FIFA Vice President Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein
By James M. Dorsey
World soccer body FIFA and observant Muslim women soccer players may be close to a compromise in their dispute over the wearing of the hijab, a headdress that covers the neck, ears and hair.
The dispute led in June to the disqualification of the Iranian women’s national team after they appeared on the pitch in the Jordanian capital Amman for a 2012 London Olympics qualifier against Jordan because the players wore the hijab. Three Jordanian players who wear the hijab were also barred.
The Iranian team’s insistence on wearing the hijab contradicted an agreement reached last year in Singapore between FIFA and the Iranian Football Federation (IFF) under which the Iranians agreed to the wearing of a cap that covered hair but not the neck.
Prominent soccer executives, women players, coaches and referees agreed at a brainstorm in Amman this week convened by FIFA Vice President Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of King Abdullah, that the hijab is a cultural rather than a religious symbol.
“The hijab issue has taken centre stage in football circles in recent years due to the increasing popularity of women’s football worldwide. It is a cultural issue that not only affects the game, but also impacts society and sports in general. It is not limited to Asia, but extends to other continents as well,” the executives and players said in a statement.
By defining the hijab as a cultural symbol, the group, meeting under the auspices of the Asian Football Development Project (AFDP), an NGO founded by Prince Ali to advance grassroots, youth and women’s soccer, hopes to lay the groundwork for a compromise that acknowledges the cultural requirements of observant Muslim women and meets FIFA’s health and safety standards.
In doing so, the group, which included FIFA Executive Committee member and head of the body’s medical committee Michel D’Hooghe, Asian Football Confederation (AFC) Vice President Moya Dodd, members of FIFA’s women committee as well as representatives of the soccer bodies of Jordan, Bahrain, Iran and the United Kingdom, hope to work around FIFA’s ban on the wearing of religious or political symbols on the pitch.
The group called on FIFA to articulate a clear policy that “avoid(s) any form of discrimination or exclusion of football players due to cultural customs” and establishes the pitch as “a forum for cultural exchange rather than conflict.”
Soccer executives said privately that the issue of the hijab had been complicated by the fact that the ban of the hijab on the pitch is based on a ruling by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that determines the rules of the game. Interpretation of the IFAB ban on religious, political and personal symbols is left however to referees, which has led to differing interpretations on the pitch. It was the referee’s decision in June that led to Iran’s disqualification.
“The rules have to be adapted to the evolution of the game and the society or interpreted accordingly,” the group said, noting that “FIFA is committed to the basic principles of non-discrimination and allows on this basis the use of the head covering.”
The group said “safety must remain the most important consideration for the use of hijab.” It said that FIFA would coordinate accelerated research to ensure that the hijab or headdress worn by women on the pitch ensured safety in the game. It called on FIFA to consider “innovative designs …. with full consideration of medical aspects, particularly safety, aesthetic arguments, type of material.”
The group said that FIFA should weigh lower safety risks against the greater health benefit of women playing soccer and asserted that allowing the hijab would persuade more women to become players and empower them across cultures.
Prince Ali and Mr. D’Hooghe will put the principles adopted by the group to FIFA at its next executive committee meeting scheduled for December. The prince together with Ms. Dodd would also table the principles at next month’s AFC executive committee meeting, the statement said. It said that the principles would have to be “in accordance with the safety aspects” so that they could be proposed to IFAB when it meets in February 2012.
Farideh Khanom Shojaei, a member of the Iranian soccer body’s women’s committee, and Houshang Moghaddas, the international relations advisor to IFF President Ali Kafashian, said in an interview that the group’s proposal marked a significant step forward.
Ms. Shojaei and Mr. Moghaddas suggested however that final agreement on a compromise could still prove difficult. “The neck is very important,” Ms. Shojaei said, suggesting that Iran would insist on a design that covered not only the hair but also neck.
Ms. Shojaei and Mr. Moghaddas acknowledged that the fact that the hijab is compulsory for Iranian women players and that Iran imposes the wearing of the hijab on foreign teams playing in the Islamic republic was likely to remain an issue even if FIFA and IFAB adopt the group’s principles. Iran is the only country that has made the hijab compulsory for its players as well as for visiting foreign teams.
James M. Dorsey is a Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer