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Of Hijabs and Soccer

Monday, March 12, 2007

Written by Gonzalo Moreno

Ashaman Mansour has become a minor celebrity in the last week, and for all the wrong reasons. Mansour is an 11-year old girl from Ottawa, the star player in the U-12 Nepean Hotspurs, and a practicing Muslim. You would think none of those three characteristics would clash with each other - until they caused a considerable cultural-issue-becomes-political-hot-potato 10 days ago.

On February 25th, Mansour was prohibited from playing in the Hotspurs’ third game in an all-Canadian tournament in Laval, Québec. The referee, a Muslim herself, ordered Mansour to remove her hijab (headscarf) if she wanted to play. Mansour refused and her whole team backed her up by withdrawing from the tournament altogether.

The referee immediately came under an unforgiving spotlight. She cited FIFA (the international federation of national soccer associations) rules to explain her decision to kick Mansour out, and was backed, on the same grounds, by the Québec provincial soccer association.

Unfortunately, FIFA rules contain no explicit mention of headscarves. Rule 4, which refers to the equipment that should be worn by players, only contains a couple of vaguely hijab-relevant sentences, under Rule 4.5 (Non-Basic Equipment): “A player must not use equipment or wear anything that is dangerous to himself/herself or another player.” and “Modern protective equipment such as headgear, facemasks, knee and arm protectors made of soft, lightweight, padded material are not considered to be dangerous and are therefore permitted.”

If these rules look unbearably vague, that's because therein lies the problem: the soccer rulebook, compared to those of other sports, is exceedingly thin. What makes soccer referees much more controversial (and their calls more disputed) than their average counterpart in North American sports is that the rulebook gives enormous amounts of discretion for the referee to interpret rules, some of which look more like very vague directives.

Because Thecannon.ca doesn’t pay me enough money, I have a second job refereeing Intramural soccer games here at Guelph. Now, you'd think that one of the cardinal rules of soccer is that you can't play the ball with your hands (unless you're the goalkeeper). That is, in fact, not exactly true. Handling the ball is only an infraction if it is done "deliberately" (I'm quoting FIFA rules again). Similarly, the offside rule (which is obscure and complicated as is) only applies to players who are “interfering with play” or “gaining an advantage by being in that position.” It’s not enough to obviously touch the ball with your hands or obviously be offside; the referee needs to judge the player’s intentions while doing so.

And why am I telling you this? Only to illustrate the point that soccer refs have so much space to interpret the rules that the only reason we usually hide behind FIFA rules is to say they give us too much freedom, not to say they constrain us.

I've never worn or played soccer with a hijab, but to me it looks like it is made of “soft, lightweight, padded” material, and I find it hard to believe that it can be dangerous for the wearer, let alone to other players. From a purely competitive standpoint, it's probably not the greatest idea: it traps sweat, reduces peripheral vision and dampens the force of heading the ball, but that is the player’s choice, not the ref's. If you want to play with your arm in a sling, like German great Franz Beckenbauer famously did in a World Cup semifinal after dislocating his shoulder, the ref may think that it’s a stupid idea, but it would be within the rules to pursue that particular stupid idea.

Back to the matter at hand, the power of discretion is best illustrated by the fact that the Hotspurs played two games in that tournament before being kicked out, and Mansour played in both of them, hijab and all. In other words, the first two referees interpreted the rules differently than the third. This particular ref should own up to her discretionary decision instead of going to provincial authorities who then passed it on to international authorities - in the end, it seems like the ref had no other choice, and that is simply not true.

The fact that this happened in Québec is no coincidence. Mansour regularly plays league games in Ontario, and she has never encountered any problems with her hijab. In fact, spokespeople from the Ontario Soccer Association say they have thoroughly tested and evaluated the use of the headscarf in games and they have concluded that it does not violate any of the rules of the sport.

As soon as the news sprung, all commentators put the incident within the “reasonable accommodation” debate that is raging in pre-election Québec. Even Premier Jean Charest weighed in, making an awkward reference to his own soccer-playing youth and backing the application of the rules.

Reasonable accommodation has in its turn come under the spotlight in the past month as election fever built up. Two tiny rural Québec towns, Hérouxville and St. Roch-de-Mékinac have passed “codes of acceptable conduct” for immigrants, which contain such gems as “we consider that killing women in public beatings, or burning them alive are not part of our standards of life.”

The fact that these two municipalities are mainly French, white and Catholic, and have a grand total of one immigrant family and one adopted kid from the West Indies does not seem to impede them from publishing rules for non-existing immigrants. Reasonable accommodation has become a passive-aggressive epitome of self-assurance against a perceived immigrant “threat” that, at least in Hérouxville, cannot possibly exist if there are no actual immigrants.

The codes of conduct are absolutely superfluous. Canadian jurisprudence (if not common sense, but let’s not take that one for granted) already forbids people from killing other people, be it with fire or stones, in public or in private. Most of what is in those codes of conduct has already been decided on by one or more judicial instances in the country. If there is no legal precedent for some of the articles in the codes, one can be reached whenever the situation arises, if it ever does.

Which brings me back to soccer. Both the people that drafted the codes of conduct and Mansour's referee decided at some point that they were going to use the “rules” as an excuse to justify their own views. "It is out of our hands," they seem to be saying, "you need to follow the rules." This, of course, is a crude distortion. When the soccer referee decides to not allow a hijab, it is her interpretation of the rules that is being applied; she ultimately has the power to allow or disallow the headscarf.

Whether she chooses one option or the other, she can't possibly argue that she is being reasonable. Quite the contrary, she is being arbitrary (in a wonderful linguistic twist, the French for ‘referee’ is ‘arbitre’). It is her job to be arbitrary, in the sense that she is the ultimate interpreter of some very vague rules that will be applied without any consultation with the other participating parties.

And that is the crux of the whole debate: how can they call it “reasonable accommodation” when it is ultimately based on arbitrary rules?

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