Following uniform bans, Israel and Iran find common ground

Comment: Women have recently been banned from playing in int'l competitions for wanting to wear uniforms that conflict with rules governing sports competitions.

Na'ama Shafir 311 (photo credit: FIBA Europe)
Na'ama Shafir 311
(photo credit: FIBA Europe)
What do Israel and Iran have in common?
Yes, they are in approximately the same region; they may or may not be developing or already have nuclear weapons; and both love their pistachios, which in Israel “officially” come from Turkey (but likely come from, well, we all know where). And I don’t care what the California pistachio lobby says – there is simply no comparison between our “Turkish” pistachios and the smaller, less tasty Golden State variety.
But in addition to our favorite nuts (both countries have plenty, pistachio and otherwise), Israelis and Iranians now have something else in common.
In both countries, women have recently been banned from playing in international competitions for wanting to wear uniforms that, while conforming to their religious beliefs, conflict with rules governing international sports competitions.
Last week, the Iranian women’s international soccer team was forced to forfeit an Olympic qualifying game at a tournament against the Jordanian national team, for taking the field in what were termed as illegal full-bodied tracksuits and “hijabs” (head coverings), effectively eliminating them from the competition and a chance to play in London in 2012.
FIFA, soccer’s international governing body that is reeling (as it so often is) from claims and counter-claims of corruption following the selection of Russia and Qatar to host the 2018 and 2022 World Cup competitions, is in a more problematic situation.
Its claim to disallowing the Iranians to take the pitch is based on a FIFA rule that states 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.”
The Iranians were also informed that since 2007, FIFA holds that wearing a hijab (which is essentially a tight headscarf) “could cause choking injuries.”
The problem with all of this is that the Iranians played their preliminary rounds in these uniforms without a comment from FIFA, and the idea that a hijab could cause a “choking” injury is of course, ridiculous.
And, by the way, Iranian women do just fine in these very same uniforms in international karate and volleyball competitions (though Iranian women do not participate in international swimming or gymnastics competitions).
The Israeli side of this issue is more complicated.
Na’ama Shafir, the junior point guard from the University of Toledo who led the Rockets to the NIT championship with 40 points in the final in April, has now joined the Israel national team in advance of the European women’s basketball championship that begins in Poland this coming weekend.
Shafir, an Orthodox Jew from the religious community of Hoshaya in Israel’s Jezreel Valley, plays at Toledo with a t-shirt under her uniform in order to comply with Jewish rules for modesty for women – a practice that is allowed by American NCAA rules.
However, t-shirts under the uniform are not allowed according to FIBA, which is the governing body for all international basketball competitions.
In the meantime, the Israel Basketball Federation’s (IBF) request that Shafir be allowed to play with a t-shirt under her uniform has been denied (full disclosure: while not an employee of FIBA/Europe, I have long been actively involved with the organization: first as a referee, and now as a game commissioner and referee instructor).
In the days since, it has become somewhat of an international incident, as a letter was sent from Anti- Defamation League Director Abe Foxman to the heads of FIBA in Geneva excoriating the decision, calling it “insensitive and discriminatory.”
Unlike the FIFA decision regarding the Iranian women, which seems arbitrary at best, the FIBA decision is at least based on the current rulebook and a real philosophy, which demands uniformity in team dress: no t-shirts under uniforms, players’ socks must be the same color, and even compression sleeves must be the same dominant color as the uniform shirt.
The real problem is that while becoming more and more similar, there are still some significant differences in the respective rules of the world’s various basketball organizations, as well as the way the game itself is played throughout the the world.
One would think that on one hand, the soccer honchos at FIFA would look for a way to enable women from particularly closed societies such as Iran to play in international tournaments where their countrymen could be exposed to other, including Western, societies.
And one would also hope that FIBA and the IBF will soon find a way to enable Na’ama Shafir to do what she loves most.

Todd Warnick is a Jerusalem writer and former Israeli and international basketball referee.