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Good Sport

Hair to stay & play

Moroccan player Nouhaila Benzina became the first woman to wear a hijab in a match in the football World Cup. France has a large number of immigrants of Moroccan origin as its citizens, and a French TV host said Nouhaila’s wearing the hijab was ‘regressive’, an insult to her non-hijabi teammates — that implicit in her choice of wearing the hijab was criticism of them for their lack of ‘modesty’

Hair to stay & play

Nouhaila Benzina



Rohit Mahajan

When the Indian and Iranian kabaddi girls played in the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, a normal scuffle characteristic of the sport caused — horror, horror! — the hijab of an Iranian player to slip. But disaster was averted by the valiant Indian girls — they quickly formed a circle of modesty around the Iranian girl while she adjusted her hijab around her head so that not one immodest hair was visible to the eye of the watcher. The Indian women’s team’s intervention was hailed as a highly commendable act, signifying sportsmanship and fellowship with a woman from a faraway land.

The death of an Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini — being a Kurd, she was not allowed by Iran to use her real name, Jina Amini — in September last year, however, made one pause and think about the implications of a culture of modesty being imposed on women. Mahsa was arrested by the ‘morality police’ in Tehran because her hijab wasn’t worn properly — a few strands, it was reported, were visible. She was allegedly beaten up and taken to hospital, where she collapsed and died. Mahsa was only 22.

Just another life snuffed out, on just one stage among scores in the absurd pantomime theatre homo sapiens have set up across the world, you’d say. That should have been the end of the matter, but it wasn’t — common Iranians rose up in protest, led by young women and men, and tens of them died when they were shot at or beaten up by the police; hundreds are in jail, and many have been executed for ‘spreading corruption on earth’. A young man of 23, jailed and then executed over his role in protests against the government, left instructions that no religious text must be recited at his funeral. Don’t mourn on my grave, don’t pray, just celebrate and play celebrating music — that was Majidreza Rahnavard’s final act of defiance against the government and the religion he was born to.

At the height of the protest, a woman climber from Iran, Elnaz Rekabi, contested in an event in South Korea without a hijab or a headscarf — it was, clearly, an act of rebellion against Iran’s laws mandating compulsory hijab for women in public, but she later said it had fallen off ‘inadvertently’.

Less inadvertently, her family home was demolished — in late November, a video of her house, with her medals strewn on the ground, began to be circulated on social media. A news agency confirmed the house had indeed been demolished but explained that it was illegally constructed, without a permit. Demolishing houses and condemning them as ‘illegal’ — that sounds familiar. Evidently, extremists on the right, irrespective of the god they bow to, do think alike.

The end of Mahsa and Majidreza and the treatment meted out to Elnaz make one wonder about the Iranian woman kabaddi player whose hijab had slipped — did the cool gust of air from the giant AC vents in the hall enliven or horrify her? Is it possible that she resented the State’s order that she must compete in the strenuous sport with her hair covered, her arms and legs in loose clothing? Was she among the lakhs who protested on the streets of Iran after the killing of Mahsa?

These thoughts came back when there was some negative reaction after a Moroccan player, Nouhaila Benzina, became the first woman to wear a hijab in a match in the football World Cup. France has a large number of immigrants of Moroccan origin as its citizens, and a French TV host said Nouhaila’s wearing the hijab was ‘regressive’, an insult to her non-hijabi teammates — that implicit in her choice of wearing the hijab was criticism of them for their lack of ‘modesty’. However, in her case, in the absence of a Moroccan law mandating the hijab, it can be argued that she played with the head covering out of personal choice — even if that choice may have been conclusively influenced by socialisation, patriarchy or a specific interpretation of scripture.

Her example — as a star player of the first women’s team from an Arab nation to compete in the World Cup — of playing football, without eschewing tradition, could open doors for others. It could assure conservative parents from that region, or other parts of the world, that playing sport does not necessarily lead to ‘immodesty’, and they might allow their daughters to get out and play.

From available statistics, it’s evident that Asian women are far less physically active or sporting than women across the board. A 2022 survey in the UK showed that around 46 per cent women of Asian origin were physically active, while the overall number for UK’s women was over 60 per cent. More brown women must, indeed, get out and play.

Anand eclipsed

After being beaten by one’s non-athletic older brother in chess all through childhood, it was natural to reach a significant conclusion — chess is not a sport. The long reign of India’s greatest chess player, the multiple-time world champion Viswanathan Anand, would support this opinion. Sport is all about strength, muscle, high adrenaline — it’s about youth. Anand is 53, and it’s only now, after 36 long years, that he’s been eclipsed as the country’s No. 1 chess player. Anand became India’s first Grandmaster in 1987, at age 17, but he had already been the best player of the country for some time before that. D Gukesh, 17, has overtaken Anand as the highest rated Indian player, rising to world No. 9. Anand is No. 10, not bad for a semi-retired player who turns 54 in December.

#Football #France #hijab #Kabaddi


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