Hijab & soccer: Butting heads over headscarves in Quebec

Hijab & soccer: Butting heads over headscarves in Quebec March 3, 2007
Red card for Azzy

In Gurinder Chadha’s 2002 film Bend it Like Beckham, the young, female, British Indian protagonist fought against the prejudice of her well-intentioned family to pursue her love of soccer, Irish coaches, and happy endings. Five years later, an 11 year-old soccer player was asked by an official (a Muslim, incidentally) in the town of Laval, Quebec to remove her hijab before playing in a tournament. Asmahan (Azzy) Mansour refused and her team (and several others) walked out in solidarity with her.

The result has been a Zidane-sized storm of protest across Canada, with the international body FIFA starting an investigation. Quebec, the perpetually twitchy “distinct society” of Canada, was also in the news recently when one of its rural towns, Herouxville, established a “code of living” that prohibited stoning and female circumcision, ostensibly aimed at Muslim immigrants (a delegation of Muslim women visited last month before the town revoked some of the offending passages).

The soccer ejection was backed by Quebec Premier Jean Charest who, along with the Quebec Soccer Federation, was almost alone among Canadian organisations and politicians to support the ban. “It’s up to them to apply the rules, and they applied them in the way they saw fit,” said Charest. “I don’t have a problem with that.” There are a number of precedents worldwide in hijab wearing athletes of other sports, from gold-medal winner Ruqaya Al Ghasara at last year’s Asian Games to the Lady Caliphs basketball team to the Burqinis on the beaches of Sydney and Los Angeles (though the non-hijabis like Sania Mirza could use the same sympathy).

Mansour’s herself felt responsible for her team’s forfeiting the match. “I’m so sorry my team couldn’t play,” said Mansour. “It was my fault.” But despite the sympathy and precedents, FIFA’s rule-governing body, the International Football Association Board, leaned toward the referee in the case at a meeting in Manchester, England. “It’s absolutely right to be sensitive to people’s thoughts and philosophies,” said a representative. “But equally there has to be a set of laws that are adhered to, and we favor law 4 being adhered to.” (Law 4 governs what may be worn on the head during a game). The Canadian Soccer Association, to whom Quebec authorities said they would yield to, is unlikely to go against the IFAB, though the ruling was also not seen as clearly defined. “I truly think they should have (overridden) what Quebec’s rule is,” said Asmahan’s mother Maria. “(She) is still hoping that Quebec will remove that rule someday so she will be able to play (in Quebec).”

In the meantime, Azzy is determined to show that she’s not going to give up easily. She scored two goals during a game in Ottawa just as the FIFA ruling was announced.

Zahed Amanullah is associate editor of altmuslim.com. He is based in London, England.

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