Olympics-Rights groups implore IOC president to help get rid of hijab ban

FILE PHOTO: Paris 2024 Olympics - Olympic Flame Lighting Ceremony - Ancient Olympia, Greece - April 16, 2024 President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach gives a speech during the flame lighting ceremony for the Paris 2024 Olympics REUTERS/Louisa Gouliamaki/File Photo

MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) - Sports and human rights organisations have called on International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach to help overturn a ban on French athletes wearing the hijab, saying it undermines celebrations of the first gender-equal Olympics.

While the IOC announced in September that athletes competing at the Paris Games would be permitted to wear hijabs, French Sports Minister Amelie Oudea-Castera has barred French athletes from doing so, saying they are bound by the country's strict separation of religion and state.

Amnesty International and 10 other groups signed a May 24th letter to Bach, saying the ban goes against the Olympic Charter -- and is part of a greater issue around discrimination against female Muslim athletes at all levels of sport in France.

"This important step would ensure the Olympics and Paralympics leave a true legacy towards gender equality in France by ensuring all women and girls can have their right to non-discrimination respected and protected, and their right to participate in sports guaranteed," the letter said.

"The country's discrimination against women and girls wearing the hijab is particularly concerning given the IOC's celebration of Paris 2024 as the first 'Gender Equal Olympics.'"

Paris marks the first Olympics with an equal number of male and female athletes.

The hijab bans have resulted in discrimination, humiliation and trauma against Muslim athletes in France, some of whom have left the country to seek opportunities elsewhere, the letter said. Reuters has contacted the IOC for comment.

"Shouldn't the French team represent the whole society in its diversity?," French basketball player Helene Ba, the co-founder of Basket pour Toutes (Basketball for All), said in a video media briefing on Tuesday.

"It is a clear violation of the Olympic Charter, but it is also an infringement on our fundamental rights and freedoms. It reinforces gender and racial stereotypes, and it feeds the anti-Muslim hate that already pervades part of French society."

Diaba Konate, a guard for the University of California at Irvine, played for the French under-18 basketball team, but said the hijab ban has erased any chance of her representing the senior squad.

"Despite my desire and skills, I'm not allowed to play for France because of discriminatory policies that prohibit athletes like me, and it's very frustrating," said Konate, who won Big West conference defensive player of the year. "As a Muslim woman who chooses to wear the hijab, I can't fully express my faith and pursue my athletic aspiration."

Former NCAA player Bilqis Abdul Qaadir -- who was part of a global campaign to overturn FIBA's hijab ban in 2017 -- said the fact bans remain is shocking.

"Sport is a human right. I should be able to go run, go shoot a ball, go kick a ball, and wear whatever I need to wear as long as it's safe," she said. "It almost brings me to tears because why are we still having to go through this."

Minky Worden, the director of global initiatives for Human Rights Watch said even if the ban was lifted now, with 45 days until the Olympics open on July 26, it would be too late.

"Women and girls are have already been excluded from training and competitions that are necessary to reach the Olympic level," Worden said. "So actually, it's quite impossible that they could compete, especially with 45 days. So the damage is done."

Among groups signing the letter to Bach were: Basket Pour Toutes, Athlete Ally, The Sport & Rights Alliance, Amnesty International, The Army of Survivors, The Committee to Protect Journalists, Football Supporters Europe, Human Rights Watch, ILGA World (The International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association), Transparency International Germany and the World Players Association.

Former NBA player Tariq Abdul-Wahad, and former English cricketer Azeem Rafiq, former world champion fencer Saoussen Boudiaf, and former member of Nigeria's World Cup and Olympic women's soccer team Ayisat Yusuf were among those who attended Tuesday's video call in support.

(Reporting by Lori Ewing; Editing by Toby Davis)

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