'Let women in hijab in Olympics', FIFA VP tells AFP

FIFA vice president for Asia Prince Ali of Jordan, who waged a campaign against a ban on the hijab, believes the traditional Islamic headscarf should not prevent Muslim women from joining the Olympics.

"I think that the hijab will not hinder the participation of Muslim women in the Olympic Games," Ali, half-brother of King Abdullah II, told AFP in an interview.

"The games will be a great opportunity for Arab and Muslim women to show their capabilities and prove themselves."

FIFA, world football's governing body, banned players from wearing the Islamic headscarf in 2007, claiming it is unsafe, but the International Football Association Board (IFAB) allowed women players last month to wear the hijab in games.

"Safety is important of course, but to date, there have been no reported injuries due the headscarf on the pitch," said the prince.

"We all have a responsibility to ensure that all women who wear a headscarf are able to participate in the game they love. Football is a sport for all."

IFAB will meet in July to ratify its decision to lift the ban on the hijab.

"We held a meeting in FIFA with designers of a safe headscarf as well as independent technical testing institutes in order to discuss the new designs," Ali said.

"The decision now lies with the medical committee ... which will give a recommendation to FIFA before the July meeting."

The ban has become a pressing issue in the region, with the Iranian national women's team forced to withdraw from the West Asia Olympic qualifiers last year and three players dropping out of the Jordanian side due to the ban.

Backing Prince Ali's efforts, the United Nations has urged FIFA to permit the hijab, saying players have "the right to wear a safe, Velcro-opening headscarf in FIFA-regulated matches and competitions."

"I always support women. Personally, I was happy that my sister (Princess Haya) competed at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games in show jumping," said the son of Jordan's late King Hussein and late Queen Alia.

Saudi Arabia has once again refused to send a women's team to the London games, but International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Jacques Rogge has said he would keep up the pressure on the Arab kingdom.

Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Brunei are the only three countries never to have sent women athletes to the Olympics, but Doha, which is hoping to stage the 2020 Games, has said it will send three to London.

Unseating South Korean Chung Mong-Joo as FIFA vice-president in January 2011, Ali became the youngest member of the body's executive committee at the age of 35, after rallying Arab support behind him.

He urged support for the youth who played a key role in the Arab Spring uprisings still buffeting the Middle East more than a year after they began.

"It is a difficult time. But what we have to recognise is the important role our youth play and that is why it is crucial to invest in sports to develop and empower our youth," said the prince.

In his country with a population of nearly 6.5 million, around 70 percent of people are under the age of 30. They face relatively high unemployment rates, and have been demonstrating with other Jordanians since last year to demand economic and political reforms.

"Both the public and private sectors have a responsibility to invest in our youth, they represent our future," Ali said.

He insisted he has no plans to compete for the top job at FIFA or the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

"I am not thinking of becoming FIFA president. I have learned a lot from experience. I want to focus on my current job and work harder to enhance Asian football," he said.

As for the AFC, he said "the legal process is still underway regarding ... Mohamed bin Hammam. We have to wait for the final verdict before setting a date for elections in Asia."

"I will not discuss any candidates at this point."

Former FIFA presidential candidate bin Hammam will have to wait until the end of June before discovering whether his appeal against a lifetime ban for corruption has been successful.

The 62-year-old Qatari is fighting allegations that he tried to buy FIFA delegates' votes while campaigning to unseat the world body's long-standing president, Sepp Blatter, in a leadership election last year.

Prince Ali has been president of his domestic football federation for more than a decade and holds the same role at the head of the increasingly-influential West Asian Football Federation.

Last year, he said he planned to introduce "new work ethics" in Asia.

"What is important is to have a leader with a football programme that will advance and develop football in Asia," he said.

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