You’d think Iranian women players had enough going against them without FIFA adding to their troubles. Playing soccer/football has been impossible for many women in Iran since the Islamic Revolution of 1979 which brought in strict rules about the segregation of the sexes and other restrictions for women under the government’s interpretation of Islamic Law.
Many in the country see women’s interest in soccer/football as a challenge to women’s roles under Islamic Law. Timothy Grainy reports in his recent book that an Iranian newspaper said that the growing interest among Iranian women in soccer “is not evidence of ethical correctness. There are a lot of people in the world who would like alcohol, drugs, and gambling, all of which are ugly, unpleasant and forbidden habits.”
Women and girls in Iran are also banned from watching games in stadiums. A great movie, Offside (2006), told the story of a group of female fans who dressed as men to try to sneak into the stadium to watch Iran play an international (sadly, only trailers and a non-subtitled version is available on YouTube).
That said, Iran hasn’t been a total footy-free zone for girls and women. Futsal, a 5-a-side version of the game that can be played indoors, has allowed females in Iran an opportunity to play and develop skills while keeping on the right side of Islamic Law. In addition, Iran recently fielded a team to try to qualify for the Olympics.
What Iranian players wear has always been central to religious concerns about sport. Iranian law dictates that women must dress modestly and cover their head in public. In practice this means that even when playing Futsal, the indoor, female-only version of the game, players are required to cover their legs and arms and wear a headscarf. The Iranian National Team uniform is a full-body suit that also covers the player’s head and neck.
What the players wear is also of concern to FIFA. The FIFA rules for uniforms and equipment state that “Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.” Initially, FIFA felt that headscarves were in violation of this rule.
However, behind the scenes negotiations with parties interested in developing the girl’s and women’s game in Muslim countries were making some head way towards FIFA seeing the headscarves as a cultural and not purely a religious message. It was understood that if the design of the headscarves met certain safety standards they would be allowed.
It was with newly designed, safety-compliant headscarves that the Iranian team took to the field last week for their Olympic qualifier with Jordan.
Sadly only minutes before the game, the Iranian team was informed that their suits did not conform to FIFA safety regulations. They were not allowed to play the game and, therefore, will not qualify for the Olympics. Some of the players were in tears, according to Iran’s Press TV , and I don’t blame them.
The Washington Post reported:
“This ruling means that women’s soccer in Iran is over,” said Shahrzad Mozafar, the team’s former head coach. She said that now that FIFA is no longer allowing Iranian women to wear scarves, the Iranian government will no longer send them abroad for competitions. “Headscarves are simply what we wear in Iran,” she said.
…Mozafar said the ruling killed professional athletic ambitions of Iranian women.
“When a serious women athlete can’t participate internationally, which ambitions are left for her?” she said.
FIFA’s claims that the current objections are due to safety issues are hard to take at face value. Research and design development has made the headscarves detachable with velcro and magnets. A medical expert involved in the FIFA process recently made this ruling:
…there is no medical basis to prevent women from playing football with sports headscarves that are designed for quick release in the event of inadvertent contact.
So called, health and safety concerns have been spuriously used as arguments against letting women play soccer/football and a range of other sports for a long time all over the world.
If the safety concerns don’t hold water, what is behind FIFA’s current ban on the Iranian team? Are they still concerned about headscarves being a purely religious statement?
If so, they should ask themselves whether or not the headscarf could be a statement about something else. Over and above being the law in Iran, could a headscarf be a statement about identity? Could it be a statement about cultural norms?
Could it be a proud statement about what the women have had to go through to play the game at all? I grew up in what many readers might consider a comparative paradise of Title IX and Midwest America and still had to endure comments and other pressures that suggested the sport was not for females. Only last year, I heard similar arguments used to dissuade little girls in Scotland from playing the sport. I can only imagine what it might be like for girls and women in Iran.
FIFA should compare what it thinks it achieves by not letting these women play with the message of intolerance they are sending around the world. They also need to think about how this message might lead to lost playing opportunities and possibly much worse for Muslim girls and women everywhere.
Come of FIFA, let them play!