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London: France’s basketball authorities should overturn a ban on the hijab to allow equal access to women, the Sport and Rights Alliance has said.

In a letter signed by over 80 athletes and published on Friday, the alliance said restrictions on religious headwear in France are not in line with international standards.

Signatories of the letter, released on International Women’s Day, include US Women’s National Basketball Association star Breanna Stewart and US Olympic medal-winning fencer Ibitihaj Muhammad.

In 2017, international pressure by activists and groups — including the alliance and Human Rights Watch — led to the International Basketball Federation overturning a global ban on religious headwear, including the hijab.

However, the French Federation of Basketball ignored the move and reinforced the strength of its own ban in 2022 by introducing Article 9.3 to its regulations, prohibiting the wearing of “any equipment with a religious or political connotation.”

The alliance said since the tightening of the ban, “young players are facing uncertainty, anxiety, and even public humiliation as they are sidelined on game days.”

Diaba Konate, a former French youth basketball player now based in the US, said: “I love basketball, my family, and my faith. It would break my heart to give up any one of those, and yet that is what the current FFBB guidelines are forcing me to do.”

Layshia Clarendon, who plays for the Los Angeles Sparks, said: “My faith and my sport are both critical parts of who I am. No one should have to choose between honoring their faith and playing the sport they love, and it’s heartbreaking and unacceptable that Muslim women in France are being forced to make that choice. 

“I’m proud to be in solidarity with Diaba and with all athletes targeted by the French Federation of Basketball’s discriminatory policy.”

Terri Jackson, executive director of the Women’s National Basketball Players Association, said: “Basketball has long been a powerful vehicle for inclusion and equality. All athletes should be able to both practice their faith and the sport they love, and we will continue to fight until they have the opportunity to do so.”

In September last year, the UN high commissioner for human rights criticized the French government for upholding a ban on religious headwear for its athletes at the upcoming Olympic Games in Paris.

And in October, six independent experts wrote to the government to complain about the large numbers of Muslim women and girls being excluded from education, culture and sports as a result of its policies, which they said violate international human rights laws.

The alliance’s director, Andrea Florence, said it “supports athletes’ calls to end the discrimination of Muslim women and girls in France who are being denied the ability to play simply because of who they are.

“We’re only months away from the Paris 2024 Olympics and Paralympics, and it is about time the FFBB catches up with the principles of Olympism.”

Monica Costa Riba, senior campaigner for women’s rights at Amnesty International, said: “Rules that penalize women and girls who wish to wear the hijab undermine efforts to make women’s sport more inclusive and violate their human rights.

“Global and national sporting authorities must ensure their policies do not exclude entire groups of women and girls from sport and are free from racism and all forms of discrimination.”

Minky Worden, global initiatives director at HRW, said: “The French federation should act now to ensure that all women and girls can experience the community-building, education, and economic advancement opportunities that sport provides.”

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