Dispute over hijab in women’s soccer in Canada, as Muslim youth referee barred
Wednesday, 22 June 2011
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
“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
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
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
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: firstname.lastname@example.org)