A Right to Her Own Image: Lifting Soccer’s Hijab Ban

By Alison Lanier, Editorial Intern

The freedom to dress how you want is a big part of building your own healthy, confident sense of self. But professional women soccer players who choose to follow conventions of Muslim modesty have historically faced a challenge.  For many years, they were banned from wearing their head coverings while playing their sport. It is only recently that these Muslim athletes won a victory—the International Football Association Board, soccer’s rule-making body, granted Muslim women the right to wear head coverings, or hijabs, while playing their sport. In March 2012, the International Football Association Board, or IFAB, voted unanimously to overturn the ban on hijabs and it is expected to ratify the ruling this month.

The hijab is a type of head-covering which wraps around the head, covering a woman’s hair and sometimes her chin and neck as well. Hijab is also the general name for the principle of modesty prescribed for Muslim women. In general, the idea is that the women practice hijab in front of any male who they could potentially marry. Thus, they are not required to wear a hijab in front of family (husband, brother, father, etc.) in private. However, they are expected to maintain modesty in public places. These conventions are open to many different, personalized interpretations and are practiced many diverse ways by Muslim women.

Islamic conventions of modesty for women can be confusing for non-Muslim people. With overwhelming media voices telling us that body confidence for a woman comes from her image as a physically beautiful female, some westerners have condemned hijabs as effacing or degrading women. The most complete body covering, the burqa, conceals everything except a woman’s eyes, masking her expression and making it challenging to know if she is smiling, furious, or miserable.

Many proponents for lifting the ban on hijabs in professional sports claim that the ban had more to do with cultural discomfort than real concerns about safety. The ban was based on the idea that the hijabs were a handicap to players, which prompted vocal internet protests that the “hijab is not a disability.” Floods of images swamped the Internet showing hijab-wearing athletes head-butting soccer balls, weight-lifting, fencing, surfing, and playing rugby. (Click here to see examples.) This passionate response is supported by the fact that there is no record of a hijab-related injury in professional soccer.

Since it was put in place in 2007, the ban itself has had serious, prohibitive effects on women’s teams who choose to cover their heads. In 2011, Iran’s female soccer team was disqualified from their Olympic qualifying game because hijabs were worn by the team; their chance to compete in the 2012 London games was thereby destroyed.

Thankfully, these women are no longer being asked to check their religion and their identity at the door; they now have the freedom to participate in their sport in a way that feels comfortable and respectful.

Surely, this is a victory for ALL women—and athletes!

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