Last week, the International Football Association Board (IFAB), the rules-making body in football announced a turnaround in its previous opinions on the matter and declared that it was supporting a change that would allow women to wear a head scarf (hijab) in football competitions. It is expected that the final approval by FIFA will be given in July, following a final check of health and safety aspects by FIFA’s medical advisers.
The matter had been pursued vigorously in recent time by Prince Ali of Jordan, who became FIFA Vice-President and a member of the FIFA Executive Committee through a surprising election result in the Asian Football Confederation a year ago. From the vantage point of handball, it could be observed that a number of Muslim countries previously had wanted to pursue the issue across a spectrum of different sports, and that there was considerable discomfort among the decision-makers in the individual sports, including football and handball. Accordingly, the matter was referred to ASOIF, the organization for summer Olympic sports, in the hope that a standardized approach might evolve.
While waiting for results, there were some informal ‘experimentation’ or exceptions, especially in the world of Asian football and handball. In the meantime, it had also become a practice in women’s handball that at least long sleeves and pants would be used in handball, something that the IHF also quietly begun to accept. And in 2010, without any public debate, there was suddenly wording introduced in the handball rule book to the effect that head scarves are allowed, in analogy with headbands, as long as they are made of soft, elastic material. (It may seem that elasticity makes sense for headbands, but it may not really be desirable for head scarves; here instead, the method of fastening may be more relevant).
Of course, the issue has tended to be much more of a political ‘hot potato’ rather than a technical rules issue in recent decades. Around the world, one finds a wide spectrum of habits and opinions: the wearing of hijabs in public is mandatory, or it is forbidden in certain settings or it is left up to each woman to decide. Similarly, it has been seen alternatively as an issue of women’s rights and opportunities to participate in sports, or an indication of suppression. The reasons for hesitation in the world of sports has been the notion that the wearing of a hijab is a religious manifestation, something which is generally forbidden in sports rules, but the success of Prince Ali seems based on the argument that it should be seen as a cultural expression and therefore permissible.
But what it does bring up in handball is a more mundane and practical matter, a shortcoming that I touched on not so long on ago when commenting on the ‘conflict’ regarding the desire on the part of AG Copenhagen to wear sleeveless shirt in the EHF Champions League. The matter was amicably resolved, but it gave me a chance to joke about the need for ‘uniform’ tattoos, in the absence of sleeves. The point is that, in comparison with other sports, handball is amazingly silent as to what actually constitutes a ‘uniform’. It seems that, by definition, there is nothing that should require a more clear and precise definition than what goes under the name ‘uniform’… But I cannot point any fingers, because I have been involved in IHF rules matters for several decades, and it never occurred to me or anyone else to see the need for a clearer definition of something that everyone seemed to understand!
The rule book does not even talk about shorts vs. long pants, and shirts are only mentioned indirectly in the sense of being the place where you put the player numbers. So no wonder that it was the EHF advertising regulations and not the playing rules that were at issue in the case of AG Copenhagen. And the rules point out that the teams must wear different colors, but it is in fact not quite clear what should carry those colors. And for instance, are bikinis from beach handball allowed in indoor handball? Are long socks or panty-hose OK and do the colors matter etc? Is there a basis for prohibiting a skirt or a kilt? At least it is spelled out that players must were sports shoes, so playing barefoot or in regular dress shoes is not acceptable.
The rules have a more specific focus on objects that are prohibited or must be covered. The concept of taping or covering involves, for instance, rings, earrings, body piercing. It is also explicitly stated that head protection and face masks are illegal, as are watches, bracelets or necklaces. But if one goes back to the question of head scarves, where the reality is that handball is generally ahead of football, perhaps it would be advisable to follow FIFA’s detailed determinations and/or have a special review in the IHF of what type/size of scarves should be accepted; and especially how they need to be attached (Velcro?) to avoid that they keep falling off, get tangled up, or risk having a ‘strangling effect’. One does not want to over-regulate, because controversies at a new level is the last thing one would want, but it is necessary to consider the safety of all the players and also to facilitate for the referees.
Finally, the focus on the general definition of ‘uniform’ seems to suggest that the IHF might be well advised to come up with some clarifications or a more precise text in the next rule book.