By Neena Bhandari, Womens Feature Service
As the winter sun descends, young girls warm up for football training in their shorts and shirts at the Lakemba Sport and Recreation Club (LSRC) in Sydney, Australia. Some are also wearing a ‘hijab’, or headscarf, the traditional Islamic accessory used to cover the head.
Although a common sight in multicultural Australia, the ‘hijab’ has come under the spotlight as soccer’s world governing body, the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA), had banned it from competition in April this year. FIFA’s rules state that players may not wear jewellery or dangerous headgear such as hair clips, and that “basic compulsory equipment must not have any political, religious or personal statements”.
The world of women’s football has been in a flux ever since the ban came into force. When the new rule forced Iran’s girls’ soccer squad to opt out of the first summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore this year, there were widespread protests. The issue was resolved recently after FIFA relented and gave the girls permission to wear hats while playing.
While it’s a small victory for the Iranian girls, many Muslim players in Australia, like Mecca Laalaa, 23, have expressed their deep disappointment at players being forced to choose between their love for the game and their faith. “I am disappointed with FIFA’s illogical ban on the ‘hijab’. It is arrogant and discriminatory. We have ‘hijabs’ that accommodate FIFA rules. They are made of cotton and don’t require safety pins. It is like wearing a hood and one can choose from a range of colours,” says Laalaa, who plays for the LSRC.
One of the goals mentioned on FIFA’s website with regard to the women’s game is “to increase the proportion of women and girls playing football at the grassroots, in schools and at amateur and professional levels”. But rules like these will only make women disenchanted with the game.
Hiba Ayache, 24, has been playing soccer for the last 13 years and works as the Female Sports Recreation Coordinator at the LSRC. She says, “My parents allowed me to play soccer as it is a non-contact sport. I started wearing the ‘hijab’ two years ago and it seems to fit into our multicultural society just fine. The headscarf is a religious requirement. It is something I represent with a lot of pride and respect. FIFA’s ‘hijab’ ban is a slap in the face.”
But Ayache, who has never stopped getting a thrill out of kicking a football, feels that at the end of the day, it is FIFA’s loss. “They will see a huge drop in the number of women playing the sport. Not just those who wear the ‘hijab’ but women from other communities as well, as an expression of solidarity with us,” she says.
Adds Laalaa, who loves the team spirit and strong bonds of friendship she has formed through the sport, “We wear ‘hijabs’ because we want to, and not to make a religious, cultural or political statement. I want to dispel this perception that Muslim women who wear the ‘hijab’ belong at home and are oppressed. While playing football at school, my headscarf wasn’t an issue, but playing the sport at competition level is not easy. There are instances when I feel out of place, but that isn’t because I don’t ‘assimilate’, it’s because of certain people’s attitudes.”
Despite being a fairly new sport in the country, as compared to say cricket, women’s football has taken long strides, with participation at every level increasing faster than in any other sport for women.
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics’ (ABS) Children’s Participation in Cultural and Leisure Activities Report, April 2009, there were 82,700 girls between the ages of five and 14 playing outdoor football; and, according to ABS 2005-06 data, there were 108,100 girls of 15 years and above playing the sport.
For Sarah El-Adib, 20, football has been a passion since she was in the fourth grade (Class IV). She says, “I love the sport because it accommodates my religious obligations, i.e. wearing a ‘hijab’. As I got older, my parents became increasingly concerned about the physical nature of the game and would worry about me getting hurt, but they have always been encouraging and supportive.”
This, of course, is all set to change now. While football as a sport has managed to fit in with the needs of many Muslim women, this ban has come as a big blow. “I am allowed to walk in public with the ‘hijab’, attend university with it, so why shouldn’t I be allowed to play football? Football has always been considered an ‘international sport’ so how can FIFA just exclude a large part of the world population? Sport is supposed to break down racial and religious barriers, not enforce them!” says El-Adib.
The Football Federation of Australia (FFA) has formed a small internal working group to examine the issue. According to a spokesman of the FFA, “Our stance is that it is business as usual and there has been no change to our domestic competitions, meaning women are free to wear ‘hijabs’ if they wish. We have had no reports of any issues in Australia around the wearing of ‘hijabs’.”
Lebanese-born Dr Jamal Rifi, President of LSRC, whose three daughters play football, is pleased with this support from the FFA. He says, “They have been encouraging our girls to continue playing soccer despite the FIFA ban. We know this ban is not in the best interest of the players or the sport code itself. ‘Hijab’ is not a hazard on the field for players. We had five girls’ only teams in our club last year and this was a direct result of opening the sport to players from all religions, races and cultures.”
In Australia, essentially a sports-loving nation, parents take keen interest in their children’s sporting activities, escorting them to and from training and matches after school and at weekends. And as the countdown begins for FIFA Women’s World Cup 2011 in Germany, Sam Kerr, 16 – one of the youngest players to join the national Australian women’s football team, also called the Matildas – says she is “very excited, but nervous too”. Making it to the national team requires time, effort and years of training, along with learning to cope with the pressure of competition. Thea Slayter, 27, center back or central defender in the Matildas, has been playing football since she was five. “Representing Australia has always been my goal and my parents supported me in achieving it. Matildas were my role models and joining the team has been a dream come true,” she says.
While football fever is high among the girls here, several Muslim players are left with a bittersweet feeling. Many like El-Adib feel that they have something to prove to the world when they are on the field. She wants to give her best and prove that she is a good player, irrespective of what she wears – in this case, the ‘hijab’.