Sports and religion just don’t mix. Ask the Qatari women basketball players at the current 17th Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea. After being told to remove their head coverings to comply with Article 4.2.2 of the rules of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), the Qatari players staged a walkout which gave a walkover to their 2 opponents. The Qatari team has pulled out of the Asian Games altogether now.
“Diversity Shines Here” – Really?
The irony of the situation involving the Qatari women basketball players is that the incident took place amidst the slogan of the 2014 Asian Games, which says “Diversity Shines Here”.
Article 4.2.2 of the FIBA rules says that players cannot wear “headgear, hair accessories and jewellery”. But Qatar insisted on their women basketball players wearing the hijab. An assistant with Qatar’s National Olympic Committee announced the team’s pullout this way: “We have decided not to take part in the remainder of the Asian Games women’s basketball competition”.
Ahlam Salem M. Al-Mana, a Qatari player, said: “We have to take this stand. 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”.
Mohammed Abdulla, a Qatari men’s team player said: “If you go to the athletes restaurant you can see many Muslim athletes from Maldives, Iran, Pakistan and Qatar wearing hijabs. How come some of the women are allowed (to wear it) in competition, when our women are not? I’m surprised and disappointed that the Asian Games, the Olympic committee did not allow them to compete with the hijab”.
Officially Qatar forfeited the games against Mongolia and Nepal, and the score for both games stood at 20-0 against Qatar. Referring to Qatar’s first game against Mongolia, Anna Jihyun You, spokeswoman for the Incheon Asian Games Organizing Committee said that the Qatari women players “had refused to take off the hijab” resulting in the match being awarded to the opposition. She also said that the committee had no choice as FIBA “did not provide any instructions” on relaxing Article 4.2.2 of its rules.
For the second match against Nepal, the Qatari women players did a no-show. Technical delegate Heros Avanesian said: “We did not get any intimation from the Qatar team on whether they’ll come for the match or not. We had no option but to wait for them before awarding the match to the other team”.
Amal Mohamed A Mohamed, a Qatari player, said: “We were told that we would be able to participate in matches by wearing a hijab”. She added that the team travelled to Incheon on that assurance.
Meanwhile Qatar delegation leader Khalid al-Jabir disagreed that Qatar had forfeited its games. Khalid al-Jabir puts it this way: “We’re not forfeiting games – we’re not being allowed to play. On the one hand, everyone wants more women to participate in these games and, on the other hand, they’re discouraging Muslim women who want to play in hijab”.
Back in Qatar, Faisal Salman, a bank employee told The Associated Press: “The girls already have a lot of social pressures. Their determination to play basketball or football should be supported and encouraged by the authorities and sports bodies. Instead (they are) preventing them and discriminating against them”.
FIBA stood out like a sore thumb at the Incheon Asian Games. It is the only international sports governing body that refused to allow Muslim players from wearing head coverings at Incheon. This prompted a call by Human Rights Watch for FIBA to prove why Qatari players should not wear headscarves: “We oppose any general ban on wearing of headscarves and onus should be on the regulator to prove why a ban is necessary on the basis of health and safety. 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”.
Indeed other international sports governing bodies have approved the wearing of hijabs. Thus Muslim women from Iran and Kuwait have won medals at the Asian Games in Incheon wearing niqabs in triathlon, badminton and rowing. Bowling also permits women to wear the niqab.
FIBA had actually launched a 2-year trial starting this month allowing some players to wear head coverings. Explaining why this trial is not extended to Incheon, FIBA said that it “allows exceptions to be applied only at the national level and the Asian Games is an international event”. Indeed the Asian Games is reportedly the world’s second biggest multi-sports event after the Summer Olympics. Incheon has attracted 9,500 athletes from 45 countries.
FIBA said it will evaluate the rule next year to determine if head coverings will be allowed at international competition from next summer, with a final decision due in 2016 after the 2016 Olympics. The change, if made, will be permanent.
Commenting on the Qatari situation, an unnamed official from the Incheon Asian Games Organizing Committee (IAGOC) said: “There is not much IAGOC can do to help the Qatari players. We can’t change FIBA regulations now. Personally, I feel sorry for them. All the other sports allow hijabs”.
The Olympic Council of Asia issued a statement saying: “The right of the athletes must be the highest priority”. Husain Al-Musallam, director general of the Olympic Council of Asia added that sports federations have a duty to protect athletes and “allow them to exercise their right of freedom of choice with dignity”.
Think About It
Is there any valid reason for FIBA to allow head coverings for domestic games but not for international games? By doing so, is FIBA discriminating against women basketball players in international competitions? If FIBA stands alone in disallowing head coverings for women basketball players, should the game be played at all at Incheon? But then again basketball is a popular game, and it will take a very brave host to leave basketball out of the Asian Games.