France's gender equality minister threw her support on Thursday behind Muslim women footballers who are seeking to overturn a ban on players wearing headscarves on the pitch.

Rules set by the French Football Federation currently prevent players taking part in competitive matches from wearing "ostentatious" religious symbols such as Muslim headscarves or the Jewish kippa.

A women's collective known as "les Hijabeuses" launched a legal challenge to the rules in November last year, claiming they were discriminatory and infringed their right to practise their religion.

"The law says that these young women can wear a headscarf and play football. On football pitches today, headscarves are not forbidden. I want the law to be respected," Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno told LCI television.

Two months from French presidential elections, the issue has become a talking point in a country that maintains a strict form of secularism that is meant to separate the state and religion.

French Gender Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno
French Gender Equality Minister Elisabeth Moreno AFP / Ludovic MARIN

The French Senate, which is dominated by the right-wing Republicans party, proposed a law in January that would have banned the wearing of obvious religious symbols in all competitive sports.

It was rejected in the lower house on Wednesday where President Emmanuel Macron's centrist Republic on the Move party and allies hold the majority.

France's laws on secularism guarantee religious freedom to all citizens, and contain no provisions on banning the wearing of religious symbols in public spaces, with the exception of full-face coverings which were outlawed in 2010.

Employees of state institutions are also forbidden from displaying their religion, as are school children.

Muslim footballers protest in front of the French Senate with a banner reading "#Football for everyone".
Muslim footballers protest in front of the French Senate with a banner reading "#Football for everyone". AFP / BERTRAND GUAY

Many right-wing politicians in France want to widen restrictions on the headscarf, seeing it as a political statement in support of Islamism and an affront to French values.

In recent years, they have proposed banning mothers accompanying children on school trips from wearing headscarves, and have sought to proscribe the full-body swimsuit known as the burkini.

Eric Ciotti, a hard-right MP from the conservative Republicans party, said Wednesday that the refusal of Macron's party to support a ban on religious symbols in sport left "an awful aftertaste of submission."

"Everywhere Islamism wants to impose its rules," the ally of Republicans presidential candidate Valerie Pecresse said in parliament.

"The veil is a prison for women, an object of submission and a negation of the individual," he added to boos from the ruling party.

Moreno said Thursday that "in public space, women can dress as they like" before adding: "My fight is to protect those that are forced to wear the veil."

A planned demonstration by "les Hijabeuses" collective in front of the French parliament on Wednesday was banned by city authorities on security grounds.

"We feel all of this is a great injustice," Foune Diawara, a co-founder, told AFP in an interview in January. "We just want to play football. We're not pro-Hijab activists, just football fans."

In 2014, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) authorised women to wear headscarves in games after deciding that the hijab was a cultural rather than a religious symbol.

The French Football Federation argues that it is simply following French law, with the country's top constitutional court set to rule on the issue following the appeal from "les Hijabeuses".