1-3: Playing the Game, Wearing Hijab

Shireen Ahmed: [00:00:00] March 1st, 2014. I remember exactly where I was at that moment. I was in rural Nova Scotia visiting my best friend Catherine in her home and the wood pellet stove was on. And I remember looking at my phone and my hand started trembling and I just had to sit down and she's like, "Are you OK? What happened?" And I said you know FIFA is allowing hijab. She's like yes, this is what we want, right? Isn't that a good thing?


David Goldblatt: [00:00:26] My guest, Shireen Ahmed had been waiting a long time to hear that news. She'd spent years fighting FIFA's ban on women football players wearing headscarves on the pitch.


SA: And I remember just letting out a sigh of relief, an exhale. And I remember being absolutely exhausted. I wasn't elated at that moment and joyful. All the energy, all the adrenaline in campaigning and reading about it and feeling about it...I was exhausted because this is not a fight that needed to happen. It didn't have to.


TV1: [00:00:56]  Yesterday, FIFA unanimously overturned the ban on Islamic headscarves.


TV2: The wearing of the hijab has been banned in football by FIFA since 2007. But having been under increasing pressure, the ban will now be overturned.


DG: I’m DG, and welcome back to Game of Our Lives. These days football trades on its universalism, the idea that the world's game is available to all, irrespective of class, ethnicity, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. As the gratingly self-satisfied adverts around the pitch at the last World Cup read "FIFA. For the game, for the world."




However, football's origins are anything but universal. Invented and refined in the English public schools and elite universities of the mid 19th century, playing sport and playing football was always part of a bigger educational, cultural, and ultimately political project.


TV3: Psychology as well as nimble footwork plays its part in the game.


DG: [00:01:59] It was the perfect instrument for creating a muscular Christian gentleman, pure of mind and body, equipped with the moral fiber and esprits de corps necessary to go and rule the empire.


So, the history of football can be read in part as the history of exclusion and then the demand for inclusion. A game invented and controlled by the privileged white men of Victorian England was never going to become the world's universal sport unless that was demanded and insisted on. With me today to think about how far we've come and how far we have yet to go is someone who demands and insists.


TV4 (Shireen Ahmed): [00:02:38] There's nothing abnormal or groundbreaking about it. We're just existing.


DG: Shireen Ahmed is a football player, a football activist based in Toronto, Canada. She is amongst many things a writer, blogger, commentator, community coach, mentor, and cohost of the sports podcast, "Burn It All Down”. Shireen, welcome to the show.


SA: [00:02:59] Thank you for having me, David.


DG: It's my pleasure. Shireen, can you explain for us how, how was it that the hijab came to be banned by football authorities?


SA: In 2007 a young player named Asmahan Mansour, who is in Ottawa, played in a tournament in Quebec and she was banned by the referee for doing that and her team ended up withdrawing. And they made so much noise and it was all over media and it got picked up so much that it actually went to FIFA who then realized that we need a policy on this and their visceral reaction was to ban it.




That's exactly what happened. And then at first they came out with the explanation that we don't want religious significance you know symbolized on the field.


DG: I bet that was going to apply to the cross on Real Madrid's crest for example.


SA: Right! And the tattoos that people have of the depiction of Jesus, like it's not going to work.


So then they decided to change their tune and say oh you know what? It's going to be about safety. Let's make it about safety. So that was the brilliant idea that they came up with.




I've researched to find evidence that a hijab actually hurt a player or an opponent. There is no such case documented anywhere. It doesn't exist because if it did exist, it would be plastered all over the place by FIFA for this ridiculous decision. It doesn't exist.


DG: Which again is extraordinary when you think about the reticence of FIFA and indeed football associations more generally to act on what looks like pretty strong evidence on the consequences of too much heading the ball early in life.




Like where you've actually got quite a lot of research and like you know doctors doing stuff and then on this where there's zilch or nothing. You know like you say there's not even... they can't even come up with a bad anecdote let alone a piece of research.


SA: And it wasn't just Muslim women. Don't forget it was Sikh men as well and their turbans and it was Jewish men that choose to wear kippah. It was all of those communities. And yes there was absolute racial undertones in those decisions, those policies.




It really hit a head in 2010, just before 2011, where the Iranian women's team was disqualified from a qualifier for the World Cup because they were wearing hijab. Then again it hit the news because there were just one girl in Canada. It wasn't enough to make an impact, but when an entire national team was excluded from qualification... It started to make ripples and that's where the campaign came up to to strike down the law.




The FIFA ban was enacted in 2007 and didn't get struck down till 2014. That's seven years of girls not accessing development or play or opportunity. There's a lack of a whole generation of girls who missed out. And that hurts.


And you know, I think that the Jordan FA which also hosted the, you know, under 17 World Cup in 2016 where we saw the first hijab-wearing players on a pitch in a sanctioned match by FIFA. That was really important.


DG: How did that make you feel when you saw that for the first time given the set of struggles you've been engaged in? How was that for you personally?




SA: OK I'm not going to lie and say I didn't tear up... I did, because the optics of that for me are incredible. I mean representation matters and Muslim girls need to see themselves represented. If they're in kits and shorts, if they're in hijabs, if they're just in leggings, they need to see themselves represented.


This is the world's game. This is not the white man's game. This is the world's game and there's a reason for that.




DG: So given that and given that you grew up as a child of Pakistani descent in a small town in Nova Scotia, Canada, in Halifax. I wonder, just just like paint a picture for those of us who've never been to Halifax. What that place is like and what was it like growing up for you there?


SA: I was in an area that was... it wasn't a huge immigrant community like there is now. There really wasn't. And, I mean, to make things more interesting for me, my parents decided to put me in a French school. Because I wasn't the odd one out already!




I was a very precocious and energetic child and I played everything I tried. My parents were very keen that sport be a part of our lives and I have one older brother and never was there a discussion about he should do it and I shouldn't. My dad is an oarsman and my mother was very serious at table tennis. She was a champion of her university in medical school and we can't call it ping pong, we must refer to it as table tennis. And she's very serious.


DG:  [00:07:28] Must we?


SA: We must. We cannot be reductive...


DG:  I rather like that it was once called "whiff waff."


SA: Sounds like some trap music group actually.


DG: So you tried a lot of... sounds like this is a multi-sport household. But football's the game by the sounds of it that really captured you. What was it about football that spoke to something in you?


SA: [00:07:51] It was many things. My father was a huge Maradona fan. I remember the World Cup in '86 as being the first one I saw and we had to go to some dingy community center because they didn't show it. There was no Internet so we had to locate it. And you know we talked about it and he's a huge fan of Argentinean football and I got that from him.


DG: I love your description, forgive me, of your father for a moment. A Pakistani sculler who has come to Canada, who loves Argentinian football. What an amazingly and fabulously cosmopolitan range.


SA: He was such a fan and it was the passion and commanding presence that Maradona had. My father spoke about him in almost this, almost poetic way.




Also at a time and even at a place in a community where girls weren't included in these things, I was included in discussion and perspective and I recognize how fortunate I was to have two parents that were so encouraging of this passion of mine and that shaped my trajectory in life.


DG: Tell us what was the experience as a young woman like playing football in Halifax? What did it bring you?




SA: I mean, feeling like much of an outsider a lot of the time, suddenly I became part of a team. I mean the uniformity, we all had you know these awful orange-yellow kits made of polyester and I was the only one with two long thick braids. But in that moment, you know speeding down the pitch and having the wind through your hair, just feeling that euphoria and celebrating for a minute and forgetting that you're so different. You're part of something bigger than yourself.




And I also remember the one thing that I really appreciated about it was the skills and talent that I had were appreciated there. So I could be rough, I could be aggressive, and it wasn't considered something that was negative. It gave me so much confidence, like football has given me incredible amounts of confidence and I'm not even very good.


DG: So there you are, you know, playing football in high school in Halifax. What's the next move for you personally and in terms of your sporting career?


SA: [00:09:56] Well it's very generous of you to call it a career because I tell people I played Left Bench at the University of Toronto. But I trained with them and I enjoyed that tremendously. And it was a big thrill for me to be in the big city in Canada. And you know, I decided to wear a headscarf after my second year and that's when things changed dramatically. It was not a journey that I thought would happen. It's not something that I anticipated but when I told my coach, I called her up and told her that this was what's happening, she said you know thank you for coming out and effectively that ended my career and I...


DG: [00:10:30] Hold on. That's just extraordinary. Let's just just hold on a moment here. You call your coach. I'm guessing this in the the kind of late 1990s maybe, early 2000s and you're saying I'm going to wear a headscarf, a hijab, and their immediate and unequivocal response is just to say "OK see you later."


SA: [00:10:55] Yeah, I don't...don't necessarily blame her. I don't. Because, she had no information. And at the time, and very specifically, there was no rule by FIFA to ban hijab, but there was also no rule to allow it. And footballers and referees and officials are incredibly literal with the rules. And there was nothing to say I could play with it on. You know, I continued to play with my club team for as long as I was allowed. And I suited up for matches. But then the refs would say 'No, you can't play.' So I would sit sidelined and eventually that got humiliating because you suit up and you want to play, your teammates needs you. I've been playing with this team for over three years. They need me on the pitch. So it became frustrating for them as well, not in a way that they were supportive of me, because they were frustrated like, why are you doing this? This is effectively hurting our team.


DG: [00:11:44] So no one's turning around and saying of the authorities, "What's the problem here?" I mean, how many professional football players have I seen wearing gloves or snoods or I think of Petr Cech and his completely ridiculous hat....Something else is going on here, I mean forgive me, but is this just the sort of pernickety literalism of officialdom or is there a kind of... I can't think that this is not a sort of unspoken and unreflective Islamophobia going on here... How do you personally experience it and read it?


SA: [00:12:17] Well I think looking back at it I was so protective of what I was doing. It was so new for me as well. I was only 20. I came from a place of fervor and youth and I thought I'm just going to fight this I'm just going to protect what I have. But I realize now that's a fight I shouldn't even had to make. I shouldn't had to engage in.




And that year I watched Zidane hoist the World Cup, that summer, was the first summer I didn't play. And I remember sitting there thinking he's... you know we're not of the same ethnic origin. I'm South Asian, but you know he's a ancestrally, culturally Muslim and he's Algerian and he's got this chance to play and it was so hard for me to register that because I missed the game so much. It's like taking a piece of your soul and I've identified strongly with football my whole life.




DG: By the sounds of it you're not a person who could stay away from football for very long. So how after your university career, your time playing have you found ways of incorporating football in your life and how have you been able to go back to playing?


SA: [00:13:26] Yeah thank you for that. This is a happy part of it. I actually ended up getting married and I had kids fairly quickly. So football, I would play in a park. I would teach my kids. When my daughter was 4, I enrolled her in football as well and then I started to coach her and I started coaching. And I thought it was really formidable that I was standing there with girls that were 7, 8, and 9 and they were looking at this woman in a headscarf who is teaching them about tactics, who is teaching them about football theory. And it was completely normal for them. So it was normalizing my place in the football community.




And to this day, the majority of parent volunteers are male. They're not female. And that's not an accident. That's just because there's not always a place for us here. And that's why we have to carve out our own quite often. And now it's different...


DG: Tell me about...I'm really interested in that. I mean why is there, or not why is there isn't a place... But how are women who are trying to find their place in the grassroots game like that... How are they made to feel it's not their place?


SA: [00:14:28] We are not taught to believe that we actually belong on the pitch. Men are at the head of the table always, particularly with football, but in most sports federations. So it's men that are making the decision about how much women can participate. And this, ergo lies the problem, that they're making decisions on clothing. The decision to ban headscarves and hijab. Do you think anybody sitting on FIFA's exec committee actually spoke to a Muslim woman? No, of course not.


DG: [00:14:55] I mean, I often think in these situations there just needs to be somebody in the room when these dudes make the decision who thinks differently but there never seems to be anybody... who just like turn around and go, "Really, guys? Really. Have you thought this..." Why do you think there are so few women at the moment in football administration? You know nationally, locally, globally and more to the point, what, what are we going to do about it?


SA: You know someone said to me, "Shireen, I don't have a place at the table. I don't have a seat at the table." So my answer is build your own f*****g chair and insert it. That's what you have to do. And I don't... you know people are like well it's not that easy. I never said it was easy. But nothing ever is that's worth fighting for.




And part of what I write about is that we don't just need players amplified and supported, we need women across the board as officials, as decision makers, executives, you know, financiers. We need women at the table and there should be at least 50 percent women on FIFA exec. Absolutely. And there's not and there should be women from different continents. I don't want to see five white women at the table. I don't want that because that's not reflective of who needs the support and their voices amplified. There absolutely needs to be a broad selection of women representing different communities.




And this whole idea of, you know, FIFA is sort of patting women on the head and saying thank you... around the time that this whole Sepp Blatter corruption thing was really exploding, the women's World Cup was happening in Canada and they, quite frankly in my opinion, saved the face of that organization tremendously because it was hugely successful. So again the labor is done on the backs of women.


DG: [00:16:41] I wanted to ask you about the women's World Cup because in your writing on the women's World Cup, though there's plenty of critical debate there's also a real sense of wow, wasn't that good? Wasn't that just a great football tournament? And I wonder, just can you tell us what was it like to be in Canada for the Women's World Cup?


SA: [00:17:00] Oh David! It was glorious to have that and to have... I mean Canada's wonderfully supportive of its women's team. I mean quite frankly the men are ranked 94th. We don't care.... but the women. Oh my goodness. And they're so wonderful to watch. I went to, I went to go see a match in Ottawa and I watched France—I was really keen to watch France play because they're my favorite after Canada and Louisa Nécib Cadamuro, to watch her play you know was thrilling for me.




I will still think that the quarterfinal game between France and Germany, she was tactically perfect. It was that should have in been my books the final or the semi. And it was a quarter, it was so upsetting that you know that happened. It was a heartbreak. But to watch them play, to see the stadium filled with women and children and it was, it was just, it was so exciting.


DG: And the final as I understand it was the most watched soccer game in the United States, USA versus Japan in the final.


SA: [00:18:01] It was.


DG: That's it. That’s the highest viewing figures ever recorded for a game of football in the United States.


SA: Yeah, I mean of course I have issues with American exceptionalism and you know at the time all the stuff was coming out and the narrative of "Oh look America has saved soccer", with a bald eagle and the Star-Spangled Banner and the soccer balls. I'm like I'm Canadian. I'm like please can we just... Can we just stop with that? But I think that the excitement around the women's team was so genuine and sincere.




I remember going to a restaurant and every TV was on the women's game. And I was in a sports bar in Montreal to watch Canada play China in the opening match. You couldn't even ask about changing the channel. There was no way that was going to happen. And the NHL playoffs were happening. Don't forget we're in Canada. It didn't matter.


DG:  The NHL playoffs. So you’re up against the NHL playoffs? That is success.


SA:  Yeah.


DG: That is success.


SA: [00:19:01] Yeah it is! And it's telling, because the excitement and the hype is the beginning. It's really... that's what matters. When society rallies around these women. And says, you know, we believe in you. I'm very excited and looking forward to the Women's World Cup in France where I really hope and I know those women too haven't had all the support that they deserved. I mean you can even find a kit. I asked a friend of mine living in Paris to find me a kit with like Les Bleus with Nécib's jersey. She couldn't find one. She said you'll have to get the name put on. Now hopefully I can find Olympic Leonia jerseys and stuff like this. But just the fact that these need to be available and they're not know...


DG: [00:19:37] This points to a really interesting inequality in the women's game because these kits are not available. You know, if you want a USA kit, I'm sure it's it's not a problem, but if you want a Cote d'Ivoire kit or a Nigerian kit, this is going to be... I mean I should think if you're a Nigerian player, it's pretty pretty hard to get hold of your kit let alone as a fan.




And I was really struck by your work during the World Cup on the African teams who were both fantastic but often very much out of their depth, up against the the much more you know well-financed teams basically of the global north and I wonder what is the situation in women's football? How how unequal is the situation across continents between north and south?


SA: You'd be surprised at how similar those challenges are. The Nigerian women's team hasn't had an opportunity or a match in over a year. They won, they won the continental African championship and they were not paid.




But let's not kid ourselves, this type of misogyny and sexism is inherent in all systems, all around the world. I mean the Lionesses were horribly treated. They won the bronze in the World Cup, they came third. And what happened? They get back and the FA issues a ridiculously offensive tweet of "They can go back to being teachers and wives tomorrow." What is that?




And then we saw Denmark, right after the Euros, the Danish team placed second behind the Netherlands and they went on strike effectively for pay equity. I mean let's look at this, and this is a country in the global north and I follow all those conversations and I, they're so... I feel people keep saying the advancement, look how much football women's football is rising, but why are we still fighting these fights? Why do we have to keep convincing the decision makers, the male decision makers that were worthy of this?


We know we are.


DG: [00:21:24] Well, because as you, as you know they're not convinced. They just don't get it. You know but that's 10,000 years of patriarchy accumulated for you. Tell me, what are your favorite goals in the history of football? What are the moments that have done the most for you?


SA: I have to say first and foremost Carli Lloyd's goal in the final of the women's from the half. Oh I don't know. She's just over the half—how that went in, how the power, that strike was incredible. I mean, I'm Canadian and I'm a little bit salty sometimes about the U.S. team but that power and that passion and her confidence of “I'm going to shoot this ball from half” and it went in.




I was just... it was wild. And you know when people argue that oh women aren't strong enough. No, I think she's just fine. It's technique, it's power. That's I think, it gets me really excited. I think also I would be remiss if I didn't say that Zidane's 2002 Champs League final against Bayern Leverkusen. His strike is still etched into my brain and the reason is the way he so magically connected with the ball and I at that point I thought this man has this incredible magical connection to the goalposts and the net. Like they speak to each other in some type of language we don't know. His, just his artistry and his, his presence on the pitch and the way he stood there and slammed that ball in. I just adore him. Absolutely adore him and I think that that goal for me was everything.


DG: [00:23:06] Shireen, it's been a real pleasure to have you on the show. I hope we do it again. Many many thanks.


SA: Thank you for having me David.


DG: Shireen Ahmed is a football writer, coach, and sports activist. One of the lovely things about speaking to Shireen is remembering just how much joy there can be watching the World Cup and how much joy there can be being at a World Cup. But the World Cup can also bring defeat, misery, and disaster.


Juan Gabriel Vasquez: [00:23:41] The worst moment for my generation. The moment that really became a metaphor of everything that was wrong with the political moment of the situation in society and football was the murder of Andres Escobar in 1994.


TV5: Escobar on the own goal and the United States leads Colombia one to nothing.


DG: [00:24:05] Next week, I'll be talking with Juan Gabriel Vásquez. One of Columbia's leading modern novelists, an aficionado of politics and football, and a man who might just have a Colombian football novel up his sleeve.


In the meantime, go and check our website for all sorts of extras. Subscribe to the show at Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.


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This show is a production of Jetty Studios. Our senior producer is Raja Shah. Our producer and sound designer is Meradith Hoddinott. Our editors are Casey Miner and Kanishk Tharoor. Kyana Moghadam does social media. Graelyn Brashear does audience development. Our graphic designer is Sophie Feller. Our podcast operations are by Jordan Bailey. Game of Our Lives is recorded at The Soundtown Studios in Bristol, England with engineering by Richard de Mowbray. Our music is from Bang Data. You can get more from them at Our executive producer is Julie Caine and our general manager is Kaizar Campwala. I am David Goldblatt, and I'll see you next week.