Coverage abroad | In Islamic world, head scarves not always compulsory football equipment

South Melbourne WSC coach Alexander Aloxopoulos said referees had told Saad, above, that her hijab had to match her jersey color. “[C]ertain things like that … we, you know, we try and get through.” (Michael Clayton-Jones | The Age)

Saad earlier had commented on the hijab and the covering of her skin as one aspect of a “setting apart” in Islam, one expression of what makes Muslims “stranger[s] towards a lot of people, toward everyone in life.” Indeed, the hijab constitutes part of a broader practice of purdah, also including enclosures, screens and curtains to seclude women within the home, said to have originated in Persia before being adopted by Islam following Muslim conquests in the 7th century C.E. Following the attacks of Sept 11, 2001, Saad felt her soccer career was over: “[H]alf of me was just gone because of what happened. And I was afraid that if I do continue playing soccer, I would get that rejection from everyone. But I just had to do it for my sake, for my community, for me as a Muslim” (“Muslim Soccer Player,” New Dimensions, 14 May 03).

Compromises required as a 16-year-old Muslim, living in the Netherlands, form the central tension in the short film Jamila. Produced in 2004, the documentary follows the soccer obsession of Jamila Aitboubkar, an Ajax-loving, playmaking midfielder who maintains a long-running dialogue with her father over her distaste for wearing tracksuit bottoms when she plays. She plays in shorts, baring her knees, but nevertheless persists in wearing hijab.

I never thought of taking off my headdress and I never will. I get strange comments sometimes but I just let it go. Let ’em talk crap. If I went outside without my headdress I’d feel a little naked. I couldn’t do it.

Even before considering the emotional, polity-dividing conversations over how best to integrate Muslim immigrants across a whole society, from such individual stories one can see the appeal for FIFA of falling back on Law 4, covering players’ equipment, when considering hijab. The law, which provides for compulsory equipment—that is, a list of the minimum gear needed to play, leaving options open for “non-basic” needs, such as headgear, protective wear, gloves and so on—offers little guidance in its present form. The multitude of attitudes and preferences has seemingly perplexed the world body, or the body has been confronted with a question, despite earlier cases, that it formerly considered worthy of little consideration. We actually felt a twinge of empathy for the FIFA suits trying to outleg Canadian Broadcasting Corp. reporter Adrienne Arsenault, in dogged pursuit with her fluffy microphone at the International FA Board annual meeting on Mar 3 (see Arsenault’s column, “Football’s Big Flub,” CBC News, Mar 6). But then the twinge passed.

Putting further pressure on FIFA, commentators have been quick to extrapolate from the Mansour incident implications for the balance in Canada between respect for ethnic identities and for the nation as a whole. A column in the Montreal Gazette by Farzana Hassan, president of the Muslim Canadian Congress, says the ability of an 11-year-old girl to play soccer in her head covering has direct implications for “the cultural mosaic.” “Most Canadians agree diversity must be accommodated wherever possible,” Hassan writes. “And though the hijab has become a religious symbol creating barriers within Canadian society, it does not pose dangers to Canadians, as perhaps a burqa and niqab might, because the full veil conceals the identity of the one wearing it. Asmahan Mansour should probably be allowed to play soccer even in her hijab, provided her safety is not in jeopardy” (“A Cultural Balance,” Mar 6).

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