Saturday, April 3, 2010

FIFA Makes Its Islamophobia Official & Bans Iranian Women for Donning the Hijab

Iran's National Women's Football Team, 2007
FIFA has declared that Iran can't enter its women's team into this August's Youth Olympic Games if its athletes play in headscarves.  Iran's football association is calling for international protest - quite rightly.

This decision comes from the International Football Association Board, which is made up of representatives of the four UK Football Associations (England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales) and FIFA, which itself has four votes in these decisions. One can imagine what that boardroom looks like - Sith Lords of Soccer, Imperial Experts in Sexism and Islamophobia.

In making this ruling, the IFAB is hiding behind Rule 4, regarding player equipment. This is an arbitrary interpretation and application of FIFA's rules against wearing uniforms with personal political or religious statements ("compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements").  Obviously, national uniforms frequently carry both political and religious meaning (Israel, anyone?). We often watch players cross themselves furiously before taking penalties - why not ban that gesture from the pitch? The demand that these women either remove their headscarves or withdraw from the competition is itself a strong statement about religion and politics.

Women athletes have worn the hijab in Olympic events at least since 2004 when Bahrain's Ruqaya Al Ghasara took the track - in 2008, she made headlines wearing a "hijood," a breathable form-fitting hood designed specifically for athletes.

Soccer players have been allowed to compete in international tournaments recognized by FIFA while wearing a variety of uniforms that meet their needs. Below is a photograph from January's South Asia Games - here the Indian national team competes against a Pakistani team outfitted in stylish green uniforms and headscarves.

CNN published a story about November's historic match between Palestine and Jordan. This match was celebrated as a step forward for women's football in the region and featured a few players wearing long pants and sleeves, headscarves or fitted caps. Muslim women athletes across the world adjust their gear to fit their needs, compete in international tournaments, and this should be encouraged. (See the blog Muslim Women in Sports.)

This ruling is yet another instance of imperialist and patriarchal meddling and it betrays the shallowness of FIFA's investment in developing the international women's game, as well as the profound hypocrisy of FIFA's pretence to being "above" politics.  At least now they've made their Islamophobia official.

This seems like a fine moment to recall Sepp Blatter's most famous statement about the women's game:
"Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts."
Fuck that. I'll take headscarves and lime green tracksuits over that bullshit anyday.

[April 4: Follow up - Some articles on this topic point to a 2007 IFAB/FIFA ruling supporting a Canadian referee's ejection of 11-year old Asmahan Mansour from a match for wearing a hijab. The referee claimed it was a "safety" issue (on the grounds that she might be strangled!). Quebec's Soccer Association does ban the hijab as part of a broad ban against "the Islamic veil or any other religious item." Which is I guess a safety issue in a world that imagines a terrorist under every turban, and behind every veil. Her team and four others withdrew from the tournament in support ("Hijab debate gets political in Canada").

That same 2007 IFAB decision left room for football associations to make their own decisions about the hijab - apparently only as long as those FAs cooperate with FIFA's worldview. For more - see "Hijab Ban Belongs in the Sin Bin" from the excellent Muslim Women in Sports.]


  1. Had to check the date on this post to make sure that it wasn't an April Fools.

    Iranian women's soccer faces difficult-enough odds without this ban being levied at them. Even if FIFA and it's backers aren't islamophobes, they certainly end up looking like they are. What a craven, inconsistent and (one might argue) sexist decision.

    Here's to hoping this gets overturned...and that Sepp Blatter loses his re-election bid, whether to Mohammad Bin Hammam or any other candidate with principles.

  2. Another great article. Iran has been handed another propaganda tool. A Swiss Plebiscite has banned the building of minarets, even ones that meet every building code. Blatter is Swiss.

    I am typically a Europhile but the US has a much better understanding of freedom as connoting a neutral-as-possible public sphere.

    Universities, even if private, only regulates behavior that interferes with study. (Of course, we slip up but that is the ideal we cite.) I've taught women in outfits similar to the ones here. Their right to dress otherwise is asserted by the school and the state. These women have participated unimpeded by the hijab. (A Burka would be another matter.)

    In Europe, universities and other public spheres dictate the right sort of public behavior. Publicity is not neutral. It's not even "as neutral as possible," which is how I would characterize the US stance. The good way to act is determined by authorities. In France, women dressed like this must find money to pay for a private school. Now, in Euro-FIFA world, crosses on the Portuguese and Northern Irish kits are not a problem but the hijab is.

    These women aren't very free, given the shifting mandates of their governments. They are less free if we do not let them play.

  3. I'm a bit annoyed you've critiqued this in such a non-nuanced manner. Yes, Sepp Blatter is an asshole. Yes, the decision-making body in this case was homogeneous and narrow-minded. Yes, in fact, to ALL your points.

    But why do you let Iran and fundamentalist Muslims off the hook? Why not question why women in nation-states such as Iran are required to dress hijab but no such narrow interpretations of male dress exist in these countries? Why not praise these countries for supporting women's soccer but then take then to task for putting the burden of controlling male sexual urges ON women (as if their lives weren't hard enough).

    As for your comparisons to soccer players crossing themselves, while I'm with you in spirit on trying to draw parallels between public displays of religion, this was just a cheap shot. Women don't get lashed and gang-raped for not crossing themselves before a penalty kick.

    Yes, let them play but simultaneously condemn Iran's leaders and the sexist Muslim leaders who continue to so brutally subjugate women.

  4. Wearing a headscarf is not the same thing as fundamentalism.

    AEK Baltimore: I stayed away from the veil-debate because I really hate the way the subject is enlisted in liberal discourse about gender and Islam.

    To address some of the issues you raise: the intense monitoring of women's dress is not particular to Islam (Mormons also emphasize modesty in dress). In some cultures (Hasidic Judaism, for example) there can be quite strict recommendations for men.

    And lest we imagine that we live in a world of total freedom in the US, try walking around in a turban and living with the cloud of suspicion it provokes. OR, if you are a guy, put on a skirt and go shopping. Of course this isn't the same thing as being asked, say, to cover every single part of your body, including your eyes. But it's wrong to move directly from headscarf to burka to "brutal oppression of women." It's just wrong.

    Yes: Iran requires women to wear headscarves. And yes, not all women want to wear them - and they can't play on the national team if they don't.

    Iran is in the midst of a long and punishing crackdown on all forms of political opposition. I would be more compelled if FIFA banned Iran from entering teams into international competition as a way of sanctioning the state for its imprisonment, torture and murder of protesters, film-makers, journalists....

    Of course that isn't what FIFA did - because it's "above" politics! It's merely trying to protect women from suffering an Isadora Duncan-like fate (how exactly would that happen in a soccer match, anyway?). It's merely trying to keep religion out of the game - by keeping religious women off the pitch.

    Statements from FIFA and the IFAB on this issue make no sense, and just keep getting stranger (is the headscarf "dangerous" or "religious"? why can't women wear the above mentioned hijood? why single out Iran, now? what about Pakistan? or individual players who want to wear hijab?).

    Anyway, my post isn't about the veil - it's about FIFA's knuckleheaded behavior when confronted with the realities of the international women's game. The ban against the headscarf is deeply political, and anti-Islam. And it was not made in defense of women's rights.

    It's a move made to shore up their sense of authority. It's super patriarchal - and, frankly, hysterical.

    Here, FIFA has managed to make the oppressive government illegally in power in Iran look sympathic - and for that they should be ashamed of themselves.

    Lastly, I think you know that I've been banging on forever about the aggressive violence directed at women for playing football. Sadly, your remark regarding women not being "lashed" or "gang-raped" for not crossing themselves before a penalty kick is a bit misplaced.

    Women footballers do experience violence - not for their religion, but merely for playing the "man's" game.

    FIFA has yet to make any strong statement about Eudy Simelane's murder - or the murder of her teammate - so, pardon me for having a very cynical view of FIFA's feminism.

    When women's teams from cultures not accustomed to women's athleticism take to the pitch, they take important steps towards changing the attitudes which support such violence. Whether they do so in a hijab, a hijood, or a fierce shag and alice band.

  5. You are beyond douchebaggery.

    Players do the sign of the cross and you compare it to this. Douuuuuuche.

    Can they play on the national team if they don't a scarf.
    No. Then its called coercion and should not be tolerated.
    Just like the egyptian team should be barred since they have a code of piousness. We will skip the subtext which is non-muslims need not apply to the national team. You CAN NOT have players be on or off the team depending on how religious they are.
    Keep your asshattery to yourself (and Ill offend moronic jewish and catholic beliefs just as equally).

    Your position on a national team should be about ability, not about whether you believe in Xenu, Xena or Xenon.

    We had some other asshats in our school district who want their kids to wear knives at school because you know, Sikhs consider that part of their religion.
    No. You have to draw the line somewhere and drag these idiots into the 15th century. Never mind the 21st.

    yes, I understand that this is the only way these women can compete but sports is not there to play politics or be social reformers. (Fifa recognizes Axis created states like Croatia during WW2 even though no one else did. The links between fascism and FIFA are well know.) I dont expect them to be, nor do I want them.

    And murfmuncher, muslim countries where crescents on shirts as well so shove it in your sack will ya.

  6. I am afraid my own vitriolic remarks about the IFAB and FIFA have set the tone for the above remark. That said, I won't apologize for the cut of my jib.

    AEK Baltimore, I appreciate your comments even though I disagree with some of your points - the above comment from "v" reminds me of how much I enjoy respectful exchange with readers and fellow bloggers.

    For those readers interested in learning more about the politics of the veil - or, more nearly, the neoliberal politics of Western grandstanding about veiling, check out this June conference at York in Canada. You can access some of the papers on line. It looks like at least one person will be talking about hijab and sports.

  7. Yeah, thanks Jennifer. I enjoy the exchange too, but I kind of gave up on this one after V decided to get on a feminist blog and start calling people douches and Murfmunchers (because my last name is Murphy, I actually thought his comment was directed at me for a minute -- then I realized how close the "f" and "r" keys are on the keyboard, so I realized he was calling you something else, which may or may not be an insult).

    At any rate, my only general follow-up may be just a kind of warning I like to keep in mind. I think the Right is too quick to defend the status quo, justify what "is" as what's "right" simply because it's what "is" or what we've developed to (a kind of Hegelian tautology best exemplified by Francis Fukiyama). The Left, on the other hand, is often too quick to criticize what "is" and immediately take the side of those perceived to be on the outside, marginalized, etc. I'm not saying you did this. You didn't. But letting groups off the hook for the stuff that they do, for whatever reason including "beyond the scope of the post", is a step down that slippery slope. The power, value, truth, whatever, of the Left, is that we criticize, always criticize. We can't let anyone off easy, especially not religious zealots.

  8. Hi AEK, Thanks for explaining the "murfmunchers" remark.

    The interesting issue FIFA might have taken on, but didn't: Teams which play in Iran must wear hijab. THAT is an issue, a big one for India, for example, who lost a match there and failed to qualify for a tournament because of it. Players said that it was a really disorienting experience from the moment they arrived. None were used to the kind of intense regulation of their movements through social space, and none of the women on India's team wear hijab on the field.

    (A ref friend asked if long pants aren't an advantage in slide tackling - that gave me pause, because of course it is. Everyone is so focused on the headscarf issue no one has commented on the long pants! Leave it to a guy refereeing on the dirt pitches of LA to notice this.)

    Anyway, it's a real question - not easily resolved. And it can only be addressed with thoughtfulness.

    But of course, being aware of this would require spending time thinking about women's football, as it is actually experienced by women's teams. Not FIFA's forte.

    On the question of zealots - FIFA's administrators makes themselves into zealots with this rule, which only feeds into anti-Islam hysteria. Headscarves are worn by women all over the world of a wide variety of faiths, and they are not signs of fundamentalism.

    Thanks again!

  9. You have got to be kidding. You support the right of men to suppress women??? You need to sit down and really think about this. Really.

  10. "This ruling is yet another instance of imperialist and patriarchal meddling...."

    I beg your pardon. Who is saying the women have to overdress? A religion based on the example (read Mohammeds biography)of a misogynist. I really don't understand 'From A Left Wing' 's stance at all.

    As a former footballer I simply can't imagine playing in other than socks, shorts, short sleeve shirt and protective bra:the disadvantage you have in both movement and sweat evaporation is enormous and provably incompetative with anything else.

    It is not FIFA which is ruining Iranian women's chance to play -it is the Iranian clerics of sharia law. It has nothing to do with modesty or religious requirement -it is to do with control. Short sleeves and shorts are not immodest. When I was on the pitch I was a footballer and that was all -and that's all you need to play.

  11. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  12. Maddie, Your second post was a prejudiced rant about Islam and so I deleted it and left that deletion visible.

    I realize that for some readers it seems odd that a queer positive feminist (who is furthermore 3rd generation ex-Catholic) might find a problem with FIFA's ban of Iran's women's team. Again, I recommend checking out the York conference site "Veiled Connections" to learn more about the relationship between Islamophobia and grandstanding about the veil in the name of feminism.

    Wish I had a reader who had played in a headscarf who could talk about what it was like. FIFA's ban impacts not only the national team of Iran, but individual players around the world as they wait to see how their local leagues respond with this issue.

    Perhaps, given the kind of comments some people have been posting, such a reader wouldn't feel welcome here.

    That would basically ruin blogging for me. This is not a forum in which all points of view are equally valid.

    Hate-fueled rants directed at people on the basis of their religion, their gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, or nationality will be censored by yours truly - as will personal attacks containing abusive language. I've left "v" up as an example, but am rethinking that decision as perhaps it gives readers the impression that such posts are welcome.

    They aren't.

    I am against the limiting of women's movement through the world, the amplification of a culture of fear, and hiding behind that fear instead of allowing oneself to spend time with something you don't fully understand. And I remain scandalized by those who assert that the headscarf ban is done in the name of "freedom".

  13. Well at least YOU read it. But to call it a prejuciced rant when it had facts in it.....shall I give you quotes -book and verse from the very source, or will you delete that too?

    Shame on you. A so called leftie and feminist ignoring what goes on in the world. None of the content of my deleted comment did you refute. I explained a rational meaning for the absurd word 'islamophobia' and you left that out too.

    "Hate-fueled rants directed at people on the basis of their religion..."
    I attacked the misogynism of Islam's clerics and of the founder of a totalitarian thought system. You did not print it because you do not like it. I wonder why.

    If you are a 'queer positive feminist' how come you are on the side of the very forces which would have you stoned for simply being what you are?

  14. I am not on the side of the current government of Iran.

    I am on the side of women who want to play soccer.

    I am sick of FIFA making these sorts of decisions on behalf of women, with no representation of women who play and administer the game. (IFAB - 4 men from the UK, 4 men from FIFA)

    I don't care if these the women who want to play are 11 years old and playing in Quebec or 23 and playing in Tehran, or if they are playing Singapore, Berlin, or Tulsa. If women want to wear headscarves when they play, they should be allowed to do so.

    As, maddie, to your last swipe - right now the only people throwing rocks at me are bloggers like yourself.

    I deleted your previous remarks because they were not about Iran's clerics, but about Islam itself. And, uhm, they weren't about soccer.

    Of course, this - the political stakes in seemingly apolitical spaces of play - is exactly what I'm writing about.

    But I do ask that people posting comments make the link to soccer - and imagine that a hijab-wearing soccer player is a part of this discussion, and not just an idea about which we debate as if that person were neither "in the room", nor a feeling and thinking subject.

    She is my reader, even more than those folks who are finding me because this post has (sadly) been linked to by reactionary websites.

  15. Look, is there islamophobia going on here: YES
    Is there sexism in FIFA: Hell yes

    However, I find this post to be missing the point, and downright disingenuous to some extent. The main problem can be seen in the slippage between a discussion of an iranian team and later a pakastani team, both wearing hijabs. The difference is that, in one country the failure to wear the hijab carries a criminal sanction, while in the other it does not (Ruqaya Al Ghasara also CHOSE to wear her outfit...).

    Look at where you direct some particular anger in your post:

    "This seems like a fine moment to recall Sepp Blatter's most famous statement about the women's game:
    "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts."
    Fuck that. I'll take headscarves and lime green tracksuits over that bullshit anyday."

    While I am sure that you gladly would choose to wear a green tracksuit over any suggestion that Sepp has for you, I seriously doubt you would prefer it to government mandated clothing based on your gender that applied to your entire public life. But, however, you make the jump from examples of individuals who engage in their perception of what a religious practice should be to obscure what is essentially a clash of "legal" mandates (by, in large part, men) about what women can do with their bodies. Maybe I am wrong, but, isn't that a more fitting frame for this issue? However, I have noticed that far too often this frame is obscured (perhaps because, it is the only way to bring what is often the more subtle forms of sexism, etc...that are occurring in western countries into focus? However, I think I am being generous here...)

  16. The point is that your local AYSO ref takes his/her cues from FIFA - the ban on headscarves will be imitated by referees everywhere. In fact, as I explained above, FIFA's ruling is an extension of their support of a Canadian referee's decision to eject a girl from a youth match for wearing hers.

    FIFA makes a big deal of its pretense to being "above" politics - but here it's ruling is deeply political and impacts Muslim women and other religious players around the world. (A Sikh boy was kicked out of a local game in this region for his turban - which is perfectly allowable in other sports.)

    FIFA was not making a statement about the way women are treated in Iran - or for Iranian people standing up for their freedom of expression or for transparency in the electoral process - if FIFA wanted to do that, they'd ban both the men and women's sides from international competition.

    I love all the guys writing in, telling me where I should direct my anger. It's kindof hilarious how I write "fuck that" and people can't see the smile on my face. (Now, that, IMHO, is sexism at work.)


Feedback? Let me know what you think. Just an FYI: all comments posted to this blog are recorded, whether I publish them or not. I do not publish generally hateful comments - whether they be directed at me or at players and teams or other readers. I appreciate reader feedback, especially from those whose contributions add nuance and complexity to the story.

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