FIFA Disqualifies Iranian Women's Soccer Team

The Iranian women's soccer team was disqualified last week from a pre-Olympic trial match in Jordan because of the type of head covering players were wearing. FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, contends that the players did not wear an approved head covering that met regulation requirements. Michele Norris speaks with James Dorsey, the author of the blog The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and a visiting senior researcher at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Last week, in Amman, Jordan, two women's national soccer teams prepared to take the field. It was a prequalifying match for next summer's Olympics, Jordan versus Iran. But the game never started, and some of the Iranian women ended up in tears. Their team was disqualified because the women were wearing headscarves. FIFA, which governs world soccer, contends the players did not wear approved head covering.

To learn more, we've called James Dorsey. He's the author of the blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer," and Mr. Dorsey joins us from Singapore, where he works at a university.

Welcome to the program, Mr. Dorsey.

Mr. JAMES DORSEY (Author, "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer"): Hello. How are you?

NORRIS: Now, first of all, can you explain FIFA's rules on headscarves, and how and when these rules came about?

Mr. DORSEY: FIFA traditionally bans any expression of religious faith on the soccer pitch. It has, however, made certain concessions towards Muslim women who have very strict dress codes. In the case of Iran, there was several years ago a negotiation over what headdress Iranian female players could wear. And they finally, after designing and agreeing on the design of a headdress, agreed on one that didn't -covered all the hair but did not cover the neck and ears.

Iran basically abided by that agreement until last Friday in Amman, when the women players appeared in dress that was far more in line with Islamic codes, and that meant that they were wearing a headdress that covered not only the hair but also the neck and ears, and they were wearing long pants rather than shorts.

NORRIS: FIFA says that the Iranian delegation had been informed thoroughly that they wouldn't be allowed to wear the headscarves that covered their neck, in part, for safety reasons. Iran has taken a very strong and interesting stance on this. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad this week called FIFA "dictators who just wear the gown of democracy." That's a direct quote.

Was Iran trying to send a message or make a point or push the envelope with these uniforms?

Mr. DORSEY: It's certainly true that Iran, last Friday, tried to push the envelope. And it's certainly also true that although this is in and of itself a political issue, Ahmadinejad has gone out of his way to politicize it.

NORRIS: I want you to listen and react to something here. We spoke to the former head coach of the Iranian women's national team from Tehran. Her name is Shahrzad Mozafar, and she says the athletes were disappointed by this news. And I want you to listen to a bit of what she had to say. She's speaking in Farsi

Ms. SHAHRZAD MOZAFAR: (Foreign language spoken)

NORRIS: She's saying: Our intention for wearing this attire is not to advertise our religion. We come from an Islamic country, and we observe Islamic dress codes. We can't play soccer without our headscarves. And if FIFA wants to take this position, then an entire group of women from around the world will be excluded from this sport.

An entire group of women excluded from this sport. I want to hear what you make of that.

Mr. DORSEY: I think there are several things to keep in mind here. First of all, soccer in the Middle East and also in Iran is a major battlefield, in which governments - certainly authoritarian governments - try to keep tight control of the game because the pitch is potentially, and often is, a venue for expression of dissent.

It's certainly true that women in Iran are obliged to conform to Islamic dress codes for women. The implication, however, that this would alienate a whole group of women - in other words, Muslim women across the world - is probably incorrect.

NORRIS: Is there a path forward for Iran? Can they still possibly participate in the Olympics, or are they out?

Mr. DORSEY: I think a lot will depend on the mediation efforts of Prince Ali of Jordan. He took office yesterday as vice president of FIFA. It's remarkable that he is willing to go out on a limb on this issue because of the much broader dispute between Iran and conservative Arab states, including Jordan, with regard to the mass protests that have been sweeping the Middle East and North Africa for the past six months.

NORRIS: James Dorsey is the author of the blog "The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer." He's also a visiting senior researcher at the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute.

Thank you very much for being with us.

Mr. DORSEY: Thank you.

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