Soccer only for the secular-hearted?

Players of Iran's women national football team warm-up. Getty Images

I choose to wear a head scarf as a symbol of my identity as a strong Muslim American woman. That never prevented me from taking part in sports. I was an avid basketball player in high school, playing not just for my school but for a local basketball league in Reston, Virginia, and attending basketball camps during summers religiously. I credit sports as having shaped my character, teaching me the importance of teamwork. The thought of being denied that experience is devastating.

So I'm astounded by the discrimination from the world FIFA soccer federation banning girls in headscarves from international competition. It was a reminder for me that women's sports is still not open to all women.

It wasn't until I saw the recent pictures of the heartbroken Iranian women soccer players denied the opportunity to play that FIFA's ban hit home. I thought of how such a rule, had it applied to me, could have stripped me of a formative experience as a young Muslim athlete. And I thought of Thuraya Hazer, my 13 year old neighbor. An Iranian-American, she lives and breathes soccer. Her father's family is from Tehran, and her mother's family is from the US. She chose to wear the headscarf, and never imagined it would one day be an obstacle for her dream of playing in an international forum.v The reality is that the headscarf ban in soccer does not just impact the Iranian women. It impacts women in Muslim countries everywhere. There were three Jordanian women who were asked not to play because they wore headscarves Therefore causing a division within one team. This ban signals that women can only be active and participate if they embrace secular norms. The women we will engage with are those that fit our image of what women should be, and others are literally not welcome to play. In the shadows of an Arab spring, and a changing global perspective, I would like to imagine that the days of divide and conquer have passed.

In an ideal world, telling women what they can and cannot wear is one that should offend all women's rights activists. Once more there is an attempt to regulate women's dress. From Saudi Arabia to France, Muslim women are being told what the right amount of clothing is. In both cases, the freedom of choice is being denied. It is sad to see this debate has made it's way into the sport arena as well. The fact that it is less instead of more clothing should not make it any less offensive for women who care about individual choice, autonomy, and freedom.

In fact, the inclusion of women is important not only for women's rights defenders. It's important for all who love sports and understand its potential to transform lives. The United Nations itself has recognized this potential, adopting a resolution recognizing the "Potential of Sport to Encourage Tolerance, Social Cohesion". In announcing an action plan in 2010, UN Secretary General, Ban Ki- moon called for advocating the the principle of "sport for all".

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But yes, I forgot to read the fine print - the implicit understanding that "sports for all" actually meant sports for those who comply with secular norms.

FIFA's argument that safety is at stake is almost as bad as the Taliban's argument that women riding a horse will lose their virginity. The excuses for barring women from sports are not new, and reflects a greater trend: the use by fundamentalists - both secular and religion - of women's dress code as a proxy for the clash of civilizations.

The argument that FIFA is attempting to prevent religious statements on the field is at least more plausible, and honest. But this argument, too, is uncompelling. Thuraya reminds me that the typical scene for a soccer player rushing into the field is to make the sign of the cross, kiss the ground, and rush in. It doesn't get more religious than that.

That leaves us with FIFA's final argument, that it is attempting to prevent a political statement.

But isn't the very act of banning the headscarf a political act in itself? The allegation that the wearing of the headscarf is necessarily a political statement is simply false. Many Muslim women choose to wear a headscarf as a reflection of their faith. Banning the headscarf in sports is a devastating loss for all those who believe in individual freedom and the potential of sports to transform lives and build bridges across cultures. Access is being denied to a group of women to have a life changing experience. The current FIFA stand is a real test to international feminist solidarity. The question on Muslim women's minds is, will they have to stand against oppression alone? Or will the voices from their feminist sisters join theirs?

Bio: Manal Omar is director of Iraq and Iran programs at the United States Institute of Peace. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

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