French women groups protest FIFA decision to endorse hijab

Iran imposes full Islamic garb on women players (Source: Xinhua)

By James M. Dorsey

Three French women’s organizations have expressed concern and disappointment with world soccer body FIFA’s endorsement of a proposal to lift the ban on women players wearing a hijab, an Islamic hair dress, on the pitch.

“To accept a special dress code for women athletes not only introduces discrimination among athletes but is contrary to the rules governing sport movement, setting a same dress code for all athletes without regard to origin or belief,” the three organizations said in an open letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter.

Anne Sugier, president of the League of International Women’s Rights (LDIF) founded by Simone de Beauvoire, said in an email that she had sent the letter together with the heads of FEMIX’SPORTS and the French Coordination for the European Women’s Lobby, following publication on December 19 of the FIFA executive committee decision in The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

FIFA endorsed at its December 16-17 executive committee meeting in Tokyo  the 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.

FIFA said it would submit the proposal put forward by Asian Football Confederation (AFC) vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah, to the International Football Association Board (IFAB), which governs the rules of association soccer.

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

The FIFA 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.

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 three women’s organizations said FIFA’s acquiesce in the AFC’s assertion that the hijab, a headdress that complies with Islamic law that obliges women to cover their hair, ears and neck, as a “cultural rather than a religious symbol” and therefore did not violate IFAB rules was unacceptable.

The letter suggests that FIFA and AFC efforts to reach a compromise between world soccer rules and Islamic law followed by conservative female Muslim players was, likely to meet resistance from non-Muslim women’s and feminist groups. It is a battle between value systems in which conservative female Muslim players demand a right and non-Muslim women activists seek to impose what they see as a universal value.

Ironically, the two opposing groups may find common ground when it comes to Iran, which welcomed world soccer’s efforts to seek a compromise, but is likely to remain in the firing line because of its imposition of the hijab on its players rather than allowing it to be an individual voluntary decision. Iran is further likely to run afoul of world soccer because of its insistence that visiting foreign women soccer teams dress in accordance with the Islamic republic’s interpretation of Islamic law.

The three women’s organizations charged that the FIFA decision constituted an effort to kowtow to the most conservative Islamic states, presumably a reference to Iran and Saudi Arabia, which effectively bans women’s sports.

“To pretend that hijab is a cultural and not a religious symbol is not only preposterous, but untrue… You neither can put aside the fact that the conflict that has opposed FIFA to the Iranian regime is linked to Tehran’s will to impose its own religious law to women’s sport,” the organizations said in their letter.

They charged that Iran rather than seeing the hijab as a cultural symbol was seeking  “to impose a political religious outfit for women, that covers entirely their body… Sport must stay clear of political and religious interfering. Its aim also is to eliminate all forms of discrimination. FIFA ruling is about to abandon this noble aim and FIFA will be accountable for that,” the organizations said.

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.


  1. A nice and precise paper, as always!

    Just one point :we don't want to impose "our" values, we just say that these are the rules of the Games, either you change the rules for every body or you strictly apply these rules.

    It is the reason why we decided to launch a campain in the perspective of the next Olympics. See our leaflet : " London 2012: Justice for women" ( where we explain our 7 Demands to the Olympic Movement :

    The three first demands (1,2,3) deal with classical gender discriminations : number of events for women, position in governing bodies, rewarding and visibility of women athletes,
    The three other demands ( 4,5,6,) deal with sexual segregation (similar to racial apartheid ): male only delegations, delegations with women wearing politico-religious symbols and IOC supporting the Islamic Solidarity Games organised by Tehran for women only ( ie segregation Games!),
    The 7 th Demand is a more general one focusing on stereotypes (: "Women athletes wearing too many clothes (religious influence) or too little (commercial influence) reflect their being considered as sexual objects)
    Our campain is supported by the European Women's Lobby ( ie 2500 NGO).

    Annie Sugier

    President of the LDIF

  2. My name is Fazal-ur Rehman Afridi. I am ex-vice President of Pakistan International Human Rights Organization (PIHRO), a journalist and writer. I fully support the 7 demands of League of International Women’s Rights (LDIF), a Paris-based NGO, headed by Annie Sugier. What these feminist associations are demanding from FIFA is just to follow the rules. They do not want to change the rules. They further demand that FIFA cannot apply the rules selectively. Rules should be for all and should be respected by all.
    In conservative society like Pakistan, Women are faced with many discriminations, which are based directly religious laws or the source is religion one way or another. The same is the case in the field of sports. For example, in the last Beijing Olympics, there was not a single woman athlete in the Pakistani contingent.
    Just like in other areas of our life, the male-dominant religious-cum-political leadership is bent upon keeping the women powerless in the field of sports too. So, different tactics are used to keep them away from sports in the guise of religious laws and Fatwa’s. Keep them dependent socially, economically and physically. Another of these tactics is to convince women that Islam ask them to adopt the symbol of their invisiblility in public areas by wearing the isamic veil. Sending male only delegations or delegations with veiled women has the same meaning: sexual segregation.

    Women are just considered an object of entertainment rather then a human being. They want to confine them within the four corners of the house. The same is the case with the sports, where they do not want to give liberty to their women and want to create hurdles under the guise of religion, not to participate in the games at all.

    If, the FIFA or Olympic Committee will bow to the pressure of these ultra-orthodox regimes like Iran and Saudi Arabia and compromise its own charter or rules, then it will become a party in oppression and suppression of women around the world particularly in the Muslim world. The powerless women of the Muslim world look towards the sporing bodies like FIFA and Olympic Committee to help them get out of the cruel clutches of the religious extremists, who do not want them to be free of their political, religious, social and economic suppression. It is high time to resist gender discrimination, sexual segregation and sexual apartheid in the sports arena. This discrimination is against the Universal declaration of Human Rights, Convention on Elimination of all forms of Discriminations against Women (CEDAW) and the Olympic charter.

    Fazal ur Rehman Afridi
    Journalist, HRA & Writer

  3. From Linda Weil-Curiel

    Thank you for publishing an article exposing our fight against discrimination in sports based on new religious requirements (Iranian sportswomen wore the normal sports attire before the Mullah's regime).
    What is questionable is not only the hijab but the whole costume imposed by Muslim governing bodies (political, religious, sports bodies) only to women, when it is accepted that religious attitudes by men on the sportsground be sanctioned as contrary to the sports rules.
    We do not fight a battle «between value systems" but a battle for the respect of the common rule governing sports. Moreover it is not fair to accept the ridiculing of female athletes clad as if they were heading to the mosque.
    The great Hassiba Boulmerka, one of our first supporters, did say that she would not think of going to the mosk in shorts, but that she could not think of running otherwise than in shorts.
    She thus respected both her religion and sports.
    May I also remind you that Unesco's Charter states that "Sports is the
    Universal language by excellence". It is under that light that FIBA should not endorse FIFA's reversal of mind.
    If not, why shouldn't Christian athletes request to wear a costume with a large cross stitched on it,or Jewish athletes want to wear their kippa and Sikhs a turban and a dagger?
    Sincerely yours,
    Linda Weil-Curiel,
    Attorney in Paris

  4. "Thank you for this article. "One Law for All", the NGO I am involved in calls for the implementation, without exception, of the Olympic Charterand Sport regulations based on universal principles. Among these the following key principles of neutrality of sport as defined in rule 51 and Law and Exclusion of any kind of discrimination

    "One Law for All" believes that in applying different rules or regulations to competitors based upon their race, culture, ethnicity, or gender is in complete contradiction of the principles of unity and neutrality at the heart of the Olympic Movement. We call upon organisers to insist upon equal application of the rules and standards regardless of nationality or religion, to ban all countries which do not allow for female delegations, to work towards increasing the presence of women on Olympic decision-making bodies, and to honour male and female athletes in a spirit of equality and respect.

  5. "I am playing sport and I organize sports events for all in a national federation , member of a French NGO. Moreover, I am member of the EWS steering board.
    The issue gave rise to a hot dicussion during our last London 2012 meeting.
    My opinion is that regulations are made to be applied without making differences between gender, origin, religion of thletes or players. Sport is a universal language ( see Unesco Charter).
    In my two main arguments should be put forward :

    1. The caracterisitic of modern sport (invented in England..) is the uniformity of its rules. J. Blatter himself claimed :

    “The first specificity of sport concerns its pyramidal structure, with the IOC and International Federations at the top and its universality, based on global regulations applied to everyone, at the national and continental level. This is what makes sport such a powerful force for bringing together people of different nationalities” (Sport and Citizenship, December January 2010).

    2. Sportwomen struggled to be submitted to the same Law while at the beginning , based on considerations about women's "weakness", they had different rules and had not even access to a lot of disciplines!"

  6. From Anne-Marie Lizin:
    The issue you rise is an essential one. And I want to thank you for the excellent job you do in writting about "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer".

    As former president of the Belgian Senat and very active in Women's Right Defence, I support totally the content of the letter sent to the IFA president.
    I consider that the position adopted by the Olympic Committee since 1996 and now by the FIFA, should be openly critizised. The mission of these international institutions is to ensure the correct implementation of the rules of the games . And what are they doing ? The contrary of what they have done when the issue was racial apartheid.
    • Frist of all they don't dare to exclude delegations from countries where sexual segregation is the rule.
    • Secondly they dont dare to recognise that accepting in the Olympic Stadium a politico-relgious symbol, i.e. the islamic hijab, is forbidden by their own rules.
    Wearing of the hijab - either because it is imposed by an internal law ( as in Iran) or because it is claimed as being "freely chosen" - doesnot change it's religious meaning ( or politico-religious one). There is no ambiguity about this: the women wearing the hijab say they do it "because its an obligation in Islam". Of course it is an interpretation of Islam, but integrism remains a religious and not a cultural issue.

    Sport is the only place where there is one Law for all.

    Why should n't this Law be applied in the same way to any women in the world ?

    Making exceptions ( or reservations as in the CEDAW, UN Convention on elimination of discrimination agaisnt women) is a way of saying that universality is good for men ( see the Arab revolutions) but not for women.
    I congratulate you once again for this analysis, i will be happy to debate in details with you , thanks if you use my mail for that.

    Anne-Marie Lizin
    Honorary speaker of the belgian senate

  7. From Ghislaine Quintillan

    Since the 80's, I have been actively involved in the (very) long women's march towards equality of rights. I have to say that even if sport is still male dominated, women made progress.

    Why should we now go in the wrong direction?

    Wearing the hijab is not a step forward. The first modern Arab feminists in the years 20 in Egypt and Tunisia decided to show that they were free by taking off their veil. In sport the first Muslim Olympic gold Medalists, Nawal el Moutawakel (Marocco, 1984) and Hassiba Boulmerka (Algeria, 19992), did not wear an islamic veil. Neither the the iranian female football team 35 year ago, before the islamic "revolution".

    To make it short: rules governing sport are based on values and principles. Either we consider they are universal or not. If not this needs to be said clearly to every body and the stadium will become something quite strange where political and religious quarrels will replace pacific sport competitions!"

    Best wishes for the new year.

    Ghislaine QUINTILLAN
    French world class athlete in the 70th..
    Founding member of the french association : Femix'Sport - Femme-Mixité-Sports

  8. From Owen Pugh:
    I for one feel a strong solidarity with the three French women's organisations that have raised objections to this move. As a comment I'd like to say 'This is an article that needs to be read by everyone involved with football - its topic will be a hammer-blow to the extension of the universal freedoms of women not only in sport but in the world.'

  9. Well, the problem is complicated. If they ban the Hijab and a player just wants to wear it, it goes against the cultural freedoms players should have.
    On the other hand, Islam has to be lenient. The question is, is Allah against not wearing the Hijab?


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