Lifting the ban on Muslim women soccer players wearing hijabs in international matches is being hailed as a victory for human rights by those who had urged it be overturned.
"I’m ecstatic. This is a win for Muslim women and their allies," said Farrah Khan, a Toronto social worker and activist whose group Right2Wear championed the cause.
"This sends a really clear message — let’s stop bullying Muslim women and get out of their wardrobes. It’s a religious and feminist issue."
Over the weekend, the International Football Association Board, the sport's rule-making body agreed to overturn the ban, tentatively giving Muslim women players the option of wearing a specially designed hijab that is close-fitting to the head and fastened with Velcro.
The decision is still subject to further testing with a view to a final decision on July 2, in time for next season.
The board said it had initially rejected the wearing of hijabs during play based on health and safety issues. But Khan said she doesn’t buy it.
"It wasn’t about safety precautions. It was more about increasing Islamaphobia in the world and the growing animosity Muslim women face."
The decision may have wider implications, influencing other sports, such as weightlifting, that are grappling with the same issue, said Khan.
Being able to participate in sports, which helps to build self-confidence, break down barriers and forge a sense of community and teamwork, is a huge boost for all women, she added.
"It tells them they can have the dream of playing on a national level or playing for their country in the Olympics. But keeping Muslim women on the sidelines is a form of oppression and is isolating them."
In addition to an online campaign, Khan’s Right2Wear group organized four soccer matches across Canada last year featuring female players wearing hijabs to raise awareness.
The hijab issue in soccer had been brewing for awhile.
In 2007, the Quebec Soccer Federation told an 11-year-old girl to remove her hijab or get off the field. In 2010 Iranian women — who must wear hijabs under Iranian law —were told by officials at the Youth Olympics in Singapore, they could not wear them during play. Instead, they were directed to wear caps and turtlenecks so their necks would not be exposed.
It all came to a head last June when Iran’s national team forfeited an Olympic qualifying match in Jordan after its players refused to play without hijabs. The campaign to overturn the ban had the backing of the United Nations, which urged the board to give everyone the equal right to play football.
Issa Hayatou, the president of CAF, the African confederation, and Zhang Jilong of China, the acting head of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC) also voiced their support.
FIFA Vice-President Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan travelled to England over the weekend to make an impassioned plea to the board to have the ban lifted.
"Women's football has come a long way, as we experienced in the last Women's World Cup, and the present situation is saying to women worldwide that you're not allowed to participate for a reason that makes no sense. That's prejudice. It's not fair. It has to be dealt with," he said. "This is not an issue of religious symbolism, it is simply a case of cultural modesty, and I'm tackling this now because it is big issue for many, many women all across the world."
The decision to overturn the ban was based primarily on a report from its medical committee and not on any outside pressure, FIFA Secretary General Jerome Valcke told a press conference in Surrey on Saturday.
"It's nothing to do with what the United Nations is saying to FIFA, we are not saying anything about Syria to the United Nations."