The Finnish Football Association has started offering a free “sports hijab” to any player who wants it, with the aim of attracting a greater diversity of players to the sport.
So far, the FA has handed out “dozens” of scarves, which are made from a technical, stretchy fabric, said Heidi Pihlaja, head of women’s and women’s football development. AFP.
“In Finland it has been very difficult to integrate immigrant girls into football clubs,” Pihlaja said. “So we wanted to launch this initiative to welcome everyone, whatever your religion and whether you want to use a scarf or not.”
“It doesn’t move around as much as it usually does and you don’t need to tuck it into your shirt,” said Nasro Bahnaan Hulbade, 13. AFP during training at his VJS club in Vantaa, in the Finnish capital.
“It’s easier to run there,” said teammate Kamila Nuh.
The girls have been playing for one and two years, respectively, but said they were “happy and grateful” to learn from their parents about the free scarves.
Pihlaja said cultural issues and cost – rather than the headscarves themselves – were often the main obstacles for girls and women from immigrant communities to get into sports.
But gifting the hijabs has “symbolic importance” in making the sport more accessible, she said.
While the response was mostly “really positive”, the program also received criticism “from people saying it demeans women or brings religion into the game.”
A 2018 Pew Research Center comparison found Finland harbored the strongest anti-Muslim attitudes across 15 countries, while Finland’s far-right Party is expected to post record gains in the country’s local elections later this month .
“We support the right of every woman to choose for herself whether or not she wears a headscarf,” Pihlaja said in response to criticism.
“Where they want to use it, we want to show that they are welcome and that the headscarf is not an obstacle.”
Yet although the FA’s announcement sparked a wave of negative comments on social media, the hijab project did not become a major talking point in the country of 5.5 million people, the one of the most homogeneous countries in Europe, according to official statistics.
The anti-immigrant sentiment prevalent in Finland is currently less apparent in the football arena, where the men’s national team – which includes a number of players of foreign origin – enjoys near universal support.
This month Finland will make their European Championships debut, while the country’s women’s team also made Euro 2021 for the first time.
In another move to strengthen equality, the Finnish FA in 2019 removed the word “women” from the title of its best competitive women’s division, renaming it the “National League”.
He also announced equal pay and bonuses for male and female players on the national team.
Dressed in her VJS kit, the same red color as her beloved Liverpool’s, Kamila Nuh said she “loves” football and “I don’t plan to quit anytime soon”.
There aren’t many players in Finland yet, she admits, “but I want to be one of them”.