They Just Want To Play Soccer


When the inaugural Youth Olympic Games take place in Singapore later this year, one team will be conspicuous by its absence.

The Asian Football Confederation has barred the Iranian girls' soccer team from participating, informing them that their headscarves are in violation of FIFA rules which state that "basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements". The IOC has upheld FIFA's entitlement to enforce "the rules of the game".

Caught between those rules and Iranian authorities who will not countenance an Iranian female team appearing with uncovered hair before a mixed-gender crowd, the girls will be staying home.

The expulsion of the hijab-wearing footballers clashes with a growing industry in hijabi sportswear, including the "burqini", the Australian brand that was highlighted as a symbol of reconciliation in the wake of the Cronulla riots. However, rather than viewing hijabi sportswear as a symbol of Muslim women's participation in public life, sporting and municipal authorities have too often treated it as an alien intrusion.

FIFA is citing safety concerns, as well as the prohibition on political and religious symbols, but "safety" seems as transparent an alibi as the "hygiene" reasons cited for banning the burqini from various swimming pools and beaches in France and Italy. In Australia, women in burqinis are routinely subjected to derogatory racist comments on the beach. The message being sent out is "we don't want to play with you until you make yourselves look more like us".

I have always avoided participating in organised sport as assiduously as Richard Dawkins avoids participating in organised religion. If my school had decreed that students could not play sport while wearing hijab, I would have put on a headscarf in kindergarten and not removed it until schoolies week.

In contrast, many of my hijabi friends participate in a wide range of sport and physical activities. They jog, they play tennis, they practice martial arts, they don their burquinis and head for the surf. And they are furious at attempts to decree what they can and can't wear while exercising and playing sport. Australian hijabi Susan Carland says "I wore hijab while rollerblading, swimming, playing tennis, ice skating, playing soccer (TAKE THAT, FIFA), doing cardio, riding my bike, and going to the gym. And also while kicking the footy with my kids on the oval."

Muslim scholars have said that exercise is recommended or even compulsory for Muslim women as well as men, pointing to texts in which the Prophet is reported as advocating horse-riding, running, and swimming. But many Muslim political leaders have tried to place boundaries around what types of exercise are permissible, where it can be undertaken and with whom, who is allowed to watch, and — of course — what clothes must be worn. While there is a general consensus that women should not be denied the benefits of exercise, these boundaries often effectively deny women the right to exercise their right to exercise.

Iranian women soccer players are accustomed to being seen as transgressive. Women's role as sporting spectators as well as participants has long been a contested social and political issue. After the 1979 revolution, women were prohibited from attending soccer matches in order to shelter them from the sight of the male players' skimpy outfits and the bawdy chants of the crowd. But the female fans were not to be denied. In 1997, thousands of them stormed the stadium in which the Iranian team was being welcomed home after a victorious match abroad.

In 2006, President Ahmadinejad announced that women would be allowed to attend matches, provided that they remained in separate stands, only to retract this decision after clerics ruled that it was unislamic. Female soccer fans were left trying to catch a glimpse of the game from outside the stadium, and Ziba Mir-Hosseini reports that "at every major match, young girls manage to get in by dressing as boys".

In recent years, women's football and other sport has surged in popularity in Iran. Iran hosts high-profile events such as the Muslim Women's Olympics and the national women's soccer team was established in 2005. However, women's teams must operate within strict boundaries, having to play in single-sex venues or wearing hijab. Matches against foreign teams whose members are not similarly attired cannot be televised, and of course women cannot train under male coaches. Last year, officials from one of Iran's leading clubs were suspended and fined after an informal match between the men's and women's teams during overlapping training sessions.

Iranian women soccer players have also had to fight an uphill battle to convince the relevant authorities that they could play the game while remaining within religious boundaries, only to be told by FIFA that their designated uniform is out of bounds.

We can only speculate about whether or not the Iranian girls would wear headscarves if the decision were left entirely to them. My guess is that some of them would and others would not. But I feel pretty certain about one thing: first and foremost, they want to play soccer.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.