Headscarves worn in first Middle East FIFA women’s tourney

A youth tournament in Jordan has quietly ushered in some advances in women’s soccer.

The U-17 Women’s World Cup is not only the first international women’s tournament to be held in the Middle East, but it also marks the first time Muslim players have worn headscarves during a FIFA event.

Those things are significant in a culturally conservative and religious region where women aren’t typically encouraged to play sports.

While FIFA has been accused in years past of paying short shrift to women’s soccer, the tournament in Jordan over the past several weeks has demonstrated a commitment to growing the game.

Earlier this year, FIFA President Gianni Infantino appointed a woman, Senegalese United Nations official Fatma Samoura, as the organization’s secretary general and announced the creation of a new women’s football division. Sarai Bareman was appointed last week as chief women’s football officer, a new position.

FIFA’s director of women’s competitions, Tatjana Haenni, told The Associated Press that the Jordan tournament demonstrates how sport can empower women — not just on the field but behind the scenes. Some 75 percent of the local organizing committee was made up of women, including CEO Samar Nassar, a two-time Olympian in swimming.

“I’m most proud of the fact that we could really leave a strong, strong legacy here and that we could see that football and FIFA World Cup can break stereotypes in terms of public opinion,” Haenni said.

The World Cup in Jordan culminates on Friday with the title match between North Korea and Japan. The tournament, for players 17 and younger, was founded in 2008 and takes place every other year. Sixteen teams take part.

The signs that Jordan was going to be different were apparent from the start.

Among more than 14,000 fans at the opening match between Jordan and Spain were about 250 Syrian refugee children from the Al Zaatari Refugee Camp.

The camp is home to some 80,000 refugees who cannot leave without permission from Jordanian officials. The country is bordered by both Syria and Iraq.

But the small group of children was able to attend the match through a coordinated effort involving FIFA, local government officials, the United Nations Higher Commission for Refugees, the Asian Football Development Project, the UEFA Foundation and the Jordan 2016 Local Organizing Committee.

Two of the starters on the field that day for Jordan, midfielder Tasneem Abu-Rob and goalkeeper Rand Albustanji, wore headscarves as well as long sleeves and leggings in observance of their faith.

FIFA formally lifted the ban on head coverings in 2014, recognizing Muslim and Sikh players. In the past, some Muslim players had to make the hard choice of observing their faith or playing soccer.

“We all see the benefits of it. We want to grow the game, we want to make it stronger, we want to see more women and girls playing, and you basically excluded a huge population from it (with the ban),” Haenni said. “So I think it was huge for this region. I also think it was good because I think in some cases it was used as an excuse for why women and girls could not play football. … This excuse is now gone.”

While Jordan went 0-3 and never made it out of the group stage, the team nonetheless rejoiced in its appearance in the tournament.

“We’ve laid the first stone for women’s football here, which is developing, and it’s a big step forward for us,” captain Luna Sahloul told reporters following the team’s final match.

Jordan only started its women’s soccer program 11 years ago, but it has support from local officials. One of those who campaigned for the headscarf ban to be lifted was Jordan’s Prince Ali bin Al Hussein, who was on FIFA’s executive board.

Queen Rania Al-Abdullah of Jordan went on Arab television in praise of the World Cup, saying: “To have young girls playing sport, and playing football specifically, can do so much to change attitudes and perceptions as to how society perceives girls and young women.”

When it is over, the FIFA tournament will also leave a lasting legacy with upgrades to facilities and the infrastructure needed for larger-scale events. The hope is that women’s soccer will grow, too.

“Our real victory is hosting this competition and building a great future for women’s football in Jordan,” Jordan head coach Maher Abu Hantash said before the start of the event.

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