Sunday, June 12, 2011
Iran's Hissy Fit Over FIFA Hijab Ban Lacks Credibility
FIFA’s ban on women athletes wearing the hijab and its recent clash with the Iran Football Federation renews the debate about cultural and religious sensitivity in amateur sports competition.
However, using FIFA’s latest run-in with Iran as an example of religious discrimination is dumb. Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, ever the provocateur, called FIFA officials “dictators and colonialists” in a characteristically over-the-top news conference.
A FIFA official ruled that the Iranian women’s football team forfeited its match against Jordan for violating the ban on hijabs in competition. The rule has been in effect since 2007. The forfeit is a serious blow to the Iranian team’s chances to qualify for the London 2012 Olympics.
Iran’s Football Federation knew full well of FIFA’s hijab ban. Iran signed an agreement in 2010 accepting the ban and agreeing to wear caps to cover players’ hair. Iran broke its word with FIFA. It used the women’s football team as a pawn to gain political traction, hoping that Muslim countries will take the bait and raise a collective howl.
Make no mistake. FIFA’s hijab ban has little merit. There is no evidence the hijab poses safety hazard and the concern over religious symbolism is nonsense. The hijab is more of a modesty issue. Most Muslim women I know wear the hijab for both modesty and religious reasons, but not all of them. And by the end of the day, the hijab is worn to preserve modesty. To deny women this simple right is to exclude Muslim athletes from their rightful place in the sports world.
FIFA, however, found a solution by agreeing to permit Iranian female athletes to compete in the 2010 Youth Olympics if they wore the specially designed cap. The cap covers the head to the hairline, but not below the ears to cover the neck. I can live with this compromise if it means Muslim girls and women can compete without compromising their dignity.
In January, a 12-year-girl was prevented from playing in the first half of a Mid-Maryland Girls Basketball League game because she wore the hijab. At halftime, a league official gave her a religious exemption and she was allowed to play in the second half. Now the league requires an exception to the uniform rules by having parents give written permission.
The league quickly found a common sense solution to a thorny issue, but the same can’t be said for USA Weightlifting and the International Weightlifting Federation. The organizations said no to 35-year-old weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah’s request for a religious exemption to wear a modified uniform that covered everything but her face, hands and feet. Abdullah had planned to compete in the American Open Weightlifting Championship.
IWF rules prohibit clothing from covering the elbows or knees because judges must see that the joints are locked to complete a lift. That makes sense, but there are clothing options that are tight enough to allow judges to determine whether the lift was successful without compromising the athlete’s modesty. USA Weightlifting, to its credit, said it would address the issue with the IWF later this month.
The IWF ban on modest clothing is not a case of simply failing to keep up with the increasing presence of Muslim women in sports. In the United States, the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act prohibits sports organizations from discriminating against athletes based on “race, color, religion, sex, age or national origin.” The act has been in effect since 1998, giving the IWF plenty of time to revise its bylaws.
Western and Muslim women’s right activists are focused today on Saudi Arabia’s ban on women driving. There’s been a great deal of international support for Saudi women who want the right to drive. By granting women the freedom to choose how to live their lives strengthens their relationship with the global community. Yet these same activists remain silent over the hurdles Muslim women athletes face to gain a foothold on the playing field or basketball court.
Few women in leadership roles appear willing to tackle the nuts and bolts of dismantling discriminatory bylaws of sports organizations. These women contribute to the marginalization of Muslims with their silence
There is a growing number of Muslim women that want to participate at the international level. Eighteen-year-old Saudi equestrian Dalma Malhas captured a bronze medal at the 2010 Youth Olympics. Saudi Lina Al-Maeena founded the Jeddah United women’s basketball team and she wants the team to play abroad. Yet full participation in sports for many Muslim women is beyond their reach because some organizations are unwilling to change the language in their bylaws to accommodate cultural and religious differences.