x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

A football friendly hijab may give Muslim women a sporting chance with Fifa

Fifa's medical committee is expected to examine the designs and Cindy van den Bremen, the Hijab's Dutch designer, is counting on being involved.

A model, left, demonstrates the sport hijab by Capster. Cindy van den Bremen, the designer has signed a distribution deal with the Sun and Sands Sports chain in the Middle East
A model, left, demonstrates the sport hijab by Capster. Cindy van den Bremen, the designer has signed a distribution deal with the Sun and Sands Sports chain in the Middle East

ROTTERDAM // Just out of its plastic wrapper, it's an unprepossessing bit of white fabric the size of a large handkerchief with some stitching and a bit of Velcro. But this sports-friendly sports hijab may give many Muslim women a shot at playing competitive football without danger of disqualification.

"In the West, there is so much connected to this piece of fabric that it is not fair anymore," to Muslim women Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen said last week in an interview in Rotterdam.

The "piece of fabric" she referred to is the hijab, a topic Mrs Van den Bremen, a non-Muslim, has been immersed in since creating a sports hijab design 12 years ago as a graduating project at the design academy in Eindhoven.

The Velcro strips are used for fastening the hijab safely - so it comes off when pulled.

"I really want to express the fact that I am not pro or against the hijab. I am pro-choice", she said.

The invention echoes the burqini, and Australian designed, Islamic-approved swimsuit that now even allows Muslim women to work as lifeguards on the beaches.

The five-year ban on women wearing a hijab on the playing field, by the world's governing body for football, Fifa, deprived some Muslim women of the choice to play.

Now Mrs Van den Bremen's sports hijab, part of her burgeoning hijab business under the brand name Capsters, may help overturn the decision.

This month, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) of which Fifa is a major member, agreed to allow women to wear the hijab as a trial. A final decision will be made at a meeting in London in July if the designs from Capsters and at least one other designer, a Canadian design, can be worn.

Football's rule-making body, IFAB, ruled in March last year that scarves worn around the neck, or "snoods", posed a possible choking threat on the field. The ruling was taken to include the hijab. It did allow head coverings that followed the hairline, such as caps, but required the neck to remain free.

To many critics, not only in the Muslim world, it was a thinly disguised attempt to keep the hijab off the field. In February, even the United Nations came out against a ban when an adviser to the secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, called for football for all women without discrimination.

Fifa says the ban goes back to a 2007 rule stating: "The player's equipment must not carry any political, religious or personal statements."

Iran, where the wearing of the headscarf is obligatory, has been one of the most vocal opponents of the ban, clashing with Fifa in 2010 and 2011. The second occasion, in June 2011, the Iranian women's team was forced to forfeit its Olympics qualification game against Jordan because the players were wearing the hijab.

At the time, Jordan's Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein had been elected as vice-president for Asia of Fifa and had the hijab ban in his sights.

"We will work together to find a solution that respects the rules of the game and the culture at the same time," he said shortly after taking up his post and amid the uproar over the Iran-Jordan match.

It was Prince Ali who made the presentation to IFAB this month to overturn the ban. The Capsters design was a natural part of the proceedings because it had been introduced to Jordan's national football team by its Dutch coach, even though only some of the team's players wear the hijab.

Fifa's medical committee is expected to examine the designs and Mrs Van den Bremen is counting on being involved.

"Hopefully and most likely we will be part of the committee because we designed it and the main reason for this is to get a hijab solution, not to disallow it," she said.

She is amazed to find herself involved in such a technical sports matter, never being particularly interested in football.

Her involvement with the hijab flowed out of issues of integration of Muslims in the Netherlands. She was intrigued when a young girl was banned from gym class in high school over an 'unsafe' hijab. It inspired her to come up with a better design.

"Here I thought that I was designing for a girl. Little did I know that when I graduated, the whole circus started of publicity. It was internationally also published in newspapers and articles she wrote in publications such as the New York Times.

Orders started pouring in just on my Hotmail account, from New York, from South Africa, from Australia," said Mrs Van den Bremen.

While she is not exclusively a designer of hijabs, her business has branched out into casual hijabs as well as more exclusive designer hijabs. The brand is being sold in more than 10 countries and she said she said she has just signed a distribution deal with the Sun and Sands Sports chain in the Middle East.

She emphasised her conviction that a reversal of the hijab ban by Fifa would be good for women, through sports in general.

But she also acknowledged that it could help her business, which still requires investment, she said.

"We have to see what happens come July. Maybe we make adjustments, who knows. It would be wonderful if this is the design that Fifa approves and, of course, we'd put a big tag on it: Fifa approved."

fbiederman@thenational.ae