Mickey Blue Eyes
Here we go again. You really couldn't make it up. In a fit of empty-headed Swiss yodelling FIFA have banned Iran women's team from wearing "Islamic" head scarves, a ruling they originally imposed in 2007 and modified last year to allow the girls to wear special caps - suggested by Iran - instead; now they appear to have changed their bureaucratic mind and imposed a ban. This has resulted in the girls withdrawing from competition in tears. The only question it raises is, just how stupid and petty can FIFA bureaucrats get? See the news report at: http://english.aljazeera.net/sport/football/2011/06/201166124927699569.html
In reality this minor farce demonstrates to the world just how Western-Christian-small-minded FIFA Suits can be. Any claim the girls kit does not comply with safety requirements is flatly absurd: there is nothing remotely dangerous in the hijab head scarf. Therefore, the ruling can only be based on the ban on wearing religious and political statements on the field of play. In which case the nincompoop who thought this little caper up ought to be sent on a crash course on Islam, a religion which entreats women to behave and dress modestly but leaves them to decide the method. Only the most visceral theologians insist the girls cover themselves. And since Iran's revolution was as fiercely religious as anything in Christian evangelism there can be no surprise some of the leaders take a view almost as extreme as, say, some of the American End Of Days crazies who infested the Reagan and Bush administrations. In fact modern Muslim girls dress pretty much the way they wish except in the most conservative reactionary of households or societies. These days there are just as many Iranian girls wearing "liberal" dress as there are hijab wearers. The same applies in many other countries where Islam is the majority or sole religion.
So the headscarf is a statement of personal modesty, not a headline screaming, "Look, I'm a Muslim!" Which leaves FIFA with a large amount of tabouleh all over its face, since the scarf is neither a religious or a political display. In any case it was Iran who suggested a compromise the year before, which FIFA accepted; Sepp Blatter's boys have backtracked, so who looks intractable and dogmatic now? It takes two to compromise. Iran managed it while the stiff-faced, suited-up Gnomes of Zurich couldn't see further than typical demonising racist Western propaganda. In other words, FIFA has failed in its prime responsibility of making the game accessible to all irrespective of religion or politics. If the bureaucrats can't exercise common sense over such a harmless and trivial "issue" is it any wonder many people simply don't trust them when it comes to more important matters?
This needless saga reeks of the kind of Islamophobia which is gradually levering the West away from innocent millions of the planet population. How many Muslims there are depends, of course, on who is doing the counting; the figures vary wildly between 1.20 and 1.57 billion but most sources agree the proportion is about twenty percent of the global figure, though even that is subject to many other factors. The same qualifications apply to Christianity, which supposedly aggregates its factions at about 2.1 billion. Using the same method the non-religious population has been estimated at 1.10 billion. Clearly, Islam cannot be ignored or brow beaten in human affairs. It is a fact of life.
I find the episode particularly pointless because I spent over two decades living and working coast-to-coast, north-to-south in the Arabian Peninsula, so I acquired the language and a reasonable knowledge of Islamic culture. Sure, there were difficult moments and awkward characters, but my overall memory is of a welcoming, courteous and kind people, not at all the general impression conveyed by Western media and its lies. Sure, there were fanatics, but a good deal less in number than our home grown racist and religious nutcases. There were social stresses and strains too, now all too obvious and just as serious as ours. This is not to idealise or sentimentalise the experience, merely to point out that at bottom people everywhere are just people who want to get on with their lives in peace and have less fanaticism in it.
Nowadays I return on business from time to time and to visit some local friends. Like many other expats I experienced three awful wars instigated by the Americans and Europeans and saw loss of life and property on a scale I never thought to witness; I also saw a mostly-feudal society trying to make an impossible millennial leap to capitalism. It was an unforgettable and instructive experience. I saw at first hand the extremes of human behaviour, that when it comes to the crunch somebody's religion or colour of skin is absolutely the last thing you care about; as the great Martin Luther King said, what matters is content of character. Any military veteran will tell you the same thing. In this case FIFA have demonstrated a singular lack of character. In my book, head scarves simply don't matter, and to ban them from a playing field tells you more about the censors than the censored.
For me the pros and cons are summed up by a little episode during my time in Kuwait. At the time I had an office in Safat overlooking the turquoise water of Kuwait Bay. I still have photographs which show a short stretch of desert empty except for a few mosques and an infrastructure of roads and lamp posts awaiting building development. Local kids used to assemble there to play football when the heat became bearable. And, yes, it was thowps for goal posts. The kids had that instinctive love of the game you can find all over the world, the beguiling whatever-it-is that draws us all. What gave it added novelty was that most of them played in thowps, either holding the front up with one hand or tucking it inside the top of their under drawers. Bare feet and spontaneous peals of laughter were the order of the day. One or two might have a Barcelona or Boca Juniors kit but nobody cared one way or the other. Only the game mattered. By the end of play it goes without saying that thowps which had started out spotless-white ended up covered in ball imprints and dusty streaks; gawd knows what their mothers said when they got in. Not that they could care less while they were playing, infatuated with trying to dribble, pass and shoot and the glory of a goal scored. Over time the same area was fitted with make shift goal frames and field markings, then established with the real gear, then the thowps began to disappear and were replaced with replica kits. These days the same area is covered with sparkling new air conditioned buildings. Now you rarely see any kids playing it spontaneously because everything is run by the Public Authority for Youth and Sports in neat and well ordered facilities far superior to an open stretch of desert. Time has moved on.
On another occasion there was an international match Kuwait V Saudi Arabia at the old National Stadium. The ground was packed and raucous, the match fast and furious by Middle East standards. It was played out against a crowd backcloth of male white thowps and a separate section of female black arbiyas. Kuwait got a dramatic late winner and the crowd did what triumphant crowds do everywhere: leapt up and down and swayed side to side. For a moment the off field spectacle resembled a rollicking glass of milk with a bouncing bunch of sable olives. A friend looked at the women's section and said, "Bloody hell, it looks like a dropped crate of Guinness." The arbiyas went every bit as wild as the thowps. As we all know, that's what footy can do to you.
Surely the moral, if there is one, is for FIFA to let these kinds of matters develop at their own pace. If the Iranian girls want to wear head scarves, let them. It hurts nobody. People will change if and when they want to. At almost every level we in the West have no right to lecture anybody about anything, not after military actions in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya to name just three of the most recent. And in football, head scarves are a good deal less offensive than the Christian evangelist tee shirts worn by some Brazil players at the World Cup Final 2002. Really, footy is the least of it.......But don't expect FIFA clerks or our own loonies to understand that.