Another FIFA Fiasco: Iran Women Banned from Olympic Qualifier Over Headscarves

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(Ali Jarekji/Reuters)

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week joined the chorus of critics blasting soccer’s governing body, lashing out at FIFA for banning the Iranian women’s national team from an Olympic qualifier on account of their headscarves. The team forfeited the qualifier against Jordan last Friday because they would not play without their specially-designed head and neck-covering scarves. FIFA says the team’s headgear violates uniform rules that set out before the match — a claim denied by Iran. “Theses are the dictators and colonialists who want to impose their lifestyle on others,” Ahmadinejad said.

This is the latest salvo in a year-long battle over what constitutes appropriate Islamic dress for female players, notes the Washington Post:

In April 2010 FIFA announced that it was planning to ban headscarves and other religious outings during the 2012 Olympics. Following the ruling, Iran’s team designed special headscarves that players wrapped tightly around their heads and necks. The team said they were in line with guidelines set by the football association.

FIFA did not agree and told the Associated Press on Monday that its officials had been right to stop the Iranian women from playing the qualifier. Iranian officials were “informed thoroughly” before Friday’s match against Jordan that the headscarf covering a woman’s neck is banned for safety reasons, an unidentified FIFA official said.

The Iranian football organization, which is lead by allies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is planning to protest the ruling.

Let the men at FIFA and the government of Iran go to battle over how to dress women athletes. All the bluster in the world won’t change the fact that a group of talented women lost the chance to play at the Olympics because of their outfits. Writing for CBSNews, Dave Zirin captures well the hypocrisy of the whole affair:

So what is really going on here? First of all, we should dismiss any of FIFA’s concerns about the welfare of the women involved. Blatter is an unreconstructed sexist and without resistance, women’s soccer would look something like the Lingerie Football League. The man who bans the hijab proposed in 2004 that women players wear “hot pants” on the pitch to boost the sport’s popularity. He said that the “tighter shorts” would produce “a more female aesthetic.”  In addition, for years, human rights organizations have asked Blatter to take a stand and say something about the horrific influx of sex-slave trafficking that accompanies the arrival of the World Cup. Blatter’s cold response, “Prostitution and trafficking of women does not fall within the sphere of responsibility of an international sports federation but in that of the authorities and the lawmakers of any given country.” In other words, he’s not exactly Susan Faludi.

Conversely, by denying the team the opportunity to show their genius in full Muslim dress, Blatter becomes an agent of their oppression. As Alyssa Rosenberg wrote for Think Progress, “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.”

What worries me is the chilling effect the ban could have on the sport. Shahrzah Mozafar, the team’s former head coach expressed concern that stricter guidelines would dissuade Iranian girls and women from playing. “This ruling means that women soccer in Iran is over,” she said. Let’s hope she’s wrong.

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