Having faith in sport and breaking the rules

When it comes to separating faith and sport, is a tattoo of a cross any less a religious symbol than a headscarf?

FIFA iran
The message from FIFA is that ‘the beautiful game’ is not open to Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf  [EPA]

Soccer remains the most popular sport in the world and it continues to grow in popularity in areas such as North America. Last year we were treated to the first World Cup ever to be held in Africa, as South Africa hosted the men’s finals and, in 2022, the first World Cup to be held in the Middle East will be hosted in Qatar. 

Today, Sunday June 26, the world’s governing soccer body, the Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) – based in Zurich and governed by Swiss law – will kick off the Women’s World Cup finals in Germany.

Like many parents, as the father of a seemingly tireless three-year old, I am particularly excited at the prospect of spending some quality time this summer with my daughter, who we recently enrolled in the World Soccer Academy.

Even though she and her fellow players really have no clue what they are doing besides running around after a ball – often in the wrong direction despite vocal encouragement from their parents – I believe and hope she is learning many valuable lessons in addition to getting some fresh air and exercise. Some of those lessons include fair play, acceptance for all, and the idea of competing against oneself.

Unfortunately, the message from FIFA over the past few years has been that “the beautiful game”, as it is known to those who love it, is not open to Muslim women who choose to wear a headscarf (hijab) as part of their religious observances. 

Earlier this month, FIFA opted to disqualify the Iranian women’s team from the Women’s World Cup – because the team members wear headscarves.

This week in Montreal, Quebec a Lac Saint Louis referee Sarah Benkirane, 15, was informed that she will not be permitted to continue calling games, following a complaint being made over her wearing of the hijab.

Followers of the sport will recall a previous Al Jazeera report which detailed a similar incident in Canada back in 2007. In this instance, a young player by the name of Asmahan Mansour, who was 11 at the time, was prevented from playing in a tournament in a Montreal suburb following her refusal to remove her hijab. The irony being that the referee in this case was also a Muslim, who feared that the hijab presented a choking hazard. In a show of solidarity, Asmahan’s team, the Nepean Hotspurs Selects, quit the tournament – along with four other teams.

Muslims are not the only minorities being affected by the rules of professional sporting bodies, such as FIFA, and those enforcing them. Another player, this time a young Sikh, 14-year-old Sagerpreet Singh, was also prevented from playing because he wears a turban, which the Quebec Soccer Federation argues gives him an “unfair competitive advantage on headers”. Given that turbans do not cover the forehead (the part used for “heading” a ball) it is not clear how this could give an edge to a player.

On a more positive note, according to a recent report in the Huffington Post, the international basketball federation deemed it ok to allow an Orthodox Jewish female basketball player to cover her arms during competitions, in accordance with her religious beliefs.

Leveling the playing field?

At both international and local levels officials cite the FIFA rule book pertaining to player’s equipment, which makes reference to safety requirements and also that “… compulsory equipment must not contain any political, religious or personal statements”.

There exist numerous suppliers of Islamic headscarves that incorporate Velcro fasteners which have been shown to be perfectly safe. In any case, I have yet to hear of death or injury by hijab or turban on the soccer field being endemic.

On its surface the stipulation that disallows political, religious, and personal statements seems to allow for a “level playing field”.

By banning equipment that in any way distinguishes players based on their political, religious, or personal beliefs they also keep the lid firmly on those who might use this as a means to express themselves in ways not conducive to encouraging the universality of the sport. Furthermore, the neutral wording of the rule itself does not directly discriminate against any particular faith.

The problem lies, however, in its indirect impact or constructive discrimination on those who would choose to manifest their faith in a particular way.

Moreover, the attempt to completely depersonalise the sport seems to be an exercise in futility. What about those players whose appearance includes tattoos such as the famous David Beckham for example? Would players, such as Wayne Rooney, with tattoos of crosses or other religious insignia be forced to have these removed or covered up?  

While the academic discussion may be interesting, on a purely personal level, as a father, I am more concerned with how I will have to explain this to my daughter as she gets older and starts to ask questions.

If she chooses to wear hijab, how do I tell her that, no matter how talented she or other girls are, it is not her skills that matter but rather whether or not she looks a certain way and fits a predetermined mould?

Some rules need to be broken before they can be fixed. In Canada, we do not exclude individuals from participating – be it at work, school, or play – based on their religion of choice. FIFA’s policies do not trump the law of the land.

Ultimately, it’s a game – and all men, women, and children should be allowed to play.

Ihsaan Gardee is the Executive Director of the Canadian Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-CAN). You can follow him on Twitter: @ihsaan

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.