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A Headdress Ban Disqualified Qatar’s Entire Women’s Basketball Team from International Competition

If the Asian Games really want to be a place where diversity shines, they should’ve opposed International Basketball’s ban on religious headwear.

Photo courtesy of Qatar Basketball Federation

When the women of the Qatari women’s basketball team arrived to the court for their game against the Mongolian team in the 2014 Asian Games on Wednesday, they were asked to remove their headscarves. Most of the women on the team wear the scarves in observance of their Islamic faith. According to the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the governing body that enforces the rules of international basketball games, the headscarves qualified as “headgear, hair accessories, and jewelry", which are banned under their rules. Refusing to remove their white headscarves, the women forfeited the game instead.

“We have to take this stand,” said Qatari player Ahlam Salem M al-Mana on Wednesday, after forfeiting the Mongolia game. “We are here to push the international association that all Muslim teams are ready to compete in any competition. We knew about the hijab ban, but we have to be here. We have to show everyone that we are ready to play, but the International Association is not ready.”

The women were hoping they’d be able to reach an agreement with FIBA that would allow them to wear the scarves. Though they were set to play Nepal on Thursday, the team withdrew from the Asian Games entirely when FIBA—who argue that the headscarves create unsafe conditions on the court—refused to bend the rules. Earlier this summer, FIBA also forced two Sikh players to remove their religiously mandated turbans before getting on the court for a game against Japan in the 2014 Asia Cup.

Ironically, the motto of the 2014 Asian Games is “Diversity Shines Here.” But organizers might find it difficult to promote diversity when their rules effectively target specific groups of people. Although sports organizations like FIBA cite safety as a primary concern, many Muslims interpret the strict enforcement of such rules as “discriminatory.”

But FIBA isn’t the first organization that has had to contend with the headscarf and other religious headgear deemed “unsafe” for sports competitions. Just this year, FIFA, the international governing body for the sport of soccer, finally lifted a ban on religiously mandated headgear from its rules and regulations.

Prior to this decision, FIFA faced widespread criticism for the headscarf ban in 2011, when the organization’s officials disqualified Iran’s national women’s soccer team from playing in the 2012 London Olympics because their headscarves violated the rule. For the Iranian players, however, the headscarf was not just a personal decision—it was required by Iran’s legal dress code for women.

FIFA declined to capitulate in the name of religious diversity, despite the fact that all the women were wearing tightly wrapped headscarves designed especially to address the safety concerns ban supporters espoused. Subsequently, such scarves have become available on the commercial market for female Muslim athletes. Capsters, a sporting headscarf designed in accordance with FIFA’s regulations on headgears, clings tightly to the wearer’s neck. The white scarves worn by Qatar’s team were similar in design. Human Rights Watch (HRW), in response to FIBA’s actions, said that if the scarves are indeed unsafe, it’s up to FIBA to prove it.

“In the case of basketball, it's difficult to see how a ban on the headscarf is anything other than an unnecessary restriction on the players' rights to religious freedom and personal autonomy,” HRW told Reuters.

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