Why FIFA should let the Iranian women play

You don’t have to get all worked up like David Zirin does (and this he does about most anything related to culture and sports) to see how FIFA is missing a magnificent opportunity to be a global agent for positive change. For a change.

The international soccer governing body’s tumultuous summer took another regrettable turn last week when it barred the Iranian women’s national soccer team from a major qualifier for the 2012 Olympics because the players compete in headscarves.

This violates FIFA’s policy against such attire, and Iran was forced to forfeit its match to Jordan, dashing its hopes of getting to London. Even Jordan’s Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein thinks this has gone too far, and has offered to mediate a resolution.

FIFA took this action on the heels of the dreadful re-election of boss man Sepp Blatter and allegations of bribery that have marred it in the worst scandals of its history, and that’s saying something. Appointing Henry Kissinger and Placido Domingo to the new “Council of Wisdom” won’t make the graft go away, nor will it offer anything of note beyond perhaps some good music.

Neither does Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad deserve much praise for accusing FIFA of being “dictators and colonialists who want to impose their lifestyle on others.” He’s been rather good at doing that to his own people.

But it is a damning statement on the state of FIFA at a time when its reputation couldn’t be worse.

While soccer’s status as the world’s most popular sport has given Blatter the cover to be his own dictator, he’s been a poor steward in fostering the growth of the women’s game.

As the United States won the 1999 Women’s World Cup, there Blatter was on the platform with the trophy winners, prompting his many refrains that “the future of football is feminine.”

Except that in the 12 years since, it doesn’t appear to be anything more than what he intended at the time: A cheap and easy slogan, cashing in on a landmark moment. There are now age-group competitions for women, which is a good thing on one level. But on another, this has only expanded Blatter’s global network of patronage that maintains his power. It is, for the most part, a rather sorry all-male contingent.

Consider this: There is not a single woman on the FIFA Executive Committee, the group that chooses World Cup venues and that has been embroiled in the scandals. FIFA does have a Committee for Women’s Football, but its top two officers are men. Strangely enough, FIFA insists on all-female representation only in refereeing crews for its women’s international tournaments.

And yet Blatter still has the temerity to proclaim, as he did at the Women’s Under-17 World Championships last year, that the sport can liberate women.

FIFA’s headscarf policy, and its governing structure devoid of females in any position of authority, has had the effect of squelching them.

Women in Iranian society have shown their passion for soccer often enough for the frightened mullahs and government to bar them from going to stadiums and even movie theatres to watch games. All across the Arab and Muslim world, women are taking part in demonstrations to open their societies.

In some countries there, leaders are seeing the value in opening up the fields of play for women. Qatar, the controversial winner of the 2022 World Cup sweepstakes, started a women’s domestic soccer league — in part to woo over the European-dominated Lords of FIFA — and will be sending women athletes to the Olympics for the first time in London. Question the Qataris’ motives if you will, but they are encouraging women to get in the game.

(I’m sorry, but Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s girls soccer initiative launched this week won’t have the impact of a meaningful FIFA women’s soccer program that would tap into the organic growth of the game. This just looks like more America-knows-best preaching.)

In a sense, FIFA is acting the same way by requiring those from a different culture to meet its Western-based standards of dress. Iran’s women, who have been victimized enough by their own rulers, are now being denied the chance by FIFA to make a poignant statement against that very oppression. FIFA and Blatter need to understand that opening the doors of competition to women from countries like Iran is the first order of business. If FIFA had any women on its most powerful committees, they might have been able to advise them that the simple act of getting on the field, with or without a hijab, would be undeniably powerful and hard to reverse.

Start there, and then work on the cultural differences. Better yet, respect them. All FIFA has done is make Ahmadinejad seem more reasonable and enlightened by comparison, and that’s not easy to do.

Later this month, another Women’s World Cup gets underway in Germany, another reason to lament the timing of FIFA’s action. There will be no countries from the Middle East: Asia’s representatives are Japan, North Korea and Australia.

Arab and Muslim women will see no glimpse of women like themselves. Unless FIFA reverses its policy and gives the Iranian team another chance, the same is likely to be the case in London.

That would be bad not just for women’s soccer. It also would be a tragedy for women living in that part of world who may yearn for a different life, but have little to inspire them to try.

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One Comment

  1. Posted June 9, 2011 at 3:55 pm | Permalink

    I’m afraid there has been a lot of misinformation about this in the media. I’m no big fan of FIFA, but they are being unfairly accused here. They do allow headcoverings, as long as they abide by safety rules (nothing encircling the throat, like a snood). FIFA and the Iranian FA had worked out a suitable design before this game, but for some reason some of the players did not use the approved kit, and the FIFA official at the match (who is from Bahrain) had to disqualify them. It’s difficult to say who is to blame without more details, but to say that FIFA does not allow these women to cover themselves is false.