Women’s soccer, FIFA and an opportunity denied

There’s a song by Ani DiFranco called “Not a Pretty Girl.” It’s one of my forgotten favorites, but as I caught up on world soccer news this week, my mind recalled one of its lines:

I am not an angry girl.
But it seems like I’ve got everyone fooled.
Every time I say something they find hard to hear
They chalk it up to my anger and never to their own fear.

Keep that in mind as I offer my thoughts on the Women’s World Cup Initiative and the plight of the Iranian women’s national soccer team.

First, a recap. U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton announced the Women’s World Cup Initiative, a program to help empower girls and women through sports. The program launch coincides with the lead up to the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany in July and involves sports exchange. Women’s sports administrators from Bolivia, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Palestinian Territories and South Africa are meeting with their American counterparts to discuss the best ways to create and manage sports opportunities for girls across the globe.

As diversity in women’s sports was celebrated, a stifling edict came down from FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, as it forced the Iranian women’s soccer team to forfeit its Olympic qualifying match with Jordan because the team showed up to play in hijabs. FIFA’s official reason is twofold saying that the headscarves pose a choking hazard and that the organization forbids political or religious statements as part of team uniforms.

There is plenty of room for political debate about headscarfs, religious practice and personal choice though I’m not well versed enough to dive into those intricacies. I do, however, think Alyssa Rosenberg of thinkprogress.org made a compelling point when she wrote:

If we’re really concerned with how women are perceived and treated in Muslim communities, it seems hugely counterproductive to adopt policies that force women to choose between abiding by the tenets of their faith and participating in activities that let them demonstrate their physical prowess and strategic intelligence.

Of course, it doesn’t seem that FIFA is all that concerned with how women are perceived and treated. David Zin, sports editor for The Nation, reminded us of this in a commentary he wrote for NPR:

First of all, we should dismiss any of FIFA’s concerns about the welfare of the women involved. [FIFA President Sepp] Blatter is an unreconstructed sexist and without resistance, women’s soccer would look something like the Lingerie Football League. The man who bans the hijab proposed in 2004 that women players wear “hot pants” on the pitch to boost the sports popularity.

So just as one group of powerful women begin to embrace the transformative power of athletic opportunity, one sport’s governing body shuts the door on another group of women. Some will argue the hijab is a tool of religious oppression. Others will argue that allowing the hijab during international soccer matches will provoke political and religious unrest.

But what about the women and girls who just want to play? They are the ones who get lost.

Some dream of Olympic medals, World Cup gold and aspire to athletic greatness. Others are inspired by those elites, enjoying recreational soccer games and all the benefits which come through athletic participation. We know the health benefits of sports. We know the social benefits, too. But there are intense personal benefits to a woman when she learns she has power and control over her own body. And sometimes that creates fear in the establishment.

To varying degrees, women’s bodies have been the subject of control by society and governments. Women have been told what to do with their bodies, from sexual mores to pregnancy and childbirth to how it should look and how it should be adorn. Hence, it’s not a surprise that major women’s political movements are often accompanied by major women’s sporting movements. Confidence and power are created when a woman connects with her body through sport — whether it’s on a soccer pitch or running a 5K, whether it’s at elite competitive levels or through neighborhood events. That power carries over into other areas of her life and can be a source of change for her own life, her family and her community.

We should be opening up opportunities for all, not denying them. I may sound like an angry girl. I’m not. But I am passionate. Athletics for women can change the world. Of this, I am sure.

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