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Playing soccer, wearing the hijab

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I turned the corner onto Yonge St., surpassing the confused glares of pedestrians, and drivers alike.  Ignoring the turned heads and confused smiles, I continued on my daily route on which I run in prep for soccer.

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I turned the corner onto Yonge Street, surpassing the confused glares of pedestrians, drivers and passengers alike.  My strides fell in rhythm to the Sami Yusuf nasheed playing on my MP3.  Clearing my mind and ignoring the turned heads and confused smiles, I continued through with my familiar route—a route I happened to run on a daily basis in preparation for my weekly soccer matches.

I presume that it was a strange sight to see a female runner dressed more conservatively than the average shorts and t-shirt.  However, it was the hijab that turned more than a few heads and temporarily brought a few cars to a slow 20km/h in a 50km zone.

It seems that the words "Muslim," "girl" and "athletic" don’t fit together harmoniously in the same sentence.  We are talking about "the veiled, oppressed and tortured Muslim girls who are forced to dress modestly to protect their dignity and earn their respect"—the same Muslim girls who run for student council and become MVP’s in their school sports teams. These are the girls who are selectively ignored.

Islamically dressed in colorfully designed shela’s, I was labeled one of those girls; it was unimaginable to see a girl such as myself on the soccer field deaking out defensemen and pulling off Ronaldinho-worthy footwork.  Yet still, there I was joining soccer clubs and participating on my high school soccer team.  The small little "Hijabi" in an over sized jersey and track pants standing out vividly in a team of twenty-one identically dressed girls.

Despite my average abilities on the field, I was heavily praised by referees who frequently gave me pointers on positioning and ball control during the game; or the opposing coaches whose ear to ear smiles portrayed their surprise, yet praise, for my participation.  Once after a match in the parking lot, as I stepped into my car, a coach smiled and waved to me.  "Look," he said to a few of his team members.  "There’s the girl that plays with a scarf on the green team!"  You can’t get more blunt than that, now can you?  It was the same coach that asked my name during the match.  "You play very well," he said, almost with a surprised tone.

At the beginning of March I was stopped in the heavily crowded hallways of my school by my eagerly excited friend.  "Did you see the girl on the news?" she asked, and I shook my head with curiosity.  "She reminded me of you, she was banned from playing soccer because of her scarf and I immediately remembered you."  We were separated by the eager crowd of overly aggressive student trying to make the second bell.  I was reminded of the same story numerous times that week from all my friends who expressed their concerns regarding this controversial topic of "the religious head covering ban" issued in January of that year by the Quebec Federation who was later supported by FIFA.

At the time, my school team was getting ready to play in an indoor soccer tournament.  To my relief I was not the only veiled girl attending. I stepped onto the Astroturf, taking my position as a right wing striker, I pulled down my sleeves and made a few last adjustments to my scarf.  The referee approached me from the opposite end of the field, and it was then that I immediately pictured myself as a bystander in a game I had prepared for so vigorously. 

"Number 21," he said.  "If anyone gives you trouble, tell them to talk to me.  Okay?"  He smiled and blew his whistle. From then on, I played with reassurance—the same assurance I had been playing with for many years, scarf included.   

It was not until the summer season that I was once again reminded of this scene.  We were seven games into the season, and aside from a few shin pad checks and questions regarding the metal objects behind my scarf, I had faced no problems with the referees. Taking our positions on the field, we stared down our opponents and awaited the commencing whistle from the ref.  He was a largely built middle-aged man with graying hair.  "Uhh, listen you," he said as he approached me.  "That thing," he exclaimed, motioning wildly towards his head "uhh … you can’t wear that.  You have to take it off." It hit me cold like the dreams that I had so vividly pictured: they ended with me walking off the field alone and defeated.  Stuttering, I managed to reply, "This ‘thing’ is called a Hijab."  Before I could elaborate, a girl on the opposing team within hearing range yelled out, "She can’t take it off!  It’s for her religion."  I turned around to see my teammates giving me concerned glances.  My coach ran over, approaching the referee with her clipboard.  "We talked to the head ref," she said.  "He said it was okay for her to wear her scarf in this league.  You can call him if you want."  Having nothing left to say, he pinpointed my neck.  "If someone pulls on it you’ll get choked—can you tie it behind your head or something?"

"No," I replied coldly.  "My scarf will fall off."  I took off my pin and handed it to my concerned coach.

"It’s tucked in really tight into her shirt and unless someone deliberately pulls on it …." she replied, but before she could finish, he walked off defeated, demoted, and unsuccessful with his inadequate excuses—and all that he could do was blow his whistle.

(Sulmaz Zahedi is pictured with her coach)

 

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