Backers of hijab on pitch encountering opposition
James M. Dorsey
In this file photo from Aug 24, 2010, Iran’s players shout after a group hug in their bronze medal match against Turkey at Youth Olympic Games (YOG) in Singapore. REUTERS photoProponents of allowing observant Muslim female football players to wear headdresses while playing their sport are running up against a disparate collection of mostly conservative interests, which are bent on rolling back their achievements.
While the battle to secure the goals of successful protests in post-revolt Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has largely moved from the street to the polling station and backroom horse-trading, the campaign for a woman’s headdress on the pitch that meets safety standards is being waged in the secretive board rooms of authorities that govern association football.
While protesters in the Middle East and North Africa have learned the hard way that toppling an autocrat is but the first step to ensuring greater freedom and social justice, pro-headdress campaigners are discovering that board decisions are no more than tentative and open to challenge. That is even truer given world football body FIFA’s lack of transparency and accountability, in addition to its occasional failure to avoid conflicts of interest.
U-turn from expert
Michel D’Hooghe, a FIFA Executive Committee member, medical doctor and head of the football body’s medical committee, recently threw into doubt a decision last March by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that sets the rules for football to temporarily allow the wearing of a headdress that meet safety and security criteria while various designs and models are tested. The IFAB decided at the meeting that it would take its final decision in July based on the testing results.
D’Hooghe made an abrupt U-turn at a news conference at last week’s FIFA congress in Budapest, saying: “We have received some samples and some doctors, including from the Muslim countries, said [headscarves] represented a danger. When a girl is running at speed someone can hit the headscarf and that can lead to head lesions.”
D’Hooghe was a co-drafter and signatory of a statement that favored allowing a headdress during a meeting of football executives, referees, players and this reporter that was convened in Amman last October by FIFA Vice President Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah who campaigned for his football post on a platform that called for greater women’s rights.
It called on FIFA to articulate a clear policy that “avoid(s) any form of discrimination or exclusion of football players due to cultural customs” and establishes the pitch as “a forum for cultural exchange rather than conflict.”
D’Hooghe has denied involvement in the drafting of the statement or having agreed to sign it.
Proponents of the headdress believe that D’Hooghe’s turnaround and the effort to backtrack on the IFAB’s decision strengthens an uncoordinated collection of conservative anti-Muslim, sexist, feminist and conservative Muslim opposition to the football headdress by disparate parties, which each have different interests.
Saudi Arabia, one of the world’s most conservative Muslim nations, has privately argued against the IFAB decision because it undermines the kingdom’s rejection of women’s sports in general and football in particular. The IFAB’s endorsement came at a moment when Saudi Arabia, the only nation unlikely to be represented by women at this summer’s Olympics, is under mounting pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), as well as human rights and women’s groups, to include women in its delegation in London.
Any delay in the definitive approval of the hijab by the IFAB could have implications for teams competing in the FIFA Under-17 Women’s World Cup in Baku in September – a move that would make Saudi Arabia appear less isolated.
A meeting of the 17-member FIFA medical committee in the wake of the IFAB decision focused on the threat of carotid sinus irritation – a condition to which men over 50 rather than women are susceptible – that a headdress could pose rather than on the danger of strangulation or heat emission, according to people familiar with the proceedings.
At a follow-up meeting called at Prince Ali’s request, designers of headdresses for football players and representatives of testing institutions briefed D’Hooghe and committee advisor Jiri Dvorak.
D’Hooghe advised FIFA on the basis of the two meetings that designs presented to the medical committee had been deemed unsafe.
“We were shocked that he could write a recommendation on that basis. We don’t know what prompted this or changed his mind,” said Michele Cox, a director of Prince Ali’s foundation, Asian Football Development Project, and a former member of FIFA’s women’s committee who attended the Amman meeting.
Prince Ali said that he has called on D’Hooghe and Dvorak to explain their reversal and rejection of the headdress to the IFAB at its next meeting in July.
Blatter ambiguous on the issue
FIFA insiders suggest Blatter is ambiguous toward the hijab, but has previously supported taking advantage of sexuality to sell women’s football. “Let the women play in more feminine clothes, like they do in volleyball. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?” he said in 2004.
Blatter, meanwhile, is also known for advising gays to “refrain from sexual activities” when attending the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, which bans homosexuality.