The newest intersection of soccer and cultural controversy has an unusual address — Canada.
The Canadian Soccer Association on Monday suspended the Quebec Soccer Federation, which oversees leagues of all ages in the province, after it refused to comply with a national directive permitting players who wear turbans to participate in games.
A spokeswoman for the national governing body said it sent a memo to all of its local associations in April, affirming its position that turbans and two other types of headwear - patkas and keski - were allowed to be worn by players. That provision was successfully applied everywhere in Canada, the spokeswoman said, except for Quebec; the Quebec Soccer Federation, known as FSQ, voted earlier this month to ban such headwear, saying it was concerned that it presented a safety issue.
Brigitte Frot, the director general of the FSQ, told reporters last week that she was unaware of any injuries directly caused by players wearing turbans, but believed they should be banned anyway. Asked during a teleconference what she would say to a young child who was unable to play because of the rule, she said: “They can play in their backyard, but not with official referees, not in the official rules of soccer. They have no choice.”
Aneel Samra, an 18-year-old student from Montreal who was affected by the ban on turbans, called Frot’s comments “one of the most disrespectful things I’ve ever heard.”
In an interview Tuesday, Samra added: “I’ve played for 11 years, but this year I didn’t even register because they told me I couldn’t play. It’s ridiculous.”
Frot and other FSQ officials were not made available for comment Tuesday. Leaders of the organization were said to be planning a meeting for Tuesday night to discuss the suspension. Frot previously said her organization was taking its direction from FIFA, the governing body of world soccer, which does not clearly state that turbans are allowed.
Critics of the FSQ’s decision note, however, that FIFA, which has explicit rules regarding uniforms, also does not unequivocally ban turbans in the way that it does, say, jewelry.
Many other countries, including the United States, allow players to wear turbans and other religious head coverings, like skullcaps, as long as the referee does not deem them to be dangerous.
The turban ban has played out against a familiar backdrop. Quebec’s French-speaking majority long ago went from being dominated politically and socially by the Roman Catholic church to being the most secular people in Canada.
Only about 15 percent of Quebecers attend church, and most people in the province long ago rejected its teachings on birth control, same-sex marriage and abortion.
But the question of how to deal with immigrants’ cultural religious practices remains a thorny issue in the province, where there are about 9,200 Sikhs, according to recent census data.
Months of public hearings on the subject in 2007 and 2008 showed that many French-speaking Quebecers felt anxious that their identity and language would be threatened by making allowances for the ways of others.
The special commission called that a crisis of perception, and the evidence suggested that the worry was strongest in parts of the province with relatively few immigrants.
Daniel Weinstock, a philosopher and a professor at McGill University’s law school in Montreal, said the fact that the soccer federation’s bans largely involved children’s play have made them stand out.
“Even if the motivations of the federation are completely innocent and bureaucratic, this has been set into a toxic culture of us and them,” Weinstock said. After initially staying out of the turban debate, Quebec’s separatist Parti Québécois government took the side of the federation Tuesday.
Speaking to reporters, Pauline Marois, the Quebec premier, avoided discussing the safety issues. She turned the issue instead into an example of Canada unjustly telling Quebec what to do, a common theme of the separatist movement.
“I think the Quebec federation has the right to establish its own regulations,” she said. “It is autonomous, not subject to the Canadian federation.”
Soccer was at the center of another accommodation debate during those hearings after the Quebec federation in 2007 banned the use of hijabs, Muslim head scarfs, from play, a move matched by the province’s taekwondo federation. Then, as now with turbans, safety was the soccer federation’s ostensible concern. The hijab ban was finally lifted last year.
The Canadian Soccer Association’s suspension of the FSQ does not affect the Montreal Impact, who play in Major League Soccer, but it does affect some youth teams, including all-star teams that compete outside the province. In addition, if the suspension continues through the summer, teams from Quebec will not be allowed to compete in Canada’s national championships. Further, nationally certified referees are prohibited from working games in Quebec.
Balpreet Singh, who serves as legal counsel for the World Sikh Organization of Canada, said his organization had been attempting to address the issue with the FSQ for years.
Singh said in an interview Tuesday that his organization initially protested to the federation in 2007 when it would not allow a girl to play soccer because she was wearing a hijab. In 2011, Singh said, a referee in Quebec was not allowed to officiate because she was wearing a hijab. Last year, the policy disallowing turbans was unofficially instituted.
“We have reached out with letters and phone calls, and have received no response, not one, from the Quebec Soccer Federation,” Singh said, adding that his organization would consider legal action if the FSQ did not reverse its decision.
“We’re not asking anyone else to wear a turban,” Singh said. “We’re not trying to give a message through our turban. It’s a personal expression of faith that is absolutely essential. But it’s not something that imposes a message on anyone else. It’s not something that should keep anyone from playing a game.”