Whose heads are covered? | Rules-addled Quebecers keep hijab, but not politics, off the field

Mansour with members of Nepean Hotspurs Select. (Ottawa Citizen)

Laval, Québec | Eleven-year-old Asmahan (Azzy) Mansour walked onto an indoor field at a youth soccer tournament in suburban Montreal Sunday and into the maelstrom of Canada’s identity politics. As is her custom, she wore traditional Islamic headdress, the hijab, and answered the call for a substitute from Nepean Hotspurs Select coach Louis Maneiro. She tells the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. what happened:

It was my shift on the field, and, as soon as I stepped in, [the referee] said, “Get off the field,” just kept on screaming, “Get off the field,” yelling at me, “Get off the field.” … I was [thinking], “What did I do wrong? Why can’t I play?” … I didn’t get off the field. I just stayed on until the coach came, until Louis was talking to him. … They were starting to speak French, and Louis said, “That’s enough,” and we just walked. (Ottawa Morning, CBC, Feb 26)

Her team and other youth sides representing the Nepean club, based in Ottawa, withdrew from the ARS Laval National tournament. They left the field in solidarity with Mansour, opening a debate on FIFA rules governing religious headgear and, more broadly, on “reasonable accommodation” for religious minorities within Québec.

The debate over religious tolerance within one of Canada’s most culturally distinctive provinces has helped frame an ongoing campaign for Québec’s top ministerial post; the election is Mar 26. Incumbent Premier Jean Charest, whose Liberal Party leads a three-way contest in recent polls, backed the position of the Quebec Soccer Federation and that of tournament organizers who claimed they were enforcing FIFA equipment guidelines, not violating Mansour’s rights, when preventing her from coming on as a substitute. Charest compared the incident to one from his youth, when a referee chided players for failing to keep team jerseys tucked into their shorts. “This is part of the culture of this sport,” said Charest, referring to respect for the referee (Graeme Hamilton, “Charest Backs ‘No Hijab’ Ruling in Soccer,” National Post, Feb 27). Parti Québécois leader André Boisclair, running second to Charest, rejected his opponent’s “meddling.”

The International Football Association Board, the body with authority over the Laws of the Game, has said it will discuss policy regarding the Muslim head scarf at its annual general meeting Mar 3 in Manchester, England (see below). Already on the agenda was an amendment to Law 4, suggested by FIFA, seemingly aimed at curtailing players, during celebratory frenzies, from broadcasting messages of personal salvation borne on undergarments: “Jesus Loves Me,” and the like. The proposed amendment would relate to compulsory equipment—the hijab most certainly would be regarded as “non-basic”—and would bar undershirts containing “any political, religious or personal statements.” Advertising already is banned from undershirts.

Nepean Hotspurs Select was grouped with seven other teams in an U-12 age bracket at the weekend girls’ tournament. Two matches were played without incident on Saturday before Mansour was told to remove her hijab.

The roots of Mansour’s traumatic weekend perhaps date to late January, when the Quebec Soccer Federation, in a memo to organizers of the Laval event, wrote within a series of guidelines, “Le port du voile islamique ou de tout autre objet religeux n’est pas autorisé” (“The wearing of the Islamic veil or any other religious item is not permitted”) (CBC News, Feb 25). On one hand, the document provides cover for the actions of referee Lyes Arfa, who, coincidentally, is Muslim, on the morning of Feb 25. Nepean coaches and administrators admit that they were aware of the regulation, but did not expect it to be enforced.

But the explicit banning of religious headwear, with specific mention of the “Islamic veil,” weakens a statement by Quebec Soccer Federation technical director Valmie Ouellet that the referee based his decision solely on safety concerns. (Referees allowed Mansour to compete in two matches on Saturday.) Mansour’s hijab had the potential, Ouellet says, to put Mansour at risk. “If it becomes untucked and the player is running on a breakaway, for example, and another player pulls on it, I would imagine it would be quite a jar to the neck and head of the player wearing the headgear.”

Further, prohibition of headgear of the type Mansour was wearing contravenes FIFA rules as well as current interpretation and practice worldwide and elsewhere in Canada. According to FIFA’s own commentary on Law 4, governing players’ equipment, “Modern protective equipment such as headgear, facemasks, knee and arm protectors made of soft, lightweight, padded material are not considered to be dangerous and are therefore permitted.” These guidelines were updated in 2005. On 30 Nov 06, Jordan’s women’s team made its international debut at the Asian Games in Doha, Qatar, with three players in hijab. Jordan lost to Japan, 0–13.

We consulted the author of RefBlog, a credentialed referee who has been chronicling game situations and “the human side” of the game’s laws since 2003. He mentions the parallel case of Afifa Saad, a talented Australian player ordered to remove her hijab during a Victorian Soccer Federation match in 2004. The referee was threatened with disciplinary action and the policy toward the hijab clarified.

Iranian players Saedeh Ahmadi, right, and Shihrin Nasiri, left, fight for the ball during the West Asian Soccer Federation Women’s Championship in 2005. Players in Iran compete in hijab unless only women are present. (AP | Muhammad Al-Kisswany)

Although regulations in Ontario, British Columbia and within the U.S. Soccer Federation (see memo on “Player Dress,” 22 Nov 02) sanction religious head coverings, the RefBlog author still believes that coaches should err on the side of caution to gain clearance beforehand. “In these, and pretty much any situation where you might be outside the mindset of what is ‘normal,’ it’s best to cover your[self] ahead of time, and get written approval from the league” (see “When Do You Fight the Fight?” RefBlog, Feb 28).


The rules-related controversies perhaps will prove easier to resolve than the cultural disputes. Toronto Globe and Mail columnist Sheema Khan, a hijab-wearing footballer and Harvard Ph.D. (chemical physics), asks in an online forum for stakeholders in the debate to “all just calm down” (“Sheema Khan on the Hijab and Soccer,” Feb 27). She writes that creative solutions have resulted from internal quarrels over multiculturalism: “This may be an imperfect analogy, but the present hijab brouhaha is reminiscent of the debate over the permissibility of allowing a Sikh to serve in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police while wearing his turban.”

A questioner asks why “Muslims insist that the hijab is religiously mandated by the Qur’an and the Hadith when it is not so?” As with the Laws of the Game, the Qur’an calls for interpretation, with women and men reading 24:31 as a requirement for modesty in all things, even football:

Enjoin believing women to turn their eyes away from temptation and to preserve their chastity; not to display their adornments (except such as are normally revealed); to draw their veils over their bosoms and not to display their finery except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their step-sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women-servants, and their slave-girls … (trans. N. J. Dawood)

Unknown is how the judgments surrounding Mansour will affect other Muslim girls in Québec wishing to play soccer or other sports and wishing, at the same time, to uphold their beliefs. Uncomfortable for many is the approach initiated in Iran of allowing such competition only in sequestration, such as at the quadrennial Muslim Women’s Games. A cultural retreat seems absurd, of course, within a progressive Western democracy, but so do measures like those enacted by the town council in Hérouxville, Québec. The council in January approved a “code of conduct” for the few immigrants under its jurisdiction, taking it upon itself to permit women to show their faces in public, to drive, to write checks. Even more provocatively, the measure when passed prohibited public stoning of women and female circumcision, aspects of the code since stricken. The manifestly insensitive code helped lead Charest to call for a panel to study the “reasonable accommodation” issue.

A challenge for the hijab-wearing athlete, according to Sarah J. Murray, writing in 2002 for the UK-based Women’s Sports Foundation, is to reconcile the joy of sport and athletic movement with the mandates of Islamic dress that, to outsiders, seem confining. The demands exist within Islamic societies such as Iran and in the West. Of the nascent Islamic woman athlete, Murray writes:

[W]hat if a prodigal Mia Hamm is growing up in Iran today? Does she know that the mandates of her dress code need not limit the strength and spirit of the body beneath the hijab? Will she have the opportunity and encouragement to develop her dynamic, natural talent? Will she grab a heroine’s inspiration from a sound bite she hears on public radio and dream one day of representing her country on an international sport stage? How can we make sure that she does? (“Unveiling Myths: Muslim Women and Sport,” 16 Jan 02)

Multicultural appeal and openness, as Khan points out, are soccer’s hallmarks; they may be the game’s spiritual core. Mansour confirms that the incident has not yet affected her love of the game. She will continue to play, while thinking to add: “But I don’t think I’ll go back to Laval.”

Five angry men? Members of the International FA Board demonstrate the diversity on view at the Mar 3 annual meeting.

Our view | International FA Board opts for ‘status quo ante’ on head coverings

Manchester, England, Mar 3 | The eight-member International FA Board engaged in “heated discussion” concerning the Asmahan Mansour incident at its annual general meeting. In the end, according to the CBC’s Adrienne Arsenault, “the answer kept coming back that the laws are what the laws are” (“Soccer Officials Fail to Change Rules about Wearing Hijab,” Mar 3; see CBC video).

The IFAB’s official statement, for which the phrase “pass the buck” was probably invented, reads: “The wearing of a hijab is already covered by Law 4 of Players’ Equipment.”

In the immediate aftermath of the judgment—in addition to numerous headlines worldwide proclaiming that FIFA had “banned” the hijab—a spokeswoman for the United Muslim Women of Canada suggested that the United Nations might be brought into the fray to address the “human rights violations.” “We, as Muslim women,” said Anisa Ali, “have a right to participate in sporting activities just like non-Muslim women.”

The most curious comments in Manchester came from Brian Barwick, chief executive of England’s FA, which hosted the Saturday meeting: “[F]rom my own association’s viewpoint this is not an issue we have much knowledge or experience of. We believe our football is inclusive.”

In fact, the English FA supports a separate Ethics and Sports Equity division with an eye toward bringing underrepresented groups, such as Muslim women, blind footballers, disabled players and so on, under the association’s welcoming umbrella. On its website, the FA backs a British futsal team’s participation in the International Islamic Women’s Games in Tehran in 2005 where headscarves were required, although not necessarily during the competition if only women were present.

The site quotes Lucy Faulkner, the Ethics and Sports Equity manager, as saying that the event emphasizes a “Football for All policy”: “We encourage and aim to increase the involvement of groups at all levels of the game, so I am delighted by the prospects of this competition. Ethics and sports equity is a part of everything we do at the FA.”

Another example, from the FA’s own archive, of rules being modified to suit a particular situation concerns Asian clubs in a Preston men’s league being granted FA permission in 2005 to lengthen players’ shorts to address concerns over modesty. Faulkner mentions contact with a local imam and with league officials that led to the FA waiver. The association, she adds, is “committed to supporting racial equality as this underpins all our policies and thinking.”

As precedents exist for the use of non-compulsory equipment in FIFA-sanctioned competition—gloves for field players during cold weather, auxiliary head protection such as that worn by Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Cech in the Feb 25 Carling Cup final, and so on—such accommodation by the founding national football association demonstrates that rules can be adapted, when merit exists, to serve an inclusive purpose.

On the same day as its debate over the hijab, the international board backed experimentation with an elaborate detection system to settle future controversies over whether a ball has fully crossed the goal line. It also barred players from wearing masks while celebrating goals, a problem we did not know existed.

If flexibility is possible on such issues, both substantive and bizarre, we would hope for IFAB, the English FA and other FIFA member associations that similar weight be given to the women’s game. And the right to wear hijab on the pitch seems as much a women’s issue as a religious issue.

An 11-year-old girl waits for an answer.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (4)

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  1. [...] excellent blog The Global Game has a post on head coverings in soccer. The story arose from the recent article in the Globe and Mail on an 11 year-old girl who was not [...]

  2. Muna says:

    I love playing soccer, and I live in Toronto. It’s not fair because I play soccer for many teams, and no one pull[s] my headgear off. I [am] very mad because I wanted to become a professional athlete when I grow up. I am 13 years old; in the future, I wish they [would] change this rule.

  3. Another Referee says:

    What a biased article. This issue is solely based on safety, and the opinion can be different based on the referee on the field that day. This is not a religious issue, nor is it an issue of personal freedoms. The issue noted concerning writing on undergarments has nothing to do with religion. Your example of “Jesus Loves Me” is used to inflame the reader. A better example would be “The Soccer Chicks Rock,” “Nike” or any other advertisement or slogan. These are all not allowed—it is not only religious sayings. Safety is the main concern. If a referee believes an article of clothing, jewlery, cast and so on is dangerous to themselves or another player then that player cannot play with that dangerous condition. Referee’s decision. Period. Nothing to do with religion.

  4. John says:

    The official’s argument that the headscarf is unsafe because if “another player pulls on it, [he] would imagine it would be quite a jar to the neck and head of the player wearing the headgear” is not valid.

    The exact same thing can be said if a woman has her hair tied in a ponytail, which it seems most female soccer players do. In fact, the ponytail is less safe because if you pull on it, it will cause a jar to the neck, but if you pull on a hijab, it will simply come off.

    So are women athletes supposed to sport men’s short hairstyles now?

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