The Iranian women’s soccer team has dropped out of qualifying for the 2012 Olympics after being informed by FIFA officials that its players may not wear head coverings while playing, ostensibly because of the risk of “choking injuries.” It’s a ridiculous decision from a ridiculous federation–one must wonder if Sepp Blatter is stirring up confrontation with one corrupt authoritarian regime in order to distract from his own. As The Nation‘s Dave Zirin correctly points out, Mr. Blatter is hardly out to protect the safety of women:
. . . For years, human rights organizations have asked Blatter to take a stand and say something about the horrific influx of sex-slave trafficking that accompanies the arrival of the World Cup. Blatter’s cold response, “Prostitution and trafficking of women does not fall within the sphere of responsibility of an international sports federation but in that of the authorities and the lawmakers of any given country.”
However, the reaction to the decision has itself been problematic. Zirin, quoting Alyssa Rosenberg:
If we’re really concerned with how women are perceived and treated in Muslim communities, it seems hugely counterproductive to adopt policies that force women to choose between abiding by the tenets of their faith and participating in activities that let them demonstrate their physical prowess and strategic intelligence.
I couldn’t agree more, except that these women aren’t being forced to make a choice about their faith. That choice has been made for them by the Iranian government. Hijab is an extremely contentious issue throughout the Muslim world, and there is an enormous diversity of opinion and behavior among Muslim women. For some, hijab is about honor, or about honoring their husband by hiding their beauty from other men, or it is a visual symbol and reminder of their own faith. For others, it is unnecessary, or an Arabian (not Islamic) tradition, or a tool of male domination, or merely an option. Most Muslim women in the West seem to have a little speech memorized that they bring out whenever someone asks them about their decision to wear, or not to wear, the more recognizable forms of hijab like the headscarf. Muslim women are clearly capable of deciding for themselves whether to wear hijab. The Iranian government does not believe that women are capable of making this decision. If we’re concerned about how women are treated in Muslim communities, we should encourage those communities (and their governments) to respect women’s reasoning on that issue, whatever it may be.
Zirin adds to Rosenberg’s remark:
. . . Blatter’s decision only feeds the profound Western ignorance regarding the position of Iranian women since the 1979 Islamic revolution. The literacy rate for women before 1979 was 35 percent. Now it’s over 75 percent. In the days of the Shah, only one-third of women were enrolled in institutions of higher education. Now that number is 50 percent. One in three Iranian doctors are female. In the United States, that number is one in five.
Perhaps Mr. Zirin is more well traveled than I am, but I was quite unaware of the feminist paradise on the northern coast of the Gulf. I was aware, however, of the government that treats women like second-class citizens, arresting them for improper clothing, harassing some of their advocates, sentencing them to death on trumped-up charges, and even killing some of them just for raising their voices. Mr. Zirin is correct that women’s status in the Muslim world is widely misunderstood. Afghanistan has women in burqas, yet it has Malalai Joya. Iraq sees women killed for wearing jeans, yet it has female doctors. Pakistan has honor killings and Benazir Bhutto. It’s dangerous to portray the Muslim woman as a slave to men, oppressed and locked up. It’s equally dangerous to do what Zirin does, and portray her as automatically enjoying full equality and dignity.
We should also discuss FIFA’s decision. While it is obvious that Blatter’s move is entirely political, hijab in sport is a difficult issue. A Kuwaiti weightlifter, for instance, is having difficulty being allowed to wear clothing she feels is appropriate, because the judges must be able to see if her elbows have locked when she lifts the weight, and clothing can obviously hinder their view. I would also be concerned about the safety of wearing a loose piece of cloth around one’s head and neck while lifting hundreds of pounds. Sports organizations have an obligation to protect the safety of their athletes, even when those athletes don’t always agree. FIFA is very careful about what players are allowed to wear on the pitch–it forbids any form of jewelry, for instance, because it is unnecessary, and so the tiny risk of injury that it adds is unjustified. (You’ll occasionally even see the fourth official making male players pull down their collar so he can be sure they are not wearing a necklace.) Banning this form of hijab is not without precedent, and the alternative they proposed–a covering for the hair but not the neck–strikes me as consistent with their past decisions, even though that was not why they made this decision. Iran’s women’s team is very good–they were unbeaten in qualifying before FIFA began making them forfeit–so it would be a shame to see them barred from competition. However, we must recognize that this is a very complicated issue. FIFA, in my opinion, can reasonably allow the special athletic headscarf on the pitch, so they’re in the wrong. Iran, however, can reasonably allow its players to compete without the headscarf if they choose–and it can begin allowing women to attend matches. Iran’s female soccer players are victims of both FIFA and their government.