Observant Muslim women's soccer players won a first victory on Saturday with the International Football Association Board's (IFAB) decision to allow the players to test specially designed headscarves for the next four months.
The proposal presented to the IFAB, the soccer body that determines the game's rules, was tabled by world soccer body FIFA vice president Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein, a proponent of women's rights.
Prince Ali's campaign to lift the ban on Muslim women wearing a headdress in competition matches garnered over the past year widespread support from among others the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), the United Nations and the International Federation of Professional Footballers as well as members of the FIFA executive committee.
Prince Ali launched his campaign after Iran was disqualified for this year's London Olympics because it appeared last year on the pitch in Amman for a qualifier against Jordan with its players wearing the hijab, the headdress that covers a woman's hair, ears and neck. Three Jordanian hijab-wearing players were also barred.
IFAB, a grouping whose membership -- FIFA, England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland -- harks back to British colonialism's globalization of the beautiful game, will review its decision in early July based on the experience of the coming four months.
"I am deeply grateful that the proposal to allow women to wear the headscarf was unanimously endorsed by all members of IFAB. I welcome their decision for an accelerated process to further test the current design and I'm confident that once the final ratification at the special meeting of IFAB takes place, we will see many delighted and happy players returning to the field and playing the game they love," Prince Ali said.
While the IFAB decision constitutes an important tangible as well as psychological victory for Muslim women athletes, it by no way resolves all of their problems, many of which have less to do with religion and more to do with inbred traditions of patriarchic societies as well as non-Muslim prejudices.
"Female athletes in the Middle East face pressures that include family, religion, politics, and culture. These issues often take place over use or nonuse of the hijab, the traditional head covering for Muslim women," concluded a recent study entitled "Muslim Female Athletes and the Hijab" by Geoff Harkness, a sociologist at Northwestern University's campus in Qatar, and one of his basketball playing students, Samira Islam.
The study based on interviews with female athletes and their coaches found that sports often empowered young women whose role models are successful sportswomen like Fatima Al-Nabhani, an Omani tennis player, and Bahraini sprinter Roqaya Al-Ghasara, who was fully covered when she ran and won at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. "Both women not only serve as role models for aspiring female athletes from the region, but also shatter Western stereotypes," the report said. Eight other female athletes competed in Beijing wearing the hijab in sprinting, rowing, taekwondo and archery.
Resistance to women playing soccer with or without their head covered is not restricted to Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa. Palestine's women soccer team includes 14 Christians and only four Muslims but a majority of the team has similar tales to tell about the obstacles they needed to overcome and the initial resistance they met from their families.
In a break with tradition, Kuwait this weekend hosted the first Gulf university soccer tournament for females at its Gulf University for Science and Technology (GUST) in which Saudi Arabia fielded its first ever women's soccer team in an international competition.
"Out of commitment to its social role, besides the academic one, GUST seeks to promote female sports in Kuwait and in the Arabian Gulf region through organizing and patronizing such competitions," GUST Chancellor Afaf Al-Rakhis said. She described women's sports as a reflection of the social and cultural advancement of a country.
That's a strong statement given resistance in Kuwait to women's soccer and the fact that Saudi Arabia bans women's sports and only tacitly allows women's teams to be formed in private settings.
Kuwaiti Islamists denounced GUST's plans for the tournament when they were first announced last year and urged the government the competition. "Women playing football is unacceptable and contrary to human nature and good customs. The government has to step in and drop the tournament," Kuwait's Al Wasat newspaper quoted member of parliament Waleed al-Tabtabai as saying.
Tabtabai was one of a number of deputies who criticized the government and sports executives for allowing the Kuwaiti women's national soccer team to take part in the Third West Asian Women Soccer Tournament in Abu Dhabi. The members of parliament charged that the women's participation had been illegal and a waste of money. "Football is not meant for women, anyway," Tabtabai said at the time.
Saudi-owned Al Arabiya satellite TV quoting Reuters reported that the Saudi Arabian General Investment Authority had earlier this year announced plans to introduce after-hours physical education classes for both girls and boys. Public schools in the kingdom do not offer girls physical education. It was not clear why the investment authority rather than the Saudi authority responsible for youth and sports would be spearheading an initiative to facilitate women's sports.
Al Arabiya conceded that professional women athletes in the kingdom "are publicly slammed for going against their natural role" and reported that Saudi newspapers refer to them as "shameless" because they cause embarrassment to their families. Women athletes often receive text messages urging them to stay home and tend to their household duties as mothers and wives, Al Arabiya said.
"If there is no support from the family we cannot get into these types of activities ... some people are extremist or extra conservative," it quoted 17-year old basketball player Hadeer Sadagah as saying.
International human rights group Human Rights Watch last month accused Saudi Arabia of kowtowing to assertions by the country's powerful conservative Muslim clerics that female sports constitute "steps of the devil" that will encourage immorality and reduce women's chances of meeting the requirements for marriage.
The Human Rights Watch charges contained in a report entitled "Steps of the Devil" came on the heels of the kingdom backtracking on a plan to build its first stadium especially designed to allow women who are currently barred from attending soccer matches because of the kingdom's strict public gender segregation to watch games. The planned stadium was supposed to open in 2014.
The report borrows its name from a religious edict by Sheikh Abdulkareem al-Khudair, a member of the kingdom's Supreme Council for Religious Scholars, banning sports for women because they "will lead to following in the footsteps of the devil." Sheikh Al-Khudair said the government could not introduce sports in schools for girls because such activity is forbidden in Islam.
Saudi women, including some members of the royal family, nonetheless are pushing the envelope. A group of women is planning a hiking expedition to Everest base camp this summer as part of a charity fundraising exercise to promote a healthy lifestyle for breast cancer patients.
"As a nation we need to focus on preventative measures that include healthy lifestyle, specifically nutrition and fitness and early detection (of women's illnesses). The inspiration to climb Everest base camp came from the basic idea that a healthy lifestyle and healthy body can fight illness better," Al Arabiya quoted Princess Reema al-Saud, who is leading the Everest climb as saying.
James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer where this article first appeared
Follow James Dorsey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mideastsoccer