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

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A scolaire (school) girls’ team in Ben Slimane, Morocco, warms up on Mar 2. “For girls in Morocco, there are few options for them if they want to continue playing after they leave school,” writes Matuska. (Copyright © 2007 Nicole Matuska. Used by permission.)

Rabat, Morocco| FIFA, with regard to girls and women wearing head covering during matches, has shown the limitations of setting social policy through the rules of football (see Mar 3). With a global constituency and bedrock conservatism, the rules makers and their FIFA overlords would hardly be able to solve a conundrum that has dogged societies—such as France, Britain and, now, Canada—struggling to integrate this Islamic expression of piety into secular life.

A cursory survey of women’s use of the hijab within football, in both Muslim and non-Muslim lands, shows variance that likely defies a systemic approach.


Beginning in Morocco, Fulbright scholar Nicole Matuska, researching women’s football while playing herself for l’Association Cité des Arts in the capital, Rabat, writes that a minority of women players choose to wear hijab during games, perhaps two or three per team. She says, “From my experience, the hijab here in Morocco is less of an issue than in other parts of the Muslim world,” with the garment carrying multiple interpretations. Some who wear the hijab and play soccer receive more grief for pursuing what is perceived as a masculine game. Others earn plaudits for choosing to remain covered. Writing for Abroad View magazine, Matuska—who graduated from Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, last year—recalls her first time seeing ACDA compete, in Nov 04 during a study-abroad program:

Some women wore pants and long-sleeved jerseys, attempting to cover all visible skin in accordance with Islamic law. They were the ones who tucked their hair under the traditional hijab, pinning it tightly to their heads so that even a hard sprint could not shake it loose. Most women, however, simply wore their short-sleeved jerseys and shorts, exposing their bare legs and arms. (“Headers in Hijab: Women’s Soccer in Morocco,” 1 Sept 06)

Matuska as part of her research is attempting to organize girls’ leagues in less developed sectors of Morocco and to produce a documentary on the women’s game. Fleeting insights into the hijab within women’s soccer have come from previous short films and long-form journalism. The ABC network in Australia in 2003 produced a segment on Afifa Saad, a forerunner to Asmahan Mansour, whose ouster from a youth tournament outside Montreal in late February, due to her head covering, occasions these meditations on the place of religious headwear in the world game.

The ABC program aired nearly a year before Saad, 10 years older than Mansour at the time, was told she could not compete for South Melbourne Women’s Soccer Club before a Women’s Premier League match versus Keilor Park (Rachel Wells and Michael Lynch, “Soccer Game Called Off Over Headscarf,” The Age, 27 Apr 04). According to Saad, the referee told her, “You can’t play with it on. Is there something wrong with your head?” Saad replied, “No, I’m Muslim,” but left the field in tears with the game having been abandoned. The referee was reprimanded, and the Victoria Soccer Federation clarified its policies.

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).

The Ontario Human Rights Commissions said the decision regarding Mansour “strikes at the very heart of individual religious freedoms” (James Gordon, “Hijab Debate at ‘Very Heart’ of Freedoms,” Ottawa Citizen, Mar 7). The Muslim population in Canada amounts to 750,000 out of some 33 million, or slightly more than 2 percent.

Bowen writes that, from 2003–04, “the headscarf became a convenient, and prominent, symbol of external and internal dangers to France.”

Journalists, cultural critics and novelists have all put their minds to why the scarf worn over the head, “these bits of cloth,” in the words of John Bowen, author of Why the French Don’t Like Headscarves (Princeton, 2006), bears a symbolic weight out of proportion to the number of women actually wearing it. Bowen began his study after two girls, Lila and Alma Lévy, were expelled from a school in suburban Paris for wearing the hijab to class. The incident occurred on 10 Oct 03. By 15 Mar 04, the French government had passed a law prohibiting from state schools clothing that indicated religious affiliation.

The French, in the analysis from Bowen and others, were preserving the fiercely held national principle of laí¯cité—an extremely strong version of secularism. Politicians in Britain, meanwhile, are content to place such decisions in the hands of school governors.

From Turkey—especially in the writing of Nobel Prize–winning novelist Orhan Pamuk—one reads about another cultural paradigm that casts wearing of the hijab in a different perspective from that familiar in the West. Still bound to the reforming ethos of Kemal Atatí¼rk, founder of modern Turkey, yet also, especially in less urbanized areas, fiercely devoted to Islam, the Turkish polity—for the Islamic woman, especially—presents a confusing space. A woman’s removal of her head covering could variously be read as her casting off a yoke, or as a shocking offense. Persisting in wearing the head scarf, contrary to the rights implicit in wearing hijab in the West, could be read as a woman’s self-denial, or as an expression of supreme devotion running counter to the state’s desires.

The centerpiece of Pamuk’s novel Snow, presentation of the Atatí¼rk- and state-friendly drama My Fatherland or the Head Scarf, dramatizes these questions. Yet women in the novel, living in the far eastern city of Kars, where young girls have been wearing hijab in defiance of school rules, struggle with what wearing or not wearing the scarf might mean for the sense of themselves. Says one female character:

I can’t concentrate, I can’t imagine myself without a head scarf. Whenever I try to concentrate, either I turn into an evil stranger … or I turn into a woman who can’t stop thinking about sex. If I could close my eyes just once and imagine myself going bareheaded through the doors into school, walking down the corridor, and going into class, I’d find the strength to go through with this, and then, God willing, I’d be free. I would have removed the head scarf of my own free will, and not because the police have forced me. But for now I just can’t concentrate, I just can’t bring myself to imagine that moment.

We do not know whether such represents the thoughts of women footballers who persist in pairing their love of soccer—what some players, in Fulbright scholar Matuska’s research, refer to as their raison d’être—with religious observance. Mansour’s family, as of last week, was still focused on more quotidian concerns.

Said Maria, Asmahan’s mother: “I’m just trying to protect my daughter and keep her happy and confident.”


  • After visits to 17 cities in Québec and at an expense of $5 million, scholars Gérard Bouchard and Charles Taylor concluded in May 08 that the hijab posed no threat to provincial values. “Let’s finish with the head scarf,” reads the report, as cited by the Montreal Gazette. Women wear the garment out of choice, not coercion, the report says; further, the presence of the hijab in public life offers important opportunities for multicultural connection.
  • The Asmahan Mansour case represents one sign of “a growing belief among Quebecers that secularism has been sacrificed at multiculturalism’s altar,” writes Martin Patriquin in an assessment of Canada’s racial attitudes (“Canada: A Nation of Bigots?Maclean’s, Oct 22). Quebec’s “reasonable accommodation” hearings have continued, highlighting the discomfort with the hijab.

    Dozens of speakers at the reasonable accommodation hearings have teed off on the head coverings—often mistaking them for the more restrictive niqabs or burkas—by suggesting they represent the subjugation of women, or even the spectre of an advancing Muslim theocracy on Canadian shores.

  • FIFA’s fuzzy guidance on head coverings has prevented Ansar Women’s FC of east Glasgow—Scotland’s first female Muslim football team—from playing competitively in the Scottish Women’s Football Association (Marc Horne, “Hijab Ban Red-Cards Muslim Team,” Scotland on Sunday, Jun 24). Actor Atta Yaqub, founder of parent club Ansar FC, has asked for FIFA to reconsider its policy on religious headgear.

    That the governing body is stunting opportunity for development of women’s football is clear to Ansar women’s coach Zuby Malik. Reigning European and England champion Arsenal Ladies had expressed interest in one of Ansar’s players. “There is so much talent in the Asian community in Scotland,” says Malik, “but this sends out the signal that football is not for them. Asians are already woefully under-represented in Scottish sport and this is another huge blow.”

  • In mid-April, a tae kwon do team consisting mainly of 8- to 12-year-old Muslim girls was barred from a tournament south of Montreal. Tournament organizers again cited the head coverings as a safety risk.
  • The place of Muslim women in Québec society and in Canada more broadly, as of late March, continues to inflect a conversation over rights and accommodation. At a Montreal jail, a female guard trainee, Sondos Abdelatif, was told she could not wear hijab on duty; an Islamic rights group suggested a Velcro-fastened compromise garment.

    In advance of Québec elections on Mar 26, the province’s elections chief reversed an earlier ruling permitting women to vote wearing niqab, a face covering, as long as they signed a statement swearing to their identity. Muslim groups feared adverse impact on turnout.

    Barbara Hall, chief of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, argues for viewing the hijab issue within the broader context of accommodation for the disabled (“Let’s Try to Be a Bit More ‘Accommodating,’ Shall We?Toronto Globe and Mail, Mar 27).

    My point is that accommodation is an everyday occurrence in all our lives; we just need to get used to the idea of extending the concept further. … Accommodation is a core Canadian value. One of the reasons I am proud to be a Canadian is because we don’t just tolerate our differences—we celebrate them. In Toronto, where I live and work, I might hear a dozen or more different languages spoken during a short ride on the subway. That’s a good thing; it makes us all richer.

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 (3)

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  1. Maggie says:

    I’ve known Muslim soccer players in Singapore who wear hijab (tudung) while they play and in civilian life—but underneath, their heads are shaved ’cause it’s so darn hot!

    If I were a bald lady, I might keep something on my head too …

  2. Fatima says:

    I was an avid sports player as a child, but never considered a career in sports as I never saw any Muslim females playing with hijab and modest clothing. And I wasn’t going to compromise myself. WIthout knowing it, I made a choice at a young age between sports and my values. I chose my values. I still play sports but only with friends. I fear joining a sports club because they may tell me what to wear. I dont wear hijab but I always play in long pants as opposed to shorts. I understand regulators such as FIFA have their safety rules to maintain. But maybe we should overlook all the social and political ideologies and go back to basics. The only consideration is: Is wearing a head covering unsafe for female athletes? I do not think so. There is always a compromise. In this case I think that since a sports hijab was never needed, hijab suitable for sports and religion has not materialised. But it will. This debate is good because it will force progressions in technology, sports and women all around the world without compromising values.

  3. [...] came to Morocco a year ago to study women’s football as a Fulbright scholar [see Mar 11]. For a year now, I have been playing football as well as observing, interviewing and living with a [...]

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