Let them play!

There are only 60 days (and 01 hours, 53 minutes and 18 seconds at the time of this writing, according to the CBC FIFA countdown clock) to World Cup 2010, and all media are displaying the early symptoms of football fever. This week, mixed among the updates from K’naan’s South African Trophy Tour (Yay, K’naan!) and articles about international preparations, there was a different kind of soccer story.

On April 5, 2010, the New York Times ran a story with the headline, “Iran Soccer Girls Banned From Youth Games Over Hijab” reporting on the decision by the FIFA Executive Committee to ban the Iranian girls’ team from playing in the inaugural Youth Olympic Football Tournament wearing hijab (Islamic head scarves) due to a FIFA rule regarding the display of political, personal or religious garments or statements. The Iranian National Olympic Committee, in turn, has refused to the let girls play out of hijab. The team has been replaced by Thailand.

When I read this story I felt in my guts that this was discriminatory so I looked for evidence, searching for images of pro soccer players wearing crosses or other examples that might support my perspective. I found less than I thought I would, but two items jumped out at me: First, David Beckham’s unmistakeable and visible winged cross tattoo on the back of his neck.

David Beckham's winged cross tattoo, found on sportsplayerz.blogspot.com

David Beckham's winged cross tattoo, found on sportsplayerz.blogspot.com

Then there’s the case of Brazilian player Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite (better known as Kaká). A devout evangelical, Kaká has made a habit of wearing shirts with religious sayings on them. In 2009, after winning the Confederation Cup, he revealed a T-shirt that read “I Belong to Jesus”. FIFA sent the team a warning letter.

Kaka at the 2009 Confederation Cup, found on mailonsunday.co.uk

Kaka at the 2009 Confederation Cup, found on mailonsunday.co.uk

Apparently other members of the Brazilian team have worn similar slogans  as well. And though they are being “sanctioned”, they are hardly being disallowed to play.

Here’s the FIFA rule in question:

Players must not reveal undergarments showing slogans or advertising. The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements. A player removing his jersey or shirt to reveal slogans or advertising will be sanctioned by the competition organiser. The team of a player whose basic compulsory equipment has political, religious or personal slogans or statements will be sanctioned by the competition organiser or by FIFA.

– Rule 4, FIFA Laws of the Game

According to this, it does appear that the decision made by the FIFA officials was correct, but was it right?

Look – there are so many obstacles to getting girls involved in sports as it is. Here’s a case where a team of girls has overcome all and any challenges at a familial, community, and cultural level to become skilled enough to compete at the Youth Olympics. This is an extraordinary accomplishment, and one that should be celebrated. Instead, they are denied the opportunity to participate. Shame.

[The ban is] extremely disappointing, especially because we’re trying to encourage local females to play sport, head scarf or no head scarf. It’s a smack in the face for all the hard work we have been doing.

– Jamal Rifi, President of Lakemba Sport and Recreation Club, from “Girls in the hood cry foul over hijab ban“, The Sydney Morning Herald

Some frame the ruling as a “safety issue” (i.e. the scarf could choke a player). For example, in 2007 an Ottawa girl was banned from playing in her hijab. I call bullshit on that line of thought. A hijab is no more a choking hazard than the collar of a jersey, and the “risk” is on the player herself. Rifi agrees:

It’s not an occupational hazard and it’s definitely not a sporting hazard. The number of Muslim girls playing soccer at an elite level is already very few. To restrict these few females achieving at a high level, it’s very demoralising.

– Jamal Rifi, President of Lakemba Sport and Recreation Club, from “Girls in the hood cry foul over hijab ban“, The Sydney Morning Herald

No, I think this is about otherness. I think this has to do with squeamishness about the changing face of soccer, but like it or not, the face is changing. And the new face of soccer includes black people and LGBT people and women and, yes, even people with tattoos (indeed, David Beckham’s bad boy underwear model persona is a departure from the traditional “gentlemanly” face of the game). So why can’t it include this:

The Iranian women's national football team plays in hijab, but the youth Olympic team is not allowed. From www.rferl.org

The Iranian women's national football team plays in hijab, but the youth Olympic team is not allowed. From http://www.rferl.org

We are standing in the shadow of the world’s biggest celebration of soccer. It is a beautiful opportunity to display the nobility and grace that can be found in sport. This is a time to embrace and accommodate our differences on and off the pitch. FIFA: Let them play!

From the AlJazeera English YouTube channel:

Iran’s football federation says it is sending a delegation to Fifa – the international football association – to urge the Geneva-based association to overturn its ban on the hijab, or Islamic headscarf.

The ban effectively prohibits the Iranian women’s team from playing in the Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this August. Fifa says the dress contradicts the game’s charter.  Alireza Ronaghi reports from Tehran.



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7 responses to “Let them play!

  1. Jason

    I think that the direction you’re taking this blog is an important one, Keph. While it has not been a stretch for me to recognize the power of soccer in building community, I’d never really recognized the incredible opportunity that exists for the sport – one that belongs to practically every country – to build understanding and awareness on a global scale. You’re doing a great job of highlighting that unique potential.

    And I agree: let them play!

  2. J.Stephen Brantley

    Any idea of where we can send emails to FIFA execs in support of the Iranian team and opposing their (FIFA’s) decision to ban them?

  3. ksenett

    Note the addition to this post of a report from AlJazeera English, which I found to be quite interesting. It looks like the Iran Women’s Football Federation is seeking a change in the ruling.

  4. Pingback: Update on Iranian girls football team – and it’s great news! « Personal S.A.

  5. Pingback: First Japanese woman to compete in US men’s professional baseball, and some updates (Semenya and the Iranian girls’ football team) « Personal S.A.

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