Opinion

FIFA’s Ban on Modesty

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Distraught members of the Iranian soccer team after FIFA announced its decisionPerhaps FIFA fears that the uniform of the Iranian players does not fit into the image of female players its president Sepp Blatter has in mind. After all, the man has explicitly stated his sexist tendencies several times. In 2004, Blatter drew sharp criticism by suggesting: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. 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?”

Distraught members of the Iranian soccer team after FIFA announced its decisionCorruption investigations, widespread allegations of bribery, and other issues have seriously undermined the authority and image of FIFA (International Federation of Association Football). What does FIFA do to salvage its increasingly deteriorating image? It bans the Hijab (Islamic head covering). The ban is not exactly a surprise or stretch for FIFA, as they have been threatening it for years. However, FIFA has consciously made the Olympic dreams of females who wear Hijab into a game of political soccer. Disappointing? Yes. Shocking? Not even remotely.

In April 2010, FIFA announced that it was planning to ban headscarves and other religious apparel and actions at the 2012 Olympics. The Iranian female soccer team responded by creating special headscarves that were in line with FIFA guidelines. However, earlier this month, the Iranian team was forced to forfeit an Olympic qualifier match against Jordan when the game official ruled the headscarves worn by the Iranian team were in violation of FIFA game rules and regulations. The explanation and reasoning give by FIFA and those who sympathize with their decision doesn’t pass muster. It simply achieves one purpose: highlighting FIFA’s glaring hypocrisy and double standards.

In the history of the sport, there hasn’t been a single injury or death caused by a player wearing a headscarf and full body suit. However, FIFA still contends that the uniform worn by the Iranian team violates law four of its rules: “A player must not use equipment or wear anything that is dangerous to himself or another player (including any kind of jewelry).” Hijabs aren’t physically dangerous, especially the special kind created by the Iranian team, and they do not provide the players any form of an unfair advantage against their opponent. Soccer players are also permitted to wear helmets, and occasionally other gear is permitted in games. Furthermore, the Iranian team has designed headscarves that minimize the risk of choking due to the covering.

Despite the media’s banter about how the Iranians purposefully violated FIFA rules, the reality is that the team received assurances from the organization that their uniforms were in accordance with the rules. They managed to get through the preliminary rounds without any issues with FIFA. Why is this becoming an issue now? Furthermore, little attention has been paid to the fact the official at the game was Bahraini, and political tensions between Iran and Bahrain may have been a motivating factor for his decision.

Perhaps FIFA fears that the uniform of the Iranian players does not fit into the image of female players its president Sepp Blatter has in mind. After all, the man has explicitly stated his sexist tendencies several times. In 2004, Blatter drew sharp criticism by suggesting: “Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. 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?”

FIFA also decided to do a 180 and state that the uniforms are not allowed because they are religious symbols. This seems plausible, but then we realize the scene witnessed at practically every soccer game where players showcase the sign of the cross, kiss the ground, and rush in to play. What about necklaces and prayer on the field? How will their displays of religion be monitored? Will they too be banned from playing? Since when was soccer for the secular only? FIFA has been notoriously inconsistent in implementing this rule and does not seem on enforcing it beyond the level of forcing Muslim women out of the sport. FIFA has claimed time and time again it does not want religious or political statements on the soccer field. This is an ironic undertaking considering their banning of the Hijab is a political statement intent on sidelining Muslim women from the game and using sports to achieve political ends.

Those who are sympathizing or agreeing with FIFA’s decision on the claim that “Iran forces women to wear headscarves” are glaring in their own hypocrisy. They insist on women’s right to choose how they dress, but at the same time, think it is acceptable for a group of men and officials such as themselves to dictate how a Muslim woman should dress. Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress hits the nail on the head: “If we’re really concerned with how women are perceived and treated in Muslim communities, it seems hugely counterproductive to adopt policies that force women to choose between abiding by the tenets of their faith and participating in activities that let them demonstrate their physical prowess and strategic intelligence.”

FIFA’s ruling will ultimately impact how and if Muslim women are able to participate in organized sports competitions. The issue of safety is one that must be attended to, no doubt; however, many Muslim athletes have been able to pursue sports and remain safe and modest at the same time. FIFA’s political decision has damaged efforts to gain more female participation in sports because it alienates a large demographic of women based solely on their religious beliefs. The current message sent to young Muslim female athletes discourages them from sports and follows the currently prevalent anti-Hijab rhetoric, which paints modesty as a restriction on achieving goals and dreams.

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