Politics of gender and religion surface in Women’s World Cup

As knockout round begins at 2015 tournament in Canada, controversy swirls around hot-button identity issues

Jessica Houara-d’Hommeaux of France during a Women’s World Cup match between France and Colombia in Moncton, Canada, June 13, 2015.
Clive Rose / FIFA / Getty Images

The young woman is wearing a black hoodie fashioned from one of the recognizable smart fabrics popular with sportswear manufacturers. The familiar Nike Swoosh is emblazoned on her chest, and she wears a black “veil” redolent of goal netting over her face. The hoodie is tightly stretched around her head. It’s impossible not to see it as signifying the hijab.

The young woman is Jessica Houara-d’Hommeaux, and she was posing for a Surface Football magazine feature in her native France. The image was ostensibly to help preview the Women’s World Cup in Canada, now underway, but it also served as a provocative response to a debate in France over the role of Muslim women in sports — and society.

In 2004 France barred the wearing of all conspicuous religious symbols in grade schools, which was widely seen as a move aimed at its large Muslim minority. In 2010 the country made it illegal for Muslim women to wear face veils in public. The moves have caused huge controversy, including in sport. Though FIFA recently allowed female players to wear an officially sanctioned hijab during games, the French football authorities have barred their players from doing so.

But the French debate is far from unique. Men in sport may be scrutinized for how their appearance and behaviors reflect societal norms, but the world’s female athletes also face hurdles ranging from economic inequality to entrenched cultural ideas about gender roles. Even the individual national federations charged with developing and supporting women’s soccer are often staffed by officials who are as much an impediment as a support to the players.

This year’s World Cup in Canada is the largest tournament yet, with 24 teams starting the competition, which has just narrowed the field to 16 for the knockout rounds. Whereas the equivalent tournament in the men’s game is insulated by the eye-watering amounts of money in the professional game, even the elite female players, such as Brazil’s five-time world footballer of the year, Marta, earn comparatively modest livings.

France is one of the remaining 16 teams and is one of the favorites to win the World Cup. Houara-d’Hommeaux, who plays club football for Paris St.-Germain, is one of the side’s key players and one of a cohort of players of Algerian extraction that includes the feted midfielder Louisa Nécib, known as the “female Zidane.”

That label has many layers of meaning: When Zinedine Zidane, the son of an Algerian immigrant and one of the world’s finest players of his generation, led a multiracial French team to win the 1998 World Cup on home soil, he became an icon of the republic. His face was projected on the Arc de Triomphe as millions of his fellow citizens celebrated the national triumph he helped orchestrate.

Many in France celebrated the moment as a successful reimagining of a more diverse French national identity, with the social critic Pascal Boniface even calling his popularity the beginning of “a new enlightenment.” 

But even at the height of Zidane’s success, nationalist politicians such as Jean-Marie Le Pen were making thinly disguised racist comments about whether the team represented the “real France.” Zidane, with his Algerian roots, not to mention the many other players whose roots lay elsewhere in Africa and the Caribbean, did not fit Le Pen’s definition.

Nearly 20 years later, the French women compete for the World Cup against the backdrop of a French political scene polarized once more. For Houara-d’Hommeaux and other French players to assert their identity so proudly is no small deal in this environment, and the allusion to the hijab in her photo is particularly significant.

When France plays its second-round game against South Korea at Montreal’s Olympic Stadium on Sunday, it will do so near a flashpoint in the global debate on the wearing of the hijab. In 2007 an 11-year-old Quebec girl was disallowed from wearing her hijab in a youth tournament. When her team protested, the Canadian Soccer Association referred its adjudication to FIFA, which eventually banned the hijab from all competitions.

In that context, the image of Houara-d’Hommeaux, which she posted to her Facebook page, becomes both celebratory and defiant as she insists on her identity despite the constricting frames of national, sporting and cultural politics.

A study in contrasts

Other players find themselves negotiating these boundaries too. The relative cultural experiences of some of the women on the U.S. and Nigeria teams who met in the group stages, for example, stand in stark contrast.

Abby Wambach, a U.S. striker who last year married her longtime partner, Sarah Huffman, is one of the faces of the U.S. team, yet her wedding was a low-key affair that was perhaps as remarkable for being unremarkable in the developing historical moment of marriage equality in the U.S.

As Wambach put it at the time, “I’m not that kind of person that cares to unveil all of my personal things to the world, because frankly, in terms of my soccer, it doesn’t matter. I was fine with it coming out, and I couldn’t have cared less if it didn’t.”

Yet when she lined up against Nigeria this week, she was facing women for whom revealing their sexual identity could have devastating consequences. Nigeria recently adopted legislation mandating punishments of up to 14 years for “homosexual behavior,” and its women’s football team has been scrutinized for compliance.

In 2013 the head of the Nigerian women’s soccer league, Dilichukwu Onyedinma, was recorded saying, “We don’t tolerate lesbianism, and we always discuss it whenever we meet.” She added that “any player that we pick for national competitions and we hear a little story that is involved in that, we disqualify the player.”

And speaking to Sports Illustrated’s Grant Wahl this week, an anonymous source in the Nigerian camp confirmed that gay players on the team are hiding their sexuality from their federation.

A legacy of inequality

In more general issues too, the cultures of national federations tend to reflect the values of their societies, often with a additional layer of institutional sexism that comes from the women’s inheriting an operational culture defined by and for men.

Quotes like this, from the chief coordinator of Brazilian women’s football, are not uncommon. “Now the women are getting more beautiful, putting on makeup,” said Marco Aurelio Cunha last week while traveling with Brazil’s squad in Canada. “They go in the field in an elegant manner. Women’s football used to copy men’s football. Even the jersey model, it was more masculine. We used to dress the girls as boys. So the team lacked a spirit of elegance, femininity. Now the shorts are a bit shorter, the hairstyles are more done up. It’s not a woman dressed as a man.”

No Brazilian player would comment on Cunha’s remarks, which was perhaps understandable, given the bubble they have tried to place themselves in for the World Cup campaign. The Brazilian team has been together in a residential program since February — tightly focused on not just this World Cup campaign but also next year’s Olympics, which Rio will host.

As cloistered and competitive as that existence might be, though, to have a senior official on their own team set up speak in such disparaging terms is just one more irritation for the women to deal with, adding to an underlying spirit of paternalism that ranges from well-meaning (some of head coach Vadão’s comments on the women’s game this week have been, at best, clichéd) to the kind of sexism Cunha doesn’t see anything wrong with expressing.

Brazil’s star player Marta may be the greatest female player the world has ever seen, but like Nécib, the “female Zidane,” even the affectionate appreciations of her describe her in relation to a man: “Pelé in skirts.” Like many Brazilian boys, she learned her art as a poor kid playing street soccer, before being discovered by the Vasco de Gama women’s team coach, but unlike many of the boys she routinely bested, Marta did not go on to become part of the country’s valuable export industry in soccer players, instead having to make her own way as she bounced among limited playing opportunities in Europe and the U.S.

Marta has played on short-term contracts on teams and even leagues that have folded — this in countries considered some of the powerhouses in women’s football and among the current favorites for the World Cup, such as the U.S. and Marta’s current residence, Sweden.

The world’s best player deals with these indignities without complaint, just as she accepts the restricted role-player responsibility she has been given by Vadão in the World Cup. For Marta, like many of the players in the World Cup, the challenges don’t stop when she gets home. The issues may vary from country to country, but the forces acting on these athletes’ bodies go well beyond the field.

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