The beautiful game just got that bit more inclusive at the opening game of the U17 Women’s World Cup in Amman. Host Jordan took on Spain and while they were defeated, the Jordanian starting-eleven featured two players wearing the hijab; a first for a major international match, breaking one more barrier to equality. It’s been a long time coming for hijabi footballers worldwide.
History of the Ban
The official ban on headscarves in international games came in 2007 with FIFA citing medical reasons for the ban. Some speculate the unwritten reason for the ban was to prevent religious or political symbols being so present on the pitch. This would have been a little quaint given the (rightful) freedom of male Muslim and Christian players to pray and “cross-themselves”, something we see quite frequently. More significantly, the idea that the hijab is an inherently political symbol is deeply flawed and is often used as a pretext to exclude or target Muslims.
In 2012 the International Football Association Board, the body that governs FIFA’s rules, voted in favor of allowing testing on head coverings in view of examining whether or not they were safe to play. Fast-forward to 2014 and the ban was more comprehensively lifted as FIFA ruled the hijab was safe to play in. Speaking in 2014, the then Secretary-General of FIFA Jerome Valcke said, “It was decided that female players can cover their heads to play”.
Jordanian and Iranian Defiance
The ban came into the world’s spotlight most infamously when in 2011 the Iranian women’s team, who were all wearing the hijab, were banned from their 2012 Olympic qualifier against Jordan, moments before kick-off. Photos of the non-match show some of the Iranian team in tears due to the decision. It’s important to note that I imagine it would have been obligatory for all the Iranian players to wear the hijab. Some members of the Jordanian team were also banned due to their insistence on not shedding their hijabs in the face of the ban.
A New Start
Let us hope today’s landmark game begins a new and more inclusive chapter in football as a whole. The freedom to be oneself without having to compromise unnecessarily is a key individual right. On a more general level, it’s a reflection of a more inclusive, less culturally imposing, FIFA; an organization that is so international should be well aware of the subjectivity of norms and values.
Rand Albustanji, the team’s goalkeeper and one of the two starting players who were wearing the hijab, speaking before the tournament said, “I hope I make my parents and coaches proud after investing their time and energy in me and I live up to the responsibility they gave me.” Rand has been playing since the age of 9 and is determined to keep up both her studies and football career. Despite suffering the pain of seeing 6 goals go past her tonight, Rand symbolized something more tonight to the millions of women and girls who wear the hijab; the reality that they no longer had to choose between their beloved hijab and their beloved football. There is no longer anything stopping them from challenging to compete at the very highest levels of the game.