The Middle East Channel

The Evolution within the Revolution

Nearly two decades ago, I entered an Egyptian embassy in an Arab state in order to request a visa. I was brought to the consular officer who immediately noticed that I seemed startled by her appearance. "You're surprised at this?" she asked, gesturing to her hijab. Somewhat embarrassed, I indicated that I had never met an Egyptian diplomat who was covered. She acknowledged that there were very few but also spoke of how she had been pleasantly surprised not simply that she was accepted as a diplomat but that some senior people in the ministry were supportive and protective.

Her story was in one sense a bit odd: hijabs have become extremely widespread in Egyptian society, but she was speaking as if she was operating in alien terrain in the diplomatic corps. And in a sense she was. To this day, it is uncommon to find covered women in specific places in Egyptian society; the long beard characteristic of Salafis is similarly all but unknown in sensitive state institutions like the security establishment and the judiciary. The reasons are clear -- security-vetting blocks the entrance of those suspected of Islamist inclinations and those at the top positions of authority in various institutions often work to protect them as enclaves for their part of Egyptian society.


Or at least that is how things have worked to date. But they may slowly change. In Egypt over the past year, most political attention has focused understandably on the daily drama: demonstrations, revolution, referendum, and elections dominate the headlines. And these things bear careful watching. But they should not obscure some longer-term evolutionary trends engendered by the revolution that may gradually make the Egyptian state a very different animal than it has been for the past half century.

The first trend of significance may be the erosion of the walls imposed by the security apparatus around certain institutions. The Egypt of the past half century has been one in which the security establishment exercised control over civilian life. There are now powerful forces at work that seek a reversal so that there will be civilian oversight of the security establishment. This may be a Herculean task but it is not completely a Sisyphean one. An attainable goal over the short term may be a relaxation of security vetting for sensitive state institutions. With Salafis occupying a considerable portion of parliamentary seats and with a leading member of the Muslim Brotherhood chairing the parliament's foreign affairs committee it may be a bit more difficult to block a bright and able young graduate with Islamist inclinations from the diplomatic corps, the judiciary, or even the officer corps. There will be no sudden change -- the geriatric leadership of many Egyptian state institutions will neither step aside quickly nor allow the floodgates to open immediately -- but the slow transformation of state institutions to be far more diverse is a likely result even if it occurs at a glacial pace.

The second trend is one that I have referred to in a recent piece on the Egyptian judiciary as the "Balkanization" of the Egyptian state. Egypt has been a state of strong institutions for a considerable time, but those institutions have been controlled in a variety of ways by the presidency. Egyptians have become so accustomed to this arrangement that they often describe it as a timeless part of their heritage, referring to their Pharonic past or the image of pyramids to describe the nature of political authority in the country. My own historically-minded sensibilities force me to insist that the period of institution building took place in the 19th and 20th centuries, and the era of presidential domination began in the early 1950s. But these features still must seem eternal to those who live under them.

Yet the institutions brought long ago under presidential domination are now striving hard to wriggle free. Two of the major tools they seek to use to achieve independence are the ability to select their own leaders from their own ranks (rather than have the president dominate the institution through a hand-picked sycophant) and the writing of a law that will give them full institutional autonomy from other parts of the Egyptian state. The leading Islamic institution, Al-Azhar, has already achieved some of that goal; labor unions, the judiciary, professional associations, and the universities will be working to shove their way to the agenda of the newly-elected parliament to attain something similar. In a sense, the military is seeking the same thing: to be able to run its own affairs, administer its own budget, make its own security policy, and select its own leaders with only minimal civilian oversight. Many of these causes (such as the judiciary's claim on independence) are popular; some (such as the military's) are far more controversial but still backed by powerful political forces.

The odd result may be that just as Egyptians are beginning to realize truly democratic parliamentary and presidential elections, those positions with strong democratic credentials may be losing some of their authority to the forces of bureaucratic autonomy and professional expertise. 

The two trends -- a decline of security-vetting but more institutional autonomy -- may work against each other, at least over the short term. Allowing each institution to be self-governing and self-perpetuating should make it easier over the short term for it to police its own ranks and preserve whatever homogeneity it now enjoys. But even if the trends do not always point in the same direction over the short term, they both augur for a less coherent and controllable state apparatus. And over the long run, even Balkanization is unlikely to allow each institution to exclude completely wide segments of the society.

Two decades from now, I should therefore not be surprised if I enter an Egyptian embassy again and meet a consular officer with a very long beard who explains -- in response to my surprised look -- that Salafis are now common in the diplomatic corps and that he considers himself quite lucky, because he knows people in high places in the ministry he was able to avoid being sent to Paris but managed to snag the coveted Riyadh posting instead.

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Asmma Waguih - Pool/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The politics of FIFA and the Hijab

FIFA, the international federation for world soccer, is poised to make a decision in a few days that will impact the lives of hundreds of thousands of young Muslim women -- whether or not to overturn the current ban on the hijab, or headscarf. Matters actually came to a head last summer, in June 2011, when the entire Iranian women's soccer team was prevented from playing in Olympic qualifying matches held in Jordan. The ouster of an entire national team, minutes before a key international match, led to a resurgent global debate on the relations between the hijab, sports, and international politics. Today, however, the winds of change seem to be blowing back in the other direction, as activists, athletes, and allies -- Muslim and non-Muslim -- appear to have met every FIFA objection and will arrive at the March 3 London meeting of the International Football Association Board (IFAB) with a proposal to lift the ban and allow thousands of women an opportunity that is blocked under current rules.

When the Iranian national team was collectively forbidden from international competition, at a key moment in Olympic trials no less, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad fumed that the decision was "inhumane" and, with no apparent sense of irony, railed against FIFA as a group of dictators. For some, Iran itself was to blame. If Iran were not such a gender-regressive theocracy, legislating how women must dress, then the problem might never have occurred. But the problem is actually not about Iran. Three women on the Jordanian national team also had to leave their home field, as they too refused to remove their hijabs in order to play.

Unlike Iran, an extreme case in almost every sense, Jordan is more representative of the over 50 countries worldwide with majority Muslim populations. It does not legislate for or against hijab. The decision is a personal matter, not a governmental one. (Only Iran and Saudi Arabia legislate restrictions on women's clothing, and not surprisingly, Saudi Arabia has no women's soccer team whatsoever). And yes there are strong social and even patriarchal pressures in many places. But in Jordan, as in most majority Muslim societies, some women wear the hijab and some don't. But by choosing to legislate the matter, FIFA in the stroke of a pen banned approximately half the 650 million Muslim women worldwide from the opportunity of playing soccer at the global level. The issue, in short, is not about the anti-imperialist bluster of an Iranian president. The real issue, instead, is whether FIFA will continue to discriminate and exclude Muslim women who choose to wear hijab.

So what was the tipping point here? In many ways global football, and more importantly female Muslim athletes, have been trapped between rising anti-Muslim sentiments and the larger culture wars being fought mainly in North America and Europe. In 2007, the Quebec Soccer Federation banned the hijab and any explicit religious symbols from the playing field. Shortly thereafter the rule was enforced against 11-year-old girls, forcing teams to forfeit games if even a single player refused to remove her hijab. That same year, the International Football Association Board backed the Quebec ruling, effectively internationalizing it.

Two years ago, in March 2010, FIFA softened its stance to allow some form of cap to cover hair, but not below the ears and not covering the neck. However, this didn't help matters. For women who wear the headscarf, the entire point is to cover the hair and neck. It is not an explicitly religious symbol (there is no agreement whatsoever across the diversity of the Muslim world regarding the hijab), but rather more of a cultural matter and personal approach to modesty. Many Muslim women -- millions, in fact -- do not wear the hijab at all. But millions of others do. And the type of hijab in question is simply a headscarf, nothing more. It should not be confused with more all-encompassing and restrictive clothing imposed on women in some societies, such as the chador in Iran or the infamous blue burqas associated with Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. No one is arguing that women athletes should be wearing chadors, burqas, or face veils of any kind. Nor is anyone proposing that any woman should be forced to wear hijab, either by her home country or as part of the visiting team in a Muslim country. The argument instead is to allow all women to make their own cultural and personal choices, without governing bodies (mostly male) -- whether states or FIFA -- making the decision for them.

But if it is just a matter of a simple headscarf, then what exactly is the problem? Even if the original objections were largely over misunderstandings regarding Islam, religion, and culture, the emphasis soon shifted to concerns for player safety. In a rough and very physical game, players could be pulled by their hijab with the risk of serious injury. Yet if a hijab can be grabbed in the heat of a game, isn't hair even more likely to be grabbed? By the "safety" logic, long hair and ponytails are far more dangerous than a hijab. Indeed, a tight-fitting hijab might even be the safest way to protect the hair and the head. The movement to lift the hijab ban makes no such claim, however. Rather, advocates simply point out the inconsistency and perhaps even spurious nature of the safety argument.

Designed by Cindy van den Bremen, Capsters; Photo by Peter StigterNonetheless, the initiative to allow the hijab has taken all of FIFA's earlier objections seriously, has addressed them, and even has a solution to the question of player safety -- a new, sport-friendly version of the hijab. They propose, in short, not just an end to the ban, but the introduction of a hijab designed specifically for sport and especially for soccer. The sport hijab is designed to cover the hair and neck, is very close fitting, but is made of breathable material fastened by Velcro. If the player is grabbed by the hijab, it is designed to come off, sparing injury. The new designs will be displayed at the London meeting of IFAB this weekend.

The decision also comes at a moment of great change within FIFA. The organization has been reeling from assorted ethics scandals, including banning for life the former president of the Asia Football Confederation, Muhammad Bin Hammam. The shake-up at the top echelons of FIFA has allowed the emergence for the first time in decades of some new blood. In January 2011, in a closely contested election for FIFA vice-president representing all of Asia, Jordan's Prince Ali ibn al-Hussein defeated the more established candidate, South Korea's Chun Mong Joon by a vote of 25 to 20. The Hashemite prince then immediately promised to bring progressive change to FIFA, starting with a campaign to expand youth and women's soccer across Asia. In a global sport that has nonetheless been dominated (especially in the World Cup) by Europe and Latin America, the drive has been to bring soccer in Asia to this more distinguished level of play. It is worth noting that in women's soccer, the geographic imbalance toward Europe and Latin America is not as severe, with past world champions including the United States, China, and most recently, Japan.

Prince Ali has established a young and professional staff -- including some very talented Jordanian former diplomats -- to push for change, starting in Asia, but now attempting to reverse what is presumably an unintended form of gender discrimination in global football. Among other things, this has included an internet awareness campaign simply entitled "Let Us Play," whose facebook group quickly garnered more than 65,000 members.

In November 2011, in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, the proposal to end the hijab ban was approved by the executive committee of the Asia Football Confederation (AFC). The AFC then charged Prince Ali with taking their proposals to the FIFA executive committee, meeting in December 2011 in Tokyo. And now the next step is the March meeting in London of the International Football Association Board, charged with making and revising the rules governing the global game, and whose decisions are considered binding for all regional soccer associations and confederations.

The momentum for change has been building from Asia westward, and has steadily added endorsements from a host of non-Muslim sources, including Ryan Nelson, captain of the New Zealand men's national team, and Michele Cox, a former midfielder for the New Zealand women's national team. The global union for soccer players, FIFPro, has also endorsed the campaign and, most recently, Japan's women's world championship team, the Nadasheko, has added their endorsement as well.

The campaign to allow the hijab has certainly been thorough -- focusing on education, expanding women's participation, and gaining support from Muslim and non-Muslim sources alike. Now FIFA and IFAB have a very big decision to make. In doing so, they will presumably be mindful of FIFA's own declared mission to expand the sport, including expanding women's opportunities to participate.

Lifting the ban will do just that. It will expand women's participation in the world's most popular sport. It is one of those rare moments when cultural conservatives and social progressives should actually be on the same side. Lifting the ban and allowing a specific sport-oriented hijab -- whether women choose to wear it or not -- empowers women. Lifting the ban will allow women to choose for themselves, rather than have FIFA choose for them.

The ball is now being passed to FIFA. It has only to pass it back. Let them play.

Curtis R. Ryan is associate professor of political science at Appalachian State University and author of Jordan in Transition: From Hussein to Abdullah and Inter-Arab Alliances: Regime Security and Jordanian Foreign Policy.

Sport Hijab designed by Cindy van den Bremen, Capsters; Photo by Peter Stigter