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Storm in a headscarf: FIFA was wrong to ban hijabs in soccer

Iranian soccer players cry after FIFA cancels their match due to the nature of their headware. EPA

Five years after ruling against the wearing of headscarves by female football players, the sport’s world governing body FIFA has taken initial steps to lift the hijab ban. In March 2012, the International Football Association Board (FIFA’s rule-making arm), voted unanimously to allow the testing of specially designed head coverings for the next four months.

While this is cause for celebration, the ban should never have been imposed in the first place. Ostensibly, it was about safety, with FIFA concerned that pins used to hold the scarves in place posed a hazard to the players. Not everyone accepted that safety was the reason for the ban, with some suggesting that it was part of a rising global tide of anti-Muslim sentiment.

As I explained to a colleague at ABC Radio Australia, my initial reaction to the ban was to wonder exactly how my pin-free headscarf posed a safety threat to me or anyone else, whether on a football field or in a swimming pool. How was it possible, I wondered, that FIFA didn’t know about the existence of headscarves specifically for sport?

If the custodians of the world game were truly concerned about whether the headscarves posed a safety hazard, all FIFA had to do was put the words “sports” and “hijab” into a search engine, or ask one of the thousands of women who play sports with a headscarf week in, week out.

The impact of the ban was particularly vicious for Iran’s national women’s team, who were left crying on a football pitch in the Jordanian capital Amman after a Bahraini FIFA official would not let them play in an Olympic qualifier against their hosts. Their punishment for refusing to take off their scarves in order to play in the match was the penalty of a win being recorded for their opponents, Jordan, and the crushing of their hopes of qualifying for the London Olympic Games this year. Three members of the Jordanian team were also affected, having to leave the ground because they too did not want to take off their headscarves.

Jordan plays Iran in 2005 before the hijab was banned. EPA/Jamal Nasrallah

Iran is a very curious case when it comes to women and sport. While women playing football is allowed, women watching it at a stadium is not, as explored by Jafar Panahi’s film Offside. (Panahi is currently serving a six year jail sentence for “creating propaganda against the Iranian republic” and has also been barred from film making for the next twenty years.)

When its women’s team was penalised in that match against Jordan last year, an Iranian official said the headscarf ban effectively meant the end of female participation in the sport, in Iran.

I was born in Jakarta – the crowded, sprawling metropolis of the world’s largest Muslim majority country. It’s a place where obsession with football crosses gender lines, where fans have an almost psychotic football rivalry with neighbouring Malaysia, and where – unbelievably – the 90,000-seat Gelora Bung Karno sells out for a match featuring the national youth team. To ban women from attending football matches in Indonesia would be unfathomable.

The different rights afforded a woman in Indonesia and Iran show the disparity in how Muslim majority countries treat women and sport. In Indonesia and most Muslim majority countries the headscarf is a personal choice. Iran is one of two Muslim majority countries which specifically legislate the clothing worn by women. The other is Saudi Arabia, where laws don’t permit women to either play or watch football, or indeed most sports).

On one hand, Iranian laws on women’s clothing and FIFA’s headscarf ban are both examples of how decisions made by men have had very real consequences for women.

But it was also men who lead the campaign to have the ban lifted, both Muslim and non-Muslim. Jordanian prince and FIFA vice president Ali bin Al Hussein argued that the ban amounted to prejudice, while English Premier League players voiced objections to the ban. They included Tottenham defender and captain of New Zealand’s national team Ryan Nelsen, who said the ban was the antithesis to encouraging the involvement of women in the game.

While it’s too late for Iran’s current national women’s team and the London 2012 Olympics, a final decision by the International Football Association Board on revoking the headscarf ban is expected in July.

With football the most popular team sport on earth, and the numbers of players and fans particularly prevalent in Muslim majority countries in Africa, the Middle East, south Asia and southeast Asia, lifting the ban would seem to be – as Nelsen describes – a no-brainer.

Political science professor Curtis Ryan says lifting the ban will “allow women to choose for themselves, rather than have FIFA choose for them”.

If FIFA truly wants to promote the “world game”, it’s time for them to stop alienating the female, Muslim part of that world.

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