The Right to Play or Creeping Sharia? FIFA Overturns its Headscarf Ban

FIFA has overturned its headscarf ban, enforced since 2007, on women playing soccer with their heads covered. Predictably, the French Football Federation issued an instant “this won’t happen here” communiqué, whereas Qatar, hosting the 2022 Olympics, commended the decision.

FIFA’s decision has incited strong criticism online. All you have to do is read the comments in news articles (including the ones I have linked) or participate in discussions on social media (if you like coming face to face with big, hairy trolls, as I found out on a Swiss forum the other night) to see that online reaction to FIFA’s decision appears to be overwhelmingly negative. And the divide isn’t just along Muslim/non-Muslim lines as some would like to say; some secular Muslims might find FIFA’s reversal a sign that fundies are being catered to. The problem is that anyone, Muslim or non-Muslim, who comes out in support of FIFA’s decision is branded anti-feminist, stupid or misinformed. I would link to some examples but I don’t really like linking to hate and bigotry; Google News should sort out the curious.

So, let’s address some of the key points that keep coming up.



At the risk of going into “do we really need to talk about this again” territory, here are some of the things I ran into while reading about FIFA overturning the ban:

Headscarves aren’t “safe”- it is a security issue in sports.  FIFA didn’t think it was a big enough issue for them not to overturn the ban, and I think FIFA has enough kinesiologists and researchers on their payroll to learn more about the potential safety issues that some armchair political scientists.  There is a significant body of research (Google Scholar is your friend) on the practicability of sports in a headscarf.  Just like with regular clothes, some fabrics and cuts don’t lend themselves to sports, but the technology and research is there to make sports-friendly hijabs.  A subsection of this criticism is that doing sports in hijab is somehow oppressive because it is “uncomfortable.” While I would never dare to speak for all Muslim women, I personally have done a 10k in a hijab. Guess what? When it is hot outside, everyone is hot. When most people exercise, they get sweaty. Whether or not I have a headscarf on does not make me any more or less comfortable in a situation where no one is really comfortable, I can assure you, having tried both. So that is at least one strike against the “but aren’t you hot in that” argument and I seriously doubt I am alone.


This is a step backwards for women and feminism because allowing headscarves sends the message to Muslim women that they now have to wear them. This argument assumes “the majority of Muslim women” don’t want to cover their heads. Or that Muslim women are “forced” to cover  I think most of the people who come up with this criticism fail to make a distinction between countries like Iran and Saudi Arabia where women are forced to cover, places like France where covering is (de facto) illegal, and everywhere else.

Taking these differences into account, from a right to play point of view, the overturning of the ban amounts to an end to discrimination against Muslim women who choose to wear hijab, something I wish the French soccer federation would take note of. As Manal Omar put it in an article last year, the ban amounts to “soccer only for the secular-hearted.”


That doesn’t mean there aren’t real problems with veil politics in countries  such as those mentioned above, however I would argue that enforcing a hijab ban winds up being more discriminatory from a right to play point of view than not. For starters, not allowing hijab on the field automatically excludes women from countries where the veil politics are such that dejabbing is not a practical option – which means these women can’t play at all. In fact a hijab ban is just one more excuse for the authorities in countries with forced veiling to deny women access. When you allow hijab it will place the sports authorities in a situation where women have to be allowed to compete.  In other words, you can’t enforce a hijab ban and then whine that women aren’t allowed to compete.

Why? Well, this leads me to my next point:

If women want to play, they can just take it off.    Because apparently, as one person told me, “reasonable” Muslim women take it off when necessary. However there are women for whom this is not realistically possible. Women living in places like Iran now have unprecedented access to the highest levels of football, but unfortunately too late for the London games.  In many cases the hijab ban became a catch-22 for aspiring athletes: why train to be the best when access to competition was barred to you unless you dejabbed? Similarly, for those who choose the hijab, dejabbing is not an option, given their personal convictions. In both cases, the ban meant women were actively discouraged from competition and chose not to pursue sports. It is important to keep in mind that just as there are women who choose to dejab for sports, there are also women who fight for their right to wear head coverings.


“Muslims” want this but they don’t want Christians to wear crosses/don’t want to sing national anthems/ etc etc.  This is my favourite of the fallacious arguments.  Supposedly “Muslims” are asking for headscarves but don’t want religious accommodation for anyone else. I love how my feelings as a Muslim are identified for me and ascribed to ”Muslims” everywhere  As I said above, Muslims across the spectrum will have opinions that fall on both sides of the ban. It is unfair to assume we all think the same. Muslims are from all kinds of different races, origins and classes, and to ascribe a singular opinion to all of us is intellectually irresponsible.


This is about all religions needing to respect religious neutrality.  To be fair, I personally think this is the only anti-hijab argument that holds any water…on paper.  I say “on paper” because I wish we could have sports without the Tebows of this world, but it is wrong to hold the illusion that all athletes from time immemorial have left their religion at the door until Muslims came along.  The presence of other religious elements in sports where Muslim women have only had the choice to “dejab and shut up” is discriminatory in itself.  Either everyone gets stripped of medals for tatted up crosses on their arms (have you seen the US Men’s Basketball team?) and for wearing hijab, or we let some things slide in the name of sportsmanship and access.

Silly me, I thought people who got all bent out of shape about integration and human rights and democracy and stuff would be happy that many women who previously did not now have the right to play.  If the goal is a supposed integration of Muslim women, what better way to integrate than sports? Bravo FIFA, I don’t care if the Qataris paid y’all or not.



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Muslim Women in Sports Media: Is It Still Progress if No One Cares?
Open Letter to Daphne Bramham on Women’s Soccer… and Burqas
  • Chris

    Very interesting article. Does someone know why FIFA adopted the headscarf ban in 2007 only? I – although not a sports follower – would think female soccer has long existed before 2007. Had there ever been a security risk, I wonder why that would have been discovered so late. By the way, I do think that on an amateur level much more awareness raising should be done on items like needles, which I suspect many amateur sportswomen wear. Thankfully, there are more and more “head-hugging” alternatives to regular scarf-and-needles approaches. While I do think there are issues to talk about from a women’s perspective on countries where they may not have the right to compete or engage in sports, publically, without the hijab (as in your “backlash” argument), I do not think it occupies a legitimate place in the FIFA policy discussion. As you rightfully say, while the rights of those wishing to dress without gendered dress requirements for their sports performance are to be respected, the rights of those wanting to do just that are to be respected, too, of course. And the FIFA is a body that, by its statues, should be neutral in worldview. By the way, I do not think the individual sportsman or sportswoman can be required to do so. Sports by definition should be about the performance of the individual or the team. Whether or not an athlete calls to God – or were a Satanist, maybe – is not of interest since it is supposed to be the performance that matters. I therefore refuse the neutrality argument personally, also. (This is no criticism concerning the article; it is laudable so many arguments are listed for reasons of completeness.)

    • Miriam


      Qatar is hosting the World Cup in 2012.


      FIFA’s president Joseph Blatter once mentioned that women football players should wear tighter shorts and jerseys so women’s football was more attractive and had more fans and support (kind of what happened with tennis). I think the ban fell in that line. Besides FIFA has made a lot of effort into banning religious symbols in the court. Players are no longer allowed to wear crosses or show religious messages in many countries, and they consider hijab a religious symbol. The ergonomics thing was just a crappy argument from them.

      I’m thankful the ban was lifted, though too late for the iranian team, and FIFA has far more important things to worry about than how to dress women, like what Rochelle mentions about Iran. And even if we all want to think about FIFA like this UN-type of organisation, truth is it depends on money and funds as anyone else, and sports sanctions on some countries are unfeasable (there countless requests to FIFA and UEFA to sanction Israel for the occupation and wars).

      • Nicole

        Hi Miriam!
        Forgeting that Qatar is hosting: BIG FAIL on my part. Thank you for pointing that out!

  • Rochelle

    I applaud FIFA’s decision to overturn its headscarf ban and wish it was done long ago.

    The only argument that I think is even semi-legitimate (and then not really) is that FIFA should not overturn this ban until Iran allows its female players the option of deveiling in international tournaments, as well as allowing women access to the (main) Azadi stadium in Iran to watch games. Iranian women are currently banned from even entering the stadium.

    I don’t think that argument holds water because I think justice is justice and two wrongs don’t make a right. But I do urge FIFA to whatever it can in its power to urge Iran to overturn its forced veiling policy for female athletes as well as its incredibly discriminatory policy regarding female spectators.

    Bottom line is that female athletes should be able to choose whether to wear hijab and not have it affect their competition opportunities.

    More on this by my (veiled) friend Sertac:

  • Chris

    “I don’t think that argument holds water because I think justice is justice and two wrongs don’t make a right.”

    Very true.

    @Miriam, thank you for this interesting piece of information FIFA apparently wanted to make female players’ appearance more “marketable”/(sexually) exploitative!

    • Nicole

      Thank you for the link Rochelle! Sorry for being late to the game with the thanks!
      I agree with Chris as well for the rest.

  • Mhairi McAlpine

    Wow – that is the first article I have ever read on football that was actually interesting.