FIFA Headscarf Ban Casts a Pall on the Olympics, Is Generally Ridiculous

The Iranian women's soccer team.

The decision by FIFA officials to stop the Iranian women’s soccer team from playing in an Olympic qualifier because they wear close-fitting headscarves is truly unfortunate and casts an advance pall over next year’s games. It’s true that the Iranians were in violation of rules that have been in place since 2007. But by jumping on the headscarf ban bandwagon, the football association’s capitulating to bad, trendy public policy that, in this case, has the added ill effect of pushing women out of an arena where they can win respect and public support along with Olympic medals.

The question of whether banning headscarves in public schools and other public fora will force European Muslims into closer alliance with their neighbors of other faiths has been so thoroughly and exhaustively debated that it doesn’t really make sense to rehash it. But it’s worth revisiting this Foreign Policy piece from March on the strawman that’s haunting Europe as leaders across the continent blame multiculturalism for their national woes even as they fail to alter compelling visions for a society that’s worth buying into no matter your denomination.

FIFA rules declare that players “must not use equipment or wear anything that is dangerous to himself or another player (including any kind of jewellery).” That rule has applied to headscarves since 2007, and apparently applies to neckwarmers, too. When FIFA debated banning the latter, an official said “There may be a safety issue—if for example a player was running through on goal and an opponent grabbed his snood, that could pose a potential danger to his neck.” But a ban closer-fitting headscarves on safety grounds seems like fairly dramatic overstretch. This ain’t Quidditch; people aren’t going to be mysteriously attacked by their own well-designed equipment. It’s not as easy to get a handful of headscarf as it is of a chunky neckwarmer, and if another player uses a headscarf or a neckwarmer as a weapon of strangulation, the rules on fouls seem to cover that possibility rather handily and provide quite adequate protection for women players who choose to keep their hair and necks covered.

And if we’re really concerned with how women are perceived and treated in Muslim communities, it seems hugely counterproductive to adopt policies that force women to choose between abiding by the tenets of their faith and participating in activities that let them demonstrate their physical prowess and strategic intelligence. Sport is an imperfect and uneven engine of equality, but it’s a chance to embody regional or national pride, to force fans to weigh their love of winning against prejudices they may hold about race, gender, or sexual orientation. Iran hasn’t exactly dominated the Summer Games, and it would be interesting to see how the country reacted if women brought the country some glory on that stage. To be fair, the women’s soccer team is a work in progress, but it’s too bad they won’t get the chance to test themselves further against international competition, to get that chance to be a very 21st century Cinderella story.


Obviously I don’t believe that theocratic states like Iran or Saudi Arabia are the best test cases for how women relate to and make choices surrounding their practice of Islam or any other religion. That said, 1) women from non-theocratic states may want to play professional sports and cover their heads, 2) I think it’s up to individual players to choose what compromises they’ll make in order to continue to play. This is a rule without a sporting justification that ends up making it harder for women to play, not making Iran more eager to integrate with the West and promote religious tolerance.

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