When soccer's world governing body FIFA banned Muslim headscarves from competition, a shudder went through Sydney's all-female football team, the Lakembaroos.
The hijab ban has already this week forced the Iran girls' soccer squad out of the first summer Youth Olympic Games to be held in Singapore in October. So there were fears the ban could spread to Australian football.
''It is a big slap in the face. I don't understand it and I don't want to understand it,'' the 24-year-old hijab-wearing Lakembaroos coach, Hiba Ayache, said yesterday on her way to psychology classes at the University of Western Sydney. ''Soccer means a lot to us.'' She says that while playing soccer in a hijab is more difficult than playing bare-headed, there are no safety concerns as for other activities, tragically demonstrated on Thursday when a young Sydney mother was strangled after her hijab reportedly became entangled in the wheel of a go-kart she was driving.
Ayache and three other women in her all-age team wear headscarves, and she said they would be forced out of the competition they won last year if the hijab were banned. She says her teammates, many of them Christian, have told her they would refuse to play, out of solidarity. Instead they would form their own private team.
But no such drastic action is necessary, as Australian sport moved immediately to reject any hijab ban. Jim Forrest, president of Football NSW, issued a statement this week, condemning reports of FIFA's banning of the Iranian girls' team as ''a serious act of discrimination and … we want no part of it''. Dr Jamal Rifi, a Bankstown GP and president of the Lakemba Sport and Recreation Club, says he is ''heartened by support given us by local, state and national sporting organisations … The only good thing that came out of this was it showed how much maturity we have as citizens.'' He says banning the hijab would mean condemning girls to their own surroundings and never interacting with others. ''The girls don't regard the hijab as a cultural symbol or a political symbol. It is a religious obligation. They have no choice [but to wear it].''
Australia may so far be immune but moves to ban the hijab, burqa and other forms of Muslim clothing are on the increase in Europe. France has already banned the hijab in public schools and is currently considering a ban on the niqab and burqa in all public places.
In Belgium a law banning burqas in on the table and the Netherlands is considering one.
A Financial Times survey across Europe found a majority supports similar bans, with support weakest in Germany at 50 per cent and strongest in France (70 per cent), which has the largest Muslim population in Europe. President Nicolas Sarkozy has framed the debate in terms of feminist rights, with French security concerns of burqa-wearing terrorists having been ridiculed.
But it is not for the state to force emancipation on to women. If anything, banning hijabs and burqas just subjects Muslim women to further subjugation, forcing them indoors, alienating them from wider society, causing resentment among their children and ensuring future disharmony.
The Iranian girls' soccer team had managed to break out of the constrictions of their faith, their culture and their veil to win a place at the Youth Olympics. How must they feel now, having been replaced by a Thai team, thanks to the decision of faceless men at FIFA headquarters in Zurich? What choice did any of them have about wearing the veil?
Where they come from, police cars park outside shopping malls ready to pounce on women whose hijab is deemed not modest enough. It's not as if Iran's mullahs and secret police will suddenly say, ''oh, fine, take off your veil and play''. The real reason for the popularity of the bans in Europe is less about feminism and more about politicians trying to mollify a populace angered by the Islamisation of their countries due to immigration and a higher Muslim birthrate. Switzerland's recent ban on minarets signifies anti-Muslim sentiment. But it would be more honest to call a halt to Muslim migration rather than victimising powerless women.
That would be no less offensive and xenophobic than treating your own citizens as second class while posing as their emancipators. In any case, such illiberality in liberal democracies is destined to backfire because it eventually spreads in pursuit of equality. A ban on the hijab or burqa soon becomes a ban on the wearing of religious symbols of any kind. Thus the European Court of Human Rights last year banned the use of crucifixes in classrooms in Italy.
Jamal Rifi has worked hard to involve girls in sport. Five years ago his club had one girls' soccer team. This year there are five.
''We embarked on a mission to get more kids out of their shell on to the playing fields, particularly girls. But it wasn't easy.'' There was resistance from parents and the cost was prohibitive for many families, who include recently arrived migrants and refugees from Sudan, Afghanistan and Iraq. Many don't have cars, so getting the children to and from games was a challenge. ''We had to overcome many hurdles, convince Mum and Dad we would provide a safe environment and provide very, very cheap registration, subsidised by the local business community,'' says Rifi, a Lebanese-born father of five.
This year parents are struggling to pay even the subsidised fees and the club has had to reduce player numbers from 400 to 150. But Rifi perseveres because, as he says, sport is about more than just playing a game.
''It teaches young people about being part of a team … We believe playing sport will not just impact on these young people's lives but on the Australian community in the future.'' It's good that a small thing like wearing a hijab won't interfere with such a big idea.