IOC urged to use London Olympics to end Saudi prejudice against female athletes

By Elham Asaad Buaras

IOC praised the Saudis for allowing Dalma Malas to take part in the youth games omitting the fact that she was a self-financed unofficial team member.

A leading human rights organisation has urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to pressure Saudi Arabia to end its discrimination against women in sports as a prerequisite for allowing the Kingdom to participate in this summer’s London Games.
In its report Steps of the Devil: Denial of Women and Girls’ Right to Sport in Saudi Arabia released Human Rights Watch (HRW) criticised the IOC for failing to penalise National Olympic Committee (NOC) of Saudi Arabia for not fielding a single female athlete to any of the past Olympics (along with Brunei and Qatar) nor having any sport program for women.
The IOC reserves a limited number of places for male and female athletes who are not required to meet the qualifying standards in swimming and athletics events. But despite this concession, Saudi Arabia has never sponsored a female team and its NOC does not have a women’s section.
HRW Senior Middle East Researcher, Christoph Wilcke, said the ban “clearly violates the Olympic Charter’s pledge to equality and gives the Olympic movement itself a black eye.”
HRW also documented discrimination by the Gulf state’s Ministry of Education in denying girls PE in state schools, as well as prejudiced practices by the sports ministry’s licensing women’s gyms and supporting only all-male sports clubs.
Of 153 youth ministry-supported sports clubs in the country, none have a women’s team.
In its interviews with Saudi women, HRW said it found no government sports infrastructure for women, with all designated facilities and officials limited exclusively to men.
“While the IOC has criticised Saudi Arabia for failing to send women athletes to the Olympics, it has not conditioned the Kingdom’s participation on ending discrimination against women in sports,” said HRW in its report.
A spokesman for the IOC told The Muslim News the Committee “encourages” NOCs to uphold the non-discriminatory spirit of the Olympic charter but “does not give ultimatums nor deadlines but rather believes that a lot can be achieved through dialogue.”
The IOC also insisted they are “in regular contact with the three NOCs which have yet to send women to the Olympic Games, ie, Qatar, Brunei and Saudi Arabia. As a result of fruitful discussions, the three NOCs included women in their delegations competing at the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore last summer.
Dalma Rushdi Malhas [the equestrian] was one of them. She was the first female Saudi athlete to compete in an Olympic competition and claimed a bronze medal in the Equestrian Jumping event.
“We are very pleased with this evolution, which can only been seen as a promising development leading towards London 2012.”
However there are precedents of the IOC of giving ultimatums for dealing with member states who violate its Charter.
In 1964 the IOC barred South Africa from taking part in the 18th Olympic Games in Tokyo over its refusal to condemn apartheid.
IOC announced the decision after South Africa failed to meet an ultimatum to comply with its demands that the South African Government renounced racial discrimination in sport and opposed the ban in its own country on competition between white and black athletes.
And in 1999, says HRW, the IOC banned Afghanistan NOC under the Taliban from participating in the 2000 Sydney Olympics due, in part, to the Taliban’s discrimination against women in sport.
However, the IOC failed to confirm if Saudi NOC will send a female athlete to the London Games. The IOC also failed to mention that Malhas, whose participation in the London games remains a doubt, has trained in exclusively private facilities, has self-financed her trip to international competitions and was not officially delegated to represent the Kingdom in the Singapore Youth Olympics.
Saudi OIC were not available for comment.


Progress in Saudi talks for London

LONDON — The prospect of Saudi Arabia sending women athletes and officials to the Olympics for the first time has increased following talks with the IOC on a list of potential female competitors for the London Games.
Saudi Arabia is one of three countries that has never included women in its Olympic teams, along with Qatar and Brunei. The International Olympic Committee is now hopeful that all three will send females to London, marking the first time every competing nation is represented by women.

“The IOC is confident that Saudi Arabia is working to include women athletes and officials at the Olympic Games in London in accordance with the international federations’ rules,” the IOC said Monday.

The IOC said it held a “very constructive meeting” last week with Saudi Olympic Committee officials in Lausanne, Switzerland, about the inclusion of women in London and “Saudi Arabia’s culture and traditions.”

A list of potential female athletes was presented to the IOC, and those names will now be studied by the Olympic body and relevant international sports federations to assess their level.

The list includes four athletes, an Olympic official familiar with the talks told The Associated Press, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the talks. At least three women officials are also being considered for inclusion in the Saudi delegation, the official said.

A formal proposal for the participation of Saudi women will be submitted to the IOC executive board at its meeting in Quebec City from May 23-25.

Because the women may not meet the international qualifying standards, the IOC may grant them Olympic entry based on “special circumstances,” the official told the AP.

The IOC wants more than one woman on the Saudi team, and hopes for at least two or three, the official said.

IOC President Jacques Rogge said in an interview with The Associated Press last week that he was “optimistic” that Saudi Arabia would send women athletes to London.

“It depends on the possibilities of qualifications, standards of different athletes,” he said. “We’re still discussing the various options.”

One potential contender for a place on the Saudi team could be equestrian Dalma Rushdi Malhas, who won a bronze medal in show jumping at the 2010 Youth Olympics in Singapore.

Qatar announced last month that it will use IOC wild-card invitations to send at least two women — a swimmer and sprinter — to London. Two others could be added to the list.

Brunei is also expected to include women this time, according to the IOC.

If the talks with Saudi Arabia prove successful, all national Olympic committees in London would include women athletes for the first time in Olympic history. About 204 national Olympic committees are expected to compete in London, representing 10,500 athletes.

A recent report by Human Rights Watch accused Saudi Arabia of violating the IOC charter on gender equality. In interviews with Saudi women and international sporting officials, the group found that Saudi government restrictions put sports beyond the reach of almost all women in the Gulf nation.

In Saudi Arabia, deliberations of a select group of men on sending women to the Olympics remain wrapped in secrecy for fear of a backlash from the powerful religious establishment and deeply traditional society.

There are no written laws that ban and restrict women from participating in sports in the ultra conservative Muslim country that is the home Islam’s holiest shrines. The stigma of female athletes is rooted in conservative tribal traditions and religious views.

Saudi male athletes, meanwhile, have so far qualified in several track and field and equestrian events for the London Games. There is a chance male athletes also will qualify in archery and they are hoping for a wild card invitation in shooting.
Source: Khaleej Times Online


"Soccer with Scarves": An Article By Bloomergirls Blog

Last week marked a big win for Muslim women in the soccer world. Soccer (football/futbol/le foot – we’re American, so we’re going to keep calling it soccer) has been grappling with a headscarf policy since the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the governing body of international soccer, banned them in women’s soccer in 2007. After the officials of an Olympic qualifying match last June determined that the headscarves worn as part of the Iranian team’s uniform broke the FIFA dress code, the Iranians withdrew from the match. The withdrawal prevented them from advancing despite having won all of their previous qualifying matches.

Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al-Hussein, a FIFA Vice President, stated that he thought Muslim women were being driven away from soccer because of the ban. He vowed to fight it, stating “I think that football, being the most popular sport in the world, accessible to all, we should take the lead on this issue and therefore that is what we are trying to pursue and hopefully we will get a pass from [the board].”

It might be useful to distinguish between the gear that the Iranian women were trying to wear, and some of the other religious coverings that Muslim women wear. (Mostly this is useful for me as an education – I freely admit that this post has been a learning process about Muslim dress.) A hijab, which is essentially what the Iranian women’s soccer team wishes to wear, is a traditional headscarf that can look something like this:

From flickr user zharif: http://www.flickr.com/people/zharif/
The word hijab is often translated as “separation,” and can be used to describe the general practice of dressing modestly in front of men. In some countries, like Iran and Saudi Arabia, women are required to wear the hijab in public. It is different from the chador, which is a semicircle of fabric worn over the head and shoulders and held closed, and the burqa, an enveloping garment that covers the entire body. Wearing a hijab doesn’t impede movement, especially not the kind of movement required to play soccer.

Because of the country’s regulation that all women must wear the hijab, it wasn’t an option for the Iranian women to play without it. The modified hijab worn by the Iranian women covered their ears and necks, and looked like this:

Members of the Iranian Women's Soccer Team
FIFA originally objected to these hijabs for “safety concerns,” but no one could really figure out why these hijabs, which were cut close to the body, were any different or any more unsafe than having long hair. From a completely uneducated perspective, looking at the pictures of the hijab, it seems like there would be absolutely no impediment to movement, peripheral vision, or anything else. Additionally, since women’s soccer is, ahem, more clean than men’s soccer, the likelihood of the hijab getting caught on something was pretty much nil.

The FIFA ban did the same thing that the hijab bans in France and Turkey have done: prevent women from making an autonomous choice. Whether or not you agree with the Muslim edicts of wearing hijabs/chadors/burqas, forcing women to do either prevents them from making these very personal choices themselves. (I say this from the perspective of disagreeing with both rules that force women to wear the hijab and rules that prohibit them from wearing it.) While the FIFA ban made it impossible for Iranian women, who are forced to wear the scarves, to play in their match, it also prevented women from other countries who might personally choose to wear the scarf from playing. Either way, it was an unnecessary restrictive measure.

On Saturday, Prince Ali presented plans for a safer hijab secured with velcro to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the ultimate law-making body for FIFA. The IFAB unanimously approved the proposed hijab, and they are hoping to have an acceptable design in place for the 2014 World Cup. This is good news for women’s sports participants and fans everywhere: the more people that want to play, the more opportunities we’ll need to create.
Source: http://www.bloomergirlsblog.com/?p=91


Watching Muslimah Olympic Athletes, Past and Present

Recently, BBC’s Sporting Witness and NPR’s Tell Me More featured interviews with prominent Muslimah athletes. Sporting Witness profiled Hassiba Boulmerka— otherwise known as the “Constantine Gazelle”—an Algerian Olympic gold medal winner in the 1500m competition in 1992. In the United States, Tell Me More profiled American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who’s currently training for the 2012 Summer Olympics in the saber competition (she is currently ranked second in the United States).

Hassiba Boulmerka. Image via BBC.
What struck me, listening to both of the interviews, were both Boulmerka and Muhammad’s personal reflections of how their clothing choices influenced or affected their athletic participation. This is something that I know many of my Muslim (and even non-Muslim) sisters and I have grappled with—how do we maintain our own physical activity while dressing in a way that we are personally comfortable with (for both hijabis and non-hijabis alike)?

Boulmerka did not wear hijab and was unable to train for the Olympics in Algeria due to the death threats she received as a result of her decision to compete publicly; she was deemed “anti-Islam” by local clerics following her win at the World Championships in 1991:

It was Friday prayers and the imam said I was not a Muslim. That I did not represent Muslims. And that I was anti-Islam because of the fact that I’d run in shorts and shown my legs and arms. It wasn’t just that I wasn’t a Muslim, it was that I was anti-Islam. That’s how it all began.

The NPR piece focuses on the “Olympic Hopeful: Mixing Faith and Fencing,” highlighting how she might be the first Muslim American woman to compete in an Olympic competition (during Ramadan this year) while wearing hijab. Muhammad participated in a variety of different athletic activities before settling on fencing:

As a practicing Muslim woman, I knew that I would not only have to find a sport that accommodated my religious beliefs, but also where I could be fully covered and not have to change the uniform.

Ibtihaj Muhammad. Image via Wall Street Journal.
Boulmerka and Muhammad’s interviews illuminate how radically different their training, political contexts, and clothing choices were. While her clothing choices seemed to have little influence on her running competitively, Boulmerka faced political vitriol and required an armed guard at the Olympics because she wore a traditional track outfit. Muhammad settled on fencing, in part because the clothing requirements would easily allow her to maintain her own personal comfort and align with her religious beliefs. Both of the interviews are insightful and allow each woman to voice her beliefs and reasons for competing on her own terms.

In media profiles of Muslim women, there is oftentimes an overemphasis of women’s decision to wear or not wear hijab, with little discussion of women’s own complex, personal beliefs regarding their clothing and the social ramifications they face as a result of their decisions in their own words. Muslim women who do not wear hijab may not receive the same media attention as hijab-wearing sisters, and hijab-wearing women often have to constantly discuss the hijab with little discussion of anything else.

In 2008, MMW analyzed the way Muslimah athletes competing in the Beijing Olympics were portrayed by media outlets. I’m surprised by the emphasis on Muslim-majority countries who had women competing for the first time in 2008, knowing now about Boulmerka’s win for Algeria in 1992. I’m not surprised by the media focus on their clothing decisions, and lack of discussion of Muslim women who participate without wearing hijab.

The lack of nuanced discussion and honest reflection of Muslim women athletes—hijabi and non-hijabi alike—in the media leads some commentators to erroneous conclusions regarding women’s ability to participate in athletic events from a religious standpoint. An analysis of Muslim women competing at the Beijing Olympics by Gender Across Borders in 2009 contained the following verdict:

Why are there few Muslim women participating in sports? Physical activity conducted within the framework of the Quran involves three major issues having to do with women participation in sports: sex segregation, modest uniform, and abstinence from vigorous activity during periods of religious fasting. But that does not prohibit all Muslim women from being involved in sports.

Conclusions like these do not allow Muslim women to discuss their beliefs on their own, and blatantly disregard how Muslim women indeed do participate in physical activity for their well-being both here and abroad in a way that they are comfortable with (as opposed to what the commentator is familiar with and bafflingly associates with Islamic religious belief).

Hopefully there will continue to be an increase in Muslim women competing at the Olympics, and serve to inspire girls and woman in their own athletic achievement—and on their own terms—for their well-being. In an interview in the Wall Street Journal from last summer, Muhammad says:

I’d love for other minority women and religious minorities [in the U.S.] to believe they can excel in something outside the norm—not just sports, anything where they’re breaking the barrier…and not be deterred by what the image is just because they fall outside that box.

And Boulmerka says about her win:

It showed that you should fight for things. That you should have courage.
Source: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/mmw/2012/02/watching-muslimah-olympic-athletes/

FIFA approve goal-line technology and hijab

Goal-line technology was approved in principle by the soccer's lawmakers on Saturday and could be used for the first time at FIFA's Club World Cup finals in Japan at the end of the year.

The eight-man International Football Association Board said that the technologies of two companies, Hawk-Eye from Britain and GoalRef, a German-Danish company, would be subject to further tests until a final decision was taken at a special IFAB meeting in Kiev on July 2.

IFAB, which comprises four representatives from the world governing body FIFA and four from the British associations, also agreed in principle to overturn the decision they took in 2007 and will now allow Islamic women footballers to wear a hijab, or headscarf, when they play.
The hijab decision, taken after a presentation to the Board by FIFA executive committee member Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, was agreed by all eight members and will also be subject to further testing with a view to a final decision on July 2.
"I am deeply grateful that the proposal to allow women to wear the headscarf was unanimously endorsed by all members of IFAB," Prince Ali said.

"I welcome their decision for an accelerated process to further test the current design and I'm confident that once the final ratification at the special meeting of IFAB takes place, we will see many delighted and happy players returning to the field and playing the game they love."

In other decisions, a proposal from FIFA to allow a fourth substitute in extra time in Cup matches was withdrawn while further discussions will be taken regarding the "triple punishment" sanction when a player concedes a penalty, is sent off and faces a suspension for preventing a goal-scoring opportunity.

IFAB also approved the use of "vanishing spray", the temporory marker sprayed on to the pitch by the referee so
defenders stand 10 yards (9.15 metres) from free-kicks, can also be used in matches, It also allowed rolling substitutes in amateur and veterans matches.
Blatter U-turn

The issue of goal-line technology has been on and off IFAB's agenda over the last decade, but FIFA president Sepp Blatter, once a staunch opponet, changed his mind after Frank Lampard's infamous phantom goal for England against Germany in the 2010 World Cup finals was disallowed when it was clearly over the line.

Blatter said before the meeting he "would rather die" than witness another blunder like that in a future World Cup and with his support, the introduction of the system became more likely.

Alex Horne, the general secretary of the English FA who hosted the meeting south of London, told a news conference: "Eight goal-line technology systems were tested, and now two are going forward to final testing - Hawk-Eye and GoalRef. They will go into phase two of testing and be tested to 'destruction'.
"We expect, following the conclusion of those tests by EMPA (the Swiss testing laboratory), that one or more of the
companies will fulfil the criteria, amd that we will be passing that into the laws on July 2."

Jerome Valcke, FIFA's general secretary, added: "If it is approved on July 2, then there is nothing to stop it being used on July 3, but in reality, the first FIFA competition it might be used at would be the Club World Cup finals in Japan in December. It should also be used at the Confederations Cup in Brazil next year before the World Cup in 2014."

The Confederations Cup is used as a rehearsal for the finals and between four and six World Cup stadiums should feature in that tournament.

A number of issues remain to be settled regarding technology including future licensing agreements, the costs involved and to what playing level the systems can be used.

Both systems, and future ones yet to be developed, could eventually be licensed with costs expected to reduce over time.

The system used by Hawk-Eye, which is used in tennis and cricket, is based on optical recognition with cameras while GoalRef uses a magnetic field with a special ball to identify a goal situation.
Source: Aljazeera & Yahoo! News

FIFA to vote on lifting hijab ban, Prince Ali says scarf poses no danger

Australian-Egyptian soccer player Assmaah Helal wears a Muslim head cover, or hijab, during a training session in Sydney. Elite footballer Assmaah Helal is a fanatic for the world game, but a controversial FIFA ban on Muslim women playing in the hijab means she may never realise her dream of wearing the Australian jersey.

The 350 girls in the Islamic Soccer League are not afraid of a little rough stuff on Toronto’s east-end pitches, logging trophy wounds and earning bragging rights playing the game they love.

But not one girl has been on the DL because of hijab injury – despite insistence by FIFA, soccer’s international governing body, that headscarves are a danger to Islamic women who want to bend it like Beckham.

“We’ve never had an incident where hijab was an issue,” says Majied Ali, president of the 1,600-member ISL, whose female players – aged 5 to 18 –play with or without hijab. He estimates about 75 per cent of the girls wear it.

“Most of our girls tie hijab round their heads, not around their necks, somewhat similar to how a bandana is tied. Some other girls have invested in the Velcro-type of (tear-away) hijab.”

So, the girls have figured out a way to play safe?

“Certainly,” Ali says, chuckling.

Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al-Hussein, a FIFA vice president, also believes female soccer players are capable of competing safely in hijab. On Saturday, Prince Ali will ask FIFA’s rule makers during a meeting in Bagshot, west of London, England, to lift the five-year-old ban on Islamic players wearing headscarves.

Prince Ali’s argument to the International Football Association Board (IFAB) is, essentially, two-pronged. He will suggest a Dutch-designed tear-away headscarf with a Velcro opening be used to quell strangling fears. He will also present the garment as a cultural symbol of modesty rather than a religious item.

Prince Ali, 36, is the youngest member of FIFA’s powerful executive committee. He will need a three-quarters majority of IFAB voters to pass his proposal.

Prior to Saturday’s meeting, Prince Ali said he had not discovered any hijab-related injuries in women’s soccer matches. The Jordanian royal also warned FIFA that millions of Muslim women are being driven away from soccer by the hijab ban.

“It is very important that everybody has the chance to play the sport that they love and obviously the laws of the games have to be amended to allow that,” Prince Ali told Reuters during a trip to Singapore in February.

He also told Reuters that “we need to give the right to (play) to everyone across the world and we have to respect each others cultures.”

The ban has a Canadian angle. The IFAB backed the Quebec Soccer Federation in 2007 when the provincial body prevented an 11-year-old from playing a match when she refused to remove her headscarf.

Last year, the rule had Olympic implications. The Iranian women’s soccer team wasn’t allowed to play its 2012 Olympic second round qualifying match against Jordan because the players refused to remove their hijabs – which were snug-fitting, athletic head pieces – before kickoff.

Sertac Sehlikoglu Karakas is a PhD candidate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge. The Turkish-Canadian is owner of the blog muslimwomeninsports.

Sehlikoglu Karakas says “sports is an important tool to empower women” but it’s wrong to assume all Muslim women are carbon copies of each other. For instance, the Istanbul native notes FIFA’s current ban doesn’t exclude Muslims females who don’t wear head scarves.

“(The term) ‘Muslim women’ is not a single group looking, thinking and feeling similar,” Sehlikoglu Karakas writes in an email.

“So, such a (soccer) ban drives away one group of Muslim women who believe in modesty and prefer to observe Islam in terms of dress code. These women often face bans in international games and cannot participate. However, it is equally important to recognize that there are Muslim sportswomen who have been competing in international games for decades . . . who do not follow Islamic dress codes or simply do not believe that such a dress code (i.e. headscarf) is Islamic.”

Pickering’s Sarah Hassanein, 19, is a soccer-playing, hijab-wearing York University human rights and equity student. She plays the indoor game now, hopes to make an under-21 rep team this summer and plans to volunteer with the Islamic Soccer League to coach an Under-10 girls team.

Hassanein says her two-piece, tight-fitting sporting hijab has “never really been an issue” with officials who are sometimes “curious” about it.

“They ask me if there are any pins in it, the way you’d check for hair clips,” Hassanein says, whose headscarf is pin-free. Many sports insist athletes remove hair clips, necklaces, jewellery and watches before play.

“One time I was asked if it was a hood. Some people just don’t know and I had to explain it was hijab. You can usually sort it out.”

A Canadian Soccer spokesperson says on-field officials are directed by their provincial bodies on how to deal with any safety issues regarding hijab use.

Hassanein says “it’s amazing” Prince Ali is battling with FIFA on behalf of hijab-wearing Muslim women. Even if he fails to rescind the ban, the York student says his efforts will provoke positive international discussion.

“Not a lot of Muslim women are involved in competitive sports, I guess maybe because it’s difficult and there’s a stigma involved with hijab, but I think everyone should take it as an opportunity to get out there to be more active, politically, in sports, in volunteering, in any way you can.”

Sehlikoglu Karakas says she will be following Prince Ali’s crusade closely, crossing her fingers for the ban to be lifted.

“I believe that it is a terrible mistake to ask a person to choose between their faith and sports, especially when there are several alternative ways to accommodate both.”

Source: http://www.thestar.com/news/world/article/1140485--fifa-to-vote-on-lifting-hijab-ban-prince-ali-says-scarf-poses-no-danger?bn=1


The Politics of FIFA and the Hijab

By Curtis R. Ryan
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.
Source: http://mideast.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2012/02/28/the_politics_of_fifa_and_the_hijab
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.