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Monday, December 19, 2011

FIFA endorsement of Hijab proposal may end dispute with Iran and Muslim women


Iranian women's team: disqualified for wearing the hijab

By James M. Dorsey

World soccer body FIFA has endorsed a proposal to lift a controversial ban on women wearing a hijab in a move that brings closer a resolution to demands by religious female Islamic soccer players that they be allowed to wear a headdress in line with their interpretation of their faith.

At its executive committee meeting in Tokyo this weekend, FIFA decided to submit to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which governs the rules of association soccer, the proposal put forward by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah.

IFAB is expected to discuss the proposal that calls for the sanctioning of a safe, velcro-opening headscarf for players and officials at its next scheduled meeting  on March 3.

The FIFA executive committee’s endorsement follows an earlier approval of the AFC proposal that resulted from a workshop convened in October in Amman by Prince Ali that was attended by prominent soccer executives, women players and coaches, including head of FIFA’s medical committee Michel D’Hooghe, AFC vice president Moya Dodd, members of FIFA’s women committee and representatives of the soccer bodies of Jordan, Bahrain, Iran and England.

England alongside FIFA, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland form the secretive IFAB.

The dispute over observant Muslim women player's headdress 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 wearing 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.

The measures were taken on the grounds that FIFA bans the wearing of all religious and political symbols on the pitch on the basis of IFAB’s law 4, which only lists jerseys, shorts, socks, shin-guards and footwear as the sanctioned basic equipment of a player. Applying law 4 is complicated because interpretation of the IFAB rule is left to referees, which has led to differing interpretations on the pitch.

"This issue impacts on millions of women worldwide and it is crucial to address, in the best possible way, the issue that ensures the safety of the players, respects culture and promotes football for all women without discrimination. This is a crucial step forward. Our goal at the end of the day is to ensure that all women are able to play football at all levels without any barriers," Prince Ali said.

A decision by the Amman workshop to view the hijab a cultural rather than a religious symbol helped pave the way for the AFC and FIFA endorsement.

“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 issued at the end of their brainstorm.

Adoption of the FIFA endorsement by IFAB would solve the problem for Muslim women who want to play association soccer in a way that allows them to adhere to their interpretation of Islam, but it does not fully end Iran’s problem with FIFA. Iranian soccer officials acknowledged that the fact that the hijab is compulsory rather than voluntary 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 IFAB adopts a solution. 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 at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. 

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