Football chiefs agreed on Thursday to lift a ban on women wearing headscarves during games, clearing the way for the participation of many Muslim nations in top-flight competition.
Until the vote by the International Football Association Board (IFAB) here, players were prevented from wearing a headscarf, or hijab, at the sport’s highest level for safety reasons and on religious grounds.
Critics said the ban promoted inequality at the highest level of the world’s most popular game.
Public changes in the governing body’s thinking were clear last year when it was decided that the hijab was a cultural rather than a religious symbol.
In March IFAB — custodian of the game’s laws — said it was in favour of female players wearing the hijab in games organised by FIFA.
That announcement followed the proposal of a Velcro hijab which comes apart by FIFA Vice President Prince Ali Bin al-Hussein of Jordan.
The world governing body came under pressure to lift the ban in 2007, after an 11-year-old girl in Canada was prevented from wearing a hijab for safety reasons.
In 2011, the Iranian team was disqualified for refusing to remove their headscarves moments before kick-off in the 2012 Olympic second round qualifying match against Jordan.
The decision caused outrage in Iran, with President Ahmadinejad accusing FIFA of acting like dictators and colonialists.
Alex Soosay, general secretary of the Asian Football Confederation (AFC), said AFC, based in the capital Kuala Lumpur of Muslim-majority Malaysia, would welcome a decision to lift the ban.
“It’s a good news for us. It will benefit the community. It will be good for the Muslim community,” he told AFP, adding that Middle Eastern and other Muslim countries had contributed “a lot” to the sport’s development.
AFC chief Zhang Jilong had called for the ban to be lifted at the end of January, claiming new designs could prevent neck injuries.
Officials with the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) said Malaysian women currently playing for the national team did not wear headscarves so a decision would not directly affect them.
The hijab is worn by women beyond the age of puberty to observe Islamic rules on modesty and interaction of the sexes.
According to FIFA, more than 29 million women and girls around the world play the game.