Sheereen Aminuddin has five brothers, all of whom play soccer. For years, she sat on the sidelines and watched their games. Last year, Sheereen decided she wanted in on the action.
But she was worried because, like many Muslim girls, Sheereen wears a hijab. So the 14-year-old Maple Ridge Secondary student signed up for the Golden Ears United Soccer Club only after checking with the league to ensure there were no regulations related to the headscarf that would prohibit her from playing.
Other girls — and women — haven’t been so lucky.
Ever since an 11-year-old girl was kicked out of a soccer game in Quebec in 2007 for wearing a hijab, doing so has been contested on soccer pitches around the world on the basis of reasons ranging from religious symbolism to safety.
The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), the organization in charge of regulating professional soccer and setting the rules of the game for all levels of the sport all over the world, has stood by decisions to exclude hijabis. Most commonly, such decisions have been attributed to concerns over safety — this despite the fact that not a single hijab-related injury has ever been reported.
On July 2, the technical arm of FIFA, The International Football Association Board (IFAB), will vote on whether or not hijab can be worn while playing soccer, just three weeks before women’s soccer kicks off at the 2012 Olympic games in London.
When 11-year-old Asmahan Mansour, a player on the Nepean Hotspurs Selects team, refused to remove her hijab during the 2007 Quebec match, the referee justified his decision to eject her from the game using Law 4 from FIFA’s rule booklet, which states: “A player must not use equipment or wear anything that is dangerous to himself or another player (including any kind of jewellery).”
Her hijab posed a choking hazard, the referee alleged.
Asmahan, her parents, coach and teammates contested the decision, but the Quebec Soccer Federation, Canadian Soccer Association and IFAB backed the referee. IFAB said that referees should make the ultimate call on what is deemed dangerous.
At their 2007 annual meeting, members of IFAB intensified the issue by adding a new section to Law 4, making it possible for referees to prevent anyone bearing a religious symbol — which the hijab is intended as — from playing: “The basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements,” it reads.
This addition to the law echoed France’s banning of conspicuous religious symbols in schools in 2004, which included hijabs, turbans, crosses and yarmulkes. Opposition to the ban from Muslim groups was particularly strong as Islam is the second-most practiced religion in France.
In 2011, the debate over hijab was thrust back into the spotlight when FIFA prevented the Iranian women’s national soccer team from participating in the 2012 Olympic qualifiers due to the players’ refusal to remove their hijabs.
IFAB lifted the official hijab ban on March 6 of this year, citing a lack of medical proof that the hijab poses a strangulation risk. FIFA and IFAB had faced a great deal of pressure to overturn the ban, largely from Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, FIFA’s official vice president from Asia. Al Hussein is an advocate for women’s rights in his home country of Jordan.
Even after the ban was lifted, a French referee in the city of Narbonne would not officiate a women’s soccer game on March 19 on account of players wearing hijabs on the Petit-Bard Montpellier team. The teams played a friendly match instead and their league, Languedoc-Roussillon, will have to decide whether the result is considered official or if a rematch is needed.
The final vote in July on hijab safety will be based on “an accelerated review of health and safety issues,” according to an IFAB press release.
FIFA will cast four votes on behalf of its 208 member associations, while the English, Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish associations will get one vote each.
But for many young, female Muslim players who dreamed of soccer stardom before the ban, the vote may come too late.
Passion to play
Nada Elmasry and her sister Hanin vividly remember the events leading to FIFA’s ban. The Palestinian sisters, now undergraduate students at Simon Fraser University, immigrated from Libya with their parents and four other sisters around the time when Asmahan was removed from the 2007 Quebec match. Nada loved playing soccer back home.
“It was the only sport people knew,” she said. “If you have a soccer ball, that’s good; if not, you take a bunch of socks, put them together and form a ball with it.”
But she was worried her hijab would prevent her from playing in Canada.
According to Jose Branco, the referee development coordinator at the BC Soccer Association, all soccer associations around the world, and their teams, follow FIFA’s regulations. Even if a league is not part of a provincial association, a referee can call up FIFA’s laws of the game to make decisions.
Nada begged Hanin to join a Burnaby team with her, so she wouldn’t be the only hijabi. Both sisters remember feeling nervous about the power their league’s referees had over whether or not they could play.
Even after teammates and coaches accepted the girls, Nada and Hanin remained worried as to how referees would react to their headscarves, pants or long-sleeved shirts. Sometimes they felt singled out. A referee once told Nada that he needed to make sure she wasn’t wearing anything under her pants and then checked her shoes twice. She had no idea what he was looking for.
For Nada, FIFA’s ban perpetuated negative stereotypes about Muslim women and prevented girls from pursuing their dreams of being soccer players.
“Just loving the game and knowing that you can never be [a professional] player…it hurts,” said Hanin.
Nada agreed. As a child she dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player and seeing FIFA ban the hijab was discouraging. But for her, the choice is clear.
“It’s part of my identity. Headscarf comes first,” Nada said.
New design safe, but not secure
FIFA has enlisted Capsters, an accessory company in the Netherlands, to design a hijab that satisfies IFAB’s laws. The final vote in July will determine the safety of the new design, which has Velcro that would come apart easily if pulled at in order to avoid a strangulation hazard.
Cindy van den Bremen, Capsters’ founder, has been designing special hijabs for girls in the Netherlands since 1999, and was approached by Al Hussein directly to produce a safety-tested hijab for FIFA.
But she said the task is a challenging one. FIFA has only requested that Capsters design a hijab that avoids strangulation, but offered no guidance as to, for example, how quickly the hijab should come off.
Van den Bremen is trying to strike a balance between safety and not defeating the purpose of the hijab with her design. She has received feedback from some of the girls who have tested her company’s headgear.
“They said they felt that the Velcro released too quickly, so we made it a bit firmer,” she said. “But still, when you pull it, it opens rather easy.”
Sheereen, Nada and Hanin all said that they would never pursue professional soccer if they knew they had to wear a hijab that could come off easily and force them to be uncovered in public.
It’s about exclusion
Sheereen’s mother, Zuraida Ali, has a deep connection to soccer; her father was on Singapore’s national team. She loves seeing her daughter involved in sports as a way to be active and build confidence.
Ali is still trying to understand the motivation behind FIFA’s ban.
She said she would accept the validity of the ban and the Capsters easily pulled-apart hijab if FIFA could prove that hijabs pose a risk of strangulation to the players who wear them. But Ali is angry because, so far, there is no proof. She said safety is just an excuse for prejudice.
Farrah Khan, a social worker and activist based out of Toronto, agrees. Khan started an organization called Right2Wear, which supports Muslim women in their choice to wear what they want. Its mandate is to create awareness that hijab is a personal choice.
Khan says FIFA’s way of dealing with hijab on the pitch has created a glass ceiling for girls like Sheereen. For Khan, FIFA’s decisions “ban[ned] a group of women from playing sports.”
Like Ali, she questions the motivation behind the original ban. She feels it targeted Muslim women.
The United Nations (UN) supports Muslim women and their right to wear hijab and play soccer. According to a UN press release, Special Adviser Wilfried Lemke sent a letter to FIFA President Sepp Blatter about the issue.
“As the governing body of the world’s most popular sport, I believe FIFA has the responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to participate in football, without any barriers and regardless of gender, race, ability, age, culture or religious beliefs,” Lemke wrote.
Ali and Khan both hope that, for the sake of girls like Sheereen, Lemke’s words are heard and FIFA votes in favour of the Capsters hijab on July 2.
“My hope is that in the end they make the right decision. The right decision is the right to play for all women,” said Khan.