More Than Just a Game: The Right to Wear a Scarf and Play Sports

Yet another Muslim woman has been denied the right to play sports while wearing a headscarf.

Sura al Shawk. Image via Zoe Jobin.

Sura al Shawk. Image via Zoe Jobin.

Last summer, a young Swiss Muslimah from Luzern, Surah al Shawk (pictured left), attracted the attention of the Northeastern Swtizerland Basketball Association, ProBasket, when she started playing in second division games in Luzern. Unfortunately, it wasn’t her amazing skills on the court that grabbed their attention–it was her headscarf. Her veil had never caused any problems at the community level, before her talent led her to the big leagues. Probasket stated that according to International Basketball Federation (FIBA) rules, headscarves cannot be worn during games, both in the need for sporting events to be “religiously neutral” and also in case of injury. ProBasket’s position was later confirmed by FIBA. Her appeal to ProBasket was based on the grounds of breach of personality, which the district court ruled against this week.

She now can appeal to the Swiss Supreme Court…or just take off her veil on the court. At the time, Ms. al Shawk’s case made headlines in the German part of Switzerland, including full page spreads in the Basler Zeitung and the Tages Anzeiger, as well as in Geneva’s French language daily Le Temps. At the time, most of the major parties, with the exception of the UDC (the party behind the “minaret” vote), questioned whether even the extra-parliamentary Federal Commission Against Racism cited ProBasket for its unequal treatment of the athlete when the affair first broke in June.

Now as the verdict has fallen in “post-minaret” Switzerland, the question of religious freedom for Muslims has the potential to make headlines again. Luckily, the positions taken in June by the various actors cited previously appear to stand. With the notable exception of FIBA, who has dropped the religious symbol argument in favor of simply mentioning that head coverings are not part of the official uniform. As another French-language article, this time in December from 24 Heures pointed out, first and foremost, FIBA rules ban head coverings. According to the president of Swiss Basketball, François Stempfel, “Nowhere do the FIBA regulations refer to religious symbols,” noting that the the FIBA rules on head coverings apply simply to uniform regulations. He goes on to say that, after last fall’s anti-minaret vote, Swiss Basketball regrets that the “the emotional context [of Ms. al Shawk’s case] no longer allows for a calm debate.”

For an interview on Friday in French-language daily Le Matin, Ms. Al Shawk, answered a few questions, including a few regarding the recent minaret vote:

Do you feel integrated in Switzerland?

Yes, I am integrated. I go to school. I try to do the best possible in my studies. I only have two Muslim friends. The others are all Swiss or from other backgrounds. They accept me as I am. And I accept them as they are.

Do you have other problems with this veil? At school, the pool or in restaurants?

Yes, the pool, it was very complicated. But this is not a very important activity for me, so I just don’t do it. It [the pool] is the only problem that I encounter. Looking for a job will probably also be complicated. But I have a friend who does not wear a veil and the job hunt is complicated for her as well. And then, the question is a non-issue at this time. I want to go to university in economics or international relations.

Do you find Switzerland intolerant?

Ten years ago, when I arrived in Switzerland, I do not think so. I was convinced that religious freedom was guaranteed. But now I realize that many Swiss are pretending to be tolerant. I’d say it’s 50-50. Half the population is liberal and the other half is conservative.

What did you think of the anti-minaret vote?

Many people did not understand what they were voting for. They were already visualizing minarets that make the call to prayer five times a day … People voted out of fear.

A part-time hijabi myself, I still understand Sura al Shawk’s position of not wanting to take hers off. When dealing with people who like to dictate what women should where and when, the more time you spend with your headscarf off, the more time you waste explaining to people when it is on (“Well, if you take it off at the pool, surely you can take it off for Great Uncle Elmo’s barbecue on Sunday!”).

And while I don’t claim to be an expert in sports injuries or FIBA rules, most of the press pictures show her in a tight wrap. I don’t buy the “potential cause of injury argument” which could hold water if she was trying to defend a center or dribble between her legs in a jilbab. Although FIBA and ProBasket have backpedaled due to the pending litigation, I also don’t buy the “religious symbols” argument when you think about the fact that tattoos are allowed by FIBA, and I can count on two hands and two feet the number of tatted-up crosses I have seen on NBA players allowed to play for national teams under FIBA rules.

I don’t have an a priori for or against headscarves or crosses, I just don’t get the double standard. Is this about FIBA uniform rules or Muslims?

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  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Good point about the tattoos, I’d never thought of that.

    Other then that, i just do not understand hijab hysteria. Her hijab is neat, it’s not in the way, so what’s the problem?

  • Yusuf Smith

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    It seems to have become a pattern for headscarves to become generally accepted in a game, then for some official somewhere to kick up a fuss, and eventually for the sports regulators to ban it. This has happened in Tae Kwon Do which used to be popular among Muslim girls, in football/soccer and probably other sports. Perhaps Muslims should be forming their own leagues and avoiding the regulators.

    These regulators have done far worse – I read an entry on a blog by a former wheelchair tennis player who said that, while playing a match, an opponent went off for half an hour “to the bathroom” but actually spent the time sitting in front of the fan. This lady had to sit in the heat for all that time and wasn’t allowed to go into the shade. If you’ve got a spinal cord injury at her level, your body temperature doesn’t regulate like it should so if you get hot, you really do get hot.

    When I made this point in the comments, she replied,

    The USTA (United States Tennis Assoc.) officials were very spotty about knowing wheelchair tennis rules and/or caring about such things as what a [quadriplegic] needed. I noticed after the USTA started officiating that many of the quad players no longer came to the local tournaments, but I’m not sure if there was a connection there. I do know there were more accommodations provided informally by the players prior to USTA involvement and the level of ableism from some officials was nauseating at times.

  • Southern Masala

    Ok, if you look at the FIBA rules, the ban on “headgear” is a sub-part to the rule banning any equipment or objects that may cause harm to other players. It is included within the same sentence as “hair accessories and jewelry.” Obviously, the way Sura is wearing her hijab would not cause harm to any other players, so the intent of the rule is being fulfilled in her case.

    Just seems to me like another way to punish Muslim women for choosing to practice their beliefs.

  • Lara A

    Salaam Alaikum,

    Yusuf, I know this was not your intention, but when someone is talking about Topic A and someone else says, “Yes, that’s bad but topic B is worse”, it can seem rather dismissive and it also derails the conversation.

    You may find this link interesting:

  • Nicole

    Salam alaikoum
    Thanks y’all for your comments!

    Southern Masala, that is a good point regarding the sub regulation and just reinforces my initial feeling- this is about visible muslim women more than anything else.

    Rules and regulations for referees are kind of like judges for law courts- each judge or referee has their own style of enforcement and interpretation. I don’t know who in the chain lost the plot. (This is where I try to thread in Yusuf’s comment). I think there were several steps along the way where referees or officials could have stopped this hijab case, but none did (although she has coaches, players and at least some referees on her side) at a crucial time.

    Allowing myself a tangent of my own, it also shows a particular European kind of “integration” and “inclusiveness” for Muslim women- e.g. you can’t participate in society unless you play by our rules and if you are even the slightest bit different, we’ll make a rule freezing you out.

  • Yusuf Smith

    As-Salaamu ‘alaikum,

    Lara, my point was that these regulators are known for being sloppy about players’ welfare and seek to control players’ behaviour far beyond the actual rules of the game, which is why Muslims should seek to be outside their control if they do things like this.

    There is no rule in football, as far as I have ever heard, or any other sport, that dictates that players’ dress should be “religiously neutral”. They made that rule up themselves.

    • Fatemeh

      @ Yusuf: Salam. “…which is why Muslims should seek to be outside their control if they do things like this.” I don’t agree with the idea that Muslims should simply separate themselves from non-Muslim society if they want to play sports. What does that accomplish? We have a right to be a part of the institutions in the countries we live in.

  • Sister Q.

    Completely off topic, but this line ”Well, if you take it off at the pool, surely you can take it off for Great Uncle Elmo’s barbecue on Sunday!” cracked me up. It is so, SO true (and I wear hijab full-time!) and brilliantly worded.

    Thanks for the morning laugh.

  • Southern Masala

    @ Yusef- I second Fatemah, self-segregating is not the solution. Not only is it allowing further otherizing, but it leads to alienation of Muslim youth in particular, it is for youth that the social interaction of sports and the ability to interact with all their peers, Muslim and non-Muslim, is very important. You can’t self-segregate in school or the work place (well, you can, but you risk being marginalized or leading to the further marginalization or otherization of your group), so why should we have to do it in sports or other youth activities? Furthermore, any kind of separate “Muslim” sports league would never have the prestige and talent of a truly national league that pulls the best players from all over the country (or region) regardless of faith. The true solution is for Muslim women to be accepted into full participation in all aspects of Western society regardless of how they choose to dress. In the U.S., we have what is called “reasonable accommodation” for the practice of religious beliefs in the workplace (it doesn’t extend to the sports field, as far as I know), but it is a concept that would do well to be adopted by FIFA, FIBA and the like.

    (As a former University football (soccer) player, this topic is near and dear to my heart. Seeing as how many Muslim girls are not exactly encourage to participate in sports, it breaks my heart when a truly talented Muslim girl is barred from participating in her sport because of her choice to wear hijaab, especially when her doing so will cause no harm to the other players.)

  • Arwa

    I can’t agree more with the people saying that this is more than a concern for her safety.. On another blog someone has put up a link to an image of a Russian woman during WW2 with the caption “Cover your hair for safety”

    uncanily, she is wearing a scarf almost identical to that of Surahs..

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