AFC mandates push for compromise on FIFA ban of hijab

The Asian Foot­ball Confederation’s women’s com­mit­tee has man­dat­ed world soc­cer body FIFA vice pres­i­dent Prince Ali Bin Al Hus­sein of Jor­dan, to seek FIFA endorse­ment request to allow obser­vant Mus­lim play­ers to wear a head­dress in line with their reli­gious or cul­tur­al beliefs.

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Endorse­ment by FIFA would allow Prince Ali to present the request the secre­tive Inter­na­tion­al Foot­ball Asso­ci­a­tion Board (IFAB), the game’s law­mak­ers, to rule in favour of a head­dress that meets the board’s health and safe­ty stan­dards as well the demands of obser­vant female Mus­lim play­ers.

The AFC’s women’s com­mit­tee, head­ed by AFC vice pres­i­dent Moya Dodd, request­ed Prince Ali to seek the “favourable recon­sid­er­a­tion of the issue by the IFAB at the ear­li­est oppor­tu­ni­ty.”

Prince Ali is expect­ed to raise the issue at FIFA’s next exec­u­tive com­mit­tee meet­ing in Japan on Decem­ber 6. If backed by the world soc­cer body, Prince Ali, could take the issue to IFAB — whose mem­bers are Britain, Wales, Scot­land, North­ern Ire­land and FIFA — next spring.

“I am very pleased that the AFC exec­u­tive com­mit­tee has endorsed the case for review­ing the Laws of the Game in favour of allow­ing a safe head­scarf. This is a cru­cial step for­ward. “Our goal at the end of the day is to ensure that all women are able to play foot­ball at all lev­els with­out any bar­ri­ers. I would par­tic­u­lar­ly like to thank AFC vice-pres­i­dent Moya Dodd, who chairs the women’s com­mit­tee, for her valu­able work on the issue,” Prince Ali said in a state­ment.

The dis­pute over obser­vant Mus­lim women player’s head­dress led in June to the dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion of the Iran­ian women’s nation­al team after they appeared on the pitch in the Jor­dan­ian cap­i­tal Amman for a 2012 Lon­don Olympics qual­i­fi­er against Jor­dan wear­ing the hijab. Three Jor­dan­ian play­ers who wear the hijab were also barred.

FIFA bans the wear­ing of all reli­gious and polit­i­cal sym­bols on the pitch.

The Iran­ian team’s insis­tence on wear­ing the hijab con­tra­dict­ed an agree­ment reached last year in Sin­ga­pore between FIFA and the Iran­ian Foot­ball Fed­er­a­tion (IFF) under which the Ira­ni­ans agreed to the wear­ing of a cap that cov­ered hair but not the neck.

The AFC women’s com­mit­tee man­date fol­lows a gath­er­ing in Amman last month at which promi­nent soc­cer exec­u­tives, women play­ers, coach­es agreed at a brain­storm in Amman that the hijab is a cul­tur­al rather than a reli­gious sym­bol. The meet­ing was con­vened by Prince Ali, a half-broth­er of Jor­dan­ian King Abdul­lah, who was elect­ed to the FIFA exec­u­tive com­mit­tee late last year on a plat­form that called for great women’s rights.

“The hijab issue has tak­en cen­tre stage in foot­ball cir­cles in recent years due to the increas­ing pop­u­lar­i­ty of women’s foot­ball world­wide. It is a cul­tur­al issue that not only affects the game, but also impacts soci­ety and sports in gen­er­al. It is not lim­it­ed to Asia, but extends to oth­er con­ti­nents as well,” the exec­u­tives and play­ers said in a state­ment issued at the end of their brain­storm.

By defin­ing the hijab as a cul­tur­al sym­bol, the group, meet­ing under the aus­pices of the Asian Foot­ball Devel­op­ment Project (AFDP), an NGO found­ed by Prince Ali to advance grass­roots, youth and women’s soc­cer, hoped to lay the ground­work for a com­pro­mise that acknowl­edges the cul­tur­al require­ments of obser­vant Mus­lim women and meets FIFA’s health and safe­ty stan­dards.

In doing so, the group, which includ­ed FIFA Exec­u­tive Com­mit­tee mem­ber and head of the body’s med­ical com­mit­tee Michel D’Hooghe, Moya Dodd, mem­bers of FIFA’s women com­mit­tee as well as rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the soc­cer bod­ies of Jor­dan, Bahrain, Iran and the Unit­ed King­dom, hope to work around FIFA’s ban on the wear­ing of reli­gious or polit­i­cal sym­bols on the pitch.

Soc­cer exec­u­tives said pri­vate­ly that the issue of the hijab had been com­pli­cat­ed by the fact that the ban of the hijab on the pitch is based on a rul­ing by the IFAB that is open to inter­pre­ta­tion by ref­er­ees which has led to dif­fer­ing rul­ings on the pitch. It was the referee’s deci­sion in June that led to Iran’s dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion.

“The rules have to be adapt­ed to the evo­lu­tion of the game and the soci­ety or inter­pret­ed accord­ing­ly,” the group said, not­ing that “FIFA is com­mit­ted to the basic prin­ci­ples of non-dis­crim­i­na­tion and allows on this basis the use of the head cov­er­ing.”

The group said “safe­ty must remain the most impor­tant con­sid­er­a­tion for the use of hijab.” It said that FIFA would coor­di­nate accel­er­at­ed research to ensure that the hijab or head­dress worn by women on the pitch ensured safe­ty in the game. It called on FIFA to con­sid­er “inno­v­a­tive designs …. with full con­sid­er­a­tion of med­ical aspects, par­tic­u­lar­ly safe­ty, aes­thet­ic argu­ments, type of mate­r­i­al.”

The group said that FIFA should weigh low­er safe­ty risks against the greater health ben­e­fit of women play­ing soc­cer and assert­ed that allow­ing the hijab would per­suade more women to become play­ers and empow­er them across cul­tures.

Farideh Khanom Sho­jaei, a mem­ber of the Iran­ian soc­cer body’s women’s com­mit­tee, and Houshang Moghad­das, the inter­na­tion­al rela­tions advi­sor to IFF Pres­i­dent Ali Kafashi­an, have praised the effort to seek a com­pro­mise.

They sug­gest­ed how­ev­er that final agree­ment on a com­pro­mise could still prove dif­fi­cult. “The neck is very impor­tant,” Ms. Sho­jaei said, sug­gest­ing that Iran would insist on a design that cov­ered not only the hair but also neck.

Ms. Sho­jaei and Mr. Moghad­das acknowl­edged that the fact that the hijab is com­pul­so­ry for Iran­ian women play­ers and that Iran impos­es the wear­ing of the hijab on for­eign teams play­ing in the Islam­ic repub­lic was like­ly to remain an issue even if FIFA and IFAB adopt the group’s prin­ci­ples. Iran is the only coun­try that has made the hijab com­pul­so­ry for its play­ers as well as for vis­it­ing for­eign teams.

About The Author:
James M. Dorsey is a senior fel­low at the S. Rajarat­nam School of Inter­na­tion­al Stud­ies at Nanyang Tech­no­log­i­cal Uni­ver­si­ty in Sin­ga­pore and the author of the blog, The Tur­bu­lent World of Mid­dle East Soc­cer.