Players of Iran's women national football team warm up in 2009.
While the battle to secure the goals of successful protests in post-revolt Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has largely moved from the street to the polling station and backroom horse trading, the campaign for a woman’s head dress on the pitch that meets security and safety standards is being waged in the secretive board rooms of authorities that govern association football. © © Amir Poormand - AFP/ISNA/File
Players of Iran's women national football team warm up in 2009.
James M. Dorsey
Last updated: May 29, 2012

Religion and sports: Can Muslim women wear a headdress on the football pitch?

James M. Dorsey explores the secretive board room dealings that will shape the future of Muslim women in the world's most popular sport.

Proponents of allowing observant Muslim female football players to wear a headdress and anti-autocratic protesters in the Middle East and North Africa are running up against similar conservative attempts to roll back their achievements. Ironically, they are both confronting alliances that at times cut across confessional boundaries.

While the battle to secure the goals of successful protests in post-revolt Egypt, Tunisia and Libya has largely moved from the street to the polling station and backroom horse trading, the campaign for a woman’s headdress on the pitch that meets security and safety standards is being waged in the secretive board rooms of authorities that govern association football.

While protesters in the Middle East and North Africa have learnt the hard way that toppling an autocrat is but the first step to ensuring greater freedom and social justice, pro-headdress campaigners are discovering that tentative board decisions are no more than tentative and open to challenge. That is even truer given world football body FIFA’s lack of transparency and accountability and its failure at times to avoid conflicts of interest.

FIFA Executive Committee member, medical doctor and head of the football body’s medical committee Michel D’Hooghe, in the latest twist in the campaign for observant Muslim female football player’s rights, has thrown into doubt a decision last March by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) that sets the rules for association football to temporarily allow the wearing of a headdress that meets safety and security criteria while various designs and models are tested. IFAB decided at the meeting that it would take its final decision in July based on the testing results.

Speaking at a news conference at last week’s FIFA congress in Budapest, Dr. D’Hooghe, in a sudden about face withdrew from his earlier backing of the IFAB decision saying that “we have received some samples and some doctors, including from the Muslim countries, said they (headscarves) represented a danger. When a girl is running at speed someone can hit the head scarf and that can lead to head lesions,” he said. Dr D’Hooghe suggested that further testing may be needed.

It was not immediately clear what prompted Dr. D’Hooghe’s turnaround and he did not respond to requests for comment.

Dr. D’Hooghe was a co-drafter and signatory of a statement that favoured allowing a headdress issued last October at a meeting in Amman of football executives, referees, players and this reporter convened by FIFA Vice President Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah who campaigned for his football post on a platform that called for greater women’s rights.

The statement defined the hijab, a headdress that covers a woman’s hair, neck and ears in accordance with Muslim custom as a cultural rather than a religious issue. “The hijab issue has taken centre stage in football circles in recent years due to the increasing popularity of women’s football worldwide. It is a cultural issue that not only affects the game, but also impacts society and sports in general. It is not limited to Asia, but extends to other continents as well,” the statement said.

It called on FIFA to articulate a clear policy that “avoid(s) any form of discrimination or exclusion of football players due to cultural customs” and establishes the pitch as “a forum for cultural exchange rather than conflict.”

Dr. D’Hooghe, one of FIFA’s longest serving executive committee members, has since reportedly denied involvement in the drafting of the statement or having agreed to sign it.

Proponents of the headdress believe that Dr. D’Hooghe’s turnaround and the effort to backtrack on IFAB’s decision – employing medical arguments much like the English Football Association did almost a century ago when it banned women’s football – strengthens an uncoordinated scale of conservative anti-Muslim, sexist, feminist and conservative Muslim opposition to the headdress by disparate parties that each have different interests.

Saudi Arabia, the world’s most conservative Muslim nation, has privately argued against the IFAB decision because it undermines the kingdom’s rejection of women’s sports in general and football in particular. IFAB’s endorsement came at a moment that Saudi Arabia, the only nation unlikely to be represented by women at this summer’s Olympics, is under mounting pressure from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as well as human rights and women’s groups to include women in its delegation in London.

Any delay in the definitive approval of the hijab by IFAB could have implications for teams competing FIFA Under-17 Women's World Cup in Baku in September – a move that would make Saudi Arabia appear less isolated.

FIFA insiders suggest that the football body’s president, Sepp Blatter, widely believed to be a conservative Catholic, is ambiguous towards the hijab. A former president in the 1970s of the World Society of Friends of Suspenders that campaigns against women swapping their suspender belts for pantyhose, Mr. Blatter famously said when asked in 2004 how to popularize football: "Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men – such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?"

Mr. Blatter advised gays in 2010 after Qatar, a country that bans homosexuality, was awarded the 2022 World Cup to “refrain from sexual activities” during the tournament.

A meeting of the 17-member FIFA medical committee in the wake of the IFAB decision focused on the threat of carotid sinus irritation - a condition to which men over 50 rather than women are susceptible - that a headdress could pose rather than on the danger of strangulation or heat emission, according to persons familiar with the proceedings.

Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Bruce D. Lindsay, a sports medical expert, refuted the threat in a letter to Prince Ali dated May 21.

“If vigorous carotid sinus massage were performed by a physician with knowledge of anatomy, it might cause minor slowing of the pulse or possibly a brief pause in a healthy young athlete; however, even this response would be blunted during the level of exertion expected during a football game… it is extremely unlikely that a reasonable degree of carotid pressure would have any effect. The risk of inducing loss of consciousness is negligible. There is no reason to believe that a light headscarf with breakaway attachments, such as Velcro or magnets, would exert effective occlusive pressure simultaneously on both carotid arteries such as occurs when a choke hold is used in Judo or hand to hand combat. In summary, there is no medical basis to prevent women from playing football with sports headscarfs that are designed for quick release in the event of inadvertent contact,” Dr. Lindsay wrote.

During the committee meeting, a female woman staffer was asked to put on one of the designer’s headdresses. Committee members, including three from the Arab world, pulled at the headdress, according to persons familiar with the proceedings, on the basis of which the committee declared it unsafe.

At a follow-up meeting called at Prince Ali’s request, designers of headdresses for football players and representatives of testing institutions briefed Dr. D’Hooghe and committee advisor Jiri Dvorak.

Dr. D’Hooghe advised FIFA on the basis of the two meetings that designs presented to the medical committee had been deemed unsafe.

“We were shocked that he could write a recommendation on that basis. We don’t know what prompted this or changed his mind,” said Michele Cox, a director of Prince Ali’s foundation, Asian Football Development Project, and a former member of FIFA’s women’s committee who attended the Amman meeting.

Prince Ali said in an interview that he has called on Dr. D’Hooghe and Mr. Dvorak to explain their reversal and rejection of the headdress to IFAB at its next meeting in July. Prince Ali said the hijab issue should be addressed with the same sincerity FIFA approaches other issues such as goal line technology and various designs should be rigorously tested on the pitch for a period of time. “Let them do it properly,” Prince Ali said.

The IFAB meeting is likely to be a litmus test of Mr. Blatter’s intentions. IFAB’s eight members -- four from FIFA as well as one each from England, Wales, Scotland and Ireland – are appointed in advance of each of its meetings. Dr. D’Hooghe is often one of the FIFA representatives when IFAB discusses medical issues. FIFA has yet to announce who will represent it at IFAB’s next meeting and if Dr. D’Hooghe is delegated whether he would be attending as a decision making IFAB member or an expert witness.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer, and a consultant to geopolitical consulting firm Wikistrat.

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