunday, 24 September.
A United Nations body has criticized France's ban on its athletes wearing the hijab at next year's summer Olympics. https://t.co/2tqGqdevZv
— Reuters Sports (@ReutersSports) September 27, 2023
In a televised interview, Oudea-Castera emphasized that France's stance aimed to uphold the principles of secularism by having a ban on all forms of religious advocacy and the imperative of maintaining absolute neutrality in public services.
Hurtado did not address France's specific position directly but she emphasized the explicit prohibition of discriminatory practices under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, a treaty that France is a signatory to.
Highlighting the treaty's obligations, Hurtado pointed out that countries committed to modifying any social or cultural norms perpetuating the notions of gender-based superiority or inferiority.
The UN spokeswoman clarified that any restrictions on religious attire or expressions must meet stringent criteria and be warranted by legitimate concerns related to public safety, public order, or public health and morals, done so in a necessary and proportionate manner.
France's stringent secularism regulations closely tie the matter of religious attire to state policy. These regulations intend to maintain the state's religious neutrality while safeguarding the citizens' right to freely practice their faith.
The controversy stems from a ruling made in June, which upheld a ban on women footballers wearing the hijab. According to the CNN, the French ministry's press office, the minister has merely reiterated the existing law, citing the principle of public service neutrality that applies to sports federations responsible for a public service.
The United Nations’ human rights office has criticized the French government for banning French athletes from wearing the hijab at the Paris Olympics next year https://t.co/D0O6nKuQcE
— CNN International (@cnni) September 27, 2023
As per the ruling, the principle of public service neutrality extends to sports federations overseeing national and international competitions, meaning athletes representing France cannot wear religious accessories or attire demonstrating a religious affiliation.
“In accordance” with that ruling, the ministry said that “French teams are subject to the principle of public service neutrality, from the moment they are selected to this end in all national and international competitions.” Thus, one cannot wear a headscarf (or any other accessory or outfit demonstrating a religious affiliation) when representing France in a national or international sporting competition,” it added.
The French minister further clarified that rules governing athletes from other countries will be determined by each international federation under the supervision of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), resulting in potential disparities among sports regarding religious attire.
“There will be heterogeneity between sports,” the minister had added.