Montreal Gazette: Turban question comes to a head at weekend soccer assembly

The ruling affects between 100 to 200 young boys who live in LaSalle, Dollard, Pierrefonds and some off-island communities, said Mukhbir Singh, vice president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

http://www.montrealgazette.com/life/Turban+question+comes+head+weekend+soccer+assembly/8456789/story.html#ixzz2UoEze6tC

BY KATHERINE WILTON, THE GAZETTEMAY 30, 2013 4:07 PM

Young Sikh boys who were banned from playing soccer in Quebec last summer unless they removed their turbans will learn next week whether they’ll be allowed back on the pitch.

With the house league soccer season kicking off across Montreal this week and next, high-ranking members of the Fédération de Soccer du Québec will vote on the issue at a general assembly this weekend.

The plight of Sikh soccer players in Quebec made headlines last summer after several players were told they had to remove their religious headdress to play the game. Many players were baffled by the sudden decision because they had played minor soccer for years without incident.

The ruling affects between 100 to 200 young boys who live in LaSalle, Dollard, Pierrefonds and some off-island communities, said Mukhbir Singh, vice president of the World Sikh Organization of Canada.

The Quebec Soccer Federation justified its decision by saying that FIFA, the sport’s international governing body, says players are only permitted to wear shorts, a jersey, shin guards, stockings and cleats while playing.

Many Sikh soccer players condemned the rigid enforcement, saying the Quebec federation was being overzealous in its interpretation of the uniform rule.

Quebec is of the few places in the world where Sikh boys are prevented from wearing turbans, and other headgear called patkas and keskis, while playing the sport.

The executive director of B.C. Soccer said Sikhs in that province have been permitted to play with turbans, patkas and keskis for many years.

A spokesperson for the Football Association in England sent The Gazette an email saying that “the FA has a rich tradition of giving everyone who wants to play football the opportunity to do so, irrespective of the faith, culture, beliefs, cultural background, sexual orientation, nationality and race.

There are “many examples at the grassroots level where Sikhs enjoy the game without compromise to their faith or culture,” said the FA spokesperson, Tracey Bates.

In fact, she said for several years a Sikh man named Jarnail Singh refereed many games in England’s senior leagues while wearing a patka, a square piece of cloth that is tied on top of the head.

In the Sikh faith, both men and women are required to maintain uncut hair in its natural state, often secured by a turban or a head scarf.

Mukhbir Singh, 25, who had to give up playing indoor soccer in Montreal last winter after officials told him he could no longer wear his turban on the pitch, said he hopes that Quebec soccer officials reverse the ban.

“Our children should be able to play soccer with their peers and not get entangled in administrative issues,” he said.

In April, the Canadian Soccer Association sent a memo to the provincial associations asking them to permit turbans, keskis, which are smaller turbans, and patkas on the pitch.

The CSA request noted that FIFA ruled last September that women soccer players could wear sport hijabs on a trial basis while it studies the issue of headgear.

The CSA asked the provincial associations to “extend this ruling to the wearing of turbans, patkas and keskis” and thanked the associations for making sure that “soccer be accessible to everyone.”

But the Quebec federation ignored the request and instead asked its referees’ committee to study the issue. The referees’ committee sent its recommendation to the federation’s executive committee last week.

However, the Quebec federation’s executive committee opted not to vote on the recommendation.

Instead, the executive committee has asked the federation’s board of directors to vote on the turban issue at its annual meeting in Laval this weekend.

“It’s a big decision, so they decided to consult people in the regions,” said Michel Dugas, the federation’s spokesperson.

The board of directors is comprised of the presidents of the 18 regional federations across the province.

Dugas refused to say whether the eight-member referees’ committee came out in favour or against applying the CSA request to allow Sikhs to wear headdress on the pitch.

“Everything is mysterious, no one is talking,” he said this week.

Across the province, 200,000 children play minor soccer in leagues governing by the Quebec Soccer Federation. In the Montreal region, that number is about 10,000 players.

Maya Spano, the director of competition for Lac St. Louis Soccer, said perhaps it’s time that FIFA study the issue of Sikh headdress now that is allowing Muslim girls to wear sport hijabs.

Spano said senior soccer officials were unaware that some Sikh players had been wearing headgear on the pitch and said it had been tolerated because some referees were not applying the uniform rule correctly.

“They were turning a blind eye,” she said. “We are sanctioned by the Quebec Soccer Federation and have an obligation to follow what they say. Our hands are tied.”

kwilton@montrealgazette.com