Dispute over hijab in women’s soccer in Canada, as Muslim youth referee barred
A dispute between FIFA and Iranian and Jordanian women soccer players over the right to wear religious Muslim headdresses during matches is expanding as it spreads across the Atlantic.
A Canadian soccer referee, Sarah Benkirane, was barred this week by Quebec’s Lac St. Louis Regional Soccer Association because she wears a hijab, a religious headdress that covers a woman’s hair, neck and ears in accordance with conservative Muslim dress code.
The 15-year-old referee had been refereeing games on Montreal’s West Island and Vaudreuil for the past two years but was informed by association officials this week that she had been barred because of world soccer body FIFA rules prohibiting religious garments on the pitch.
“I always felt like I was equal growing up in Canada, so I don’t understand why they’re going to take this right away from me,” Ms. Benkirane, who has worn a hijab since she was 12, told Canadian broadcaster CBC.
“It’s just a sign of my modesty and how I choose to express myself. I thought we were free to practice religion in this country if you’re not hurting anyone else, and I’m not hurting anyone else,” Ms. Benkirane said.
The banning of Ms. Benkirane comes after Iran earlier this month lost its chance of reaching the 2012 Olympics when its qualifying match against Jordan was cancelled because the Islamic republic’s women soccer team appeared on the pitch wearing a hijab rather than a cap that had originally had been agreed with the Iranian Football Federation (IFF).
The agreed cap covers a women’s hair but not the neck and ears. Religious women players have charged that the cap violates Islamic dress code.
Three Jordanian women players were also banned for wearing the hijab.
Iran charged that FIFA’s decision to disqualify its women’s team constituted an attack on all female Muslim players.
Prince Ali Bin Talal, a half-brother of Jordanian King Abdullah and FIFA vice president has said he is seeking to resolve the dispute between Iran and the soccer body. Prince Ali was elected to his FIFA post on a platform that emphasized women’s rights.
Mr. Benkiran said she has filed a complaint with the Quebec association. Ms. Benkirane insists that rules have to be adapted as society changes. The Quebec federation has advised Ms. Benkirane to address her complaint directly to FIFA.
The Lac St. Louis Regional Soccer Association asserted it was acting in accordance with rules set out by the Quebec Soccer Federation. For its part, the Quebec federation said in a statement that it was upholding FIFA’s rule 4, which prohibits religious statements in team uniforms.
“The situation is clear,” the statement read. “Wearing a hijab is not allowed on Quebec’s soccer fields just as necklaces, earrings, rings are prohibited, and we will follow the rule until FIFA says otherwise.”
The federation’s communications director, Michel Dugas, said the group could not make an exception for Ms. Benkirane because that would create an untenable situation in which a referee wearing a hijab would have to tell players that they can’t do the same.
The right to wear a hijab has long been a controversial issue in Canada with some segments of Canadian soccer supporting women who wear the hijab.
In February 2007, five Canadian teams walked out of a soccer tournament in Quebec, because a Muslim girl was ejected for wearing a hijab.
Muslim women have been allowed to wear the hijab in other parts of Canada, including Ontario and British Colombia.
(James M. Dorsey, formerly of The Wall Street Journal, is a senior researcher at the National University of Singapore’s Middle East Institute and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer. He can be reached via email at: [email protected])