The 126-year-old International Football Association Board, a panel of the International Federation of Association Football (FIFA), made the decision at a weekend meeting in Britain.
“If women cannot play because of headscarves then we at FIFA are very happy to authorize them so women around world have access to football,” FIFA secretary-general Jerome Valcke said after the panel’s unanimous decision. Ratification of the move is expected at a meeting in July.
The issue reached a critical point last year when Iran’s national women’s team was prevented from playing a qualifying game for the 2012 Olympic Games in London after players refused to remove their hijabs ahead of a game against Jordan. The wearing of headscarves is mandatory in Iran, where female players also wear full tracksuits on the field.
Penalties imposed on the Iranian team, which had been progressing well in its Asian regional grouping, ended its Olympic quest.
FIFA banned headscarves in soccer in 2007, citing safety concerns, and although a 2010 decision allows players to wear headgear it must not extend below the ears or cover the neck. The hijabs worn by the Iranian team covered the head and neck.
FIFA’s rules for the London Olympics include one stating, “Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits, equipment (including kit bags, beverage containers, medical bags, etc.) or body for the duration of their time in the stadiums, training grounds or other areas where accreditation is required to gain access.”
The decision to lift the ban will not have an impact the 2012 Games. Eleven of the 12 women’s teams in the contest have qualified so far, and none are from Islamic countries. (One of the two African qualifiers, Cameroon, has a Muslim minority comprising 24 percent of the population and is a member of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation.)
The ruling will have a bearing on the qualification stages of the next soccer World Cup, to be hosted in Canada in 2015.
At the weekend meeting in Britain, Prince Ali Bin Al Hussein of Jordan, the half-brother of King Abdullah and a member of FIFA’s executive board, gave a presentation in favor of lifting the ban, urging the panel to allow hijabs which, to allay safety concerns, are held in place using Velcro, rather than pins.
“FIFA has the responsibility to ensure that everyone has an equal chance to participate in football, without any barriers and regardless of gender, race, ability, age, culture or religious beliefs,” he wrote in a letter to FIFA president Sepp Blatter.
Lifting the hijab ban, he said, “would send the message that each female player, from the top elite level down to the grassroots, has the freedom to decide whether or not to wear this particular piece of attire while on the field.
“It would give the opportunity for remarkable female athletes to demonstrate that wearing the headscarf is not an obstacle to excelling in life and sports, and would hence contribute to challenging gender stereotypes and bringing about a change in mentalities.”
The head of the Asian Football Confederation, Zhang Jilong of China, also wrote to Blatter about the issue, urging him to “throw your weight behind this righteous cause.”
Female modesty and mixing of sexes are sensitive issues in many Islamic countries. Since 1993 Iran has hosted a Women’s Islamic Games every four years, with strict dress codes enforced and restrictions on male spectators. The event was organized by a women’s sports federation headed by Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Hashemi Rafsanjani.
The only countries in the world that have never included women in their national Olympic teams are Muslim – Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei. Qatar has pledged to change that this year.