The Muslim Woman at Play: FIFA, the Olympics and the Veil

The hijab, the head-covering worn by some Muslim women, has been denounced and defended, legislated for and against. In past months a new front has opened in the battle over the veil: the role of the veil in sport. These debates will intensify as the London Olympics coincide with the Muslim Holy Month of Ramadan, and IOC officials continue to allow Saudi Arabia to participate in the Games, despite excluding Saudi female athletes from representing their country.

The push to allow veiled Muslim women to compete has long emanated from the Muslim world, despite its lack of egalitarianism towards all women in their societies. Muslim majority countries have diligently petitioned FIFA (football's international governing body) to allow Muslim women to wear the hijab while playing professional soccer. But just as FIFA strives to become more flexible in the interpretation of its laws, ultra-orthodox Wahabi Saudi Arabia, the cradle of Islam and the apical authority of Sunni Islam, has announced Saudi women will once again not represent their nation at the Olympics.

The veiled sportswoman elicits strong passions from both perspectives. Its high time objectification of Muslim women by Muslims ends -- Muslim women who are athletes should be seen and treated as the athletes they are rather than symbolic veiled icons of Islamist ideologies.

Despite medical and political misgivings, on March 3rd 2012 the IFAB (The International Football Association Board (IFAB), the body that determines the Laws of the Game of association football) sanctioned a Dutch designed 'velcro-opening' 'safe' headscarf for players and officials. At a recent meeting in May this prototype was found to be dangerous for active play and new research is invited. A final ruling by the FIFA Executive Committee is expected on July 5th this year but pressure is mounting for the legitimized right to be veiled while playing soccer.

Safety aside, to my mind a far greater principle is at stake here. Sport in general and soccer in particular has always prided itself on rising above religious and ethnic conflicts. Committed to its ability to bring the world together through sport, FIFA specifically has long banned players from wearing religious symbols on the field.

Why is the veil any different?

Permission to wear the veil is not a gain for religious tolerance, as some argue, but a loss of the egalitarian ideas that have long defined the world's favorite game. Noticeably, this concession fails to impact Saudi Arabia, the fulcrum of the worlds major Muslim sect-Sunni Islam and the progenitor of much Islamist ideology.

In favor of permitting Muslim women to wear the veil while playing competitive soccer, we must acknowledge (while it may seem retrograde to some) the veiled Muslim woman athlete actually strikes a blow for gender equality in her own society. If FIFA were to uphold ban on the veil during play, these women will be excluded from the sport unless they abandon veiling, a choice some Muslim women regard impossible to make. Certainly by allowing veiled Muslim women to play soccer, FIFA welcomes women into the sporting arena often when their countries of origin lack access to sport of any kind for its women, as Saudi Arabia's stark example illustrates.

Though many Westerners may see the veil as a symbol of oppression, advocates for veiling envision the veil as a paradoxical tool of liberation, literally permitting women to move in public spaces otherwise denied them by restrictive societies, cultural mores or conservative family values. These freedom afforded by a veil only became clear to me after I myself lived in Saudi Arabia, where legislated by law, once I was veiled I was free to move throughout Saudi society, without my veil I couldn't leave my compound -- I was literally brought to a standstill.

FIFA's relationship to the veil (and indeed much of competitive sport) has been short-lived but complex. Demands to allow veiling on the soccer pitch first emerged in 2007 when an 11-year-old Canadian Muslim Asmahan Mansour, was prevented from playing by the Quebec Soccer Federation after she refused to remove her headscarf. At the time FIFA supported the ruling issuing a formal ban on the head-coverings as religious, citing its bylaws forbidding players from displaying religious or political symbols of any kind.

By April 2010, FIFA had reiterated its position, announcing a planned ban of the hijab and other religious symbols during the 2012 Olympics. This ruling excluded the Iranian women's soccer team from competing. Because Iran mandates all women players to cover in full tracksuits, headscarves and neck warmers, the players were doubly disadvantaged -- even if they had chosen to play unveiled, their national authorities forbid them from representing Iran unveiled.

Responding to the protests of the Iranian soccer leadership at the exclusion of their players, FIFA relented, permitting a FIFA-approved 'cap' to be worn in place of the hijab. Compromise had begun.

Nonetheless in June 2011, defying the newly allowed cap, the Iran women's team appeared on pitch fully veiled immediately forfeiting an Olympic qualifier against Jordan.

Rather than deterring demands to wear the veil, this incident intensified the debate, which was quickly championed by Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan (the half-brother of the ruling Monarch) and a FIFA Vice President of the Asian Soccer Federation.

As a practicing Muslim woman I wholly disagree. I believe there are strong arguments against permitting the veil on the pitch. First, its safety during play remains unclear. At the recent FIFA-Aspetar summit on Ramadan and Football in Doha, Qatar this winter -- the first symposium to examine the health impact of Ramadan on soccer -- scientist and physicians gathered to look at specific challenges facing the observant Muslim soccer player.

In this closed forum in which I was a participant, FIFA medical executives expressed serious health concerns. The head represents 25 percent of the body's surface area, imperative in cooling the extreme heat generated during intense exercise. A veil may impede this, particularly in hot climates or during extreme exertion. The veil poses a risk during a tackle, hyper-extending the neck, jeopardizing the cervical spine and other critical anatomic structures at the juncture of the head and neck, perhaps even threatening spinal cord injury if a player suddenly grabs her opponent's veil. Deaths have already been documented in other recreational settings at the time all thought to be 'unprecedented,' until they sadly transpired. FIFA Medical executives recommended careful study on these issues was urgently needed.

Nevertheless forces pushing for veiling on the pitch are growing. Football is the fastest growing sport in the Muslim world, a trend likely to continue. More critically, in 2022, the Wahabi State of Qatar will host the World Cup, the world's first Arab nation to do so, by which time (according to the Pew Research Center's Forum) a 1.9 billion or (24.6 percent of the projected global population) will be Muslim.

Whether or not they live in Muslim majority nations, more and more Muslim women will encounter new challenges when observe their religiosity while they follow their passion for sport.

Yet just at the moment football in the Muslim world is poised to explode, opportunist politicking threatens to confine the very women football can elevate. Worse Muslim royalty chooses to selectively advocate for the veiling of female sportswomen before advocating for the right for all Muslim women to play sports in the most fundamental non-competitive settings.

By demanding the veil as a vehicle into the soccer or the Olympics neo-orthodox Muslims place the onus on FIFA or the IOC instead of other stakeholders -- the Islamist proponents of mandatory veiling valued in ritualistic cultures defined by Wahabi sympathies. Those seeking a symbolic victory for Islamism create an additional barrier for women to enter the athletic arena -- 'You cannot represent our nation without a veil, and you cannot participate in a FIFA/IOC tournament unless first veiled.' This barrier is additive to all the social resistance already present towards Muslim women in sports

By accepting the veil as a 'cultural norm' for Muslim women (one more often enforced by social mores and legislation than by personal choice) rather than the incandescent religious symbol it truly is, FIFA has been capitulated into giving up precious apolitical ideals. And as we can see, Muslim majority countries feel confident in calling for such demands even as their fellow Muslim majority nations prohibit half of all Muslims -- women -- from any form of competition.

Permitting the hijab while playing soccer irreversibly compromises soccer's apolitical ideals and is a fundamental mistake. Until the arrival of the veil, no other space is as passionately defended to remain uncontaminated from sectarianism as football.

But FIFA is hardly to blame. Speaking as a Muslim woman, change should not be on the shoulders of FIFA but instead firmly planted upon the cultural expression of faith that puts these female athletes in this untenable position, one advocated and enforced solely by conservative men.

While I feel sympathy for female Muslim athletes who cannot play if they are not veiled, veiling is not an inviolable human right whereas the right to movement, including exercise and play very much is.

Whatever princes and potentates may claim, Islam speaks for itself. Islam does not encompass the concept of veiling in a piece of cloth, but rather a demeanor of modesty, demanded of both men and women. No specific item of clothing is described in the Quran pertaining to the veil. Nowhere does veiling appear in the five pillars central to Islamic belief. Veiling is a cultural value, not an Islamic one. Furthermore, during his lifetime the Prophet Mohammed advocated competitive play for both men and women, advising that such play should even be part of healthy, joyful marriage.

By coercing FIFA to yield their principles by falsely stating the veil is a cultural icon inseparable from the Muslim woman (including on the pitch) it is the neo-orthodox Islamists who have secured a colossal victory, one which signifies the encroaching public occupation of a constructed Muslim identity by Islamists. Their victory has brought an institution of extraordinary ideals into compromise. This victory comes at a price of one of the West's dearest ideals: egalitarianism and freedom from gender apartheid. Instead, in pursuit of well-intentioned but hapless tolerance we find ourselves pandering to Islamist ideals as we stand by powerless to intervene on behalf of the Saudi woman who seeks only to move and play as an athlete.

If we allow FIFA to abandon its profound tenet -- 'For the Game, For the World,' we will find we have blown the final whistle on the power of football to unite an increasingly divided world. The game will be well and truly over. And while our 'tolerance' for the veil may feel good, it influences not an iota the most oppressive manifestations of Islamist ideology. We have therefore cowered to little more than window-dressing in place of true engagement with Muslim women athletes. Sadly we deceive only ourselves as Muslim women, the objects of this struggle, bear passive and silent witness.