Are Religious Reasons Okay Reasons for Boys Refusing to Play with Girls?

Soccer ball on grassWhen I first saw the headline for this story, “Don’t Want to Play Soccer with Girls? You Lose,” I didn’t know about the religious angle. I thought it was just plain old sexism.

Then I wanted to compare it to the MRA reactions to the new Mad Max: Fury Road.  Mainly I wanted to do that because I thought the film was awesome and the men’s groups were silly.  I quite literally thought, much like the headline above, that in calling for the boycott of the film (for being too feminist in depicting strong women, especially Furiosa, and having a woman-centred theme and the message “we are not things”), it was the men who would miss who would lose.

But the soccer story turned out to be slightly more complicated than that. It was a Muslim boys’ team who refused to play another team because it had two girls on it. They didn’t say this right away. Only after they started losing (apparently).

And then the girls agreed to sit out so that the game could continue. This is where the story loses me.  If their religion says they can’t play with girls, then that’s all fine and well (though it’s not a religion I would choose, if I chose to follow a religion). But then, as this editorial points out and this one too, the team needs to quit the league or at the very least forfeit games that they can’t play because girls are on the team.

The league has rules about gender equity and facilitating girls participation in sports:

The Peel league plays according to bylaws on gender equity adopted years ago by the Ontario sports federation. They state that if a “sport activity is not available for a female on a girls’ team, she is eligible to participate on a boys’ team following a successful try-out.” Indeed, the bylaws go even further, making plain that “gender equity should serve as a guiding principle for all decisions and operations.”

Those are good rules. And the bylaws clearly state that gender equity is a guiding principle in all decisions and operations. So it’s not the girls who should have sat out. It’s the boys’ whose religion bumps up against the principle of gender equity who need to miss out.

Why did the religious reasons make this a little more complicated and a little less like the MRA and Mad Max: Fury Road? Only because I sometimes worry that a high level of Islamaphobia already exists in the West and that some people latch onto it as “Un-Canadian” when in fact Canada is a very diverse country where you’re supposed to be able to practice your religion without interference.  So I worry when this kind of thing arises that people will use it to entrench racist attitudes.

At the same time, gender equity is a highly prized and hard won thing to achieve. And as much as Canada is a place where people can practice their religions unimpeded, it’s also a place where girls should get to play on the teams that they legitimately and successfully earned spots on in try-outs.

So yes, I hope the girls will not bow out so easily next time. And while I also hope that no one pressured them to do so at that game, it is disturbing to me in any case that they would think their right to play was less important than the right of the boys on the other team.

Next time, maybe they’ll channel Furiosa!

Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.
Charlize Theron as Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max: Fury Road.

9 thoughts on “Are Religious Reasons Okay Reasons for Boys Refusing to Play with Girls?

  1. The issue of religious accommodation is complicated but like you, I think this issue isn’t. This isn’t the right league for this team.

    Aikido dojos sometimes struggle with individual religious accommodation. Not kneeling at the start and end of class is one such accommodation that is sometimes made.

    But not touching women is more complicated. We have had men train with us who don’t touch women and that hasn’t felt so good. See

  2. I think the girls were very gracious in offering to sit out so the game could continue. (And I hope their team won.) But now the league needs to support them. If the Muslim boys (or more likely, their coaches and parents) have an issue playing against girls, they can forfeit those games. It isn’t a Muslim soccer league.

  3. The story is even more complicated than this. The longer version of the story I read said that the boys team offered to forfeit. However, it was tournament play, where not just wins but points spread matters. In order to advance sufficiently in the tournament for their ambitions, the mixed team needed a large points spread — something they were already in good shape to get, it seems, based on how badly they were trouncing the all-boys team. Since points spreads don’t count in forfeits, the female players apparently offered to sit out the rest of the game so that their team-mates could continue to widen the existing points spread. This makes it super confusing for me. I think that the boys team did the right thing in offering to forfeit. And I understand why the girls decided to sit the rest of the game out. (In fact, they were being Furiosas, in a way. They made their decision like warriors.) I feel like, short of a time machine so that the boys team could have sat the tournament out once they realized girls were playing, this may be one of those situations philosopher Thomas Nagel talks about, in which a flawed world means that there is no “right thing to do” available to us.

  4. I think we should all remember Susan Okin on multiculturalism v. feminism. She says: “women should not be disadvantaged by their sex, that they should be recognized as having human dignity equal to that of men, and that they should have the opportunity to live as fulfilling and as freely chosen lives as men can.” (Okin 2004, 392). (I just happened to be reading this last night.) Bottom line: women’s basic human dignity, their equality as persons, is often jeopardized by acceptance of multicultural beliefs and practices, as these are often sexist. This sports case seems to be a prime example. The boys’ not playing the game with girls because it goes against their religious beliefs does not violate their basic humanity; the girls’ not being allowed to play violates their basic humanity by treating them as unequals. Sexism should be disallowed under any circumstances.

    1. Thanks, Anita. I wish I’d thought of bringing Okin into the discussion when I was writing this. I’m glad you did!

  5. Wow, seeing the headline at first I was thinking “that’s fair if people want gender segregated teams and leagues for religious reasons (as I know certain religions don’t allow contact between men and woman).
    But they started the game and then made an issue about it, and had two girls sit out? Nothing is ok about that. Those girls should never have been pressured to sit out, and I agree with the first link I read about it, I don’t think they should have been allowed to. The adults in charge should have made the decision that them sitting out was not appropriate and they would not agree to even voluntary benching of team members due to gender. The problem is the girls were put in a position where they either choose to sit out or felt responsible for their male teammates not getting to finish the game, and that is not a fair choice. Which is why I think it shouldn’t be their choice and the adults in charge should have done everything possible to take responsibility for the choice.

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