No exceptions for female athletes from Israel and Iran. Paradoxically, for once religion-usually a point of division-has brought together these longtime enemies. Specifically, traditional interpretations of both Islam and Judaism impose strict rules-very similar to each other-on how women can dress. At the center of the controversy are women from two different sports, soccer and basketball. World sports federations have blocked both from participating in international competitions on account of their uniforms. Iranian soccer players wear the hijab, which covers everything but their faces. Israeli basketball players normally wear t-shirts under their sleeveless jerseys. Both practices have been outlawed by FIFA and FIBA, the respective regulatory agencies that oversee the game and the clothes worn by athletes.
The Iranian women were forced to forfeit at an Olympic qualifying event. During a match against the Jordanian national team they were wearing a uniform deemed illegal. They were tossed out of the competition thereby abandoning any chance of making it to London next year. But why is the uniform illegal? FIFA regulations prohibit "players and team members from displaying messages or slogans of a political, religious, commercial, or personal nature in any language or form on any of their equipment." But the Iranian women were permitted to play their preliminary matches without any objections. And in other sports like karate and volley ball, the Iranian national team has played and continues to play without FIFA censure.
The Israeli basketball player's story is a little more complicated but no less absurd. Na'ama Shafir plays for the University of Toledo; she carried the Rockets to victory in the American finals by scoring 40 points. But this weekend she had to wait to see if she'd be able to take part in the European women's championships in Poland. Her religion requires her to keep her shoulders covered. Prohibited from wearing a tshirt under her jersey as she does for games in the US, the twenty-one-year-old arrived in Europe with a newly devised elastic sleeve of sorts that covers her shoulders and part of her arms.
Unlike the FIFA decision, which has been denounced as arbitrary by the international sports community, FIBA's regulations require that all teams wear the same uniform, which means no tshirts underneath, and socks and athletic bands of the same (or almost the same) color.
The basic problem is that a patchwork of international agencies lacks the coordination and flexibility needed to find a way (by granting an exception to the uniform requirement, for instance) of allowing women from conservative countries to play in international tournaments-and thereby promote positive integration. Male players have enjoyed this privilege during international tournaments, but mostly during long periods of residence abroad under contract for foreign teams when they are exposed to other social influences including those in the West. In the end, Na'ama was allowed to play on Sunday. But it's anyone guess what'll happen with the Iranian team and if FIFA bosses will decide to turn a blind eye.