Tag Archives: religion

First Japanese woman to compete in US men’s professional baseball, and some updates (Semenya and the Iranian girls’ football team)

According to kickitout.org, baseball pitcher Eri Yoshida is making history for being the first Japanese female to play baseball in the US male professional league.

Eri Yoshida, from kickitout.org

Eri Yoshida, from kickitout.org

Yoshida’s maverick balling began in Japan when at 16 she was drafted to Kobe Cruise 9 in the minor Kansai Independent League, making her the first female to play professionally in that country. Now, playing for the Chico Outlaws, she’s the third woman ever (and first Japanese woman) to play in the US men’s professional league.

“There are probably ladies who think they might be able to compete at a high level, but maybe don’t have the confidence. This will give them the confidence. This will open doors.”
– Chico manager Gerry Templeton

Elsewhere in the sport and gender universe, Caster Semenya is competing again, but news reports are still consistently muddied by rumors of official wrong-doing related to the six months of “gender testing” forced on the runner. At this point, I really haven’t the foggiest idea what the official line is, but it’s clear that Semenya’s name will be associated more with a gender panic than with her astonishing athletic contributions for some time. Pity.

And finally, the Iranian girls’ football team is competing at the Youth Olympics in Singarpore. You’ll recall that the team was originally banned from participating in hijab and removed from eligibility.  Then, a modified uniform was presented that met Youth Olympic guidelines for sport safety, but prompted Marzieh Akbarabadi (who’s in charge of women’s sports in Iran) to protest, calling the outfit “inappropriate”. It would appear that a compromise has been reached, because the team is in Singapore competing.

Photo from The Ledger Independent, (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

Photo from The Ledger Independent, (AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)

FIFA president Sepp Blatter was on hand to watch the Iranian girls’ game, and offered this:

“It’s very important,” Blatter said. “It’s very important for football, that football be played by and in all cultures. Especially at this level of the youths, and the Olympic idea, I think it’s very important.”
– Sepp Blatter, “Headscarf issue solved, Iran girls focus on soccer


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Updates: Caster Semenya, Iranian girls’ team, and Grannies Grannies

When I come across additional information or small updates to a story I have been following, I typically add it at the bottom of the original post in an “update” box. The problem with this is that nobody gets a notification, so unless you’re a new (or obsessive) reader you’re not going to see it. I’m going to try something new today: a “roundup”.

Here’s what’s going on in my world:

1) Caster Semenya has (finally) been cleared to race “as a woman”.
You all know what I think about this (for those just joining us, go here), but I do want to add that the IAAF is not disclosing any details. Their statement was brief (or “terse”, according to Barry Petchesky, author of
Explaining The Caster Semenya Decision, Because The IAAF Won’t,” published on Deadspin), which makes a wrap-up difficult. Suffice to say that I still see this as a sad chapter, and one we will regret.

2) Iranian girls team may be banned from youth tournament… again.
You will remember that back in April 2010, FIFA banned the Iranian girls’ team from competing in the Youth Olympic Football Tournament based on the fact that the players were beholden by their religion to wear hijab (head scarves). Cue (righteous) outrage. By early May FIFA had about-faced and allowed the girls to play in a game-modified uniform.

A month passes.

Iran may not send its girls’ football team to the Youth Olympics in Singapore next month because of a dispute over the players’ Islamic attire, Iranian media reported on Thursday. The deputy head of Iran’s physical education department, Marzieh Akbarabadi, was quoted by newspapers, including Khabar Varzeshi, or Sport News, as saying the newly designed dress was “inappropriate.” [The uniform] was unveiled during a practice session on Wednesday, which Akbarabadi, who is in charge of all women’s sports in Iran, left in protest.
– Nasser Karimi, “Iran girls’ football team may miss Singapore event,” Associated Press (July 8, 2010)

You know what? I said this before and I say it again, and this time with feeling: Let them play! These girls are athletes. They’ve trained (despite mighty opposition) to become good enough to qualify, yet all around are powers-that-be lining up to play Daddy to them.

I am not qualified to comment on the rightness or wrongness of hijab, but I can tell you with utter certainty that these players should be accommodated. No person should be forced to cast aside one love (football) for another (one’s religion).

3) Grannies Grannies find a way
Way back on the first day of the World Cup I wrote about Vakhegula Vakhegula (Grannies Grannies), a South African soccer team comprised of women between the ages of 49 and 84. A month ago they were hoping to inspire South African president Jacob Zuma to provide the finances to send the team to compete at the Veteran’s Cup, a tournament for teams with players of 30 years and older that takes place in Lancaster, Massachusetts (Source: “For the Love of Soccer and a Lasting Sisterhood“, New York Times, June 6, 2010). Apparently Zuma left their exhibition game without seeing their victory (8-0, defeating the Waterfall Grannie Soccer team).

Yesterday Herbalife (Yes, that Herbalife) issued a press release:

Herbalife Ltd. has teamed up with the United States Adult Soccer Association…, the Massachusetts Adult State Soccer Association (MASS), the Veterans Cup committee… and the Lexpressas women’s soccer team to help the Vakhegula-Vakhegula soccer team come to America to compete in the annual Veteran’s Cup tournament this week.
– “Soccer Grannies to Compete in Veteran’s Cup,” Marketwatch, July 13, 2010

Apparently, in return the players will play in jerseys sporting the Herbalife logo. Zuma missed a brilliant opportunity. He could have been the dream-maker. It’s a shame but it’s his loss. Grannies Grannies found a way despite his indifference.

Who’s up for a road trip to Lancaster? I hear there’s some world-class soccer going on.

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Update on Iranian girls football team – and it’s great news!

Hot off the interwebs: “FIFA lifts ban on Iran girls’ football team“, according to the Tehran Times. Though there’s not a lot of information out there yet, it would appear that the Iranian football association submitted a proposal for a modified uniform that covers the players’ hair and FIFA accepted it.  The team will now be able to compete in Singapore later this summer.

Although the response to my initial post on the issue of players in hijab was overwhelmingly positive, I have learned that any modification to the rules of the game can evoke mixed passions. The recent policy change by OFSAA here in Ontario that allows girls to play on boys’ teams has been the subject of many heated discussions, and has led me into some snarled arguments over the past few days. My first reaction to the ruling can be found here, but that’s not the end of it. An update is in the queue.

For those of you still struggling with the issue of players in hijab, I came across a blog post on iran.foreignpolicyblogs.com – Hijab and Football – which does a great job of illustrating the particular position of the Iranian players. Bravo to writer Sahar Zubairy.

And bravo, too, to FIFA, for being flexible and considered in this matter. To those of you who asked for a contact at FIFA to lodge complaints when this story broke, I would recommend follow up emails in support of this recent decision. Expressions of gratitude and support are as important as protest. Happy Saturday, everyone.

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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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The saddest circus in the world

Some of you might be familiar with the story of Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga, the two men arrested and charged with “unnatural practices between males and gross public indecency” after they had a traditional engagement ceremony in Blantyre’s Chirimba township in Malawi, in December of 2009. Since their arrest they have been held separately in a maximum security prison, they’ve been asked to take a “test” to prove whether they had sexual relations, and they’ve been denied bail “for their own safety”.

The case has drawn international attention for its human rights implications, and because it is a very real example of the prevailing homophobic attitudes in much of Africa – attitudes that must shift in order to implement effective policy changes to meet the challenges of AIDS and HIV transmission on the continent. In this concise article posted in January on the Amnesty International site, the friction between policy and practice is made clear:

In the formulation of Malawi’s National AIDS Strategy in 2009, the Malawi government consulted widely, including with MSM [Ed. note: men who have sex with men], on ways of combating the spread of HIV in Malawi. In September, the government publicly acknowledged the need to include MSM in its HIV/AIDS strategy.

– From “Malawi: Amnesty calls for unconditional release of gay couple,” posted to amnesty.org.uk

On Friday, March 12, almost three full months since Monjeza and Chimbalanga were arrested, the Washington Post published “In Africa, a step backward on human rights,”  an opinion piece by Nobel Peace Prize laureate archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In my country of South Africa, we struggled for years against the evil system of apartheid that divided human beings, children of the same God, by racial classification and then denied many of them fundamental human rights. We knew this was wrong. Thankfully, the world supported us in our struggle for freedom and dignity. It is time to stand up against another wrong.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

In the piece, Tutu broadens the discussion to include not only the case of Monjeza and Chimbalanga in Malawi, but also the consideration of discriminatory legislation in Uganda, Burundi, and Rwanda. And, like the Amnesty International author, Tutu exposes a link between homophobia and the struggle to find an effective response to AIDS and HIV on the continent.

Our lesbian and gay brothers and sisters across Africa are living in fear. And they are living in hiding — away from care, away from the protection the state should offer to every citizen and away from health care in the AIDS era, when all of us, especially Africans, need access to essential HIV services.

– excerpted from “In Africa, a step backward on human rights” by Desmond Tutu

When Craig drove me through Mdantsane Village way back in September 2009 I was puzzled by the presence of a massive tattered tent at the side of the road. The wind pushed against the torn grey fabric and I could hear a soft, forlorn whistling as it jettied through the holes. I turned to Craig and wise-cracked, “What’s that!? The tent from The Saddest Circus in the World?”  To my horror and embarrassment he explained that these were funeral tents, and that here in the Village people were dying in such numbers and with such regularity that sometimes they didn’t even bother to take the tents down.

I’ve been back in Canada for five months. Necessarily, my work with this blog has shifted focus. I have enjoyed concrete success in finding grassroots ways to make positive differences through soccer, and my sense of achievement has been profound. But when I think about the immense challenges facing gay and lesbian and transgendered people in Africa, and the numbers of people dying from HIV and AIDS – and the way those things are connected – I think that indeed, this is the saddest circus in the world.

And except for adding my voice to the protest, I’ve no idea how to help. There are some things, it would seem, that a soccer ball just can’t fix.

Related Facebook groups:

Statement by African Civil Society on the Anti-Homosexuality Bill in Uganda
Protest Jon Qwelane’s Appointment As SA Ambassador to Uganda!
Free Malawians Steven Monjeza and Tiwonge Chimbalanga
The Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation


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Do-goodery: engaged

Great news! Remember this post about Unakho, the women’s group in Mdantsane Village? Well it generated some notice from my Canadian friends, and today I am taking an envelope stuffed with donations to Mama Celia.

As Craig and I jump into the car, he flashes his cheeky grin. “Do-goodery: engaged!” he exclaims, and throws the BMW into reverse. I am a little numbed by the realization that this will be my last trip to Mdantsane… That, and the diabolical hangover perpetuated by too many oversized Windhoeks at the Duncan Village shebeen last night. These final days are reserved for all the important pilgrimages that I have not yet taken, and despite feeling like turds on toast I am excited about today’s mission.

The forty minute drive feels like a week and a half as I spend it directing my laser-intense attention on a spot on the dashboard while the car bucks and rolls over the speedbumps of NU13. Sending Craig as my ambassador was out of the question, African Tick Bite Hangover or not.

Mama Celia’s house is an RDP with a small yard in front and a larger sloping garden in the back where she grows vegetables to feed herself and the people in her community. Inside, the place looks a lot like any number of homes I have been in, with the exception that the couch cushions are bedazzled with hand embroidered appliqués that reassure: “God is Good”. We sit, and I give a very short speech and produce the envelope.

There is something about Celia that does me in. I noticed it on our first meeting and now again, as I stand hugging her compact body I feel a little overwhelmed. She’s older and calm and powerful and warm. I am so pleased to be able to bring a gift, but I also feel certain that she will continue her work with or without my help. This, after all, is the women who inspired me to recognize the hand of god.


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Mike and I play for the weekend. At night he takes me to the gay bars where I get high on Red Bull and vodka, and the afternoons are spent over long lunches and bottles of wine. The pace here is totally different from the what I am used to in Toronto. A lunch will be hours-long, and friends will arrive and stay to share a bottle of wine or a plate of food. I could get used to this, I think, as another gale of companionable laughter washes over me.

The consequence of our Sunday afternoon excesses is that Mike and I are asleep when Craig shows up; he has to break into the apartment. It is a joyous reunion, like we’ve been separated for months insead of days.

Yay! Craig's here!

Yay! Craig's here!

The following day, Craig comes with when Laurie takes me to see the safe house for gays and lesbians in Gugulethu, a township outside of Cape Town. I am currently reading South African author Sindiwe Magona’s novel, Beauty’s Gift, which is set in Gugulethu. The author describes the township as “sprawling…unattractively”, an accurate assessment from my short tour.

We pull up outside an unremarkable brick building surrounded by a locking gate, and Laurie shows us inside. He introduces us to Bulelwa, the woman who runs the centre. The Bible is prominently displayed under a crucifix alongside a few brochures ab0ut homosexuality and religion. Bulelwa tells us that the centre is open to gays and lesbians from all surrounding areas, and that they can house up to four people in two rooms at a time. They currently house two people, one of whom identifies as trans. To garner support from an initially resistent community, the centre devised a brilliant and telling strategy: by running a soup kitchen they have earned the support of the community.

Craig immediately hones in on the irritating question that is picking at me. “Do the people who live here have to attend church?” he asks. “They do not have to go to church,” Bulelwa says, “but they are expected to participate in the activities of the house.” Let me be clear: this place is obviously a much-needed facility doing very important work. That the term “corrective rape” exists is a disgusting testament to that. But how unfortunate – and potentially damaging – that to avail themselves of this modest service a gay man or lesbian must participate in the activites of a religion that may well play a role in the discrimination they have already faced… a religion that they may not agree with or take as their own. It seems an unfair requirement.

Bulelwa continues describing the work they do: aside from the shelter, they also educate people on the relationship between homosexuality and the church and advocate to increase harmony between custom, church, and the individual. In my favourite quote from this day, Bulelwa illustrates with an example. “In our culture women are supposed to wear a skirt, but we are lesbians and we want our pants.”  Amen, sister.

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