Hijabs … again — Muslim girls barred from martial arts tournament

A Muslim girl barred from competing in a Longueuil tae kwon do tournament because of her hijab was adamant Sunday that she would give up neither her sport nor her head covering regardless of what rules are imposed on her.

“I won’t take it off for any reason,” said Bissan Mansour, 11. “Even if I can’t go to tournaments, I can continue to practice until I become world champion.”

Manspour and four of her teammates, all Muslims of Lebanese descent from the Ultimate Tae Kwon Do Club in Montreal, were told they could not compete in the Raymond Mourad provincial tournament unless they removed their hijabs, which were deemed a safety risk that violated competition rules.

The club, which is open to all religions, is based out of the Centre Communautaire Musulman de Montreal on Cremazie Blvd. Six girls from the club, ranging in age from 8 to 13 and one of whom was not wearing a hijab, were set to compete in the annual tournament.

In a decision echoing that of a referee who asked a Muslim girl to remove her hijab at a Laval soccer tournament two months ago, the president of the Quebec Federation of Tae Kwon Do decided at a pre-competition meeting of referees and tournament organizers to strictly enforce an existing regulation of the World Tae Kwon Do Federation. The rule forbids scarves, bandannas, jewelry or any other accessories from being worn underneath a competitor’s helmet.

“The decision today was not made because of a hijab; we respected a rule, that’s all,” said Michel Jobin, the referee who informed the team of the decision. “(The federation) said that as of today nothing at all will be allowed underneath the helmet.”

But the team’s coach says the girls competed wearing hijabs in the same tournament last year, as well as at other events in the province without incident.

“It’s never been a problem,” said coach Gael Texier.

The World Tae Kwon Do Championships and other international competitions regularly allow female competitors wearing hijabs, she said.

“If the World Tae Kwon Do Federation accepts the veil, they should accept it in Quebec. It should be the same rules for all the countries.”

She said her team members were feeling disappointed after after having to withdraw from a tournament they trained for.

“They don’t understand why last year they were able to compete and not this year,” she said. “They are sad and want to compete.”

The club’s coaches will attend a meeting of the provincial federation in two weeks and try to find a way for the girls to compete, she said. They might also request a letter clarifying the wearing of hijabs from the World Tae Kwon Do Federation.

For provincial competitions, the Quebec federation can set its own rules and does not have to follow the precedent set by the World Federation. Quebec federation president Jean Faucher, who took over the elected post this year, could not be reached for comment.

Nine male competitors from the same club, also set to compete in yesterday’s tournament, chose to withdrew in solidarity with the girls’ team. All players were refunded their $35 entrance fee.

“When (our club) would come to a competition wearing the hijab two or three years ago, they saw us as a good sign of integration,” said the boys’ coach, Mahdi Sbeiti. “What is going on in 2007? Is it no more a sign of integration? Why do they have to see it differently now?”

But referee Jobin insists it is in the athletes’ own interest to not have any material under their helmets. The fabric could make a helmet pivot or slip and although the hijab is tucked in, in the heat of combat, it could be accidentally grabbed and choke or otherwise injure the competitors, he said.

Jobin, who has been involved in tae kwon do for 35 years and was the former director of the provincial and national referees’ associations, said that although the stipulation that nothing can be worn underneath a helmet has always been on the books, how strictly it is enforced depends largely on which countries are organizing and participating in a given tournament.

Bandannas, scarves and sweatbands have become more and more prevalent in recent years but hijabs are rare at Quebec tournaments, he said.

“My personal opinion is: I would have applied the rule well before this,” he said.

The organizer of the event, Raymond Mourad, a Lebanese Christian who is friends with some of the club coaches, said he supported the federation’s decision to enforce the rules for the safety of the athletes, but tried to convince the officials to let the girls compete.

“I am not happy that they sent them back like this,” he said. “They should have let them fight today and tell them for next time. If they change the rules, they should have advised all schools of the new rules.”

Other coaches at the tournament were also supportive, Sbeiti said. But some felt the girls’ insistence on wearing the hijab was unreasonable.

“At this tournament you have over a 100 Muslims and only (5) of them want to wear (the hijab). I think this is provocation (on the club’s part)” said Michel Labonte, a coach and tournament supervisor who said he was asked to speak on behalf of the Quebec Tae Kwon Do federation.

Sunday’s incident comes less than two months after a referee at a soccer tournament in Laval asked an 11-year-old Muslim girl from Ottawa to remove her hijab on similar grounds of safety, prompting her team to pull out of the tournament. In that case, the International Football Association Board chose to not overrule the Quebec Soccer Federation’s decision to prohibit head scarves.

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Religion News Blog posted this on Monday April 16, 2007.
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