1-3: Playing the Game, Wearing Hijab
All Shireen Ahmed wanted to do was play — but college officials kept her off the pitch because she wanted to wear her headscarf, or hijab. This week, the player, advocate, and coach talks about her fight to get back on the field, what football means in the global South, and the day FIFA lifted its ban on religious head covers.
About the guest
Shireen Ahmed is a writer, public speaker and sports activist focusing on Muslim women in sports. She is a regular contributor to Muslimah Media Watch, Muslim Women in Sports and Safe World For Women. An athlete and avid sports coach and mentor, Ahmed hosts a feminist sports podcast called “Burn It All Down,” runs the blog “Tales from a Hijabi Footballer,” and is currently working on her first book. She lives in Toronto, Canada with her family. She’s on Twitter at: @_shireenahmed_
words from the host
In our conversation this week, my guest Shireen Ahmed recalls how she felt on hearing that FIFA had finally lifted its ban on women playing football while wearing hijab. As a campaigner against the ban it was of course good news for her, but she also felt a sense of exhaustion, that it should have all taken so long.
I wonder what the balance of emotions was for the first Saudi women to be allowed into a football stadium to watch a game? As part of his broader program of change, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has permitted women to attend games, albeit in specific family areas, in Riyadh, Jeddah and Dammam.
Which leaves Iran as the last place on earth where women remain excluded from the football stadium. However, nearly forty years on from the Islamic Revolution that brought this kind of segregation into being, resistance is breaking out all over.
These kinds of protests have historical precursors, the most famous of which were the celebrations that followed Iran's victory over Australia to qualify for the 1997 World Cup. The streets of every Iranian city filled with revellers, traffic came to a halt as men and women openly danced together. Women, still banned from the Azadi Stadium — where the national football team plays — stormed its turnstiles so that they could join the throng celebrating the return of the team.
More recently, in 2015, a new front in the conflict was opened at the Asian Cup in Australia, where the majority of the small Iranian community showed up en masse to the national team’s games. Out of around 35,000 Iranians living in Australia, 17,000 went to see Iran beat Bahrain in Melbourne; 22,000 to see them beat Qatar in Sydney. A nationwide cavalcade travelled to Canberra to watch their nail-biting defeat to Iraq in a quarterfinal penalty shoot-out. Iranian player Ashkan Dejagah remarked, “it was just like playing in Tehran,” except that in Tehran there were still no women in the stands.
In Australia, women were a big part of the crowd and made their presence felt: dressed to impress, with hair and nails in the national colours. The Iranian FA was sufficiently rattled to instruct its players not to let themselves be photographed in selfies with women. One group sat in the stands with a banner of Ghoncheh Ghavami, an Iranian woman who had been arrested and sentenced to a year in jail for attending a volleyball game. Another set of fans with long memories sat together with t-shirts bearing the face of Habib Khabiri, a player executed by the regime in 1984.
Since then, protest groups have been attending Iranian away games and displaying large banners calling for Iranian women to be allowed into stadiums. There have been repeated statements from the government of reformist President Hassan Rouhani on the matter, most notably in 2015 when it announced that, with the exception of wrestling and swimming, women would be allowed into sporting events, and special women’s or family sections would be created to facilitate this.
No one it seems told the police or religious authorities. As of 2016 a young woman, known on Instagram as Shakiba, was posting pictures of herself at a Persepolis game in Tehran. She had dressed in five layers of clothing, added padding, and put on enough face paint to get past the police. Fans inside recognised her, but actively hid her from the authorities.
In 2017, it seemed that a breakthrough had finally occurred, as the Iranian FA’s website announced that women could buy tickets for the upcoming World Cup qualifier against Syria. Many Iranian women rushed to buy tickets, only for the Iran FA to rescind the offer, and blame a technical glitch. Syrian women were allowed to attend. One Iranian woman, who queued up for her ticket but was kept outside, told the Guardian, “it was a very bitter experience. I was close to tears — never before have I felt so defeated and humiliated.”
Despite all of this, in March 2018, FIFA President Gianni Infantino attended the Tehran Derby at the Azadi Stadium in Iran; one of the hundred thousand men in the stadium. He and FIFA claim to have impressed upon his hosts FIFA’s commitment to gender equality and the lifting of the stadium ban. However, as Bari Weiss, in this excellent piece in the New York Times, argues, this is just not enough: “The real test of FIFA’s seriousness is whether it is willing to apply serious penalties,” she writes. “This is a statement about whether or not FIFA considers women second-class citizens," said the Director of Global Initiatives at Human Right's Watch, Minky Worden.