The first appearance of a soccer player wearing a hijab at a World Cup is still a long way off. Nouhaila Benzina was in Morocco’s squad for the North Africans’ opening game against Germany and warmed up before kick-off, but did not play in the 6-0 defeat by Germany. The fact that the 25-year-old defender even has the chance to play a World Cup is thanks to the Canadian Asmahan Mansour.
Protest of an eleven year old
In 2007, the then eleven-year-old made headlines around the world. Mansour wanted to take her Ottawa team to a local soccer tournament in the city of Laval. When the girl wore the hijab, the referee asked her to take off her headscarf, referring to FIFA rules. Only then can she play. Mansour refused, and her team left the tournament in protest at the player’s exclusion.
Mansour and the Football Association of Canada contacted FIFA. The world association then confirmed its hijab ban and gave two arguments for it. On the one hand, the headscarf can lead to injuries and is therefore dangerous, according to FIFA. On the other hand, it violates the rule that equipment and clothing must remain free of “any political or religious statement”.
Cap instead of headscarf
Critics argued that there was no evidence of a security risk and that FIFA used double standards when it came to religion. So she has nothing against religious gestures by players, such as the sign of the cross before the game starts, before a penalty or when celebrating a goal. But FIFA stood firm.
Before the 2010 Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, she banned an Iranian junior team from the tournament because the players wanted to compete in hijab. After all, they were allowed to play – with caps instead of headscarves. In 2011, FIFA also banned the Iran women’s national football team from wearing a hijab at the Olympic qualifier in Jordan.
Hijab debut at U17 World Cup in Jordan
At that time, however, there were already signs of a change of course. Responsible for this was the Jordanian Prince Ali bin al-Hussein, who was appointed FIFA Vice-President in early 2011 as the representative of Asia. With him, pro-hijab advocates got a foot in the door of FIFA decision-makers.
In 2012, the International Football Association Board (IFAB) – the international body that decides the rules of football – approved a two-year trial period for games wearing an “athletic hijab”. Designers from the sporting goods industry had developed a tight-fitting headscarf that finally allayed FIFA’s security concerns. “There is no medical literature on injuries as a result of wearing a headscarf,” the IFAB said. The hijab could therefore not – as FIFA had done until then – be classified as “dangerous”.
In 2014, after the completion of the trial phase, the world football governing body allowed the hijab to be used for international matches. At the U17 World Cup in Jordan in October 2016, Tasneem Abu-Rob and Rand Albustanji from the host team were the first women footballers to wear a headscarf at a FIFA tournament.
Next hijab ban in France
The hijab is still banned in French football. At the end of June, the Council of State (Conseil d’Etat) declared the headscarf ban at football matches to be legal. The requirement of the football association FFF to do without the hijab is “appropriate and proportionate”, judged the highest administrative court in France.
Sports federations could oblige their athletes “to wear neutral clothing at sporting competitions and events to ensure the smooth running of the Games and to avoid clashes or confrontations,” according to the State Council. “Les Hijabeuses”, a group founded in 2020 that campaigned for female footballers in France to be allowed to wear the hijab, had complained. The activists are supported by the men’s French ex-stars such as Eric Cantona and Lilian Thuram, among others.