FIFA, the international federation for world soccer, is poised to make a decision in a few days that will impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Muslim women — whether or not to overturn the current ban on the hijab, or headscarf. Matters actually came to a head last summer, in June 2011, when the entire Iranian women’s soccer team was prevented from playing in Olympic qualifying matches held in Jordan. The ouster of an entire national team, minutes before a key international match, led to a resurgent global debate on the relations between the hijab, sports, and international politics. Today, however, the winds of change seem to be blowing back in the other direction, as activists, athletes, and allies — Muslim and non-Muslim — appear to have met every FIFA objection and will arrive at the March 3 London meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) with a proposal to lift the ban and allow thousands of women an opportunity that is blocked under current rules.
When the Iranian national team was collectively forbidden from international competition, at a key moment in Olympic trials no less, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fumed that the decision was “inhumane” and, with no apparent sense of irony, railed against FIFA as a group of dictators. For some, Iran itself was to blame. If Iran were not such a gender-regressive theocracy, legislating how women must dress, then the problem might never have occurred. But the problem is actually not about Iran. Three women on the Jordanian national team also had to leave their home field, as they too refused to remove their hijabs in order to play.
Unlike Iran, an extreme case in almost every sense, Jordan is more representative of the over 50 countries worldwide with majority Muslim populations. It does not legislate for or against hijab. The decision is a personal matter, not a governmental one. (Only Iran and Saudi Arabia legislate restrictions on women’s clothing, and not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia has no women’s soccer team whatsoever). And yes there are strong social and even patriarchal pressures in many places. But in Jordan, as in most majority Muslim societies, some women wear the hijab and some don’t. But by choosing to legislate the matter, FIFA in the stroke of a pen banned approximately half the 650 million Muslim women worldwide from the opportunity of playing soccer at the global level. The issue, in short, is not about the anti-imperialist bluster of an Iranian president. The real issue, instead, is whether FIFA will continue to discriminate and exclude Muslim women who choose to wear hijab.
So what was the tipping point here? In many ways global football, and more importantly female Muslim athletes, have been trapped between rising anti-Muslim sentiments and the larger culture wars being fought mainly in North America and Europe. In 2007, the Quebec Soccer Federation banned the hijab and any explicit religious symbols from the playing field. Shortly thereafter the rule was enforced against 11-year-old girls, forcing teams to forfeit games if even a single player refused to remove her hijab. That same year, the International Football Association Board backed the Quebec ruling, effectively internationalizing it.
Two years ago, in March 2010, FIFA softened its stance to allow some form of cap to cover hair, but not below the ears and not covering the neck. However, this didn’t help matters. For women who wear the headscarf, the entire point is to cover the hair and neck. It is not an explicitly religious symbol (there is no agreement whatsoever across the diversity of the Muslim world regarding the hijab), but rather more of a cultural matter and personal approach to modesty. Many Muslim women — millions, in fact — do not wear the hijab at all. But millions of others do. And the type of hijab in question is simply a headscarf, nothing more. It should not be confused with more all-encompassing and restrictive clothing imposed on women in some societies, such as the chador in Iran or the infamous blue burqas associated with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. No one is arguing that women athletes should be wearing chadors, burqas, or face veils of any kind. Nor is anyone proposing that any woman should be forced to wear hijab, either by her home country or as part of the visiting team in a Muslim country. The argument instead is to allow all women to make their own cultural and personal choices, without governing bodies (mostly male) — whether states or FIFA — making the decision for them.
But if it is just a matter of a simple headscarf, then what exactly is the problem? Even if the original objections were largely over misunderstandings regarding Islam, religion, and culture, the emphasis soon shifted to concerns for player safety. In a rough and very physical game, players could be pulled by their hijab with the risk of serious injury. Yet if a hijab can be grabbed in the heat of a game, isn’t hair even more likely to be grabbed? By the “safety” logic, long hair and ponytails are far more dangerous than a hijab. Indeed, a tight-fitting hijab might even be the safest way to protect the hair and the head. The movement to lift the hijab ban makes no such claim, however. Rather, advocates simply point out the inconsistency and perhaps even spurious nature of the safety argument.
Nonetheless, the initiative to allow the hijab has taken all of FIFA’s earlier objections seriously, has addressed them, and even has a solution to the question of player safety — a new, sport-friendly version of the hijab. They propose, in short, not just an end to the ban, but the introduction of a hijab designed specifically for sport and especially for soccer. The sport hijab is designed to cover the hair and neck, is very close fitting, but is made of breathable material fastened by Velcro. If the player is grabbed by the hijab, it is designed to come off, sparing injury. The new designs will be displayed at the London meeting of IFAB this weekend.
The decision also comes at a moment of great change within FIFA. The organization has been reeling from assorted ethics scandals, including banning for life the former president of the Asia Football Confederation, Muhammad Bin Hammam. The shake-up at the top echelons of FIFA has allowed the emergence for the first time in decades of some new blood. In January 2011, in a closely contested election for FIFA vice-president representing all of Asia, Jordan’s Prince Ali ibn al-Hussein defeated the more established candidate, South Korea’s Chun Mong Joon by a vote of 25 to 20. The Hashemite prince then immediately promised to bring progressive change to FIFA, starting with a campaign to expand youth and women’s soccer across Asia. In a global sport that has nonetheless been dominated (especially in the World Cup) by Europe and Latin America, the drive has been to bring soccer in Asia to this more distinguished level of play. It is worth noting that in women’s soccer, the geographic imbalance toward Europe and Latin America is not as severe, with past world champions including the United States, China, and most recently, Japan.
Prince Ali has established a young and professional staff — including some very talented Jordanian former diplomats — to push for change, starting in Asia, but now attempting to reverse what is presumably an unintended form of gender discrimination in global football. Among other things, this has included an internet awareness campaign simply entitled “Let Us Play,” whose facebook group quickly garnered more than 65,000 members.
In November 2011, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the proposal to end the hijab ban was approved by the executive committee of the Asia Football Confederation (AFC). The AFC then charged Prince Ali with taking their proposals to the FIFA executive committee, meeting in December 2011 in Tokyo. And now the next step is the March meeting in London of the International Football Association Board, charged with making and revising the rules governing the global game, and whose decisions are considered binding for all regional soccer associations and confederations.
The momentum for change has been building from Asia westward, and has steadily added endorsements from a host of non-Muslim sources, including Ryan Nelson, captain of the New Zealand men’s national team, and Michele Cox, a former midfielder for the New Zealand women’s national team. The global union for soccer players, FIFPro, has also endorsed the campaign and, most recently, Japan’s women’s world championship team, the Nadasheko, has added their endorsement as well.
The campaign to allow the hijab has certainly been thorough — focusing on education, expanding women’s participation, and gaining support from Muslim and non-Muslim sources alike. Now FIFA and IFAB have a very big decision to make. In doing so, they will presumably be mindful of FIFA’s own declared mission to expand the sport, including expanding women’s opportunities to participate.
Lifting the ban will do just that. It will expand women’s participation in the world’s most popular sport. It is one of those rare moments when cultural conservatives and social progressives should actually be on the same side. Lifting the ban and allowing a specific sport-oriented hijab — whether women choose to wear it or not — empowers women. Lifting the ban will allow women to choose for themselves, rather than have FIFA choose for them.
The ball is now being passed to FIFA. It has only to pass it back. Let them play.
Curtis R. Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.