Iranian women’s soccer team banned from 2012 Games

The Iranian women’s soccer team has effectively been banned from the 2012 Olympics because their uniform adheres to Iran’s interpretation of Islamic standards, and thereby violates FIFA’s Olympic ban on religious displays.

The law of the Islamic Republic of Iran states that women must cover their heads in public. The FIFA rules for uniforms and equipment state that “Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.”

The Iranian women’s team, in keeping with the country’s Islamic law, plays in full-body suits that cover their hair. They were informed last week that their uniform violated the rules, moments before an Olympic qualifying match against Jordan. Unable to play, they forfeited the game, meaning that qualifying for the Games will be virtually impossible. Heartbroken, some of the women burst into tears on the field.

Earlier this year, following a FIFA ruling about religious displays, the team started wearing a new uniform with tight-fitting headscarf, which they believed to be in keeping with the FIFA guidelines. Not so, it seems, and now, it looks like the team’s chances of making the Games are dashed.

Farideh Shojaei, the women’s representative on the Board of the Iranian Football Federation, said that the team now has little chance of making it to London. “It is extremely difficult to predict what results will come out of this, but I think it unlikely because the preliminary games will not be repeated,” she said. “The countries that invested, and spent money and time and took part in the second round will clearly not be willing to repeat these games, especially if this week it becomes clear which team will enter the final round. So it is extremely unlikely.”

Shahrzah Mozafar, the team’s former head coach agrees, but says that the consequences will stretch far beyond 2012. “This ruling means that women soccer in Iran is over,” she said. Mozafar predicts that Iran will simply stop sending the team overseas to play if they’re not allowed to play in headscarves. “Headscarves are simply what we wear in Iran,” she said.

Photo: Washington Post
Thanks to Claire for the heads up!

New York, NY

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia. She joined the Feministing team in 2009. Her writing about politics and popular culture has been published in The Atlantic, The Guardian, New York magazine, Reuters, The LA Times and many other outlets in the US, Australia, UK, and France. She makes regular appearances on radio and television in the US and Australia. She has an AB in Sociology from Princeton University and a PhD in Arts and Media from the University of New South Wales. Her academic work focuses on Hollywood romantic comedies; her doctoral thesis was about how the genre depicts gender, sex, and power, and grew out of a series she wrote for Feministing, the Feministing Rom Com Review. Chloe is a Senior Facilitator at The OpEd Project and a Senior Advisor to The Harry Potter Alliance. You can read more of her writing at

Chloe Angyal is a journalist and scholar of popular culture from Sydney, Australia.

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  • Rachel

    I don’t know who to be more frustrated with—FIFA, who by now should be familiar with the female situation in Iran, or the Iranian government itself, which has been creating these awful limitations on its women since the revolution.

    Both of these groups are coming together to just cause more problems. We’re already aware of what Iran has been doing for these past decades. But does FIFA really think that the Iranian government–or anyone else with these issues, for that matter– will simply give up with their restrictions for the Games? It *is* a theocracy.

    Obviously the problems in Iran are very deeply rooted. But why should its women suffer more by having something that important to them taken away by an outside party? They didn’t choose to be forced to wear the veil.

  • Emily

    This makes me so angry/sad. First of all, I don’t agree that wearing clothing that conforms with one’s religious beliefs is the same as clothing that promotes the religion. Also, even if so, I think that allowances should be made for religious alterations to the dress code. I do feel that there is some Islamaphobia going on here. Now, I also understand that these individual women may or may not have religious beliefs that dictate the headscarf, and that for them it is not really a choice – they are forced to wear it by their government. This also makes me upset. I’m sure Iran will continue to send its male team out, as the men are not burdened with this restriction. I think it is so unfair that these athletes cannot compete, essentially because they are women. I blame both the Football Association and Iran.

    • Zachary

      Meant to click the reply link not the report link. Sorry (I can’t even click the right link, much less play soccer, what am I doing here, right?) but I’m with Emily in terms of seeing this as a no-right situation. Her reference to the men’s team brings up a good point. I wonder, might they stand in solidarity with their sisters by refusing to play?

    • davenj

      “Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.”

      That’s the quote, and that’s the issue. A team’s mandatory uniform may not include a religious component. Individuals can wear religious medallions, bracelets, and anything else that qualifies under safety regulations, but a team’s kit cannot include a religious mandate.

      An individual can choose to wear objects of religious significance, but the national kit cannot promote it. That’s the key difference here, individual choice by players vs. a national religious requirement. One is clearly fine, and the other is clearly wrong.

      The thing keeping these athletes from competing is their government, which refuses to alter its kit to conform to FIFA regulations. The Junior National Women’s team of Iran competed using non-neck-covering headgear in 2010. This is Iran using these women as pawns in its campaign of oppression and indoctrination in its own country.

      Fundamentally, FIFA cannot, and should not, stand by while a country mandates religious oppression through their team kit. If the goal of international sport is to break down barriers then this kind of thing can’t be allowed.

      • Anders

        Exactly the thoughts I couldn’t articulate. It would be easy enough for all of these women to choose individually to wear headscarves according to Iranian law. But for Iran to mandate it as part of the kit necessarily bars them. But I agree — ultimately, FIFA writes, interprets and enforces the rules, and I feel like this is their own anti-Muslim bias playing out here.

        • davenj

          “I feel like this is their own anti-Muslim bias playing out here.”

          But what about snoods? Why are they banned as well if this is just anti-Muslim bias?

          The reality is that the fault here lies with religious extremism and oppression, not FIFA.

          The Iranian women’s team should be allowed to wear non-neck covering hijabs if they want to or not. The reason why they cannot do this is because of their oppressive government and legal system, not FIFA.

  • Zachary

    My initial response is bias framed as a question, I know, but are women from countries that do not force women to wear religious coverings ‘allowed’ to play with something similar to what the Iranian women are forced to wear? That is, would a Muslim woman on a team of women from mixed backgrounds wear a modified version of her teammates’ uniforms? I ask because I do not separate the wrongness of discrimination by an international body from the wrongness of discrimination by a nation.

    • davenj

      No. Head coverings of any kind were ruled illegal by FIFA in 2007 because of the safety risk they create. The possibility of getting tangled in a head covering and yanking it quickly could result in neck injuries, creating an unnecessary safety hazard for those wearing the head coverings.

      This isn’t just the hijab, either. It’s all head coverings and neck coverings. Players can’t wear neck-warmers in cold weather games, either.

      • Chelsea

        That is not true. In 2010 the Youth Olympic Iranian team wore head coverings that did not cover their necks. FIFA has outlawed both hijabs and snoods (neck warmers) because of the choking hazards.

        Photos of the Youth team:

        You can’t really fault FIFA since Iran has previously provided their players with appropriate gear and then failed to do so this year. I am no fan of FIFA, but in this case, Iran failed its team.

        • davenj

          Yep. Pretty much spot-on proof that Iran’s government is to blame here. They could have simply used the youth head coverings and been fine.

  • Abigail

    This is tricky. These headdresses are a way to oppress women in Iran, should we really go along with it? It’s not our place to tell anyone how to practice his or her religion, but how about saying something against what religion does to women? Why make life more comfortable and tolerable when we can make them mad and closer to a revolution? I doubt Fifa have such noble intentions but maybe in the end it’s a good thing.

    • JohnMWhite

      I’m not sure a revolution is going to be even a tiny bit more likely to succeed because women were not allowed to play football at the Olympics. I do see your point that being seen to condone or support the forcing of women to wear certain clothes is problematic, but I don’t think making them suffer for the political climate in their country helps anybody.

      Besides, I have very serious doubts that FIFA are having men’s teams searched for religious jewellery. You could argue that jewellery is not part of one’s team kit but then you could say the same about a headscarf. Regardless don’t several countries have a Christian cross on their uniform? England certainly does.

      The issue that concerns me most though is that somehow FIFA were too inept or apathetic to let the Iranian team know that their uniforms were unacceptable (also the irony of men telling them they can’t wear something that men tell them to wear is a bit painful). It took them until ‘moments before kickoff’ of a qualifying match, breaking their hearts when they were already on the field and ready to play. That’s a kick in the teeth and either FIFA are complete idiots or they are wilfully cruel to allow Iran to get that far before pulling the rug out from under them.

      • Sam Lindsay-Levine

        If you read the article instead of just the summary, FIFA says they did let the team know well in advance:

        However Fifa says it had warned the side about dress codes: “Fifa’s decision in March 2010 which permitted that players be allowed to wear a cap that covers their head to the hairline, but does not extend below the ears to cover the neck, was still applicable.

        “Despite initial assurances that the Iranian delegation understood this, the players came out wearing the hijab, and the head and neck totally covered, which was an infringement of the Laws of the Game. The match commissioner and match referee therefore decided to apply correctly the Laws of the Game, which ended in the match being abandoned.”

        • JohnMWhite

          I stand corrected.

    • Anders

      When you say “make life more tolerable and comfortable” and “make them mad and closer to a revolution” are you referring to Iranian women? If so, I think you’re making some rather dangerous assumptions about Iranian feminism — that Iranian feminists are somehow too complicit/not angry enough, or that Iranian women are in need of paternalistic assistance from feminist outsiders. You’re also assuming that Iran is not experiencing any kind of feminist revolution already. For more information:

  • honeybee

    To me Iran is the one to blame, not FIFA. There has to be rules in place that are fair for everyone. Should male players be allowed to carry ceremonial daggers onto the field? Somewhere the line must be drawn.

    Also to echo Abigail, there is somewhat of a silver lining to all this, as the world becomes more global the injustices and discrimination that so many women face in their home countries becomes more apparent, which both raises awareness and also puts more pressure on these nations/religions/etc. to change.

  • Colleen

    I feel like, regardless of *why* the women are wearing the headscarves, be it forced or otherwise, THEY SHOULD BE ALLOWED TO PLAY. They aren’t wearing slogans or visual symbols of their religion, and their playing isn’t necessarily “promoting” Islam any more than my dad playing soccer promotes Christianity. Their qualifications for the games should be based on their SKILLS AS PLAYERS not what they are wearing.

  • Smiley

    Ah, but it is not only a headscarf. They are literally covered from head to toe. See for example

    And yes, FIFA will not allow a Sikh, for example, to play with a turban.

    The interesting question is what do you do about someone who shaves his head: allow him? (many men shave their head), or ban him, on the grounds that he is advertising his Buddhist faith?

    • Emolee

      Why does it matter that they are “covered from head to toe”? They are still able to play this way. There are times when I am most comfortable dressed in a way that my body is compeltely covered (although not for religious reasons), and I don’t think that we (or FIFA) should ask women to show ANY part of their bodies (including their hair) that they are not comfortable showing for ANY reason (just as we shouldn’t shame women for showing more of their bodies).

      As I said above, I know that these women may nor may not choose this attire if given a choice- this was mandated by the state of Iran- and that is deeply problematic as well. But it is a different issue from the decision of FIFA. As others have pointed out, what about the individual members of other teams who would choose this?

    • Ruthi

      Why is being covered head to toe a problem?

      Also, according to the article:

      “However Fifa says it had warned the side about dress codes: “Fifa’s decision in March 2010 which permitted that players be allowed to wear a cap that covers their head to the hairline, but does not extend below the ears to cover the neck, was still applicable.”

      I believe Sikh turbans are fine under this description.

      • Matthew T. Jameson

        I think it is a safety issue (they want to avoid neck injuries due to head coverings getting yanked around, whereas coverings that cover only the head would simply be pulled off if they were caught on something).

  • Ruthi

    I take issue with some of the comments here which seem to indicate a belief that 1) these women only dress in hijab because their country requires it, not out of their own religious convictions, 2) since FIFA has to put some kind of restrictions on gear, they are perfectly justified in drawing the line here.

    The first claim denies women’s agency. Some of these women might choose not to dress in hijab if they had the choice, but others might make that decision regardless of whether or not their government requires it. While I am not defending Iranian laws requiring hijab, I do not believe that is the (main) issue at hand here since presumably FIFA would have equally denied a player who chose to wear hijab out of her own volition. (I am against the Iranian government imposing hijab on all women, but I am also against denying women the option to wear hijab, such as the French – and now FIFA- do.)

    In the second case, I agree that FIFA can put some rules on their, but I believe drawing the line at this point is xenophobic and based on arbitrary European cultural standards of what is considered to be “normal” dress in athletics. I agree with one of the posters above, who indicates there is a difference between advocated religion on one’s clothing, and simply keeping with ones religious convictions.

    • Matt

      they are not denying women agency. there is also a safety concern related to neck coverings. a turban is not a cap, btw the way, although i cant say for sure that they arent allowed, but it doesnt seem like it. the whole agency argument is ridiculous anyways. there are laws against all kinds that deny all sorts of people agency. seat belt laws, having to wear clothes at all, paying taxes. you have to pair agency with something else. plus again this law isnt just for women, its for everyone.

      • Ruthi

        I think you’ve misunderstood what I meant by the commentators “denying woman’s agency”; note the subject here is the commentators on this website, not FIFA. What I meant is that these comments seem to imply that the women on the team would not make the choice to wear this particular kind of hijab on their own. I am specifically addressing the conversation that is going on in this blog: the argument that Iran is an evil government that is repressing women and it is only Iran to blame here. (I realize this is a caricature of the argument; I am just trying to make clear which argument I am pointing to.)

        Many women make the decision to wear hijab on their own volition (for many, many different reasons), and these women, regardless of their government’s laws for or against hijab, would still be banned from FIFA competition. In fact, another article even specifically mentions that the Jordanian players who wear the same kind of hijab were also required to sit out the game. So this is *not simply* a question of “evil evil Iran” suppressing women’s rights. There is also questions of respecting vs suppressing cultures, of the question of who determines what if considered to be the norm, and unfair competition (if the best Middle Eastern players are not allowed to play because of their religious conviction, the competition will not be as good as it would otherwise be).

    • Ruthi

      I think, as one of the comments points out below, that I did not originally realize there was a second reason, safety, that FIFA banned the uniforms. Since I do not know exactly what would be dangerous in this situation, I can’t really comment on this reasoning for the decision. I would be interested to know the reasoning behind this, and the number of recorded accidents do to head and neckcovers?

  • davenj

    The ban exists for two reasons, folks, only one of which has been discussed. Yes, there are rules against religious components of team kits, but there are also safety regulations for team kits.

    Any neck covering in soccer creates the unnecessary risk of neck injury. FIFA can (and did) ban neck coverings on the grounds of safety. It’s not just hijabs. Neck-warmers are banned, too.

    Still, there’s an important value to FIFA banning countries from creating team uniforms with religious components to them: such components are alienating to the notion of sport that FIFA’s trying to create.

    If a country has the right to mandate certain religious customs as a part of joining their national soccer team you’re essentially giving nations the ability to create a religious litmus test for soccer. FIFA doesn’t want that, and I absolutely agree with them.

    It’s a shame that these women are disappointed, but the real oppression is coming from their government, not FIFA.

    • Emolee

      I agree that in the case of these women, oppression is coming from the government of Iran. I’m furious that Iran makes women cover without their consent or religious/personal agency. I’m furious about many of the reasons Iran gives for mandating the hijab.

      However, I still do not agree with FIFA. Many women (including some of the ones on Iran’s team) may *choose* the hijab or other religious head/neck coverings. This should not prevent them from being able to play soccer. Saying that “neck warmers” are also prohibited, while true, seems like a dodge of the issue. Rules can be applied equally while still not having equal application (example: having a rule that only people over a certain height can play soccer would technically apply equally to men and women, but would have a disparate impact on women and could likely even be targeting women). FIFA’s rule, while religiously neutral on its face, still ends up disproportionaltely targeting Muslim women.

      While there may indeed be a safety issue, risks are taken in playing sports all the time. Saying this is an “unecessary” safety risk is to undermine the importance of religious convictions. Also, I bet there would be a work around for this issue if neck coverings were common in Christianity or were common for men.

      I think that *disallowing* people to conform their dress to their religious beliefs is what is alienating- making the litmus test for soccer be that one must be an atheist or a member of a religion that does not have dress requirements.

      • davenj

        “Saying that “neck warmers” are also prohibited, while true, seems like a dodge of the issue.”

        But it’s not. There are plenty of safety regulations that can have adverse impacts on particular people, but if the regulations are grounded in safety then it makes sense. Neck coverings in a sport with a lot of jumping, head use, and collisions are dangerous, and FIFA does have the right to ban them on safety grounds.

        The hijab thing is twofold. Even if it wasn’t a sign of religious conviction it would still be banned based on safety regulations, as would some Sikh, Jewish, and Christian head coverings.

        Islam is not the only religion with head coverings that FIFA bans, it just has the widest practice rate. This regulation affects Sikhs, Christians, and Jews, too, but safety has to be a paramount goal for FIFA.

        “I think that *disallowing* people to conform their dress to their religious beliefs is what is alienating- making the litmus test for soccer be that one must be an atheist or a member of a religion that does not have dress requirements.”

        There is a difference between wearing garb individually and having it be a part of the team kit. One may absolutely wear something like a yarmulke on their own, but turning it into a uniform requirement is very, very different, and does create a litmus test.

  • David

    before you get mad at fifa, what do you suggest they do? and if they allow the women to participate in the hijab, how do you think they should handle other situations where people desire to participate wearing religious garb? i think the standard is reasonable and their application isn’t discrimination against one group of people. intead, it’s a rule that is applied to everyone that happens to cause problems for only a few.

  • Amanda

    Several of my lady friends are muslim and have told me that the purpose of the hijab is so that you pay attention to their face and what’s coming out of it rather than their physical appearance, it’s out of respect for themselves and their body. Like how you wear conservative clothes and an updo for a job interview, so they focus on you can what you’re saying rather than what you look like. When my head was shaved I wore one for a day out and it was incredibly liberating, I felt gorgeous because my face was being hilighted and noticed that when people spoke to me I was taken more seriously than I normally am. In my opinion it’s not a form of oppression on women and not limiting because you can still express yourself and play sport/do anything in modest clothing. On the actual issue of the uniforms there has to be a safe version of the hijab and if not they should be allowed to develop and wear one because that would be true equality. If you’re going to make the ” everyone should be the same , it’s distracting” argument then everyone should have the same shoes, hairstyle and then somehow make their way into the fictional “giver” world where they belong.

    • davenj

      “In my opinion it’s not a form of oppression on women and not limiting because you can still express yourself and play sport/do anything in modest clothing.”

      But it’s not that simple. In a world where women can wear whatever they want and choose the hijab it’s not oppression. In a world where women are pressured or coerced into wearing the hijab it is oppression.

      In Iran not wearing the hijab is ILLEGAL. That’s oppressive.

      There is a safe version of the hijab that doesn’t cover the neck. Iran used it with their Junior National team in 2010. They didn’t use it in this case because it appears their goal was to create controversy and a fight with FIFA for political fodder.

      This isn’t an “everyone should be the same” issue, it’s an “everyone should be safe” issue. If Iran was truly interested in their women’s team playing they could have used the 2010 JN team hijabs.

  • Lallie

    “The head of women’s affairs at Iran’s football federation told Reuters Iran had made changes to its women’s kit after a FIFA ban last year and believed it had been given the approval of the world federation and of its president, Sepp Blatter.

    “We made the required corrections and played a match afterwards,” Farideh Shojaei told Reuters TV in an interview.

    “We played the next round and were not prevented from doing so, and they didn’t find anything wrong. That meant that there are no obstacles in our path, and that we could participate in the Olympics.””

    This is from an article about this issue. The fact that these women were given the go ahead by the president of FIFA and then later told that they could not compete is absurd. If the Iranian team had been given fair warning that the uniforms they had designed purely as a compromise so that they could compete were still not within FIFA’s new dress codes, then this would be a completely different issue. But since FIFA had previously approved their uniforms, why would they have any reason to believe that suddenly their kits didn’t comply?

    • davenj

      It seems like in the first round the referee (incorrectly) failed to enforce the neck-covering ruling. That first ref botched it, because team kits can’t have neck coverings, be they snoods or hijabs.

  • Kim

    Politics and religion shouldn’t mix and Iran is a very tyrannical country on that matter where women are forced to wear the full Hijab even if they refuse to do so. It is not left to the women’s choice which actually goes against the Islamic values. However, if a woman wants and chooses to wear a full Hijab to play soccer (which covers head, neck and legs), she shouldn’t be punished because she is following her faith. FIFA is wrong on this and their reasons (i.e. they can choke) are ridiculous. I feel it’s not fair they are punishing the women themselves because they follow their own government’s laws. I also feel it’s not fait nor right that a government dictates what women should wear and not trust that women will follow their faith in the way they choose to do so, wether is to wear a full Hijab or not. Iran is the ultimate Patriarchal society and it may be utopic, but I dream of a world where women won’t be discriminated because of their gender, clothes, religion, choices, etc. and etc.!!!

    • Ruthi

      While I agree with you that I believe government laws for or against hijab are wrong (and include here countries like France, where hijab is outlawed), I think saying that Iran is the “ultimate Patriarchal society” is a bit extreme. While there are a lot issues where Iran is very patriarchal (i.e. no female judges, inheritance laws, testimony in court), there are some issues where they have a strong record of female participation. In particular, compared to some other Muslim countries, Iran has a more liberal attitude.

      One particularly striking example: Women make up nearly 70% of engineering students in Iran, compared to 20% in the US. An example from my personal life: a few years ago I participated in an international mathematics competition. Each university had a team of roughly 4-5 people, and both times I went I was the only woman on my (American) team. Similarly, many of the other teams from Europe had very few or no women on their team. The Iranian teams, however, were all 50-50 women, and when I talked to the women from one of the teams, they were shocked that I was the only woman on my team.

      Now there are a lot of other issues in Iran (prosecution of those people critical of the government, etc), but we should be fair in acknowledging both the negative and positive qualities of how the country treats women.