x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Iran's girls team banned from Youth Olympics for wearing the hijab

Iranian officials say the decision is politically motivated and a violation of the athletes' religious rights.

The wearing of the hijab has caused problems for Iran's female football players.
The wearing of the hijab has caused problems for Iran's female football players.

TEHRAN // Fifa has banned the Iranian girls football team from the first Youth Olympics in Singapore in October on the grounds that the players would be wearing the hijab. Iranian officials say the decision is politically motivated and a violation of the athletes' religious rights.

The Asian Football Confederation (AFC) announced on Monday that Iran had been removed from the competition, based on a ruling by the Fifa executive committee that the Iranian team would not be allowed to participate if its players refused to appear without the hijab. "Taking into consideration the clear position stated by the [Olympics Committee] of Iran, the Fifa Executive Committee had no choice but to take the decision that [Iran] will not be able to participate," the Fifa secretary general Jerome Valcke said, according to a letter that appeared on the AFC website.

Fifa first banned the hijab in 2007, after an 11-year-old player in Canada was stopped from wearing the head scarf for safety reasons. Fifa had originally accepted the Iranian team's application to play in the tournament when Iran was selected in October 2009 by the AFC to represent Asia in the games, but the ruling overturned that decision. "This is a politically motivated decision because [Fifa] knew the Iranian team was going to wear the hijab in the tournament," Bahram Afsharzadeh, the secretary of the Iranian National Olympics Committee, was quoted by Fars News Agency as saying yesterday.

Mr Afsharzadeh had earlier told the Khabaronline news portal that Fifa's ban on the team's participation in the games was an act against the rights of Muslims and was disrespectful to the athletes' religious and national rights. According to Farideh Shojaee, the deputy head of the Iranian Football Federation, Fifa officials had originally accepted the Iranian team's participation in the Singapore games knowing the players would be wearing the hijab, but then worried that other countries may try to play in national dress, rather than standard football strips.

"They thought the Islamic hijab was our country's national and official costume and reasoned that [athletes from] other countries may want to wear their national costumes in the games if the Iranian team was allowed to do so," she was quoted by Iranian Students News Agency (ISNA) as saying. Iranian officials also believe Fifa's decision to ban the hijab in the Youth Olympics will set a precedent that affects not only Iranian female athletes in the future, but also those from other Islamic countries.

Abbas Torabian, the head of the international relations committee of the Iranian Football Federation, called on all Islamic countries this week to protest Fifa's decision to prohibit Islamic hijab in international games. "This concerns not only us, but all Islamic countries that want to compete in official [international] games. If all Islamic countries unanimously protest to Fifa they can influence its future decisions," he was quoted by Khabaronline news portal as saying on Saturday.

Thailand has replaced Iran for the six nation tournament, which will be held at the inaugural Youth Olympics. More than 3,600 athletes, ages 14 to 18, will compete in 26 sports in the games that will be held in Singapore from October 12-25. In a letter to FIFA last week, Ali Kafashian, the secretary of Iran's Olympics Committee, had stressed that the Iranian girls football team would participate in the games only if the players were allowed to wear the Islamic hijab.

The hijab "is among the main and unalterable conditions of our country's [participation in the games]. We hope that Fifa officials will show respect for the religious beliefs of [different] nations", Mehr News Agency had quoted him as saying. Wearing the Islamic hijab has been mandatory for all female Iranian athletes since the Islamic revolution of 1979. In the past, female Iranian soccer players have been allowed to compete in headscarves and clothes that cover the whole body in such competitions as the West Asian Games, last held in Doha in 2005.

msinaiee@thenational.ae