AFP — Asia’s Olympic chief on Saturday urged all sports to let women wear the Islamic hijab headscarf following an Asian Games row which saw Qatar’s basketball team quit in fury.
Qatar’s women forfeited their matches and left after being told that the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) would not allow hijabs.
Many sports, including football, now allow women to wear the hijab and Qatar slammed the ban as an “insult.”
The set-to fed into controversy over female Muslim athletes following criticism of Saudi Arabia for bringing an all-male squad to South Korea.
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, president of the Olympic Council of Asia (OCA), said he was upset by the Qatar episode and called on FIBA to change.
“Hijab has been approved in all sports, all the FIFA, volleyball, track and field — everywhere there is hijab, only in basketball [is it banned],” he said.
“There is no reason to reject hijab in sport,” he said, insisting there was “no difference” between basketball and football, wrestling, handball or volleyball.
FIBA has started allowing hijabs in national competitions. It could start tests on women’s headwear at international contests from next year. But its leaders have strongly denied there is any religious element to their longstanding ban.
The Incheon Games were slugged “Diversity Shines Here,” but Sheikh Ahmad warned that banning the hijab meant women from some countries were excluded from the basketball.
“You have decreased your athletes because there are some athletes [who] can’t participate without [the] hijab,” he said.
“Afghanistan, Iran are not participating here because of hijab — not because they don’t have athletes.”
The arrival of Saudi Arabia’s squad of 200 athletes with not a single woman prompted anger from campaigners, with Human Rights Watch calling it a “backward step.”
The International Olympic Committee urged all countries to take women to the 2012 London Olympics, and there were two female athletes in the Saudi squad there.
The IOC has made it clear it eventually wants 50-50 male-female representation at major events.
Asked by AFP whether the OCA would follow the Olympic lead in pressing countries to include women competitors, Sheikh Ahmad said: “In the future, it’s a long story. Maybe it will be in Jakarta.”
The Indonesian capital will host the next Asian Games.
Change will come “slowly, slowly,” he said, but added the OCA would follow the new Olympic vision to be set out by IOC president Thomas Bach in Monaco later this year.
“After this, we will decide how we will also change. We will follow the umbrella of the IOC all the time,” the sheikh said.
“Whatever the new laws and regulations are that are taken in Monaco, we will follow.”
There was progress in women’s representation from other Gulf states, though, with Qatar sending a record 55 women in its 260-strong contingent. It took two women to the London Olympics.
Asiad delegation leader Khalil al Jaber said gas-rich Qatar, which will host the 2022 football World Cup, was committed to giving more women a chance to compete.
The tiny Maldives, minnows in Asian sport, have taken something of a trailblazing role on the issue, pressing to include a minimum 33 percent quota for women in all their teams going to international contests.
There were more than 50 in their team in Incheon, while Saudi Arabia had none and just 20 percent of Iran’s squad was women.
Maldives Olympic Committee secretary general Ahmed Marzooq said the islands had faced opposition to their stance, however, and OCA representatives confirmed the Indian Ocean nation had made some other Muslim nations nervous.
On the field, Iranian Leyla Rejabi made history when she came second in the shot put, becoming the first woman from the conservative Islamic republic to win an athletics medal at the Asian Games.
“I’m delighted. This is the first time an Iranian female has won the silver medal here [in athletics]. I’m very happy because I made Iranian people happy,” the 31-year-old Rajabi told AFP.