The curious case of the Hijab and the laws of football

A year or two back I refereed an English Schools FA girls’ cup tie where three of the girls in one team, which came from Slough, wore tracksuit bottoms. Not any old track suit bottoms but obviously specially made to match the shorts that the other girls wore. The teacher explained that the girls were Muslims and their religion looked down on too much flesh being exposed. It seemed a sensible solution and I had no objection despite the fact that the Laws of the Game say players must wear shorts (goalkeepers are permitted the luxury of track suit bottoms). After that, I was faced at another game with a girl who also wore a hijab, the scarf like garment that covers the head. My mind went back to yet another girls’ cup tie up in Oxfordshire alongside the Brize Norton air base. It was unimaginably cold with a freezing wind coming across from the flat expanse of the air field and one girl wanted to wear a woollen hat, a bobble hat without the bobble. I checked that there were no pins or hair grips keeping it in place before agreeing that it was perfectly acceptable. There have been some nasty injuries caused by hair slides in women’s matches. I treated the hijab in exactly the same way. I believe that we should encourage boys and girls to play football and not put unnecessary obstacles in their way. I was therefore surprised, even a little shocked, to learn last year that a young girl referee in Canada, 15 year old Sarah Benkirane, was prevented from carrying on refereeing because she wore a hijab. She had been refereeing for some time in Quebec but was told, after a complaint had been made, that she breached FIFA rules prohibiting the wearing of religious garments on the field. There is, believe it or not, a mention of religion in Law 4 of the Laws of the Game. It says ‘The basic, compulsory equipment of a player must not have any political, religious or personal statements’. Nowhere is there any mention of what a referee should wear, except no jewellery is allowed. Some time later I saw a photo of a course held in London, organised by the Muslim Women’s Sport Foundation in partnership with the FA, for women to become Futsal referees. Eighteen women of diverse ethnicities took part and the photo showed some of these prospective referees were wearing hijabs. I spoke to Lorraine Deschamps, who ran the course on behalf of the FA and she told me that there was never any query about women wearing the hijab becoming referees. But there is another twist to this story. It may come as a surprise to some to learn that Iran has a national women’s football team. In fact, they have been going since 1970 and they were runners-up in the 2005 and 2007 West Asian Football Females Championship. However their dream of competing in the women’s football at the London Olympics was crushed when FIFA unexpectedly said their team kit broke their rules. But it wasn’t a question of religion, instead FIFA said the Hijab that the players wore, was dangerous because it extended to cover the neck. But that has not been the end of the affair. It was taken up at a high level and following a seminar in Amman last October, it was put on the agenda to be discussed by the International FA Board earlier this month, when it met to consider changes to the Laws of the Game. I understand there was a long and ‘positive conversation’ on the wearing of the hijab and that there is to be one final check on its safety before it is approved to be worn. I only hope someone tells Sarah Benkirane and the Quebec Soccer Federation.

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