07/27/2012 03:11 pm ET Updated Sep 26, 2012

Soccer, Sports and (Head) Scarves: Not Just About Freedom of Religion

On July 5, the international soccer association, FIFA, overturned its 2007 ban on players wearing headscarves. The association announced it will allow headscarves on a trial basis only. Soccer rules forbid equipment that makes a religious statement or is dangerous.

On the latter issue, new headscarf designs held together by Velcro and other non-pin options have eliminated the potential health concern, and in any case there is no evidence that headscarves have ever caused injuries in the first place. On the former, one can only assume the association ultimately saw the absurdity in banning headscarves when crucifixes are often worn and kissed by players during games.

The news comes in the middle of celebration that several gulf countries for the first time are sending female athletes (wearing headscarves) to the Olympics. However, it also comes as more and more European countries are restricting the wearing of headscarves or face-veils in public.

In some cases, these restrictive laws are written so as to apply to the conspicuous wearing of all religious symbols and dress in specific public spaces (such as public schools) or by specific persons (for example, teachers). Regardless of the general way these laws are written, often they are almost exclusively applied to Muslim women who wish to cover their hair or face or both.

France is the first European country to have passed a blanket ban on covering up one's face in public, effective April 2011. While the law is written in a neutral manner - -it prohibits all persons from covering up their faces in public unless for purposes of safety, such as wearing a helmet -- the debate and stated motivation for the law was, at least in part, to "liberate" women from the "imposition of the veil."

Headscarf and veil bans, however they are expressed in law, raise numerous red flags for those who care about human rights.

First of all, clothing is a matter of freedom of expression. For a state to impose its view of how everyone must dress arbitrarily interferes with our ability to express ourselves freely, whether expressed as a clothing ban ("you can't wear a headscarf") or a requirement ("you must").

Secondly, when the imposed or banned piece of clothing is predominantly linked to a particular religion, it also affects our human right to express our faith freely. United Nations experts on freedom of religion repeatedly tell states that, while state religions are permissible, majority religions or the religion of government officials cannot be imposed on those who do not share that faith. To ban clothing that has particular meaning in one particular religion, while seemingly neutral, is a poor veil -- excuse the pun -- on blatant discriminatory intent. It may be that everyone in France is prohibited from covering their face in public, but only those for whom covering their face is an expression of their faith suffer as a result.

The purported "liberation" intention behind the French law is particularly problematic from the perspective of overcoming harmful stereotypes and discrimination. When the French government says or implies through its policies and actions that all or most Muslim women who wear facial veils do so because they are "oppressed," each and every Muslim woman in France, far from being liberated, is deprived of any autonomy with regard to her freedom of expression and religion. Moreover, for the government to perpetuate the stereotype that all Muslim women are submissive and oppressed does little to further integration and understanding in society generally.

This is not to say that the French government should take a laissez-faire attitude toward discriminatory social norms -- in fact, quite the contrary. France has a duty to combat inequality between men and women across the board. Where gender inequality is reinforced by the imposition of social norms and religious arguments -- whether based on Islam, Christianity, Judaism or any other religion -- the state must ensure access to information and resources so as to prevent discrimination and provide recourse in cases of abuse.

In fact, the most disturbing aspect of the French ban on face-veils is that misplaced "liberation" policies can render very real problems invisible. It is noticeable that recent French police figures show that every two and a half days a woman is beaten to death by her partner, and that an estimated 75,000 women are subject to sexual violence every year in France. These women are not all Muslim and certainly do not all cover their faces. Yet they are in need of urgent government protection that so far has been demonstrably inadequate.

It is tremendously positive that FIFA has recognized the rights of women and girls to play sports and to express their religious beliefs at the same time. It is also positive that Saudi Arabia,Qatar, and Brunei are opening the doors for women's self-expression through physical activity and sportive achievement. It is less positive that so many countries in Europe are choosing to perpetuate discriminatory stereotypes against Muslim women while ignoring many of the very real gender issues at their door.

To be sure, women enjoy more autonomy in France than in Saudi Arabia -- no one is disputing that. What is at stake when it comes to dress-codes, however, is the very same principle of self-expression and individual right to dress according to our faith and beliefs: it is equally oppressive for the latter government to require all women to cover their faces in public as it is for the former to require that we don't.

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