Two recent news stories have had me seething, and both relate to legislating what women can and cannot wear when engaging in professional sports. It’s a constant source of frustration that women’s sports are, more often than not, reduced to stories about clothes and fashion - as if male athletes don’t also have fashion/fragrance/jewellery sponsorship and tie-ins. However, it seems that officials are also determined to make sport about what they wear and not how they perform.
The first story comes from the world of badminton (a sport that is one of the ones I applied for Olympic tickets for, and am waiting to find out if I received!). In May the Badminton World Federation issued a ruling that female badminton players must wear skirts. Wearing shorts was no longer acceptable, and if, for religious or cultural reasons a player had to wear a tracksuit, it must still be under a skirt. The decision was made in conjunction with an marketing firm called Octagon, in an effort to get more people to watch the sport.
Paisan Rangsikitpho, the US deputy president of the Badminton World Federation is quoted as saying:
We just want them to look feminine and have a nice presentation so women will be more popular,… Interest is declining. Some women compete in oversize shorts and long pants and appear baggy, almost like men.
They play quite well. We want them to look nicer on the court and have more marketing value for themselves. I’m surprised we got a lot of criticism.
So both the marketing firm and the Badminton World Federation didn’t apparently think that it was worth putting their efforts into marketing the fact that the women play well (albeit only ‘quite well’) but instead decide that the only way to get people to watch the sport was to make it more ‘feminine’, as no-one could possibly be interested in watching a sport where the women aren’t pretty or dressed in skirts, but instead wear more comfortable longer shorts.
I understand the need for sports dress to be regulated to an extent. For team sports a uniform is standard and clearly identifies team members. For individual sports, the need to dress professionally when representing club or country makes sense, but I fail to see how shorts on women goes against this. It should also be noted that for men, the requirement is merely to wear ‘proper attire’.
After both the press and public reaction the Badminton World Federation have now said the rule needs ‘further study’ so hopefully won’t be implemented.
More recently, the women’s Iranian football team have been banned from competing in the Olympics. They turned up to play a qualifier against Jordan and were told that they could not play as their uniform violated Fifa’s dress rules.
Photograph: Ali Jarekji/Reuters from The Guardian
The women on the team have been put in an incredibly difficult position. Previous strips which attempted to meet Fifa’s standards resulted in the Iranian government preventing them from playing as they didn’t sufficiently conform to the Islamic dress required of them, as women. However, work had been done in the last year and the Iranian team believed they had made adjustments which met both the Islamic requirement, and also Fifa’s rules. In fact, they’d even played a match since the new uniform was brought in.
The dispute centres around the requirement for Iranian women to cover their head and hair at all times. Conventional headscarves have been deemed a safety risk by Fifa so a tighter-fitting cap was developed. This in itself is fine, but Fifa now say that because it comes down below the women’s ears, it is still a safety risk. In addition Fifa’s rules for the Olympics state that:
Players and officials shall not display political, religious, commercial or personal messages or slogans in any language or form on their playing or team kits.
While there doesn’t seem to be a suggestion that this uniform goes against this part of the rules, it’s hard to swallow the argument that it’s a safety issue - a slight piece of material covering the back of their neck is no more dangerous than having long hair, a high collar on the football shirt itself. Snoods briefly appeared in the men’s game over the winter as several Premier League players wore them. They’ve now also been banned by Fifa as being potentially dangerous but they are much looser and go all the way around the neck in a way that the women’s caps don’t. In addition the impression is that Fifa banned them because they were considered unmanly and a bit wussy - not really because they were dangerous.
It’s also interesting to note that in 2004 Sepp Blatter commented:
"Let the women play in more feminine clothes like they do in volleyball. They could, for example, have tighter shorts. Female players are pretty, if you excuse me for saying so, and they already have some different rules to men - such as playing with a lighter ball. That decision was taken to create a more female aesthetic, so why not do it in fashion?"
If this is the view from the top in Fifa, it’s hard to see how the Iranian Football Federation are likely to get very far in their appeals.
The situation with the Iranian women is particularly harsh as the players themselves have little or no control over it. Many women choose to wear headscarves or hijabs but in Iran it’s not a choice and especially for women representing the country internationally. Without covering up, they’re not permitted to play, but Fifa won’t allow them to cover up in a way which satisfies their government.
There seems to be way too much focus on what these women are wearing while playing and far too little focus on promoting women’s sports for how they are played. Women’s sports don’t have the same profile as men’s anyway but by inventing issues with dress and making the competitions about that, it detracts from the players and the quality of sport being played. The energies of the governing bodies could surely be spent elsewhere.