Last week, a private Muslim high school boys' soccer team offered to forfeit a match rather than play against an opposing team with two female players. The stance was due to religious belief prohibiting physical contact between males and females (unrelated by marriage or birth).
However, the female players bowed out, allowing the game to proceed so that their team could score as many goals as possible – an important stat for advancement in the tournament. A forfeit would have precluded any such opportunity. Carla Briscoe, who started at right defence, was rightfully upset, saying: "I respect their culture and religion. … But I have my right to play as much as their right to religious freedom."
According to the Region of Peel Secondary School Athletic Association (ROPSSAA), Ms. Briscoe and her teammate, Alissa Condontta, had every right to play, since there was no girls' team at their school. The Muslim team was unaware of this rule, and raised the issue at half-time. One wonders why the contact prohibition wasn't a problem during the first 45 minutes.
Like any community, there is a wide range of practice – not all Muslims believe in this precept. Furthermore, this observance is not out of disdain, but out of modesty and respect. Gratuitous physical contact between sexes (unrelated by birth or marriage) is discouraged, and applies to both men and women.
Nonetheless, the Muslim school issued a statement, regretting in hindsight that "the female players felt they could not participate. It was never the team's intention to exclude female participation. … The team sincerely regrets if any team members or participants were hurt or felt discriminated." The ROPSSAA has told the team that it must abide by its gender-equity rules in the future.
This could be seen as a Chariots of Fire moment. Or it could be frosted glass.
At the 1924 Summer Olympics, Scottish athlete Eric Liddell refused to run in a heat held on Sunday, due to his Christian belief in observing the Sabbath. Forced to withdraw from his specialty, the 100-metre race, he ran in the 400-metre and won an Olympic gold medal. His principled stand, in the face of national pressure, was made the subject of the 1981 film Chariots of Fire. Some argue that the Muslim soccer team acted similarly, choosing religious observance over sport. However, Mr. Liddell's withdrawal, while angering some, did not affect the participation of other athletes.
In 2007, a Montreal synagogue paid for a neighbouring YMCA to replace its windows with frosted glass, so that the synagogue's male students would not be distracted by spandex-clad women exercising next door. Once YMCA members found out, a protest ensued, adding fuel to a fiery Quebec debate about religious accommodation that continues unabated to this day.
In the soccer case, teams should abide by ROPSSAA regulations, or forfeit a match from the outset when gender equity is an issue. Teams must accept the forfeit, rather than maximize goal output at the expense of female teammates.
There will probably be further collisions between religious freedom and gender equity. Each should be handled on a case-by-case basis, guided by Charter principles, with wisdom and aplomb, without recourse to incendiary language or political demagoguery.