My heart is pounding already.
If you haven't heard already, The Iranian women's soccer team was disqualified from a Olympics prequalifying match because they arrived sporting unapproved hijabs. According to FIFA, this was done for the safety and respect of all players. They say hijabs pose a choking risk to the Iranian players. Furthermore, they are protecting everyone's right to an apolitical, areligious football experience.
It turns out FIFA is not only corrupt, but also bigoted and illogical.
Just like all clothing, different cultures have different rules about what is appropriate or "covered enough." For example, the Ancient Greeks used to compete naked. We now demand that athletes arrive dressed in t-shirts and shorts. Expectations of modesty are arbitrary. Wearing a hijab is only construed as a "religious message" because we assume our Christian-centric customs as the norm. If wearing a hijab can be interpreted as a "religious message" then one can argue that showing up in only a t-shirt and shorts is a "religious and political message" that states Western clothing is superior.
The amount of confusion and fear surrounding the hijab astounds me. Even in Michigan, home of the largest Middle Eastern community in the world outside of the Middle East, folks are confused. In fact, I've come to realize that many people do not even know what head scarves are called. What seems to be preferred to spoken language is a spastic movement of your arm around your head. It's also frequently ignored that not all women that wear hijabs are Middle Eastern. Many of them are, but just like other religions, folks all over the world are Muslim and thus, might choose to wear headscarves. Additionally, since we're in Ann Arbor, some folks have cloth wrapped around their heads in all sorts of ways. They're usually hippies.
Actually wearing a shirt is a safety hazard. FIFA should consider banning them. There is a sports injury that is so common that doctors have a phrase for it. Along side its more famous friend, the "tennis elbow," there also exists the "jersey finger." An even more egregious is cleats. At every moment during every soccer game, there are 22 shoes with spikes on the bottom of them. This is dangerous because spikes hurt and can cause injury when they are stomped into people. However, instead of banning cleats, it's simply against the rules to go around stomping people. If that is adequate for safety, it seems to me that a "no choking rule" should be adequate as well.
Ultimately, there is nothing in this world that is completely safe. According to the National Health Council, motor vehicle accident is one of the top five causes of death in the United States. And yet, everyday we continue to transport ourselves, and even our precious children, in automobiles. It's part II of manifest destiny. We do it because we've decided that though there is a risk of death, the benefit that we gain from being able to travel in an efficient (and private) manner is worth it. Even more importantly, because automobile usage is so pervasive we grow accustomed to it and our perceptions of its danger is minimized. If asked, we would admit there was a risk, but we do not consider it on a daily basis.
Because humans inherently relate better to our experiences than numbers on a page, the risk-benefit calculations that we make are more about culture than logical decision-making. My girlfriend grew up with parents who frequently rode on motorcycles and never had a serious accident. My parents are frightened of them. It's not surprising that my girlfriend has owned a motorcycle and I'm scared of them. There is no evidence that hijabs are any more dangerous than cleats, but like cars, we're accustomed to cleats. We're not used to hijabs, so we ban them.
This xenophobia/hijab-a-phobia/Islamaphobia is obviously not limited to sports. Another sticking point related to the hijab is operating room attire. In the operating room, the only thing more important than the surgery itself is maintaining a sterile environment in order to reduce the risk of infection. To this end we scrub our hands with antiseptic wash, wear gowns, and cover as much as our body as possible.
Frequently medical students who wear hijabs are told that they cannot be worn in the OR due to the risk of infection. This is medicine's version of a "choking hazard." In the end, reducing infection risk, like safety, is a compromise. We do not do everything that is humanly possible to prevent germs from entering the operating room. If that were the case we would have negative pressure anterooms and completely enclosed jumpsuits with separate breathing air. But those systems are very expensive and it's not clear that they would make a difference since the patient is also full of bacteria. Ultimately, we compromise and do what we think is reasonable and cost-effective. And while some of these decisions are made based on scientific studies, most of them are cultural.
Because human hair creates a web to collect bacteria and then sheds, every person who enters the OR is supposed to have their hair covered. However, men frequently run around with half their hair hanging out the back of scrub caps with no one saying a word. And because the disposable caps that the hospital provides are not particularly stylish, folks also have their own personal scrub caps with fun, colorful patterns. If men can have their hair exposed and caps can be reusable, operating-room-dedicated hijabs are appropriate. If there's concern that hijabs hang lower on the neck, I would point out that folks who do not wear hijabs do not scrub their necks before entering. Given the neck's proximity to hair and the mouth, there is no reason to think that it is any more sterile than a well-maintained hijab.
I've been told that there's nothing more irritating than criticism without solutions. For once, I have some:
1) With respect to the OR, women who would like to wear hijabs should be able to if they have an OR designated hijab that is laundered on a regular basis. Should this be too radical, they could simply cover them. Orthopedic surgeons frequently wear hoods for their procedures. Furthermore, there are also hoods designed for men with facial hair. Provide those.
2) As for FIFA banning hijabs, there seems to be plenty of money running around several predominantly Muslim countries. Given the level of Islamaphobia in western countries, it seems that a successful women's athletic team would bring good publicity and indicate that Muslim women can remain independent and active. Though FIFA claims to be addressing its rampant corruption, Joseph Blatter, the same president of FIFA for the past three terms, has been re-elected. I'm pretty sure something can be worked out there.
Just remember, you heard it here first.