History has been made at the FIFA Women's World Cup as Nouhaila Benzina, the first hijabi footballer, takes the field to represent the Moroccan National team, known as "The Atlas Lionesses."
The occasion also marks the first time a women's team from the Middle East and North Africa has competed in the prestigious tournament. Although Morocco lost to Germany by a score of 6-0 on Monday at Melbourne Rectangular Stadium, football enthusiasts from the Arab world are hopeful for their strong comeback.
Benzina, the 25-year-old footballer, who also plays for the Moroccan Royal Army Football Club (FAR), joined the national team in 2018. Prior to that, the Moroccan defender showcased her talent while playing for Morocco's U-20 team in 2017.
Her presence on the field is particularly significant given the debates that have surrounded the inclusion of hijab in sports. Nouhaila stands as a testament to the resilience and determination of Muslim women who fought for years to lift the Islamophobic ban imposed by FIFA on wearing the hijab.
FIFA’s ban on hijab
The ban, which was in place until 2014, had detrimental effects on aspiring hijabi players worldwide. One of the earliest cases was that of Asma Mansour in 2007, who was barred from playing in a tournament in Quebec for wearing her hijab. It was incidents like these that sparked a movement advocating for the right to wear a hijab while playing football.
In 2014, FIFA finally lifted its ban on head coverings. This decision was a significant victory for Muslim women's collective efforts to be fully included in the sport they love.
France’s exclusion of hijabis from football
However, despite FIFA's policy change, France and the French Football Federation (FFF) still exclude hijabi players from football. The controversial law passed in France in 2004 prohibits "any sign or clothing clearly showing political, philosophical, religious, or union affiliation." This includes hijabs on the football pitch.
Last month, France's highest administrative court, Le Conseil d'Etat, ruled in favor of the FFF's ban on religious symbols, even if it limits freedom of expression and conviction. This ruling contradicted FIFA's policy, causing frustration and disappointment among aspiring French Muslim female soccer players.
Groups like "Les Hijabeuses" emerged to challenge the ban and fight for the right to wear a hijab while playing football. Comprising at least 80 hijabi football players in France, Les Hijabeuses used social media, petitions, and support from the sports community, including Nike, to advocate for their cause.
"What we want is to be accepted as we are, to implement these grand slogans of diversity, inclusiveness," said Founé Diawara, the president of Les Hijabeuses, to The New York Times. "Our only desire is to play soccer."
The group provided a safe space for Muslim women to play football, connect with others, and encourage young Muslim women to embrace the sport.
Nouhaila Benzina's historic presence at the World Cup not only represents progress but also serves as an inspiration to countless other hijabi players who share a passion for the beautiful game. Her impact transcends the field, fostering a message of empowerment, inclusivity, and representation. As she steps onto the pitch, Nouhaila's achievements remind us all that barriers can be broken and dreams can be realized, no matter what one wears.
Today the world has witnessed a significant milestone in football history—one that showcases the power of perseverance, the strength of unity, and the joy of playing the sport we all love.